Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is described by the British Library as a “biting institutional satire”, and is the only one of Dickens’ novels to feature a female narrator. It was originally published in instalments, running from March 1852 onward. Each of the first 19 issues apparently ran to 32 pages of text (three or four chapters) and contained two illustrations by Phiz (the pen name of Hablot Browne); the 20th and final instalment was a double issue.
When first published, each instalment cost one shilling, with the final double issue costing twice that amount, and they were eagerly awaited by the reading public. Today—free of charge!—you can join our Book Club Readalong of Bleak House, following the same publication pace as the original.
If we ration our reading to fit this timetable, will we, as modern readers, feel the same sense of excitement each month as did our Victorian forebears, burning to find out what happens next?
We’ll open a new thread on the forum each month to cover the corresponding chunk of chapters from the book, and we’ll read at the original rate of publication, starting in December 2023 and planning to finish the book in June 2024. You can join in at any time, but if you have comments relating to a particular instalment, please try to post them in the corresponding forum topic, to avoid inadvertent spoilers.
If you want to read other books that appeared in instalments at the same time as Bleak House, @brookter has recommended the Reading Like a Victorian website, which is fascinating. You can find Bleak House in the 1849-1853 stack there, starting in March 1852.
Perhaps this will be the time I finally finish a Dickens novel… I can only take so much sentimental guff, so I never get beyond the first couple of hundred pages, but 4 chapters over a month might be achievable.
Perhaps we should produce a Dickens Without The Schmaltz edition? Or an edition when all the sentimental bits are in a flowery pink font to warn sensitive readers off – a sort of reverse Bowlderisation…
I once stumbled across something on the Internet that said that Bleak House was written in present tense. ‘How can that possibly be?’ I thought to myself. Wasn’t that like 100 years ago?
Bleak House actually is in present tense, but it’s a much different application of present tense than you will find in conventional YA novels. It’s also quite stealth, and it takes some reading to even realize that it’s in present tense.
I blame John Updike. Rabbit Run was an experiment with present tense that somehow virally infected certain authors over the last 50 years. Far too many of them
Of course that modern zeitgeist of present tense is fairly ubiquitous, and IMHO, ridiculous. It does things like try to depict narrator or narrator/protagonist observations of incidental events using present tense verbs, which makes zero logistical sense, because a narrator can only report to the reader regarding an observation they might make if it’s something they have already observed (noticed that word is a past-tense word), which means it’s in their past, typically their immediate past (ongoing conditions are an exception because they are ongoing, and they can also be observed—for them, present tense does work).
And we as writers don’t really think about this much, but every line of every story must be firmly grounded to the timeline so that the reader can understand what’s going on. When incidental events are expressed with a past tense verb, that ties them to the timeline. That gives the reader a general idea when something happens, and that grounding could not be more important. This is true in simple past tense novels, it also should be true in present tense novels. Typically, it isn’t, and I see that as a glaring error.
When an incidental event is expressed in present tense, such as ‘a door slams’, that doesn’t necessarily represent a story event. It represents a theoretical possibility, and not necessarily something that happens. So using a present tense verb for an incidental event does not ground a story event to the timeline, which can only confuse the reader. They have to make an unconscious translation into the tense that works, such as ‘OK, I guess the author means a door actually slammed’ (notice the conversion from present to past tense), in order to make logistical sense of that and to understand that this is an actual event that happens in the story.
That’s pretty easy to do, but that’s a task they may have to do some 10,000 times in a 100,000-word novel. Let’s try not to wear the reader out.
There are 12 (some claim 14) different basic ways to express tense in the English language, and we use all of them, all the time. No novel can be specifically simple past tense or specifically simple present tense. Every line of dialogue in a past tense novel is actually in present tense. Every dialogue tag in a present tense novel should be expressed only in past tense, because the author is telling us who spoke, after the fact, once that line of dialogue is no longer in the present moment.
But what this ridiculous current present tense format does is takes every verb that would normally be expressed in past tense in a simple past tense novel, and changes every single one of them to present tense. Easy peasy. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?
But no, it doesn’t really work.
Bleak House proves that there has been a different way to write in present tense all along that actually does work. Authors like Elena Ferrante, winner of multiple Booker awards, sometimes use this.
