Famous opening lines of novels usually come from famous novels: Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, David Copperfield, 1984. However, there are many memorable opening lines, often unknown, because they open not-so-famous novels.
All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut. These are opening lines of Agnes Grey by the least famous Bronte sister, Anne.
I read this book in the course of my project to read all the Bronte novels. I had been obliged to read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte while at school and I had read Jane Eyre, by Charlotte, after seeing the Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine movie.
To these I can now add The Professor, Villette and Shirley by Charlotte, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey by Ann. Multiple copies of these novels are always available at the Lifeline Book Fair.
An editor once told me that only "nerdy girls" read all the Bronte books. I took some satisfaction from this observation.
Shirley by Charlotte Bronte completed my project. The opening linesare: Of late an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills: every parish has one or more of them; they are young enough to be very active, and ought to be doing a great deal of good.
Reading the early chapters, the question arises: where is Shirley? The narrative is all about Caroline and her love interest, Mr Moore. After about 150 pages, Shirley appears and breaks into the love affair to create a love triangle. Later in the novel, another male is introduced and the triangle becomes a square. There are several proposals of marriage - refused and accepted - that run to almost chapter length.
The story is told against the background of the industrial revolution in northern England. There is some action from this source but the story is mainly concerned with the activities of the landed gentry - who show no sympathy for the artisans destroying the new machinery replacing their labour. The gentry accept transportation of those found guilty as a logical outcome. Is this also Charlotte Bronte's opinion? In Shirley, I could not always tell if Charlotte Bronte attributes opinions and attitudes to the person in the novel to develop their character, or whether the opinions and attitudes are her own. Or both.
There is no doubt Bronte is aware of, and resents, the low status of women in her society. "He thought so long as a woman was silent nothing ailed her, and she wanted nothing", "He thinks everything but sewing and cooking above women's comprehension, and out of their line" and "At heart he could not abide sense in women. He liked to see them as silly, as light-headed, as vain, as open to ridicule as possible..."
Midway through the novel, Caroline speaks to Shirley: "I never had a sister - you never had a sister; but it flashes on me at this moment how sisters feel about each other - affection twined with their life, which no shocks of feeling can uproot . . . affection that no passion can ultimately outrival, with which love itself cannot do more than compete in force and truth."
Is this is how Charlotte Bronte felt about her sisters?
Her father was an Anglican clergyman. This helps account for one of the most strongly expressed opinions in the novel - that "The Romish religion especially teaches renunciation of self, submission to others, and nowhere are found so many grasping tyrants as in the ranks of the Romish priesthood."
Personal criticisms are politely expressed. "The petticoat was short, displaying well a pair of feet and ankles which left much to be desired in the article of symmetry." Many expressions are genteel, quaint. When Caroline has trouble getting to sleep, "slumber's visitation was long averted". Miss Keeldar does not offer a guest a chair or a seat. She offers "enthronisation". The weather is "insalubrious".
The gentle irony of Bronte's descriptions are redolent of Jane Austen. "Mr Sam Wynne inducted himself into the very vacancy she had kept for Moore, planting himself solidly on her gown, her gloves and her handkerchief."
And when I read "At a few years' later date he took great pains to pare and polish himself down to the pattern of the rest of the world..." I checked up on George Eliot's lines in Middlemarch: "the story of how their (mens') coming to be shaped after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told..."
Chronologically the Bronte sisters fall between Jane Austen, of early 1800s, and George Eliot, of mid to late 1800s, so it is natural that their writing should contain elements of both these more widely-read authors.
From my memories of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and random reading about the Bronte sisters, I had the impression their novels were about miserable people living miserable lives, in miserable country with a miserable climate. But these "other" Bronte novels contain plenty of light, humour and happiness and should not be confined to the readership of "nerdy girls".
Charlotte Bronte's closing lines of Shirley suitably complement the opening lines of her sister's Agnes Grey - and the cracking of the nut. The story is told. I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions. I only say God speed him in the quest.
However, the last line of Agnes Grey cannot be improved: And now I think I have said ;sufficient.