8 July 2014

Oh Lordy, or perhaps not...

Tuesday Talk: Jeffrey Manton on Titles... 
no, not book titles, Nobility Titles in Historical Fiction...

Titles are a minefield. Hidden from many and yet ready to explode for those in the know. Does it matter if you get them wrong? Well, no, not really - and my saying goes something like this: ‘Those who matter don’t care, and those who care don’t matter.’ Only it does matter in Historical Fiction. Really it does. I read book after book, so painstakingly researched, and such evident labours of utter love by the writer, and then they wade in and get all the titles wrong. Now look, what’s the point of getting that illness of 1856 right, or the wicked sister who stole a country - in that gown of pale blue satin recorded in Prince Whatever’s diary - and yet get the titles all wrong?

'Arise... sir...um, baron.. earl...viscount...
oh damn it, Galahad, just get up!"
I hear you yell at me: ‘you trainspotter!’ - but if you’re seriously writing to make a reader live and breathe the period then rank mattered.
And you’re not in period if you don’t care.

Now, in all fairness, most of the howlers are post 1700s Britain because that’s the basis of everything we know today. If you are working in the Elizabethan period then just about any gentle-born woman would be ‘my lady’ and the King was often addressed as ‘Your Grace’. You have more leeway way back then. But if you’re doing anything from Jane Austen onwards then it matters. So, I’ll start with the prevalent mistakes and come on to foreign ranks...

Lords and Ladies
The ubiquitous howler - the wife of a baronet or knight (Sir John Smith Bt. or Sir John Smith) is not Lady Jane Smith. She is Lady Smith. Again and again this mistake is made. She will be addressed as ‘my lady.’ Their children will not have titles but the boys will be John Smith Esq. Oh...and knights don’t pass titles to sons but baronets do. 
I know it’s a minefield.
Keep up.

Lady Jane Smith will be the daughter of a Duke or an Earl - and when she marries Mr John Jones she will be Lady Jane Jones with the curious anomaly that a married woman is always Mrs John Jones while her ladyship keeps her first name - and is not Lady John Jones.  And just for fun...if Lady Smith’s husband is elevated from a knight to a peer she becomes The Lady Smith although her husband is now Lord Smith, Baron of London.
Keeping up are we?

Next howler - remember the family name. The Earl of London’s daughter is not Lady Jane London but Lady Jane Smith because the original family name is Smith. Why? Mr Smith gets a title of Earl of London but his family name stays the same. They are the Smith family and may gather any number of titles within that family. The younger sons of Dukes and Earls will be Lord John Smith but usually the eldest has some additional title hanging around so he will be Viscount Whatever and his children will be The Hon. John Smith or the Hon. Jane Smith.

Dear Reader...can you imagine the errors for a young hostess or those new to the system? And that’s the point, of course. Don’t know what to call them? Get the invitation card wrong? Then you’re not one of us, darling.

The Hon. This is a howler zone as well. It’s one of those strange titles bandied around and quite ubiquitous now that the British House of Lords is stuffed full with Barons and Baronesses whose children are all The Hon. It’s really only used on visiting cards or envelopes and it’s not quite done to introduce them as ‘The Hon. John Smith’ but you can give it a try.

We also string all our titles together to show how we rank. So, The Hon. Jane Smith marries Lord Bradley and becomes The Hon. Lady Bradley. It’s the same sort of one-upmanship (or Queen-manship) as the widow of King George used (him of the King's Speech) when her daughter became Queen. Not to be outdone ‘Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’ became ‘Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’ thus getting Queen twice in her title - while Her Majesty was merely Her Majesty The Queen. It depends how you look at it, of course.

While we’re here at the top of the pecking order - the precedence goes something like this: Royal Duke, Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron, Baronet, Knight. This article won’t go into the order of decorations such as Orders of the British Empire but if you are arranging a procession in order of rank (and in all Victorian and Edwardian households you absolutely went into dinner by rank) - then somebody with a decoration would precede somebody without. Best not to go there for now methinks - but you can imagine a scene where the young hostess is puzzling this all out or makes a faux-pas and is sniggered at by her elders. Actually, come to think of it, I was sniggered at...another story.

The Countess Howler –The Earl and Countess of London will be addressed as such on invitations, and announced as such when they enter a room, but an equal won’t call The Countess of London ‘Countess’ - she will be Lady London. Or plain Jane to her friends.  And when the Earl dies she becomes ‘Jane, Countess of London’ is addressed as ‘Lady London.’
Are you still with me?

There’s more of course. It gets better with Scottish and Irish titles which can pass down the line in different ways – and the European system is for another article. There are so many areas of complication – the various German princes (some Royal and some not, some Serene Highnesses and some not) and the enormously grand Spanish system where a woman often inherits the title when there isn’t a son (seldom allowed in Britain) and a plain Grandee will outrank the highest Duque if he isn’t a Grandee to boot.
He usually is, though.

We debate back and forth on the depth of research in Historical Fiction and how much in period we ought to be. It’s a balance to keep a modern reader with you. But if you want the reader to ‘be there’ – well, rank and precedence were an integral part of life, day in and day out.
There are several guides. Or feel free to email me. I won’t always be right. There will be better guides than me. But I may be able to steer your young hostess.

Jeffrey Manton
Jeffrey reads and critiques novels and scripts with a speciality in the lives of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of Windsor. He was tutored by Orange Prize nominee Liz Jenson at the Arvon Creative Writing Foundation and mentored by Pulitzer Prize runner-up Dick Vaughan and Booker long-listed John Murray.
He worked and lived in Paris, Madrid, New York, Dallas and Boston and ghost-wrote articles for newspapers and periodicals that included the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, El Pais and Le Figaro.

A member of The Author’s Society and The Historical Novel Society, Jeffrey is an avid Facebook chatterer with writing groups, and a regular reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads and is a reviewer for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews. 
He can be contacted on Jeffrey.Manton AT rspartners DOT co.uk JeffreyManton@rspartners.co.uk

Jeffrey, a most informative and interesting (if confusing!) article. Thank you sir... er.... mate. :-)


  1. Yikes! Remind me never to set anything in the 1700s or later unless I have no titled characters. Fun to read, though.

    1. I had exactly the same thought Loretta! :-)

  2. I'm so glad I've been writing early 5th Century! The latest era I have in draft is 11th Century. If I was hostess I would certainly do some serious homework before the guests arrived!

    1. Mind you, as we reach the 11th do we go for Jarl or Earl or.... LOL

  3. It's all tribal really. I'll wager in any era that somebody, somewhere, made a point of how they were addressed...Jeffrey M

    1. LOL I wonder how many HF authors reading this will now add dialogue from a character saying "Ahem, I am Lady xxx, not Lady xxxx" :-D

  4. I'll have to stick to the peasants. This is a delightful post.

    1. Thanks Petrea - I can see there will be a lot more peasants in our novels from here on!

  5. Question for Jeffrey, something I can never remember, despite seeing movies such as The Queen and The King's Speech... do we address Her Majesty as Marm as in Farm, or Mam as in ham? (Not that I am ever likely to actually need to know! I can't see Liz suddenly appearing down our mile-long lane that leads nowhere except to our house & out neighbour's!

  6. It is 'Ma'am' as in 'Ham.' You never know who will turn up in your lane...just in case. You start with 'Good Morning, Your Majesty' and after that address her as 'Ma'am.' It works the same as with Royal Prince and Princesses - 'Your Royal Highness' on introduction and then 'Sir' or 'Ma'am.' Oh, and men give a curt bow from the neck, not the waist. Another howler...if it matters...that is. Jeffrey


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