If it’s good enough for Dickens and Ferrante, it’s legit.
I must have been reading very sloppily, because I’m embarrassed to admit that I completed the first four chapters without particularly noticing the tense! Re-reading now, it is a particularly effective technique in the opening passage, with its deeply evocative description of “implacable November weather” and the state of Chancery in London. It makes the prose seem more like cinematic screen directions.
Nothing to be embarrassed by, bc that is the beauty and power of using present tense in this manner, which is that it is nearly invisible (and Dicken’s story is so dense with facts and events and his complex style that this only makes it tougher to see). When we are in that fictive dream, like when in a real dream, time sort of disappears and we don’t think about past and future, only about what is happening ‘now’.
Still, it does what past tense cannot, which is it removes that temporal distance, and it does it in a way that is light years more effective than present tense as it has been done since John Updike’s Rabbit Run.
I write everything in this manner, and I refer to it as ‘current tense’, bc it does not adhere to the ‘present moment’, the temporally-microscopic elusive dividing line between the past and the future which keeps moving all the time (which frees it from having to use present tense verbs for incidental events that have been observed in the narrator’s immediate past).
Instead, it refers to the 30 seconds or so of human awareness that follows that ‘present moment’, which is analogous to what is known as working memory or short-term memory. This places the narrator in the temporal position of ‘right now’, meaning they can also use present tense verbs for things that qualify as ongoing conditions relative to that point on their timeline.
So what the narrator narrates (especially when there is a first-person narrator/protagonist) is what happens in their current awareness, which has a 30-second past conveniently built right in to it!
It is not easy to write, an author needs to be constantly and consciously aware of exactly where the narrator exists on that timeline, but it’s powerful as well as invisible, and as you say, it can make a narrative story have a similar impact that film has, which is the illusion via suspension of disbelief that things are happening as we are reading them. We get to vicariously share the experience of the protagonist shoulder-to-shoulder rather than hearing a report of what has already happened.
YA present tense, which simply takes all verbs and converts them to present tense, can’t do that.
Every dialogue tag in a present tense novel should be expressed only in past tense, because the author is telling us who spoke, after the fact , once that line of dialogue is no longer in the present moment .
Forgive me, but how would this work, without becoming confusing? In fact, in the ‘Narrator’ present tense chapters, Dickens uses perfectly standard present tense for dialogue tags:
Thus, in the midst of the mud and at the heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery. “Mr. Tangle,” says the Lord High Chancellor, latterly something restless under the eloquence of that learned gentleman.
“Mlud,” says Mr. Tangle. Mr. Tangle knows more of Jarndyce and Jarndyce than anybody. He is famous for it… (Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (pp. 9-10). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. )
So, Dickens isn’t tagging dialogue with the past tense in a present tense section. Could you give an example of where that has been done successfully? I confess I’m struggling to think of one (but that means nothing, of course…)
Your first example it’s not actually a dialogue tag. It’s an example of what the character currently thinks, so that thinking is an ongoing condition, and a narrator describing an ongoing condition can certainly use present tense if the temporal position of the narrator is ‘now’ rather than the story being in the past and the temporal position of the narrator being much later, which is always the temporal position of the narrator in a past tense novel.
‘He says’, not used as a tag, implies what someone currently believes (ongoing condition), while ‘He said’, in such a case, implies what someone believed only at the moment they said it (incidental event). What they might still believe (ongoing condition) is not implied.
My personal thinking is that using ‘says’ as a dialogue tag doesn’t make logistical sense, due to the fact that a narrator can only tell us in a D-tag what someone has already said, or more accurately, which character just said it, and they can’t possibly tell us what they are saying or who is saying it during the moment that they are actually saying it. I guess Dickens and I part ways on this one.
Dialogue itself is always in present tense, even in a past tense novel. But once a line of dialogue is spoken, it’s in the past, relative to the temp position of a protagonist/narrator. It’s an incidental event. It’s over. It is an observation, and the narrator can’t report on what they observe as they observe it, only after it happens.
Things that happened in the past need past tense verbs to make sense to the timeline, even if the temporal position of the narrator is immediately after the line of dialogue has been said, which is always going to be the case for D-tags, whether the temporal position of the narrator is ‘right then’ or whether it is much later.
