How important is the first line in a romantic novel? In these days of “Click to look inside!”, if the book you’re thinking of buying doesn’t have an immediately arresting opening, does that make you put it back on the cyber-shelf? If you can get a free sample download for your e-reader, is the opening passage more important than ever, before you commit to buy?
I’ve been wrestling with this dilemma for what seems like forever, since I’m just putting the finishing touches to my contemporary romance. I posted the opening paragraphs here a couple of weeks ago, but of course I’ve obsessively rewritten it several times since then! I’m happy with the rest of the book, pretty much, but just struggling with the first page and stressing that people will look at the first paragraphs and put it straight back down.
So that got me thinking about great openings to romantic novels, and how others have succeeded where I am singularly failing. Below is a list of ten great openings to a romantic novel – and note, all of these were written in the days before the internet. The pressure of an eye-catching start wasn’t even on for these authors, but to masters of the pen like these it was all part of their craftsmanship.
Can you place all ten novels? Some are easier than others. You’ll find the answers below!
1. Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse. He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced one abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation.
2. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and a tea-cosy.
3. Ennis del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue…he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist had been in his dream.
4. On they went, singing ‘Eternal Memory’, and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked, ‘Who is being buried?’
5. Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
6. This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it. (Clue: the film starts with the line ‘The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.’)
7. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martin was born in a camp near the crest of a pass in the Himalayas, and subsequently christened in a patent canvas bucket. His first cry competed manfully with the snarling cry of a leopard on the hillside below, and his first breath had been a lungful o the cold air that blew down from the far rampart of the mountains, bringing with it a clean scent of snow and pine-needles to thin the reek of hot lamp-oil, the smell of blood and sweat, and the pungent odour of pack ponies.
8. 1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven…
9. In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge, which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. The figures in the boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognisable as his daughter….She watched his face earnestly as she watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.
10. Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
Here are the answers, and good for you if you got every one:
1.Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières
2. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
3. Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx
4. Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
5. Emma, by Jane Austen
6. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
7. The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye
8. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
9. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
10. Of course, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
And how about you? What’s your favourite opening to a novel, romantic or otherwise? I’d love to hear it!