A few posts back, I was sharing my experience of Madam Bovary and I mentioned that it starts – as so many books of the period – with something of a family history. This is something that fell out of fashion in novels quite some time ago, but it’s something that serves a good purpose.
I don’t know if starting with the history of the parent or the early life of the character was considered cruicial to understanding later actions and events, but I’ve always assumed that was why writers did it.
The idea that we are formed by the characters of our parents and experiences of childhood, is something that still makes sense today. We just prefer now to start our storytelling much closer to the catalystic event. We also prefer not to start stories in anything but the protagonists POV (a generalisation I know).
As a reader, the history gives you a sense of what the author wants to say about society, about a particular class or about the strongest influence on the character in question (interestingly not always the protagonist). Depending on how it’s written, the history can be dull or engaging, but where it’s engaging it also serves as world building.
I doubt we’ll see a swing back toward this way of structuring a novel, but I like to imagine what sort of books this would suit today.