Thursday, 3 November 2011

Can You Guess The Decade?

You know that I like to make you work for your fun, right?
A while ago I responded to V.S. Naipaul's obnoxious comments about female authors by asking if you could tell which opening lines were by men and which by women - nobody got full marks.  Have a go yourself, if you missed it back then (answers here).

This time, in further preparation for A Century of Books (for those not in the know, next year I plan to read a book from every year of the 20th century) I thought I'd test you on decades.

These are opening lines from ten novels, published in 1900, 1910, 1920... all the way to 1990.  I've scrambled them up - and I want you to have a go and see if you can work out which quotation belongs to which century.  Bonus marks if you can guess the author.

Obviously with a sample size this small, and all by different authors, this won't prove anything conclusively.  Or even vaguely.  But it might be a bit of fun.  Give it a go!

And, of course, I want to know which you're immediately keen to read...

a.) Mary sometimes heard people say: "I can't bear to be alone."  She could never understand this.

b.) It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.

c.) "Get away from here, you dirty swine," she said.
"There's a dirty swine in every man," he said.

d.) One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.

e.) On a March evening, at eight o'clock, Backhouse, the medium - a fast-rising star in the psychic world - was ushered into the study at 'Proland,' the Hampstead residence of Montague Faull.

f.) Jem was a joyful mystery to Alice.  She was something to give thanks for.

g.) I have noticed that when someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.

h.) A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.

i.) It is highly probable that the tea shop would never have started at all if Commander David Tompkins hadn't fancied himself at being something of a dab-hand at cooking.

j.) The opening chapter does not concern itself with Love—indeed that antagonist does not certainly appear until the third -


  1. Muriel Spark leaves them all standing.

  2. They all sound like they might be from about 1920 and with the possible exceptions of e and f I would be tempted to read all of them on the strength of the first line.

  3. I agree with Desperate Reader! That makes them really difficult to guess but I'll take a stab at it...


    Though now it seems that the hunting cap reference should really be earlier...
    Looking forward to some Century of Books inspiration! I think A and J are the most intriguing, though E and F also sound interesting.

  4. I recognise some of them so I'll narrow it down. B is 1970 (It was on every bookshelf in the 70s. Except mine. Still makes me shudder.) C is 1960. And E is 1920.

  5. a. Mariana by Monica Dickens, 1940
    b. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach, 1970
    c. Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark, 1960
    d. Howard's End, EM Forster, 1910
    e. A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, 1920
    f. Temples of Delight by Barbara Trapido, 1990
    g. Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard by Somerset Maugham, 1930
    h. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, 1980
    i. ? 1950 is the only decade left
    j. Love and Mr. Lewisham, HG Wells, 1900

  6. Margaret, did you really know all of those without cheating?!!

  7. research considered cheating? Have I ruined the game? Delete my post tout de suite. Maybe nobody saw it...yikes!

  8. You do like to make us work, don't you. I think I may have tackled this another way.
    I wrote out the decades and then tried to find a book to fit.
    I still didn't manage it though but I've done some

    1900 - I'm suggesting j & e, although I know there can only be one

    1910 - d Phew! one I actually know - Howards End by E M Forster

    1920 - maybe j or e fit here if they're not 1900

    1930 - maybe g

    1940 = oh I don;t knwo - what about i ?

    1950 - c?

    1960 - or does C go here?

    1970 - b flap flap flap

    1980 & 1990 - h & f ?

    Now I need a strong cup of tea.

  9. Totally clueless on ALL except h) which of course is A Confederacy of Dunces which was 1980 or 82, yes?

  10. About VSN: I suppose by claiming he can tell a woman's writing from men's writing he is also suggesting that one of the two (guess which) is somehow inferior to the other?

  11. Without looking at anyone's answers, and without thinking about it too much, I'm taking a running leap at these
    a.) 1960
    b.) 1910
    c.) 1930
    d.) 1920
    e.) 1940
    f.) 1990
    g.) 1970
    h.) 1980
    i.) 1950
    j.) 1900

  12. I recognised two of my favourites there---Howard's End and Temples of Delight. The teashop one sounds quite 1950s.


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