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Monday, July 10, 2017

Austen first lines

If we take seriously the idea that the first line of a novel sets the tone, and more importantly, encapsulates a novel's central theme, what clues do first lines in Jane Austen's novels offer? How can examining these first lines influence our reading of these works? Below, I've copied the opening sentence of the six published novels. At the end, I add three other works Austen began or revised in her mature years, with some comments--and I invite your comments.

Northanger Abbey
First line: "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine." 
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 The novel's first line communicate a theme that threads throughout the book: all is not as it seems. The story's dark comedy hinges on mercenary people misreading Catherine's finances, and naive Catherine misreading their hearts. Add a sub-theme about novel reading, and Catherine's own dark misreadings of past events in the abbey--or, as Arnie Perlstein asks, are they misreadings?--and Austen's first line leads us straight into the heart of this novel. If all is not as it seems in the microcosm of Catherine's world, what about in the macrocosm of British society, where, after all, every neighbor is a spy?

Sense and Sensibility
First sentence: "The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex." 
 This is the shortest and seemingly most straightforward Austen first line. It tells us the  book will centrally concern the Dashwood family: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are the novel's central figures. But the line also suggest this book is centrally about history, the history of families who have "long been settled." The opening line leads us toward family history, such as the back story of Edward Ferrars. Tangentially a part of the Dashwood family through his sister's marriage, Edward has his own secrets. Informing the novel too is the deeper backstory of Elizabeth Austen, Jane's great-great grandmother, whose harrowing experiences of inheritance runs like a hidden scar through the hideous treatment of the Dashwoods. The Dashwood women begin the novel anything but "settled," for primogeniture and patriarchy (even as embodied in a toddler) have upended their existence. This is centrally a novel about the effects of family cruelty on displaced females.

Pride and Prejudice

Charlotte Lucas
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
As we know, this is the most famous first line in Austen, and one of the most famous in the entire literary canon, used repeatedly as a classic example of irony. The joke is usually on us: first, almost everyone will accept that the line is ironic, because they have been taught to do so, and then proceed to read the novel as a straight romance. This misses much of the irony and zany misdirection that threads through Pride and Prejudice, as if the first line floats in a cloud of ether divorced from the rest of the novel. Second, as is typical of Austen, the irony is multi-layered: yes, it is avaricious relatives with daughters, not single men, who think rich men must need to get married, but the final irony is that this irony reverses itself: in this novel the men "in possession of a good fortune--" Darcy, Bingley and yes, Collins--are in want of wives.

If this first line signals to us we will be entering a land of irony, where we have to take the events as they unfold with a grain of salt, it also signals that this is not a romance. This is a novel about marriage--marriage as separated from romance--marriage as financial transaction. And marriage is a financial transaction in this novel: Charlotte Lucas is frank about it, as is Mr. Collins, heightening the disjuncture between his rhetorical love language and his admission that he has been assigned by Lady Catherine the job of obtaining a wife, as one would a pot of jam--and that he knows full well that his income and prospects are his chief calling cards. Wickham is frank too--money greases the skids of his marriage--or stops it from happening. When Lizzie sees Pemberley, her heart warms at the idea she could have been its mistress, and this mercenary motive miraculously transforms into misty love for its owner. Only Jane and Bingley, whose interiority we never see, remain ambiguous. Are they in love? Or does the enigmatic Jane recognize Bingley as her ticket out of life with Mrs. Bennet? We never know--or perhaps the hints are all there, and we've missed them.

More fundamentally, the emphasis on "fortune" in the first line pulls us toward Charlotte as the submerged central character in this novel. She tells the truth--a truth that even her best friend Lizzie can't hear. When Charlotte, early on in the novel, outlines  the hard-headed pragmatism with which she would go about catching a husband should the opportunity arise, Lizzie can't believe it, dismissing her: "You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself." Yet this is exactly how Charlotte does act, in plain sight of Elizabeth, who doesn't notice what she doesn't want to see.

This leads us to wonder if Charlotte's words about marriage act as a bookend to the novel's opening lines. What does it say about Lizzie's or Jane's fate if what Charlotte asserts is true:
Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.
Mansfield Park
"About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income."
Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris sit in the shade while Fanny works, but all these family Ward relations are together.

 Given the title of the book and the importance of location to the novel, one would expect the opening line to  focus on the place, not a person--and if a person, not Miss Maria Ward, aka Lady Bertram. Yet there's a poetic rhythm to this first line, with all its alliterations: "captivate" and "county," "comforts" and "consequences," "lady" and "large" that points to Lady Bertram's importance.

