Kit Whitfield has published a large number of analyses of the first sentences of novels. (These really are analyses, not book reviews. They’re involved, detailed and based on a thoughtful close reading of the subject matter. Spoilers, of course, abound.) Her writing is pitch-perfect, and it itself is full of quotable sentences. From Jane Eyre we have, “Some books begin with a flourish, others with a handshake.” The series has covered the two most famous opening sentences in fiction — Pride and Prejudice (“Austen is an angry writer, sometimes a furious one, sometimes even a hateful one — but my goodness, does she promise us the world”) and A Tale of Two Cities (“There is no authority noisier than Dickens, especially when he’s slapping down a rival authority”) — and classics from Nineteen Eighty-Four (“With Orwell, the language is vehemently simple, ideologically simple, a declaration of war against obfuscation and half-truth”) to Anne of Green Gables (“Anne may talk breathlessly and at great length, but the narrative can match her word for word”). Also included are two Terry Pratchett novels: Sourcery and Pyramids (“some books begin with a handshake, and Pratchett takes this a step further: in effect, his first sentences are secret handshakes”).
When she posted an analysis of The Catcher in the Rye I didn’t read it, because at that point I had not yet read the book. I have now, so I went back and read Kit’s post. I think I’m going to have to read the book again now. (“How does Salinger get away with a first sentence that refuses to to talk to us?”) Awesome stuff.
I can even find much of value in analyses of books I’ve not yet read, such as her take on Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. (I love Kipling’s Kim so I probably should read Stalky and Co.)
The most recent, and perhaps also the best, post in the series is Middlemarch. Wow. Just, wow.
Coppers are easy to write for; they tend to run on rails.
On favourite books and research,
I did a lot of interesting work for Monstrous Regiment in lesbian book shops.
On characters who should return but haven’t,
Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a plot where the hero is Evil Harry Dread.
And on Victorian reference books,
Did I not tell you that in Hay-on-Wye I picked up a collection of very large books with the series title ‘London Then And Now’ and realised that the ‘now’ was in fact 1880? There was even a lovely woodcut of Primrose Hill when it had primroses on it. It really is wonderful stuff. Small things that people might not notice but to me are like a fly to a rising trout.