It’s more than a stack, or even a shelf: to date, there’s a whole bookcase’s worth. I refer, of course, to my to-be-read list. And that’s only counting the physical books that I own: not the list of e-books, not the ever-expanding wishlist on my library account, not the endless ‘must look out for’ list picked up from reviews, publishers’ and booksellers’ emails, and from the recommendations of fellow readers. As a matter of necessity (not to say urgency) I have made peace with the certain knowledge that I cannot hope to read everything on my TBR list. And yet still there are certain books, old favourites that I return to again and again when nothing else quite draws me in. There is something in the act of reciting the opening line of a favourite book that sets off a chain of resonances much in the manner of Proust dipping his madeleine into his cup. It is necessarily a personal, highly subjective experience and while a novel’s opening line may appear to be a tasty little morsel enjoyed in private it is actually a Trojan horse, calculated to break through the reader’s defences (the three-second attention span, tiredness, inability to suspend disbelief, the compulsion to keep on scrolling, too much of importance going on in one’s ‘real’ life… etc. etc.) and lay the whole reading nation (in one’s more grandiose moments!) not only open to but powerless to resist the novelist’s designs.
With the benefit of copious amounts of hindsight, I want to look at the opening lines of two of my all-time favourite books, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This time I want to do more than read them out loud to myself and stare off out the window while the resonances do their work: I want to scrutinise them, to see if I might figure out their workings. What is it precisely about these opening lines that catch me and how do they go about doing this? What expectations do they give the reader? It also occurs to me to wonder if they actually do more than this. Do they give any clues as to what will follow, in terms of actual and emotional content, if one is prepared to return from one’s reverie and pause for a moment to pay close attention before plunging in?
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
So, what do we have here? Nine words, twelve syllables. We have a strong iambic rhythm, giving a firmly measured and controlled feeling until ‘Manderley’ disrupts the pattern, only for ‘again’ to restore it immediately and, further, to provide forward momentum, in contradiction to the past-oriented facts of the sentence. We have a first person narrator. And already we have a lot of questions to ask!
There is a good deal of mystery and mood concealed in these apparently straightforward nine words. It’s all very uncertain: to begin with, who is this ‘I’ (two of the nine words)? Who is speaking? (Indeed we never do learn her name: so insignificant is she held to be that her story turns out to be named after her deceased predecessor.) To whom are they speaking? To the reader? To another character? To a diary? There are no clues as to their relationships within their world. The narrator is untethered. We do not know what or where Manderley is nor what significance it has to the narrator. We do not know the circumstances of their having been at Manderley previously, nor why they left nor what might call them back, even if only in a dream. We do not know the state of mind of the dreamer: was it a happy dream or wistful, or a cold fist of dread kind of dream? We know that recalling Manderley, and at the further remove of a dream (an involuntary production of the unconscious mind), is more significant to the teller at this point than are any details of their current waking life. The narrator’s attention is focused on the past (‘Last night’… and they went back to Manderley) yet the simple, direct verbs are active: ‘I dreamt I went’. The dreamer’s mind demands action and movement. There is no prevarication. At the level of the sentence, no sooner do they dream than they act. The effect could be described as one of wash and backwash.
The sentence’s iambic rhythm and primarily monosyllabic words, with the echoing of e and t sounds and near rhyme, provide momentum, their driving beat carrying us forward into the past (if that is not altogether too F. Scott Fitzgerald!). Trisyllabic ‘Manderley’ is musical and romantic in contrast.
In the opening line of Rebecca the mysterious narrator returns in a dream to Manderley but as we don’t know where they have set out from there is not the expected feeling of returning to a root note (to use a musical term). The matter is clearly not ‘settled’ or concluded. It provokes a sense of uneasiness (and curiosity!) at the suggestion of an action that happened in the past but which has left unfinished business that still weighs upon the narrator’s mind at unguarded moments.
I am happy to forget at this point that I already know the plot: I want to find out what happens next, what has already happened. I want to know who this person is. I want to go to Manderley! I want to read on. I must read on.
What then of Mrs Dalloway?
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
Nine words again but this time we are given a third person narrative. The first thing we learn is the protagonist’s name. We know she is a woman and married. (We may or may not already be wondering who Mr Dalloway is.) By happy coincidence, it may be noted that ‘Dalloway’ has the same rhythmic stress as ‘Manderley’, likewise the a, d, l and y sounds. We learn that Mrs Dalloway is speaking to someone else. The stress falls on the words ‘said’ and then ‘buy’. This puts the emphasis on social activities and a relationship to others, contrasted with the ‘I’ of Rebecca who might only be talking to their diary. Mrs Dalloway is firmly rooted in her world, it seems, and has enough presence there that someone else has seen fit to write about her: she is not telling her own story. She is also looking forward, planning a future event. We are told she will buy the flowers. Not grow, not choose, not pick, not steal: she has the money for flowers, which gives a further clue as to her social standing. We might wonder what occasion she is buying them for. We might wonder who usually buys the flowers, runs her errands. As the final word of the sentence, ‘herself’ brings our focus back from the flowers to her. It is a circular sentence, a going out and an effortless return. To recall my previous analogy, Mrs Dalloway herself is the root note. There is a sense of completion, of all things being well in hand, with the satisfying feelings that brings, and she hasn’t even set out for the flowers yet!
This is such a contrast from the opening line of Rebecca that I can’t resist looking at the closing sentences, too.
And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea. Rebecca
Once again, the past (represented by the ashes, all that’s left of something that was but is no more) is seen to be blowing towards them. However, it is revealed that the narrator is not alone.
For there she was. Mrs Dalloway
There she is again, Clarissa Dalloway, at the beginning and the end of things, central to her own story, her presence book-ending all the events within.
I’m surprised by just how much and how easily I have been able to ‘read into’ the opening lines of these two books, chosen not randomly, exactly, but because I particularly enjoy re-reading them. Because I know what will come next, it is of course easier to see the seeds of the stories as a whole in their first words. I cannot say to what extent this was a conscious decision on their authors’ part. I do not know whether others books on my shelves would stand up to scrutiny in this way. I found it a fascinating exercise in resonance and possibility, and it is in that spirit that I offer this essay.