Lady Bertram is, of course, the lynchpin pulling together the major actors as she links together the Ward and Bertram families. Without her,  Mrs. Norris and  Fanny Price would not experience the wealth and privilege of a baronet's estate. The opening line hints that  his novel will centrally concern "all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income," and we soon enough learn that consequences are not simply for Miss Maria Ward alone. 

 Jane Austen, with her typical sleight of hand, adds one letter to a word we can too easily slide over: we tend to read "all the comfort and consequence ..." but Austen has added an "s:" "consequences." What are these consequences? The word consequences, unlike consequence, has an ominous undertone. This is a novel about consequences--but is it more centrally than we suspect about Miss Maria Ward? Is she behind the scenes, pulling strings, or, conversely, is she a symbol of the Deleuzian statis that Mansfield Park represents? Or is it something else?

Emma
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. 
 We expect a novel called Emma to open proclaiming the centrality of its eponymous character and the first line doesn't disappoint us. 

We are told in a compact, even beautiful, way about Emma Woodhouse, but who is doing the telling? Because it's the opening sentence, we believe this to be knowledge from on high offered by an omniscient narrator: however, we're faced with another instance of sleight-of-hand that hinges on the words "seems." This authorial voice, if it is that, doesn't speak too authoritatively. Emma only seems.
Could this be the condensed voice of the village choir, the distillation of the opinions of the people of Highbury? As with the opening line of Northanger Abbey (another novel originally named for its lead character) we are in the world of supposition: what appears to be true in this novel seldom is, and the opening line points to the centrality of distrusting appearances.

This central theme of this novel asks these questions: what is real? what is illusion? How do we know? This draws us, centrally, to inquire what else and who else in the novel may not be what they seem. Is Miss Bates really as silly as she appears? Harriet as innocent? Besides the secret engagement between Frank and Jane, what else might we the readers be missing that is hiding in plain sight? 

A mystery lies at the heart of this novel: to quote Wallace Stevens out of context, "let be be finale of seem."

Persuasion
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed. This was the page at which the favourite volume always opened: "ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH HALL. 
Discussions about renting Kellynch Hall
 In a story filled with long sentences, this  longest opening line in an Austen novel sets the tone. Would Austen have broken up this first line in another draft of the novel? We don't know, but the sentence reads with a polished, finished cadence, as if it is what she intended.

Here, as in Sense and Sensibility, the focus is on family history. 

This appears to be omniscient narration: no "seems" or "supposed" interrupts the confident flow of this text.  Sir Walter Eliot loves his Baronetage; we find him self-defined not as individual but a person who finds his meaning, pride and solace in being part of a greater whole, a great chain of being. His orientation is, paradoxically, both external and escapist: he selectively chooses to focus on the externals of beauty and rank to escape any troubling interiority or self-reflection that might disturb his self image or his worldview. To him, we suspect, the names of his daughters in a book--names not mentioned until sentence two and then read, not thought-- might have more reality than the living beings. 

We get an encapsulation of the novel as whole in this line: we are introduced from the start to the euphemistically labelled  "unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs," which will be the driver of this plot, and we begin to understand, as we study the text, that our narrator provides primarily an annotated distillation of Sir Walter's thoughts. 

Leaving aside the idea that Austen would have revised this opening before publishing the book (we can only use what we have), this first line is perplexing. Sir Walter's lack of ability to face reality, his insistence on living, paradoxically, in a made up world consisting of carefully selected externals, causes the family a level of debt that requires the rental of the their hall and the removal to the anonymous world Bath--and the rental to Captain Wentworth's sister and brother-in-law brings Wentworth back on the scene. In that sense, Sir Walter is central to the story, but in other ways he seems peripheral, so as with Lady Bertram, one wonders at him at the focus of the opening line. It hints that the core of the novel explores the way status and money (or lack thereof) distorts genuine feeling and truth. 

The Watsons
"The first winter assembly in the town of D. in Surrey was to be held on Tuesday, October 13th and it was generally expected to be a very good one."

