The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…


Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Where do you begin though?

Newspapers, magazines, and websites often put together lists of the best opening lines from novels. It is just as common to see lists ranking the best song intros or opening lyrics. I can’t find a similar list ranking the opening sentences from history books or journal articles.

Here is a question: what is your favorite first line from a piece of history writing?

This is an important question. The opening line of an introduction is the first chance you have to catch the attention of readers. Get it right, and they might read the rest of the introduction (let’s not get too optimistic at this stage). Get it wrong, and your book is back on the shelf or dropped on the floor. The stakes are high.

It is a tricky question. Aaron Sachs talks about different approaches to that difficult first sentence in his wonderful essay on history as creative nonfiction: it’s worth reading if you can get access to it. You could go for something flash: turn those frustrated literary aspirations into a sentence that surprises or startles; get the best story from your sources up front and central to draw them in. You could play it safe and simple: here is my thesis or subject summed up in a sentence. Entertain or engage? Aesthetics or argument? Literary effect or learning? Whimsical or wise?

Chose your tone and take your chances.

In Queer London I went left-field and opened with: “This is Cyril’s story.” Some people would probably say that was deliberately obtuse rather than left-field; they might have a point. I can’t remember the process that brought me to that line, but I think I liked the name, and how it was quite an unlikely beginning, and the way the four words somehow caught how the book was driven by its focus on ordinary men and their extraordinary stories. What am going for in The Prince of Tricksters? For now, you’ll have to wait and see.

The best opening sentences from a novel often tend to stay with us. So do song intros or lyrics. The jangling guitar riff that opens This Charming Man can fire me up enough to have survived fifteen months as my morning alarm call. The opening to Strawberry Switchblade’s Since Yesterday makes me smile straightaway thirty years since I first heard it at a school disco in South Humberside in the mid-1980s. Right now I’m struggling to remember any opening sentences to a history book. Help me out?

We can leave the question of the worst opening lines from history books for another time.


15 comments on “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

  1. Robin Rowles (@SherlockWalks)
    September 8, 2014

    ‘The future is bleak; the present burdensome. Only the past offers any relief’. Geoffrey Elton, “The Practice of History”. OK, it’s not a history book, it’s about studying history and methodology. But I think it’s an intriguing opening gambit.

  2. jonathan reinarz
    September 8, 2014

    ‘It was the last word my grandmother ever said to me.’ Melissa Mohr, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

  3. Gabriel Finkelstein
    September 8, 2014

    “In the beginning was Napoleon.” —Thomas Nipperdey

  4. Gabriel Finkelstein
    September 8, 2014

    “Emil du Bois-Reymond is the most important forgotten intellectual of the nineteenth century.” —Someone named Finkelstein

  5. ‘In November 1944, Decca Records released an album featuring Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots.’ Edward D. Melillo: “Global Entomologies: Insects, Empires, and the ‘Synthetic Age’ in World History.” in Past & Present, 223/1(May 2014) – in fact, the whole first paragraph is an excellent and unexpected opener to this article. See here:

  6. kirstyrolfe
    September 8, 2014

    I’m pretty fond of the opening to Peter H. Wilson’s Europe’s Tragedy: ‘Shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday 23 May 1618, Vilem Slavata found himself hanging from a window of the Hradschin castle in Prague. This was not a predicament the 46-year-old aristocrat had encountered before.’

  7. Erica Foss (@doctor_fosser)
    September 8, 2014

    “Civilization is a particularly French Concept;”–Alice Conklin. The sentence goes on, but it really starts with a bang.

  8. hatfulofhistory
    September 8, 2014

    “The history of all society hitherto is the history of class struggles”.

  9. williamgpooley
    September 9, 2014

    After a flick through some of my favourite books, I was a little surprised to see how many of them are pretty basic, introducing exactly what the topic is (before the reader wanders off?). For instance: Ruth Harris’s great book on Lourdes starts with a succinct summary of Bernadette and her first vision… Simple and effective.

    But I do quite like this (tho does it count as history?):

    “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” (John Hersey, Hiroshima)

    It takes the reader straight to the heart of the action, already introducing characters and places and everyday actions, and slips the bomb in like just one more detail, but of course it’s the detail that dominates the whole narrative.

  10. The Trickster Prince
    September 9, 2014

    Some interesting ones here! I wonder if it’s possible to come up with a checklist of what makes for a good opening sentence…

  11. Pingback: What We're Reading: September 11, 2014

  12. M-H
    October 7, 2014

    A bit late, but… My all-time favourite is “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. (LP Hartley’s first sentence for The Go-between, of course). But it is apt for a historical text, no? What did you finally decide on?

  13. M-H
    October 7, 2014

    And the checklist, for my money: immediacy, intrigue, foreshadowing, and context.

    • The Trickster Prince
      October 7, 2014

      Time to go back to the book manuscript and see how many of these I can tick off…

  14. Pingback: Beginnings | Will Pooley

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