This is not a dialogue tag situation, but the only real exception to tense accurately reflecting the timeline is Historical Present Tense. That can be effective, and the best example is Rick in the movie Casablanca saying ‘Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine’. In that case, Humphrey Bogart using the present tense for the verb ‘walk’ reflects more of Rick’s current state of mind than something that happened an hour ago. It just would not have been as effective for him to use the past tense, ‘walked’, even though that did happen in the past, bc his current state of mind is what is on display there.
All advertising is in Historical Present Tense. All headlines and news teasers on TV are in Historical Present Tense: “It clears your drain in seconds!” “The stock market drops 800 points! Film at 11!” Of course, the stock exchange closed at three, hours earlier. But Historical Present Tense can’t be used everywhere, such as in every dialogue scene in every novel, and certainly not as a dialogue tag, bc that won’t tie to the timeline.
That is the actual problem in YA present tense, which is that the reader, when deciphering the syntax of a sentence, must perform mental gymnastics and change the tense of words that refer to incidental events in order for them to make logistical sense to them. It’s easily done, but asking the reader to do that for half the verbs in the story is one hell of a lot of extra work that they don’t really need to do or want to do, and it simply muddies up the timeline, which compromises the quality of the story.
We don’t think about this much as writers, but every single thing in a story needs to tie directly to the timeline in a way that makes sense. Using present tense for something that has obviously already happened, such as tagging a line of dialogue which has already been spoken, means the dialogue tag is not tying to the timeline at all. Instead, it’s floating out in space.
Your first example it’s not actually a dialogue tag. It’s an example of what the character currently thinks…
A minor point, but it’s a tag. The narrator narrates what someone is saying and identifies the speaker with “says”. It’s no different from the hundreds of other times he uses the same word.
In general, “says” here is only doing the same work as…
LCH: Mr Tangle…
…would in a script. Dickens, being a great writer, surrounds and amplifies the dialogue with amusing detail, but it wouldn’t take too much reworking to fit them in too. Have you read any of GB Shaw’s stage directions? Much later than Dickens, and of course, they’re much shorter, but I get the same feeling of an author carefully setting the scene (though of course if you only see the play, you don’t get the full effevt).
And isn’t that what present tense is: a way of providing the immediacy of a script to a story? In the narrator sections, Dickens does this brilliantly, I think we both agree: they’re a combination of the most elaborate stage directions with dialogue, contrasting with the first person ‘journal’ of Esther the Insufferable.
There is artificiality in any way of telling a story, whether it’s past tense or present, and TBH, I’m not really sure that the tense of a dialogue tag is relevant to how believable the scene is, or that it causes any cognitive dissonance in the reader. It’s just a facet of the style. Of course YA novels – and any other sort –can be written badly in the present tense, but is the tense of the dialogue tag really the main reason for that?
What would cause me to pull up short is if you were to start throwing past tense dialogue tags into the middle of a clearly present tense scene.
Earlier, you mention that
“a door slams” doesn’t necessarily represent a story event. It represents a theoretical possibility….
Why? If I read ‘A door slams’ in a novel, then in the absence of any other information, I naturally assume it’s a story event happening in the vicinity of the narrator. Otherwise, why mention it, rather than, say, “A wildebeest totters”?
The reader understands this currently slamming door, but if you were to write “a door slammed”, then the question would be “when?” and I would pause.
That’s why I asked you for an example — it would help to understand the benefits you’re suggesting.
That’s my point. YOU as the reader are the one who has to parse what this means by eliminating other possibilities.
If we narrow this scenario to the current moment (events happening live in real time in the awareness of the first-person narrator as protagonist), ‘a door slammed’ really only has one sensible way to be parsed, which is as an event that happened in the immediate past relative to the temporal position of the narrator. It’s an observation by the narrator and an observation can only be made of an incidental event such as a door slamming once that has already happened. The reader has no task in figuring out what that means. It’s crystal clear to them that it happened and that it just happened, meaning it is firmly tied to a location on the timeline. The tense is what makes this instant understanding possible.
‘A door slams’ is ambiguous. It might, could imply the same thing, or it may not. It may also just be some theoretical concept, or an idea, and is not necessarily a reference to a story event or a moment on the timeline.