 One can have little doubt that Jane Austen would have added a framing first paragraph ahead of this, if not an entire first section or chapter. The line is apt, however, in signaling that this will be a novel about community, like Emma. Parallels to Emma are striking, and it's easy to envision the later novel as a reworking of this one, with Austen distancing herself from whatever painful associations the original caused her by switching the point of view. The Watsons' Emma is a compelling character, and it's too bad--anguishing even--that Austen laid this novel aside. Here the central point of view emerges from the character who evolved into Emma's Jane Fairfax, a woman of sensitivity and refinement raised in comfortable surroundings but forced by circumstances back into a poorer home with less elegant company (shades of Fanny at Portsmouth too). How wonderful it would be to have the full novel.

Lady Susan

"MY DEAR BROTHER,—I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profiting by your kind invitation when we last parted of spending some weeks with you at Churchhill, and, therefore, if quite convenient to you and Mrs. Vernon to receive me at present, I shall hope within a few days to be introduced to a sister whom I have so long desired to be acquainted with."

Lady Susan, Austen's only mature epistolary, uses the form which gets, I believe, to the heart of Austen's method, because, by definition, the epistolary defies an omniscient point of view. The opening is seemingly innocent: what reason would we have to suspect Lady Susan of subterfuge and evil? And yet we do, in retrospect: the first ten words include both "pleasure" and
"profiting," both of which are aims of Lady Susan's existence. We see a dereliction of duty too in the length of time it has taken Lady Susan to meet her sister: she, like Frank Churchill, has subordinated duty to pleasure. The common name Churchill in the two novels and the like event of avoiding a visit to a relative until there's an hidden motive, bring us back again to Emma. One can imagine Frank's letter to his new stepmother as somewhat like this one. 


Sanditon
"A gentleman and a lady traveling from Tunbridge towards that part of the Sussex coast which lies between Hastings and Eastbourne, being induced by business to quit the high road and attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent, half rock, half sand."

This  opening line immediately pulls us into a scene and into the action. We begin, not uncharacteristically, being located geographically (see Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility), but then we immediately dive into the drama of a coach overturned. The line hints at what might be the central matters of the novel: business, risk taking, and lives upended. As with The Watsons, one suspects, however, that Austen would have fronted this first line with an opening more distant and universal,  but I hope she would have broken loose and kept this lead sentence for her finished novel. A novel opening so dramatically would have marked a departure, and one suspects, after the artistic (if not commercial) triumph of Emma, Austen was ready to break new ground. As with The Watsons, one is anguished that she didn't get further with Sanditon. If only her father had lived a year longer, to allow her to complete The Watsons, and  she herself had stayed healthy a year longer, so that she might have finished Sanditon. But we do have the fragments. 




4 comments:

  1. From Tyler Tichelaar:
    Interesting post, Diane. I especially find the amount of detail and
    length of some of these sentences surprising compared to the shortness
    of others. I think I prefer the short ones as more effective. Of course
    the Pride and Prejudice line is my favorite. Another favorite first line
    of mine is from Cranford: "In the first place, Cranford is in possession
    of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women."
    Thanks Tyler!

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  2. I really enjoyed this post. So looking forward to teaching Emma in the fall!

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  3. Very interesting, satisfying. I agree the best first lines can be an epitome of what's to come, as the opening paragraphs of a book can frame it (however ironically). I wish I could find George Eliot's rewrite of Austen's first line: she did re-write it with an allusion to Austen's P&P as far more acid and alienated than people suppose. The lines don't get richer as they go along, but then the chronology of the actual texts is of books rewritten and then written again alongside of one another.

    I don't know which is the most effective: the pointed ones seem NA, P&P, & Emma. The others are quiet: we are told that S&S was her first full attempt and it is the first published text so she's just getting herself to start. Great ironies in MP and Persuasion. The opening of The Watsons puts before us a bad Tuesday, showing she is still weaving that motif in. Yes she might have disguised this in a later revision. What a skein of ironic lies Lady Susan begins with: what is her pleasure is others' misery (rather like the villains in Les Liaisons Dangereuses) Again Sanditon feels like she must start somewhere (as S&S and Watsons) and so she does. I did write a posting long ago on Austen-l on first lines and we had quite a thread on other authors' first line. Not everyone works for a catchy opening. Trollope didn't while Dickens did.

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  4. Thanks Roger. I'm sure you'll teach it as no other. :) Thanks Ellen, too, for the comment: I didn't know George Eliot rewrote Austen's first line or lines. I had not thought of The Watsons and the bad Tuesdays either--you have done a lot of work on that theory and wonder --well it couldn't be that hard to use a calendar to see if major bad events--such as deaths important to Austen--occurred on Tuesdays.

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