There are lots of people who don't like stories from the past retold in the present tense and they can be very vocal about this aversion, especially on Radio 4. But the present tense is the mode of drama, it is the mode of conversation, so why not too, the mode of story telling? Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion but as an historical novelist, I tend to seek the best possible way to recount a particular story depends on many factors, not least, and particularly with first person accounts, the fate of the narrating character. Often in historical fiction the reader is aware of the protagonist's outcome but even if the reader knows that, say, Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard are going to end up on the block, the fact that the character does not have the benefit of hindsight creates an effect that is filled with dramatic irony and tension.
Hilary Mantel employs this to spectacular effect in Bring Up the Bodies, a novel that is tightly plotted, like a thriller, and written in a third person that is so close to protagonist Thomas Cromwell that it creates the illusion of the world seen through his eyes alone. We watch in horror as Cromwell unravels the Queen's world and even though we all know what will become of Anne Boleyn and the five men she is accused of adultery with, neither she nor they know and somehow we, as readers, are drawn into their world so completely we forget what we know about the outcome and are shocked when it comes.
Another example, though one much more straightforward and written in the first person, is from Philippa Gregory in The Boleyn Inheritance. The teenaged narrator Catherine Howard is about to be carted off to the Tower. She still believes she will be pardoned when her uncle Norfolk comes to tell her she is to die.
'You should acknowledge your sins, and ask forgiveness,' he says promptly.
I am so relieved I could almost weep. Of course I will be forgiven if I say I am sorry.
We are entirely drawn into this poor child's world watching her articulate the belief that a simple apology will suffice, when we know that nothing can save her. It is a powerful device. This moment simply wouldn't have the impact or poignance if written with hindsight. And indeed, how does one write a first person past tense account of someone who is about to die, and get away with it? But then again, anything is possible in fiction if you can make it work.
Other writers use the present historic to create layers of meaning in a text. Take Sarah Waters for example:
I do not know who cries it, she or I: I reel away unnerved. But in the second I have her skin between my fingers, my own flesh leaps in a kind of relief. I shake horribly for almost an hour. 'Oh, God!' I say, hiding my face. 'I'm afraid, for my own mind! Do you think me mad? Do you think me wicked, Sue?' 'Wicked?' she answers, wringing her hands. and I can see her thinking: A simple girl like you?
This quote from Fingersmith, illustrates the intensity and immediacy of the present. We inhabit the flesh of narrator Maud as it 'leaps' and 'shakes', and we are able to observe her watching Sue, who is not party to what the reader and narrator know. We are drawn right into the plot because we are on the inside of Maud's narration. Waters has used both present and past tenses to tell this story. Sue, the sly cockney girl relates her part in the past. This seems to be an inversion of our expectations; wouldn't a girl like Sue employ the more casual tense of the raconteur? But the past is the knowing tense, and Sue knows, or thinks she knows, exactly what is going on. Maud's narration is told in the moment, as if without hindsight. Again there is an oddness to it; Maud is a refined girl employed to read to her uncle and surely more suited to the formality of the tense of literature.
This quote from
Waters's subterfuge is clever here because, as it turns out, neither girl is what we first think and so the tense they narrate their stories in works as a key to our overall understanding. But the action is almost subliminal because, if the writing is good enough, the reader, lulled into the voice and world of the novel, loses awareness of the tricks perpetrated by the author.
So one afternoon – it must have been the middle of May 1914 – I was sitting in the cake shop with one of my occasional partners...We had long ago finished playing our usual three games, and were just idly talking about this or that... but the conversation was drowsy, and as slow as the smoke from a cigarette burning down. At this point the door suddenly opens, and a pretty girl in a fulll-skirted dress is swept in on a gust of fresh air...
Find out about Elizabeth Fremantle's novels Queen's Gambit, about Katherine Parr, and Sisters of Treason, about the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, on ElizabethFremantle.com