Doors do slam. But did a door actually slam? Or is that just a statement of fact that a door might slam or could slam? This places the burden of figuring out what this is, or ‘naturally assuming’, as you phrase it, on the reader to make an educated guess whether it is a story event or not, and when it happened as well as if it happened.
That is not a burden that should be on the reader. It’s the author’s burden to be clear and unambiguous. ‘Naturally assuming’ is the mental gymnastics I was talking about. It’s not hard to do, but this asks the reader to do the work the author should be responsible for.
‘A door slams’ does not necessarily tie to the timeline until the reader makes that educated guess. And if the reader has to do this, translating the tense so that the event can be reasonably inferred to be tied to the timeline, and also when it’s tied to the timeline, 40,000 times in a novel, that gets annoyingly old, even by the end of the first chapter.
‘A door slammed’ is not ambiguous. We parse that immediately. There are no mental gymnastics interrupting the flow of the story. This is one of the many reasons why the current tense format is invisible, and why it flows more seamlessly.
The normal John Updike and YA present tense that is so ridiculously ubiquitous has one goal, which is to put everything, and I do mean every single little thing, into that microscopic ‘present moment’, which is constantly moving forward, leaving everything behind it as ‘past’. Sounds like a great idea, right? Until the truth is revealed that this is not logistically sound, nor even logistically possible, and that limiting all verbs to present tense does not reach this goal.
Present tense for a dialogue tag therefore makes no sense in that format of present tense, bc the observation that someone said a line of dialogue can only be reported as an observation by the narrator after it has already been said. There is only one ‘present moment’ and it moves forward and everything, by the bylaws of this format, must ‘happen’ there, including observations of the narrator’s world.
Using the present-tense verb ‘says’ is to say that the dialogue is still happening in that ‘present moment’, and the observation of that also is happening in that ‘present moment’, but guess what—by the time the tag is added, what the speaker is saying is not them saying something—it’s them having said something. It was said in their ‘present moment’, of course, but now, the moment the narrator tells us what was said, it’s already in the past and no longer in the ‘present moment’, which naturally implies that the tag, applied during the narrator’s observation of what was said, should only be in past tense.
In the temporal relationship regarding the position of the narrator on the timeline (their ‘now’) as they add the tag, which must be the ‘present moment’, the line of dialogue is technically now a mini-flashback. The narrator is telling us of an event (what was said a second ago, and not what the character is saying in the ‘present moment’) from the immediate past. There can’t be ‘two’ present moments. Only one.
Bottom line, making every verb tensed in present tense does not necessarily reach the goal this version of present tense aspires to. For an author to pretend that it does only violates the entire premise that version of ‘present tense’ is supposedly based on—one present moment, constantly moving forward, in which everything must happen including an observation of a line of dialogue, which can only be reported as an observation by the narrator, and only after it has been said.
Making every single verb a present tense verb in narrative simply does not work bc it doesn’t make logistical sense due to violating the laws of time and space.
But! A past-tense tag supports the fact that the line of dialogue is already in the past when the tag is added, and that supports the timeline. A present-tense tag referring to something already said, violates those laws of time and space. Once again, the reader is asked to translate that into the past tense in their subconscious mental gymnastics in order for it to make logistical sense to them.
That’s my point. YOU as the reader are the one who has to parse what this means by eliminating other possibilities.
Well, no: the opposite is the case. If a narrator in a present tense novels says “a door slams”, then the assumption is that the event is happening now and can be witnessed (heard/seen) by the narrator. The reader making assumptions is not a bad thing: readers do it all the time, the various assumption differing according to the genre and format.
(You can play with those assumptions, of course, but you have to have an ‘in-story’ reason: I’m not sure that routinely changing the expected tense as a theoretical construct really works.)
If you see or hear a door slam in a film, you don’t have to ‘parse’ anything, so why do you think it’s different here? The conceit in present tense that you are experiencing the action through the eyes of the narrator, so anything mentioned in the present, in the absence of any clarification is happening ‘now’ in the narrator’s purview. And if the narrator is omniscient, then they normally let the reader know when that ‘purview’ changes. (“Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Bambi is taking his first steps….”)
