FROM THE PULPIT
B RENDA M ADDOX
What’s Passed is Past
to end. First name or surname? Is he ‘Churchill’ or is he ‘Winston’? A reasonable solution was adopted by Edmund Morris in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, published in 1979. His subject is ‘Theodore’ as a boy and young man, but once elected Assemblyman for the state of New York in 1882 he becomes ‘Roosevelt’. Women subjects present a harder
‘’T WAS THENIGHT before Christmas’. ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ What’s wrong with the simple past tense? While I am tolerant of most of the irritants that drive Radio 4 listeners mad (‘secketary’, ‘the media is’), I explode every time I hear the present tense used for things past. Whenever I catch phrases like ‘Churchill has to decide...’, I scream: ‘He doesn’t have to decide anything! He’s dead!’ What is called the ‘historic present’ is now in vogue on television and radio. The intention, I suppose, is to bring the past alive, to present unfolding events as they seemed at the time, with options still open, the future unknown. But to me it is a misleading verbal trick to release events from the concrete of history. I first became conscious of the historic present when writing a biography of D H Lawrence. There were at the time three academic biographers working on the same man, preparing a three-volume life for Cambridge University Press. They were helpfulness itself to me (which is not always the case with rival biographers) and they had divided Lawrence’s life among themselves in thirds. They met often to debate his moves and motives. But they talked about him as if he were alive. When does he first know he has tuberculosis? When he has pneumonia in Croydon in 1911? Or not until a doctor tells him in Mexico City in 1925? For them (as the excellence of their tripartite biography proves), Lawrence exists forever warm and still to be enjoyed. Biographers, unlike television and radio historians, have no option. They are forced to use the past tense in composing their texts, but the trap may be waiting in the apparatus. Tim Dolin’s George Eliot (2005) opens with a detailed chronology of the life of the novelist who was born Mary Anne Evans in 1819. The list sets out the events in her life: ‘1836: Learns Italian and Greek from a Coventry teacher, and reads Greek and Latin with the headmaster of Coventry Grammar School. Changes her name to Mary Ann’; ‘1880: In April agrees to marry Cross. Marries on 6 May... Moves to Cheyne Walk on 3 December. Catches cold at a concert and dies on 22 December aged 61’. To me, this tactic takes the subject out of non-fiction and into fiction and drama. There are no past tenses in stage directions. ‘Laertes falls,’ says Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, line 326. Not ‘Laertes fell.’ As a biographer, I must confess no sympathy for television historians. They have, after all, pictures to bring their subject to life. Biographers, on the other hand, face a mountain of tough decisions as they strive to create immediacy. One of the hardest and least recognised is the choice of name to use for their main character whose life they are narrating from beginning
problem: first names are infantilising; surnames are too male. George Eliot is the hardest case. She can’t be ‘George’, her pen name. Dolin calls her ‘Eliot’ throughout, which suggests another Eliot, T S. Both Ina Taylor in George Eliot: Woman of Contradictions (1989) and Kathryn Hughes in George Eliot: The Last Victorian(1998) call her ‘Mary Ann’ until she herself changed her name (a second time) to ‘Marian’. I fretted over the nomenclature problem a lot when writing the life of James Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle. Even in 1988, before political correctness began to bite, to describe the pair over and over again as ‘Joyce and Nora’ seemed too unjust, like those old Jim Crow judges who addressed all blacks by their first names, saying ‘Speak up, Mary’ to an octogenarian widow. The dilemma is endemic to the genre, and perhaps insoluble. We get ‘Darwin and Emma’ in Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin(2002), ‘George Bernard Shaw and Charlotte’ in Michael Holroyd’s Shaw biography (1988–92), even, in Caroline Moorehead’s Gellhorn (1993), ‘Martha and Hemingway’. In Moorehead’s fine, arguably feminist book, even a stand-alone character such as Sybille Bedford is called ‘Sybille’ on second reference. Professor Roy Foster neatly sidestepped the problem in his two-volume biography of W B Yeats by using, apart from first reference, ‘WBY’ throughout. The naming difficulty is compounded by the need to differentiate males of the same family. Richard Ellmann seems not to have hesitated in his great biography of James Joyce (OUP, 1982): Joyce’s brother, like a woman, got the first-name treatment; he was ‘Stanislaus’ throughout. However, Ellmann sometimes dropped into calling the great author ‘James’ when he had to write about the two brothers in the same paragraph. The tougher problem of the father was solved by calling Joyce pèreJohn Joyce throughout. The challenge is essentially the same as that of finding the right tense: trying to make the past come alive to the present. The answer, I think, as so often, is to write the way you talk. We refer to female historical figures by their first names, male by their last, and we never speak of the past as if it were anything but gone for ever. Do you know anyone who talks about a dead grandfather in the present tense? Having sounded off, I hope others will join me in my campaign to make the historic present history.
LITERARY REVIEW October 2005