The New Romantics; Richard Edmonds Delights in an Exploration of 20th Century Imagination, Which Produced the Likes of Du Maurier and Betjeman

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Byline: Richard Edmonds

Romantic Moderns - English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper By Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson: pounds 19.95).

Books have always worked a very special magic in all our lives. People's memories of a poem or a special chapter of a novel, have always been things which have stayed with them all their lives.

When I worked in Saudi Arabia, I lived in a remote village in a house with mud walls. Our nights were very long - and there was little to do but read or look at the stars. I had a friend who created a reading club and we shared and discussed this or that piece of writing in what became an informed learning process for me which left many traced memories behind.

Asked about favourite opening lines, my friend David Gauge (no longer with us, alas) said that for him it was a favourite chapter - Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, which he claimed was the finest opening chapter ever written.

But that was all a long time ago and this week I'm busy reviewing Alexandra Harris's wonderfully well-written Romantic Moderns. It's Harris's first book, and, with its rich network of personal and cultural encounters, provides a backdrop for the English neo-Renaissance of the 1930s and the 1940s.

And it's all very nostalgic, so much so that I asked a few friends and colleagues about their best-remembered opening lines - referring to words which had stayed with them over time.

Andrew McGeachin, the manager of Henry Sotheran, the Piccadilly booksellers, noted: "For me, it would have to be LP Hartley's The Go-Between who wrote: "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there".

John Sprague, who is a senior manager at Sotherans and a lifetime reader of Charles Dickens, told me he had never forgotten Dickens A Tale of Two Cities with its opening sentence: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Dr Roger Pringle, a former director of The Shakespeare Centre at Stratford-upon-Avon, and friend whose advice I have sought for what seems a lifetime, said that for him it was Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, that left an enduring memory, particularly the arrival of Old Bill, the pirate captain at the Admiral Ben Bow: "I remember him as he came plodding to the door, a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his hands ragged and scarred, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white."

But my hair always stands on end when the opening chapter of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca is mentioned. I read the book first when I was 14 and still at school. The magic of her writing has always stayed with me along with the wonderful opening sentence of the novel. "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."

Hitchcock's movie with the amazing Florence Bates as the insulting Mrs Van Hopper and Judith Anderson as the chilling Mrs Danvers is still in my reckoning one of the top ten films of all time. …