“The introduction of your essay,” repeatedly admonished my English high school teacher, a diminutive Irish nun with mischievous blue eyes and a Master’s dissertation written on Gerald Manley Hopkins’ The wreck of the Deutschland, “must grab your reader’s attention”.
So also the first line of any text; that single sentence that seduces you, draws you, renders you the writer’s willing serf for hours and hours. The most effective first line suggests a whole story in a few words. Think of Daphne du Maurier’s opening to Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Manderley? A return? A nightmare or pleasant reminiscence? Who can resist finding out.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show,” writes Charles Dickens. And David Copperfield has me like putty in the hollow of his palm. Champion or rogue, what will he be?
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” So George Eliot introduces us to Dorothea. Now, is Miss Brooke really poor as her dress belies or is she a self-absorbed, priggish saint who wishes to appear poor for maximum effect? My battered Penguin version of Middlemarch required my undivided attention for 895 pages to establish D's character.
Amy Tan had me committed for days with her opener in The Joy Luck Club: “The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.” Sudddenly I am back in my childhood, in a once-upon-a-time world of ugly ducklings and doomed swans. Little do I know that instead, Tan has lured me into a complex web of mother-daughter relationships: regrets, misunderstandings and dogged love.
For pure lyricism, my countryman, Alan Paton gets my vote. He opens his seminal work, Cry the beloved country with the words: “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills.” Is it surprising that he wrote that in dark, cold Norway, far from wife and country? Can’t you hear the homesickness that overwhelms South Africans abroad, exiled from dusty roads and hot sun?
But surely the most powerful first line was penned by Moses in Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
Majestic in its simplicity.