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Great First Lines: Can You Identify Them?

March 8th, 2018 · No Comments · Lists, Newspapers

The best opening sentences in literary history. Always a fun exercise.

This has been going on pretty much forever. An early leader for “best opening line” has to be Genesis chapter 1, verse 1.

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

There’s a book you want to check out, just from the start, right? It’s a bestseller. First sentences matter!

The London Times has turned out a list of 25 opening lines, and to keep those of us who were not English-lit majors from throwing up our hands and moving on … The Times has made it a multiple-choice test.

We are challenged to identify what The Times calls the “The 25 best first lines. Ever.”

Answers are below the questions, so may want to keep track of your choices on a piece of paper.

FYI. I got about six or seven of these, and a few were from context. I was dead sure of maybe three or four.

Here we go!

Warning: This skews British.

1. “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”
a) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
b) Where’s My Cow? by Terry Pratchett
c) Animal Farm by George Orwell

2. “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.”
a) The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham
b) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
c) The Story of Art by EH Gombrich

3. “Now, what I want is, Facts.”
a) Hard Times by Charles Dickens
b) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
c) The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

4. “There were four of us — George and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency.”
a) The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
b) Five Go to Smuggler’s Top by Enid Blyton
c) Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

5. “Until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had a happy life.”
a) The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
b) James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
c) White Fang by Jack London

6. “Titus is seven.”
a) Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
b) Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
c) I, Claudius by Robert Graves

7. “Call me Ishmael.”
a) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
b) Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
c) The Cat in the Hat by Doctor Seuss

8. “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a den; and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a dream.”
a) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
b) Paradise Lost by John Milton
c) The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

9. “‘There’s no such thing as a perfect murder,’ Tom said to Reeves.”
a) A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
b) Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith
c) The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

10. “My father had a small estate in Nottinghamshire; I was the third of five sons.”
a) Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence
b) Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
c) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

11. “All children, except one, grow up.”
a) Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
b) Peter Pan by JM Barrie
c) The Doubtful Guest by Edward Gorey

12. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
a) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
b) Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
c) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

13. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
a) Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
b) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
c) Ulysses by James Joyce

14. “The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.”
a) Lord of the Flies by William Golding
b) The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
c) Coot Club by Arthur Ransome

15. “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”
a) The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson
b) Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham
c) Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

16. “That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford Station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line.”
a) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
b) Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
c) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

17. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
a) Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
b) Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
c) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

18. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
a) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
b) Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
c) Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

19. “Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family, ran in wide zigzags to and fro, across the steep field that sloped up from the lake to Holly Howe, the farm where they were staying for part of the summer holidays.”
a) It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet by James Herriot
b) Stig of the Dump by Clive King
c) Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

20. “The Past is a Foreign Country; they do things differently there.”
a) The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
b) The Go-Between by LP Hartley
c) The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

21. “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”
a) The Luck of the Bodkins by PG Wodehouse
b) Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
c) The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

22. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
a) The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
b) My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
c) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

23. “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
a) The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe
b) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
c) The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

24. “My name is Kathy H. I am thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.”
a) The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle
b) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
c) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

25. “It was a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
a) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
b) On the Road by Jack Kerouac
c) The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle


1. a) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s first novel

2. b) The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel

3. a) The words are spoken by the utilitarian school board superintendent Thomas Gradgrind

4. c) Jerome began the book intending to write a serious travel guide. He ended up with a comic novel

5. b) Dahl originally intended to write about a giant cherry

6. b) Titus Groan becomes the 77th Earl of Groan and Lord of Gormenghast Castle at the age of seven

7. a) Melville dedicated his book to Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter

8. c) First published in 1678, Bunyan’s book has never been out of print

9. b) The book is the third in Highsmith’s series about her elusive antihero, Tom Ripley

10. c) Swift’s idiosyncratic satirical style gave the world the term “Swiftian”

11. b) Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird. The later chapters of this book became Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

12. a) Austen’s second novel was published anonymously, by “The Author of Sense and Sensibility”

13. c) Mulligan is performing a parody of the Roman Catholic Mass

14. a) Golding’s book was inspired by his time working as a schoolteacher

15. c) The book’s hero, Kenneth Toomey, is allegedly loosely based on Somerset Maugham. No gruffalos feature

16. b) All of Oxford’s undergraduates fall in love with Zuleika and kill themselves in her honour

17. a) Orwell’s dystopian novel is set in Airstrip One, formerly known as Great Britain

18. a) Charlotte Brontë published her novel under a male pseudonym, Currer Bell

19. c) Daddy famously advises his boating children by telegram: “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN”. They did parenting differently in the 1920s

20. b) Young Leo carries notes between aristocratic Marian and rustic Ted. But they’re more than just friends

21. a) The book’s hero, dapper Monty Bodkin, is a recurring Wodehouse character. He first appears as Lord Emsworth’s secretary in the Blandings novel Heavy Weather

22. a) And the famous last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

23. b) Atwood’s novel was adapted for television by Hulu last year

24. b) Ishiguro won the Nobel prize in literature last year

25. a) Plath published her only novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas


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