In February 2021, Clarisse and I were students again. We studied with les Ateliers de l’Escargot on a writing course to experiment with the verb tense called: the past historic, but written in French as, le passé simple. It is a mysterious tense for students in the UK. It is often not taught in British French classes so it has a strange quality to it when learners first meet it in literary texts. Look at nous fûmes, for example, we were, as in ‘We were students again”. Students in the UK do learn the passé composé, a past tense made of two parts composed together, for example, in travelling, you might say: Je suis arrivé. I’ve arrived. Whilst the passé simple, is j’arrivai. It does seem to translate better as ‘I arrived’, as in: ‘I arrived there but I might not still be there’. I think this quality gives the past historic a sense of narrative, almost of a nostalgia in stories and tales. In her summer school travel story back in 2020, Clarisse naturally chose the past historic to recount her journey. Perhaps, for people who grew up speaking French, this hidden tense is stored in their memories along with fairy tales and romantic fiction.
In my literary geography project of French-speaking Belgium, readers on Twitter told me in February about the novel by Charlotte Brontë set in Brussels, which she called Villette. Thank you to @HauntedHaworth @BronteParsonage for their kind help in this research. I looked at the French version of this huge volume and found that the translator had used the past historic to tell the story of Lucy and her students in Belgium. Back in 2007, I wrote a software package, which I called SIFT, to explore space in large texts such as novels. I have been using SIFT to pinpoint the heroine’s encounters with the city. Please feel free to explore the textual spaces in Brussels with SIFT at https://eserve.org.uk/loceme/sift.html