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 –

12 thoughts on “Can You Guess The Decade?

  • November 3, 2011 at 8:18 am

    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.

  • November 3, 2011 at 10:58 am

    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.

  • November 3, 2011 at 11:31 am

    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.

  • November 3, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    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

  • November 3, 2011 at 2:33 pm

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

  • November 3, 2011 at 3:13 pm

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

  • November 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    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.

  • November 3, 2011 at 4:55 pm

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

  • November 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    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?

  • November 3, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    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

  • November 3, 2011 at 6:09 pm

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


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