Monday, October 19, 2009

My Favorite Beginning to a Jane Austen Novel

Certainly the most memorable opening in Austen (and arguably in all of English literature) is the first sentence of Pride & Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." I, like so many before me, mimic it in the introduction to First Impressions, found in the side bar. I often laugh at the thought of what the modern, elementary writing teacher - endlessly drilling the rules of paragraph formation into a mass of bored student - would say if presented with such a stupendous topic sentence. Yet it is not, in my opinion, the best Austen has to offer.

My favorite of all the beginnings to Jane Austen's novels is also only one sentence, but its enormous length renders any comparison with the brief quote above comical. My imaginary writing teacher would find great fault with the opening of Persuasion but I am, nonetheless, prepared to argue its merits on three grounds. First I will assert that on the very first page of the novel, in a single paragraph mind you, Jane Austen successfully provides a complete character sketch of Sir Walter Elliot, thereby freeing up the remainder of her novel for the exploration of far more interesting characters and sparing her readers as much as possible from his presence. Perhaps this holds less true on a first reading of the novel, but those of us who have long known and despised Sir Walter can recognize it as a perfect summary:

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 --
"Walter Elliot, born March 1, 1760, married, July 15, 1784, Elizabeth, daughter of James Stevenson, Esq. of South Park, in the county of Gloucester; by which lady (who died 1800) he has issue Elizabeth, born June 1, 1785; Anne, born August 9, 1787; a still-born son, Nov. 5, 1789; Mary, born Nov. 20, 1791."
My second argument lies solely in the fact that the sensations of contentment Austen subscribes here to Sir Walter are precisely the same as mine when I read this paragraph.

My third reason for believing this to be the best opening in all of Austen is that Anne Elliot is barely in sight, a footnote in the beloved entry, mimicking the role she plays within her family. She is not mentioned again for three pages, when we learn that Anne is "... nobody with either father or sister: her word had no weight; her convenience was always to give way; --she was only Anne." This is a story of a neglected lady's second chance to be courted and esteemed. Austen must deliver us into the despondency of Anne's situation at Kellynch if we are to fully appreciate her resurgence later. It's only appropriate that it takes a second look to notice her in the first place. Here is Austen at her very best.

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite evocations of the Pride & Prejudice opening:

"If, as the prevailing wisdom has had it these many years, a young man in possession of a good fortune is always in want of a wife, then surely the reverse must prove true as well: any well-favoured lady of means must incline, indeed yearn, to improve her situation by seeking a husband." - Julie Barrett, Presumption

"One might say that the divine gift of human memory used for the recitation of three-month-old annoyances constitutes talent misspent." Eucharista Ward, Illusions and Ignorance or A Match for Mary Bennet

"The true misfortune, which besets any young lady who believes herself destined for fortune and favour, is to find that she has been born into an unsuitable family." - Jane Odiwe, Lydia Bennet's Story


  1. I think you make excellent points here! I also think there is a fascinating similarity between the intros to Persuasion and P&P - the main character isn't obviously main until two or three chapters in! You've mentioned Anne, but Lizzy herself is only mentioned with slight distinguishing characteristics until after Darcy insults her. I've always thought this very unusual - I think that it also occurs to a lesser extent in Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility - but I think most people tend to miss it in P&P because they "know" Lizzy's the heroine.

  2. I was thinking of Lizzy when I wrote about Anne's absence but chose not to comment as it didn't help my argument. It's definitely a signature Austen move, she used the same devise in Sanditon as well, but I think it works best in Persuasion. Of course, it being my favorite of her novels, I'm probably biased.