Tag Archives: Lewis Carroll

First Lines

The Atlantic recently asked some writers about their favourite first lines in literature. As Joe Fassler reports, “The opening lines they picked range widely in tone and execution – but in each, you can almost feel the reader’s mind beginning to listen, hear the inward swing of some inviting door.” I especially like the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

You know right from the start that it’s all going to end in tears, don’t you?

Here are some more of my own favourites. I think it’s good to be told up front exactly what sort of book you’ve picked up:

We think it our duty to warn the public that, in spite of the title of this work and of what the editor says about it in his preface, we cannot guarantee its authenticity as a collection of letters: we have in fact, very good reason to believe it is only a novel.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or Letters Collected in One Section of Society and Published for the Edification of Others by Choderlos de Laclos

It’s also nice when an author explains all that we need to know about the protagonist:

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Although this can sometimes be done just as effectively in half the words:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.

Lady Oracle, probably Margaret Atwood’s funniest book

Or even fewer words:

I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me.

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

And sometimes, an author’s first line not only tells us a lot about the protagonist, but also conveys an essential truth about literature:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', illustrated by John Tenniel

“The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo . . .”

Why I Love Alice

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll (The Alice who has Adventures in Wonderland, that is.) I’ve written a blog post about why I love Alice here to celebrate the release of the new Vintage Classics edition of this utterly brilliant book.

A confession: As much as I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, my favourite Alice book is actually Through the Looking Glass. (The Red Queen! Humpty Dumpty! Jabberwocky! The White Knight! The Anglo-Saxon Messenger with his Anglo-Saxon attitudes and his bag of ham sandwiches and hay!) But sadly, there isn’t a Vintage Children’s Classics edition of Through the Looking Glass.

Extra note: if you know any artistic Australian students in Years Three to Six, you might like to draw their attention to this competition being run by Random House. Students are asked to choose their favourite title from the Vintage Children’s Classics collection, then send in a design for their own cover, with big book prizes for them and for their school. Entries close on the 1st of October. (If I were entering, I probably wouldn’t choose Black Beauty or The Wish Pony, because horses are really hard to draw. I would probably choose Treasure Island, because I like drawing pirates and parrots. Or maybe A Brief History of Montmaray, because it has pirates and puffins.)

How I Learned To Hate Poetry

I didn’t always hate poetry. When I was little, I loved Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. I liked these poems because they were short, and funny, and made each word ‘do a lot of work’, as Humpty Dumpty observed. They had clever rhymes, and their rhythm had me stomping round the house, singing the words in my head. Poems back then were playful and witty and exuberant.

Then I started high school.

I don’t really blame the teachers. They had a syllabus to get through and a lot of bored, unruly students to control. But my English teachers turned poetry into something to be killed and dissected, rather than experienced and loved. (They tried to do this to novels, too, but novels are simply too large and robust to be damaged by this treatment, and in any case, I was reading enough novels outside class to counteract any ill effects.) It wasn’t just that I hated writing essays about poems. It was the type of poems we had to read. They were all written by men, mostly dead white men, and were usually about subjects I had no interest in. For instance: in my senior year of high school, we had to read something by Les Murray about beans (truly), and something by Philip Larkin about Whitsun (whatever that is). We also studied The Canterbury Tales, which weren’t even written in English. Worst of all, there was John Keats and his morbid, mawkish odes about dead knights and old vases. I walked out of my final English exam vowing I’d never read any poetry, ever again.

I kept my vow, mostly. There are a lot of things other than poetry to read, and I was busy devouring novels and short stories and non-fiction. I did read a few verse novels, by people like Dorothy Porter and David Levithan. I liked them, but I couldn’t help feeling that writers that good would have been better off writing proper novels, with punctuation.

Then I started writing my own novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, and realised almost at once that my narrator, Sophie, loved poetry. It was an essential part of her character, I could see that. Great. Now I’d have to start reading the blasted stuff again.

Well, here’s what I discovered. I still hated Keats, and I didn’t much like Tennyson, either. Reading Idylls of the King was like wading through treacle. I decided I preferred T. S. Eliot when he was writing about cats. But there were some pleasant surprises, too. For a Romantic, Shelley wasn’t too bad at all. I’d only ever thought of Kipling as one of those dusty Victorians with irritating views about India, but I loved The Bell Buoy. I found I absolutely adored W. H. Auden. And I’ve now ‘discovered’ (not really; I’m sure anyone with a degree in English Literature knows all about him) a wonderful eighteenth century poet I’m hugging to myself for the moment. A fragment of one of his poems is going into a pivotal scene of the third Montmaray novel, and I can’t wait to write that scene.

Note that all these poets are dead white men. I read these particular poets because that’s what Sophie and her friend Rupert were reading. In the 1930s. But apparently women wrote poetry, too, even back in the olden days. I haven’t got to them, yet. I may actually end up reading some for pleasure. You never know.