If we narrow this scenario to the current moment (events happening live in real time in the awareness of the first-person narrator as protagonist), ‘a door slammed’ really only has one sensible way to be parsed, which is as an event that happened in the immediate past relative to the temporal position of the narrator.
Again, no, this is back to front. If I am reading a story in the present tense, then, amongst all the other present tense happenings, I read “a door slammed”, I can do two things:
Assume the author has forgotten for a moment that they are writing in the present. It happens…
Wonder why we’re suddenly talking about a door that slammed sometime before the moment we’re witnessing. When did this door slam? Where was it? Why is the author only mentioning it now? Is it relevant?
What I don’t do is think: the present tense narrator says “a door slammed” therefore that means that it is slamming now.
Of course, “A door slammed behind me this morning therefore I’m really nervous” is fine: “A door slammed” without further explanation raises questions.
It’s an observation by the narrator and an observation can only be made of an incidental event such as a door slamming once that has already happened.
Why? It’s perfectly possible to observe an action in progress – that’s what a film does: that’s why people write in the present. It’s far clearer than throwing past tense actions into a present tense narrative without explanation.
“I am walking down the road and a car ran over me. I try to talk to the driver but he shouted at me. I am very unhappy but didn’t care.”
“I am walking down the road and a car runs over me. I talk to the driver but he shouts at me. I am very unhappy, but he doesn’t care.”
Which of these two versions do you think reads more naturally in English?
I won’t comment individually on the rest of your post, because I think we’d be making the same points to each other. At the moment, I don’t think I can agree that routinely using the past for simple contemporaneous actions is more natural than the traditional sequence of tenses. Readers make allowances for present-tense writing, and any potential ‘logical’ inconsistencies in the format are less disturbing that breaking the sequence of tenses apparently without reason. For me, at least.
But, as I said before, it could well be that we’re not describing the same thing. So, to move forward, as I’ve asked before, if you could post an example of good present tense writing which uses your technique so we can understand the points you’re making.
Very interesting discussion, thanks to you both for pursuing it! I too would love to see an example from @Adam_Smashe of this technique properly done.
For me, reading present tense narration is directly analogous to listening to a sporting event on the radio. A live blog of an event would represent a written version of this scenario. The present tense narrator in both cases is my eyes and ears to the events occurring on the ground, and it is understood the narrator is simultaneously witnessing and relating events as they happen.
Therefore I don’t see any logistical difficulty or additional reader parsing or processing necessary for readers reading present tense. (Although perhaps a case could be made that readers reading present tense prior to the invention of the radio might have had those challenges. )
I don’t think that’s quite exactly true. A door slamming is an incidental event and not an ongoing condition. It slams, and from that point forward it is no longer ‘mid-slam’, and that event is over. It exists only in the past.
Due to the time gap between observing and then telling what was observed to the reader, the ‘assumption’ (other than being an assumption that the narrator is simply telling us that it is possible that a door can slam on occasion) can only be that the door has already slammed, which means it is not happening ‘now’ in the present moment, but is something that just happened that now exists only in the immediate past. But that ‘assumption’ is exactly the unnecessary mental gymnastics that a good author would never put the reader through.
For first person protag as narrator, every incidental event happens in the present moment, yet can only be narrated as something that happened in the past. All incidental events in the past, using the frame of reference of the temporal position of the narrator, can only be accurately depicted in narration as past events bc of that time gap between the observing and the narrating. So it can only make logistical sense to the reader if it reflects the fact that the event has already happened, which means the verb should be past tense to accurately reflect that.
Said another way, the witnessing may indeed happen in the moment when the event happens. But the narrator can only report to the reader what they see after the event is over. By the time that info is imparted to the reader, what happened is no longer happening (excluding ongoing conditions). A present tense verb referencing something that is no longer happening is logistically incorrect.
That is the exact problem with first-person YA present tense. Present-tense verbs can’t correctly refer to subjects and objects that describe incidental events that occur and are then quickly reported to the reader, bc by the time that reporting (narrating) happens, the event is already in the past.
