First Line: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

First Line:  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I think that far too often the first line of a book gets wasted on the reader (myself included). How often do we, when first cracking open a brand new book, stop to appreciate everything the author is trying to tell us right at the very beginning? Sure there are times when we are immediately captivated by some good writing, or by a novel that jumps right into the action, but do we really give enough time to what is literally setting the stage for everything to come?

With that in mind, I'd like to start a reoccurring feature on the blog: First Line. In these posts I will provide the first line of a book I have read (and hopefully many of you have as well) and discuss what it does right and wrong in context of the book as whole.  Don't worry, I won't be spoiling anything specific.  Instead, I'll be focusing on the tone, themes, etc. of the novel.  It's not exactly a review, either, because as we all know a book can start great and end terribly or start terribly and end great.  This is still in its infancy, so I'm open to suggestions as well.

For our first First I've chosen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  This novel introduces itself to us with the following:

"Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians."

There is so much contained within this little sentence, it's unbelievable.  The first thing that stands out to me is the straightforwardness of the claim that there were magicians.  There's no attempt to justify the claim or to convince the reader with flowery language.  It is merely a statement of fact that there was a society of magicians in York some years ago.

This may seem insignificant at first considering many books assume the lore they are based on, but it is a cornerstone for this book.  Strange is written as though it were a history book - a "true" account of the Napoleonic wars where magicians played a critical role.  We can see immediately that this book takes the idea of magicians, and their place in history, seriously.

In many ways it is what is left out of this first sentence that makes it so interesting.  It does not start with "Once upon a time in York there was a society of magicians."  No, this is no fairy tale, and we as the reader now know that we should not treat it as such.

There is a certain dryness of voice that is evident in this first sentence as well.  No embellishment is necessary when the facts themselves are interesting, an idea clear in this opener, and one which continues throughout the book.  Furthermore, it is this same dry tone that will be responsible for so much of the humor in the book.  History it may be, but that doesn't mean that it will be any less entertaining.

Ultimately, without even moving beyond the first sentence, Clarke has set us up for a book that, while humorous and entertaining, is meant to be taken seriously.  The footnotes, characters, and plot are only interesting if we allow ourselves to read them as though they are real.  If we look at this book and think "fantasy" it's merely a clever diversion.  If it's seen as "history", then it becomes a near masterpiece of writing.  Clarke obviously knew this, and she was preparing us as best she could from the very beginning.

So there you have it.  Let me know what you think - both about the first line of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and of the First Line concept as a whole.


Kathleen on 02/04/2010 11:20 a.m.

I love this feature already. Pretty much everything I think about that first line you already said, but to me not only is the book history, it's just a good <i>story</i> and the first line has me settling in for that.

Scott on 02/04/2010 11:29 a.m.

You're absolutely right. I got so caught up in thinking about the "history" side of the book that I didn't even mention that. It does set the stage for a good story just the way a "Once upon a time" intro would (but without making it a fairy tale).

Thanks for the input!

Christy on 02/04/2010 8:02 p.m.

I like the idea, especially considering that's the particular line that a lot of authors and editors probably stress over. The ending line would be a great feature if it wasn't so inherently spoiler-ridden.

Scott on 02/05/2010 7:28 a.m.

That's a good idea - if I ever have anything worthwhile to give away, I'll definitely do this.

Scott on 02/05/2010 7:30 a.m.

Yeah, ending line's would definitely have a lot to offer, but the spoiler thing is a problem. Plus I always catch myself rereading the last line, but not so much the first line, so I figured I give the first line some long overdo love.

Then again, there's always <i>Finnegans Wake</i> where the first line <i>is</i> the last line.

Scott on 02/05/2010 7:31 a.m.

It really is a well crafted book - which only makes sense considering she spent a Tolkien amount of years writing it.

Scott on 02/05/2010 7:34 a.m.

Thanks Shawn, this is an excellent contribution. You can really see the unique voice of the characters/stories from their respective opening lines. It would be an epic post to analyze them all, but I might have to do it over several days at some point!

Scott on 02/05/2010 7:38 a.m.

I had a similar experience when I first cracked it open. I didn't know what to think, but once I realized it was intentionally dry, funny, and faux-historical I was hooked.

Also, a quick google search reveals that as <i>Making Money (Discworld Series)</i> by Terry Pratchett. Is that right?

Scott on 02/05/2010 7:39 a.m.

Thanks, I'm glad you like it. And don't worry, I'll definitely be focusing on first lines that aren't famous (or at least not to me). I also won't just be focusing on good first lines, as there are plenty of terrible ones out there as well.

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