These are the opening sentences from every Charles Dickens novel and novella, including his incomplete Edwin Drood serial, in chronological order, from the beginning of his novel-writing career to his death in 1870.
Why bother? Because I tried to find somewhere on the internet that had a complete list of his sentences, but there were none. There are several examples where his opening lines are shown in a list of great first sentences, but they are mostly all A Christmas Carol and excerpts from A Tale of Two Cities. What I’m trying to say is that this is a great service to the world.
As Dickens is often cited in lists of great openers, it would be fair to say he was good at them, so I hope that seeing them in chronological order will show a progression- or, at least, a change- over his writing career.
I’ve done some stats and analysis of how they have changed, but I’ll put them in a separate post as I want this to serve as a reference. There’s a poll to vote on your favourite opening sentence at the bottom of this page.
Charles Dickens opening sentences
‘The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick Club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.’
The Pickwick Papers (Monthly serial: April 1836 to November 1837)
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.
Oliver Twist (Monthly serial: February 1837 to April 1839)
There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason. Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.
Nicholas Nickelby (Monthly serial: April 1838 to October 1839)
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ALTHOUGH I am an old man, night is generally my time for walking.
The Old Curiosity Shop (Weekly serial: April 1840 to February 1841)
In the year 1775, there stood upon the borders of Epping Forest, at a distance of about twelve miles from London–measuring from the Standard in Cornhill,’ or rather from the spot on or near to which the Standard used to be in days of yore–a house of public entertainment called the Maypole; which fact was demonstrated to all such travellers as could neither read nor write (and at that time a vast number both of travellers and stay-at-homes were in this condition) by the emblem reared on the roadside over against the house, which, if not of those goodly proportions that Maypoles were wont to present in olden times, was a fair young ash, thirty feet in height, and straight as any arrow that ever English yeoman drew.
Barnaby Rudge (Weekly Serial: February 1841 to November 1841)
Marley was dead: to begin with.
A Christmas Carol (1843)
As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathize with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.
Martin Chuzzlewit (Monthly serial: January 1843 to July 1844)
There are not many people and as it is desirable that a storyteller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church.
The Chimes (1844)
The kettle began it!
The Cricket on the Heart (1845)
Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought.
The Battle of Life (1846)
EVERYBODY said so.
The Haunted Man (1848)
DOMBEY sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.
Dombey and Son (Monthly serial: October 1846 to April 1848)
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 (Monthly serial: May 1849 to November 1850)
Bleak House (Monthly serial: March 1852 to September 1853)
“NOW, what I want is, Facts.”
Hard Times (Weekly serial: April 1854 to August 1854)
THIRTY years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.
Little Dorrit (Monthly serial: December 1855 to June 1857)
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
A Tale of two Cities (Weekly serial: April 1859 to November 1859
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.
Great Expectations (Weekly serial:December 1860 to August 1861)
In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.
Our Mutual Friend (Monthly serial: May 1864 to November 1865)
An ancient English Cathedral Town?
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Monthly serial: April 1870 to September 1870. Only half completed.)
That’s all of them. Vote on which is your favourite, and comment if you notice any patterns or changes in the opening sentences over time
Reference: Random House, Vintage Dickens Collection.
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