You Rang, M’Lady?

(A mild – but quite lengthy – rant about inaccuracies and anachronisms in historical fiction!)

Nice to know I’m not the only pedant on the block; the outrage when, during the Diamond  Jubilee celebrations, a BBC presenter referred to The Queen as, ‘Her Royal Highness’, was heart-warming to the nit-picking critic that lies (not far) beneath the surface. The BBC of all institutions, was the despairing cry. If the Beeb can’t get it right who on earth can? The answer, sadly, is – not many – apart, that is, from the army of people who either complained officially, or merely shook their heads in disbelief.

You might think it doesn’t matter, and it probably doesn’t, when judged as part of the big scheme of things, but one place where it matters particularly to me is in the field of books. I’m prone to outbreaks of outrage and Blimpish hissy fits when I read historical novels in which the author, along with his or her editor, clearly has no idea about history, either in the way people lived, the way they spoke, or they way they addressed each other.

 Again, you could be thinking, ‘Who cares?’  The answer is that many readers of historical novels hold very strong views on the subject of anachronisms and inaccuracies. We live in a casual age and you may believe that something like the British peerage with its complicated system of titles is out of date but if you choose to write a novel set in a time and place when titles mattered, it’s important to get the details right, or some of your readers will feel short-changed and not buy your next book! Other European countries have titles and aristocracy, but the British nobility and gentry seem to attract the best and worst efforts of authors all over the world.

Like many writers I was an awkward, retiring child, always with my nose in a book and ill-at-ease with children of my own age so instead I hung around my grandmother’s friends. One of the many old ladies I knew and loved gave me a dictionary when I was ten, her late husband’s copy of Nuttall’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language, complete with a supplement to incorporate the exciting new terminology arising from the First World War! I spent hours poring over it. From its pages I learnt the Greek Alphabet, toyed with Esperanto, puzzled over the ‘Currencies of the Empire’. I also read the section on ‘Forms of Address’.

The legacy of this eclectic reading is that I cringe when I read authors who get it wrong, especially with titles. As well as the BBC’s Jubilee booboo, this post is inspired by a novel I began (and soon discarded) that, over two facing pages, referred to the same character as Mrs Jones, Lady Jones, and Lady Jane Jones. The author should have done her homework and her editor should certainly have done hers. So, if you want to learn how to avoid the most common mistakes regarding the aristocracy, here is Nicky’s guide to


Top of the tree, Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Family

Dukes. Very, very grand, the title comes from Dux or war leader. A lot of the present dukes are descended from King Charles II who tended to reward his mistresses with a title; others, like the Duke of Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington, were rewards for victorious military campaigns. So:

His Grace The Duke of Putney (no, it’s not a real title) Her Grace The Duchess of Putney: You address them both as Your Grace if you’re a lesser being; Duke/Duchess if they’re friendly.


1) Eldest son is the Marquis/Marquess of Bloomsbury. His wife is the Marchioness. You say My lord/Your lordship if you’re below the salt; Lord/Lady Bloomsbury if you’re above it. (Eldest son is sometimes the Earl of something. There’s often a choice of titles)          

2) Younger son is Lord John Smith (Duke’s family surname). You call him, My Lord or Lord John. He is never Lord Smith.

3) Daughter is Lady Janet Smith. You say, My Lady or Lady Janet. Never, Lady Smith

Marquis/Marquess & Marchioness: Confusingly, this can be a title in its own right, not just the eldest son of a duke. Address him as above.

1) Elder son has a secondary title, eg The Earl of Somewhere; daughters and younger sons are the same as those of a duke.

Earl and Countess: still high in the pecking order. Address them as, My Lord/my lady or Lord This/Lady That.

1)Earl’s eldest son is a Viscount, which can be Viscount Smith (ie using his surname) or Viscount Grimsby using a place name (usually one connected to family estates, etc). Wife is a Viscountess.  Say, My Lord/Lady, or Lord Smith/Lady Smith.

2)Earl’s younger son: the Honourable John Smith, which you write but don’t say, so you call him Mr Smith, or John.

