A lot of people are talking about beginnings this week, for obvious reasons. A new year is upon us, what new things shall it bring? I don't know, but I've been thinking about beginnings myself. The beginnings of novels.
I just read Jaclyn Dolamore's novel Magic Under Glass and didn't need the jacket blurb to point out similarities between it and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. It wasn't merely that we have a poised, erudite young woman in somewhat unfortunate circumstances being hired by a well-to-do widower whose house may or may not be haunted and whose wife may or may not be dead, the novels have a lot of the same atmosphere, which I described in a tweet as “rather creepy in a beautiful way.”
There are obvious differences, of course. Unlike Jane, Nimera's an exotic foreigner. She's not a governess, she's a singer. She isn't hired for the benefit of a ward, but to sing accompaniment to a piano-playing automaton. Her employer's a sorcerer. And there's a bunch of stuff about fairies.
All that's set-up. From that point, the stories diverge almost completely. This isn't a steampunk fantasy retelling, just something with a few familiar elements. You may be thinking to point out that Jane Eyre didn't actually start with Jane finding employment, so allow me to admit, in a somewhat ashamed whisper, that I always thought it should have.
In Magic Under Glass, we start off with a girl performing in a show that's clearly beneath her, but she isn't bitter about it so much as sad. She has a backstory, yes, but we don't need to know it on page one to understand she's fallen from a height and is the sort of person most of us feel bad to see this happen to. We know her life hasn't been easy, we know she longs for more but is afraid to put that in words from certainty it's never going to happen. We learn how she came to be on that stage latter.
I suspect that if Ms. Bronte had written the story, we would have started out in Nimera's homeland. We would have seen her as a happy child, would have seen what happened to make her leave, would have seen the passage to the country she's in now, would have had two hundred pages or so of how bad things are in this new city. Nim wouldn't have stepped foot onto the stage until around page three hundred.
I'm possibly exaggerating. It's been a long time since I forced my way through Jane Eyre and the main thing that stuck with me about the novel was all that trudging through what happened before Jane even met Rochester, the whole while I was going, “Uh... Isn't this supposed to be a romance? Doesn't that require, oh I don't know, someone to have a romance with? Is this ever going to get to the point?” It's always been my feeling Charlotte Bronte was good enough that she could have skipped all the whining about how terrible Jane's life was yet still make us feel for her because we don't have to witness all the bad stuff to care about it. In fact, I would even hazard that we may care more when we don't see it, particularly if seeing it seems somewhat pointless.
Clearly, Charlotte Bronte had something going to create a work that's still being read a century and a half after she wrote it. However, while the opening drudgery of Jane Eyre made a strong social statement, it doesn't work at all for most modern readers, who are likely to tune out before ever caring about Jane and very likely before even meeting Rochester. (It took me several attempts to get that far.) Maybe we're impatient because we watch too much TV, as people often allege, or maybe it's just that we have so many options. I can't read every book that comes out this year, I can't even read every book that comes out in a genre I enjoy. You need to grab me from the start so I know what the point is in taking the time to read this novel. Life's too short to read boring books.
So, this New Year's I'm thinking about where novels should begin and how that isn't necessarily at the start of the main character's story. It's a very tricky business, knowing not just how to start, but when. And it's not just about knowing the story, it's also about knowing the audience. Jane Eyre worked when it was released, worked for people who would have found the opening of Magic Under Glass abrupt, or possibly confusing or vague. It still works for a few, but most of us are left sighing and urging, “Come on, Charlotte, get on with it!”