Friday 27 January 2017

The Historic Present

In my freshman prize copy of A Dictionary of Stylistics (Longman, 1991), by one of my old teachers, Katie Wales, I find the historic present defined as the 'special use of the present tense in oral or written, anecdotal or literary narrative, where the past tense might be expected, the shift creating a more dramatic or immediate effect'.

Professor Wales cites the use of the form in jokes, in newspaper headlines, in Pope's Iliad, and in Anita Brookner's Family and Friends.

The form has continued its popularity with literary novelists. Consider Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels.

There was a minor media spat a few years back, regarding the use of the historic present in BBC history programmes: 'It gives a bogus, an entirely bogus, sense of immediacy,' said John Humphrys.

Brookner's deployment of the historic present in Family and Friends evolves out of the authorial voice's examination of a set of old photographs. In Brookner's hands the effect of the form is less one of immediacy than of distance, though this may be a result of other aspects of Brookner's prose, which here is at its most mandarin. But the historic present contributes much to the overall, highly artful impact. In some way the foreignness of the Dorns, the formality of their mittel-European manners, are mirrored and represented.

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