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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, July 20, 2007

another week, another novel opening

Yesterday, another lunch at my mother's place, and another "novel opener" contest among six books chosen at semi-random from her shelves: I chose three, and she chose three.

The six novels were: Hatter's Castle by A. J. Cronin; The Black Moon by Winston Graham; A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway; The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck; Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson; and Vanity Fair by William Thackeray. I would read the opening sentence of each out loud, and we would give our reactions. Then I'd read the rest of the first paragraph or two to see how the opening progressed.

We agreed that Hatter's Castle, A Farewell to Arms, and The Winter of Our Discontent all had relatively weak openings--that is, openings that, if we were simply perusing the book in a store or library, would not encourage us to buy or borrow the book to read further. The other three were all stronger, with the best being the openings of Kidnapped and Vanity Fair. Between these it was a tough call, but we agreed that the palm should probably go to Kidnapped. Here is the opening sentence:

I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father's house.


Nice. The narrator's tone is serious, sober, and unhurried, and yet he finishes his rather leisurely sentence with a simple act that has a strong feeling of being a major turning-point in his life. Has his father died? Has he just wrapped up the estate? We don't know, but the images of a key, a door, and "my father's house" all have symbolic depth and resonance.

The paragraph finishes thus:

The sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills as I went down the road; and by the time I had come as far as the manse, the blackbirds were whistling in the garden lilacs, and the mist that hung around the valley in the time of the dawn was beginning to arise and die away.


Again, nice. This sentence is pure scene-setting description, the type of thing that opens many novels. But by placing it after the opening sentence, when our interest is already engaged with the importance of the moment, Stevenson has charged the beauty of that June morning in 1751 with a feeling of nostalgia and portent such as the narrator himself seems to have felt. He has chosen vivid details, and expressed himself in poetic language ("the sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills..."). He has set a scene that is lovely, quiet, and pregnant with adventure.

What the heck, let's look at Vanity Fair as well. My practice is to skip introductions and prologues and go straight to the top of chapter 1, to keep the playing field as level as possible. Chapter 1 of this 1848 novel is entitled "Chiswick Mall". Here is the first sentence:

While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour.


Another sunny June morning! It's a beginning that feels like a beginning: a coach is arriving at an academy for young ladies, suggesting that a novel-load of consequences will result from the transaction. Thackeray starts with people in action, which is always engaging, and his tone, like Stevenson's, is unhurried--the mark of the narrator who is confident of the importance of what he has to say. He combines an eye for detail with a comic tone ("fat horses", "fat coachman", "four miles an hour"), giving us a strong sense of the narrator's attitude. What else will this sharp and amused eye show us? Here is the rest of the paragraph:

A black servant, who reposed on the box beside the fat coachman, uncurled his bandy legs as soon as the equipage drew up opposite Miss Pinkerton's shining brass plate, and as he pulled the bell, at least a score of young heads were seen peering out of the narrow windows of the stately old brick house. Nay, the acute observer might have recognized the little red nose of good-natured Miss Jemima Pinkerton herself, rising over some geranium-pots in the window of that lady's own drawing-room.

Again, Thackeray narrates action unfolding: he's a storyteller. People are doing things, and more specifically are reacting to each other's actions, even in these first three sentences. The scene is dynamic, even though the actions are as yet subtle. His method is to pack a lot of descriptive detail around these actions, so we can visualize the scene quite definitely. The description goes down easily because it rides on the flow of action. The narrator finds the scene funny yet intriguing, and therefore so do we.

So, another week's novel-opening contest goes by, and two classics show why they are still in print 150 years later.


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