Remembering Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens, on his 200th Birthday

02/07/2012 10:47 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2012

Originally posted on

Tuesday marks the 200 year anniversary of the birth of one of the most superb and gifted writers of the Victorian period, Charles John Huffam Dickens, who was born in Portsmouth, England on February 7, 1812.

After launching his writing career as a reporter, first with the Morning Chronicle in 1834, using the pseudonym, Boz (Boz was a nickname for his younger brother Augustus) ; Dickens began contributing 20 monthly installments of a series (April 1836, through November 1837,) centering on comical adventures through the English countryside, that became known as the Pickwick Papers, his first novel, a work which earned him instant fame.

Dickens made good use of the 29 shillings he received for The Pickwick Papers by marrying Catherine Hogarth, a daughter of a newspaper editor. Together they raised 10 children.

After meeting with a rapid succession of hits: Oliver Twist (1838); Nicholas Nickleby (1839); The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) and Barnaby Rudge (1841), beginning with the Bleak House (1853), Dickens takes a sharp turn from romantic farce and his bright and breezy style; and begins writing novels soaked with biting social commentary, chronicling the harsh working conditions and frightful living conditions in London, particularly among the young and poor. Dickens followed the Bleak House up with Hard Times (1854); Little Dorrit (1857); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); and Great Expectations (1861).

It has been estimated that one out of every 10 persons in Victorian England was a Dickens reader.

Whenever you think of this highly acclaimed English novelist, what probably comes to mind the most is his magical ability to grab hold of the reader's attention in the opening few words, as if he was tugging at your collar and inviting you to pull up a chair, "I have a story to tell."

Whether it was "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," (Tale of Two Cities); "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show" (David Copperfield) ; "Now what I want is, Facts" (Hard Times); or "London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather" (Bleak House); Dickens knew how to pull the reader in like he had just caught a blue marlin; a gift few of his contemporaries could match.

Since this is his birthday and Dickens was the master of the opening paragraph, I thought I would ask some English literature scholars to pick out their favorite opening line or paragraph from a work of fiction.

Here, then, are selections of favorite opening lines (other than Dickens) that respondents consider to be at the top of the tree.

• Arnold L. Weinstein, Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University, selects:

"Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting"

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury


"One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked."

-Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

• Robert J. Douglas-Fairhurst, Fellow and Lecturer of Victorian and Modern Literature at Oxford University, Selects:

"Riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."
-James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

• Amy Hempel, Briggs-Copeland Lecturer on English at Harvard University, selects:

"I had a farm in Africa too."
Richard Wiley, Ahmed's Revenge

• Elinor Shaffer, Senior Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, selects:

"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don't tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist - I really believe he is Antichrist - I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my 'faithful slave,' as you call yourself! But how do you do? I see I have frightened you - sit down and tell me all the news"
- Leo Tolstoy (Count Lev Tolstoi), War and Peace


"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."
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

• Nicholas Dames, Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities Chair, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, selects:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

• Monica Cohen, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, selects:

"Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?"

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda

• Michael Seidel, Jesse and George Siegel Professor in Literature Humanities at Columbia University, selects:

"Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure" ("For a long time i used to go to bed early")
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (In Search of Lost Time),

• Alfred Bendixen, Professor Department of English, Texas A & M University, selects:

"By the open French window of the dining-room Jenny Blair Archbald was reading Little Women for the assured reward of a penny a page. Now and then she would stop to shake her head, toss her smooth honey-coloured plaits over her shoulders, and screw her face into a caricature Aunt Etta's expression."
Ellen Glasgow, The Sheltered Life'

• Stefanie Markovits, Professor of English at Yale University selects:

"Call me Ishmael"

-Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

• Benjamin Widiss, Assistant Professor of contemporary American literature at Princeton University, selects:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude


"From a little after two o'clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that - a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that sight and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them."
-William Faulkner, Absalom!, Absalom!

• Daniel R. Schwarz, Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature at Cornell University, selects:

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


"He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull."
-Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

• Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, University Lecturer in Modern Drama and Tutorial Fellow at the University of Oxford, selects:

"A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor. The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky."
-Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native