The ‘assumption’ is that even though this writer used a present-tense verb to describe something that happened and is no longer happening, they are referring to it with a tensed verb that purports that it is still happening. But since a door slamming can’t possibly still be happening after it slams, I as a reader have to assume that ‘The writer GOT IT WRONG, and now I have to assume the event is already in the immediate past and that the verb tense is incorrect, so I will just mentally rewrite the story event sequence in my head, knowing it is actually now in the past, so that it can make logistical sense to me regarding the sequence of events on the story/reader timeline’.
IOW, the reader has to correct the tense as they parse it to make logistical sense of it. But if the tense were past, that would correctly reflect that the slammed door is an event now in the past, and no assumption then needs to be made to correct that sequence of events during the parsing of the narrative. The author has already handled that for us.
It’s different bc film and literature are very different in how they impart the story to the reader/viewer. There is no parsing in a film regarding an action event, bc the viewer can see it happen in the moment that it happens on film. It’s not the same as first-person POV, it’s Camera POV, or third-person observational POV. The viewer is the observer.
In literature, it has to be on the page, and the reader has to interpret the words to understand what is happening, implying the need for narration telling us what has happened. Again, narration reflects what has already been observed when there is a first-person narrator/protagonist.
That is why I think it is different, and know it is different. The example of film does not hold water here.
Agreed. All observing happens in the present moment. But the narrating, the telling to the reader what is observed, can not happen in the same moment as the observing. The reader is not observing the events. The protagonist/narrator in first person is the observer. The reader is only a secondary observer of what the narrator tells the reader what they have observed, and that happens in a different moment—a moment after the narrator finishes observing the incidental event, which by then is no longer something that exists in the present moment.
In omni, the narrator has the power over space and time and can tell the reader something directly as it happens, bc that narrator is an omniscient being. In first-person, if the narrator is the protagonist, they can only abide by the same laws of space and time that every human must abide by. Readers expect the protagonist to be human in first person, and not god-like.
I think that is beside the point, but the first version does not work bc the tenses of the verbs don’t reflect a coherent timeline.
But this is not in any way how one would use both past and present tenses in the same passage, at least not if the goal were temporal clarity. As an example, it does nothing to invalidate the fact that there are indeed ways to use multiple tenses in a single passage, which if done properly, works perfectly.
The second version is at least temporally coherent, but it appears to not be simple present tense. It’s more likely historical present tense, which is when present tense verbs are used to depict something that happened in the past. That can be legit, even if technically not correct. The walking, the running over, and the shouting are all separate events that happen sequentially, implying that all three happen at different moments.
If it instead refers to a sequence of events that happen ‘in the present’, it still does not clearly tie any of those things to the timeline in any way that definitely establishes that they actually do fit somewhere on some timeline and it does not clearly depict when they occur on a timeline.
But that is typically not how novels written in present tense are written. HPT is typically used for different purposes than that, and present tense novels are not talking about something from the past, they are trying to support the conceit that what is written reflects the present moment, which is quite different than using present tense verbs to reference something that happened in the past.
So neither of those versions read ‘naturally’, IMHO. A writer who knows how to write would never structure anything that weakly, one would hope.
I think it’s going to be difficult to move this further until you provide an example of this ‘improved’ present tense.
Your posts repeat your basic points in more detail, but your central premise as you express it simply isn’t convincing to me, at least. I do not believe that using the present tense for dialogue tags (as you concede Dickens – whom we agree is a master at this – does) or for contemporaneous action disrupts the readers’ flow, as this is the expectation of the format, just as it is expected in normal speech that the sequence of tenses is adhered to. Whether or not there is a theoretical illogic in this presentation, in practice this does not disturb the reader’s concentration.
The only way to show me that your theory is right is to show me how it would work in practice. I’m very happy to discuss with you the effect and I promise I’ll try to keep an open mind, but until then, we’re at an impasse. I apologise if this seems disagreeable, but there’s no point in either of us continuing to write long posts until we have a practical example to discuss.
I want to say how much I enjoyed this discussion on use of tenses. Not that I fully understood everything, I will need to read it several times to derive any benefit from it all.
At the very least it has made me more alert to the use of tense as it is so easy to just immerse one’s self into the narrative and not notice it at all. Which is how it should be for the reader without aspirations – gulp! Going to the first page of Bleak House I see that Dickens uses past tense up to the conjunction ‘where’, as in: Fog up the river, where it flows… A use I had not noticed before but for this very useful exchange. Thank you!