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Ten great openings to romantic novels

In the past month a list of great opening lines in literature has appeared separately in The Irish Times (Ten great opening lines in literature), The Telegraph (The best opening lines in literature) and The Independent (First lines in fiction)

great opening lines in literature
A few of my vintage romance novels (The photo is my great-grandmother’s wedding during WW1)

I love a good list, and not only that, I was here first!  In October 2012 I posted ten great openings from romantic novels. Since first lines in literature are flavour of the month at the moment, I thought it might be fun to revisit the openings I chose as my favourites.

So here they are – ten great openings to romantic novels. Can you guess which book these opening lines come from? (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!gone with the wind, great opening lines in literature
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

How many did of these did you know? And how about you?  I’d love to hear your favourite opening to a novel, romantic or otherwise. Please let me know in the comments!

19 thoughts on “Ten great openings to romantic novels

  1. Aloha, Ooh, that was fun. But I didn’t know a single one. LOL. I loved that you included Brokeback Mountain on there. I thought that was one of the most beautiful love stories every told. Very sad, but very beautiful. I only saw the film. Thank you. Aloha Meg :-)


    1. Aloha, Meg! I’ve only read the book Brokeback Mountain. I don’t think I could bear to watch the film. The book was sad enough :( Glad you liked the quiz, Meg. Thanks for your comment!


      1. Aloha Helena. :-)

        Back at you. LOL. That’s why I haven’t read the book! The film was heartbreaking. Oh my goodness. Maybe one day, I can bear to read the book. It was one of those films that stayed with me a long time and produced a deep melancholic sadness in me. Extremely beautiful. Thanks. Aloha Meg :-)


  2. Well, I could only name Gone With The Wind, which made a huge impact on me when I read it in 8th grade. I haven’t read Brokeback Mountain, but I was surprised to see the author used present tense in the writing. Much of this strikes me as literary writing as opposed to genre writing, with it’s specific “rule” to jump into the action. Maybe that rule is only true for romantic suspense that I write. Fascinating post, Helena. I’ll share.


    1. Hi Marsha, I agree with you about the expectation in modern genre fiction, that the story should start in the middle of the action. Some of these openings do start that way – eg Our Mutual Friend, but then Charles Dickens did write serialised commercial fiction. I’d toyed with calling this “openings to romance novels”, but since that suggests genre fiction I changed it to “romantic novels”.
      I’ve read a lot of Annie Proulx’ short stories. She’s a brilliant writer. Her stories stuck in my mind long after I’d finished them. In fact I really loved every book on this list, apart from Dr Zhivago – which I got a bit bored reading! (Totally loved the film, though!)


  3. Helena, This was a lot of fun. I only got two of them, but it makes me want to read a few of the books you list. When I was young, I used to pick books off the shelves at the library and take them home to read based on the first few lines. I discovered On the Road that way.


    1. Thanks for your comment – I’m so glad you enjoyed it! The first few lines are so important in drawing us in to the story, and it’s the part I write and rewrite the most. I read On the Road when I was a teenager, and loved it. Will go and check out the opening again!


  4. I only knew Gone With the Wind, sorry to say. Interesting how times change the writing styles. I think the older books take their time to develop the story from the beginning instead of nowadays, writers have to have action from the beginning to hook the reader. Is it the way we live today? This world expects folks to hop from one topic to the next and not dwell on anything…news, video games, internet. Parents schedule their kids for non stop action in sports and clubs with no time to just play in the mud puddles. No time to sit back and enjoy a tale unrolling on the page using beautiful language. Frenetic living nowadays.


    1. Hi JQ, I agree writing styles have changed, especially since we can “click to see inside” the first few pages of a book before we buy it. This makes the opening paragraphs far more important than they used to be, and maybe readers don’t invest as much time in a waiting for a story to unfurl. I think Charlotte Bronte’s editor, for example, would probably have told her to cut to the action!


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