3)Earl’s daughter: Lady Jane Smith

Viscount/Viscountess: another confusing title that can indicate the elder son of an earl or a peer in his own right. Address as to an earl’s elder son.

 Baron/Baroness: the lowest placed in the peerage pecking order, but it’s a very old title (think Magna Carta) so a baron can be sniffy about an earl if the dates work out!  Address and children as those of a viscount.

Life Peers: these Barons and are created as a reward for service or, very often, as a way to stuff the House of Lords with your political cronies. Their children are Honourables but cannot inherit the life peerage. Usual rules apply, you address Baroness Thatcher as, My Lady/your ladyship – or Lady Thatcher. What you never say is Lady Margaret Thatcher.

Nearly finished – are you keeping up at the back?

Baronets: this the lowest ranking of the hereditary titles and was created by King James I of England (who was also King James VI of Scotland). Sir John Smith can pass on his title to his son, but not to his daughter. His wife is Lady Smith. You say, Sir John or Lady Smith. You never, ever say Lady Jane Smith (unless she’s a peer’s daughter and that’s a whole other can of worms!)

Finally: Knights. A very old title, originally conferred on the battlefield. This is the one where the Queen dubs you Knight with a tap of her sword on your shoulder. You then become Sir John Smith. Everything else is as a baronet except that you can’t pass the title to your descendents. A knight’s wife is a Lady.  The equivalent female honour is Dame. You address her as Dame Janet Smith, never Dame Smith. And there’s no justice – her husband doesn’t get to be a Sir or a Lord!

OK, rant over! I’ll leave the anachronisms to another post, when I’m feeling liverish – but here’s a taster: how about the highlander who checked his wristwatch at the Battle of Culloden? Or the 1920 housemaid who pulled on her black tights as she dressed? Or the Regency Heyer rip-off whose 4 noble heroines end up being rogered in broad daylight all over the stately home: on the dining table, in the gazebo, on the chaise longue and – rather boringly considering her sisters’ fates – in a four-poster.

Last word: if you want to know how it’s done properly, watch Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes may slip in the odd anachronism in dialogue (‘learning curve’ or ‘big girl’s blouse’) but he’s spot-on with the titles.

 And now I expect to be corrected re the above by people who are even fussier pedants than I am!


15 thoughts on “You Rang, M’Lady?

  1. I heard the Queen being referred to as HRH on the BBC too and almost put a foot through the TV set (Jubilee), and The Duchess of Cambridge is still called Kate Middleton by many which is just plain silly. Loved your little rant and enjoyed reading the comments following. Thanks.

  2. Well, I’m glad I stopped by to read your rant. I almost went to press with a Dame Smith. That’s not her name, but just the same. You saved me some public embarrassment. 🙂 I loved Brother Cadfael.

  3. I’m with you all the way on anachronisms, Nicola. Slang, wrong names for items, details of daily life that are completely wrong, even the way characters say quite ordinary things…..

    I shall keep your list for reference in the future – but what about bishops etc??? *grins*

  4. Ah well it’s inaccurate slang and speech which really rips my knitting! And it’s distressingly prevalent in big budget films. (In Warhorse, cavalry officer in WW1: ‘As if!’) It destroys the whole illusion of being transported to another time. Otoh, some expressions are a bit older than we think. I was brought up short re-reading some Ngaio Marsh when a character said ‘No way!’ The book, though still reading like a golden age 30s novel, was actually published in the 70s: so Ngaio was writing anachronistically (it was meant to be ‘present day’), being used to that style. Still, I was surprised the expression goes back to the 70s. For some correct title usage, cf Dorothy L Sayers. Lord Peter Wimsey, younger son of Duke, marries Harriet Vane who is ‘Lady Peter’ (ick!) His sister is Lady Mary, even when she marries a cop ( I think she retains the title).

  5. “Big girl’s blouse” isn’t an anachronism. I distinctly remember hearing it used by Mrs Miggins in Blackadder The Third, and we all know that’s the pinnacle of historical accuracy!

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