Apr 7 2011 9:15am

The Devil’s in the Details: Misusing Titles in Historicals

UK Royal Coat of ArmsI am currently reading a Regency-set historical by an author whose work I really enjoy. She creates robust, interesting characters, wonderfully witty dialog, interesting premises. If you sense a “but” coming here, you would be absolutely correct. She does not get the titles right. 

I'll be reading along, thoroughly enjoying the interplay between the hero and heroine when, all of a sudden, someone refers to the son of a viscount as Lord Firstname or the unmarried daughter of some aristocrat (I presume) as Lady Lastname. And worst of all, the hero is a duke who is repeatedly and by everyone referred to as Lord Lastname or simply Lastname rather than by his title. Grrr. My teeth are worn down to nubs, and yet I read on because she's a really good writer and I like HIS GRACE, THE DUKE OF TITLE (*ahem*).

I am enraged every time another character refers to the duke as Lord Lastname. And I'm a little insulted that the author does not respect me enough to take the time to get these simple details right. So when I come to one of these incorrect titles, I have to put down the book and step away. It's taking me forever to finish the book. This morning at breakfast, the title thing happened twice on one page, so I stepped away and came here to write this. 

This is this author's tenth book set in the Regency period. If she hasn't figured out the titles of the aristocracy (about whom she is writing after all) by now, would it be too much to ask for her to do a little research?  

Here. Let me help: Laura Wallace's exhaustive British Titles of Nobility or Jo Beverley's English Titles in the 18th and 19th Centuries) or for something quick and easy, The British System of Aristocratic Honorifics  at The Republic of Pemberley. There. Google is your friend.

Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage

I'm not asking her to invest in a Debrett's, but even they have a Web site. So, please, if you forget what to call you hero, or your heroine's best friends, go to one of these sites and search for “duke.” It's not so hard, really.

Of course, this author is not the only culprit. In fact, some of my favorite authors are guilty of this transgression. Carla Kelly's Traditional Regencies were rife with title and inheritance errors, which she freely admits. But I love her Trads. Her voice is unique and engaging and, if I squint, I can pretend I don't notice the errors. 

Am I being particularly petty? Should I close my eyes and think of England when I come to one of these title errors? Should I pretend the author has created an alternate universe where the system of honorifics is different from what we know? Should I try squinting again? Should I just shut up and read the book?

Does this drive you crazy? Is there something else that does? What shall we do?

UK Royal Coat of arms image courtesy of Chabacano via Wikimedia Commons


Myretta Robens
The Republic of Pemberley

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Lisa Cox
1. brontëgirl
If people are going to write, they should get the facts correct. One does not want to be slipshod in one's research. Even tho' I'm Victorian, so to speak :), I did not watch the rest of a movie about Queen Victoria because in the scene where she finds out she's become queen, her mother was still in the room with her. And that did not
happen--there is plenty of documentation to show that Victoria was alone with the people who brought her the news. Getting that fact wrong is like writing a movie about the American Revolution and having George Washington make that midnight ride with the news that "The British are coming!" instead of Paul Revere.
2. Phyl
I guess I want to know why someone hasn't pointed out the title errors to this author before her 10th book. Years ago I probably wouldn't have noticed the errors because I was a novice Regency reader. But now that I've learned many of the rules, I recognize them, too, and I'm a bit surprised when it turns out the author has many books under her belt.
3. Syl
It does seem odd that an author can be content with repeating mistakes of that magnitude. Who's her copy editor? It was a real bother when we used typewriters, but global search and replace makes fixing names and titles easy. Argh!
4. bungluna
I've stopped reading more than one historical author because of factual errors either in history, honorifics or vocabulary. I'm not a native English speaker, I don't come from a country where titles are used and I'm not a history major, so if an error jumps at me it must be huge indeed. My question is, where are the editors? Or does no one care about these things?
5. VickiJ
No, I don't think you're being petty at all. I don't expect that an author would be an expert in every little aspect of a time period, but vocabulary and misused titles in historicals really annoy me.

Referring to a Duke as Lord First/Lastname or Lord Bothnames or my lord would totally put me off - as it did just recently when I read a brief synopsis of an upcoming novel. I couldn't be bothered reading past the first few sentences - once Lord Firstname Lastname, Duke of Wherever was mentioned that was it for me, I moved on to the next post!!

It's hard to believe that the author you referred to has been able to get away with such errors over the course of 10 novels!!
6. Janet W
Myretta, I couldn't agree more with what you said, Of course, this author is not the only culprit. In fact, some of my favorite authors are guilty of this transgression. Carla Kelly's Traditional Regencies were rife with title and inheritance errors, which she freely admits. But I love her Trads. Her voice is unique and engaging and, if I squint, I can pretend I don't notice the errors.

It took a friend, that I browbeat persuaded to read Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand to tell me that it seemed like a no flyer that a marquess's heir would be his sister's son. What of it ... I certainly didn't notice that :) She also noticed that Balogh mucked it up a bit with Lord Eden and his title and such. Nope, didn't notice that either.

But for some reason, mistakes with ducal titles always catch my interest. I can think of two. Lord's Perfect Scoundrel by Suzanne Enoch, pg. 64. The Duke picks up his toddler daughter Lizzie, "... Lady Brakenridge gave another shriek and trundled toward the writing desk. In one long stride the duke caught up, scooping her into his arms." It seems so incongruous: Lady Brakenridge sounds like a name out of Oscar Wilde. Of course it should be Lady Elizabeth. Are these things an author fixes when a book is republished?

The book I'm reading now, Anna and the Duke by Kathryn Smith cannot be fixed so easily. The incorrect title is a major plot point. Unexpectedly "the estranged son of an English duke who has just died, Ewan MacLaughlin is the reluctant heir to his father's title." Much to everyone's surprise. The heroine is engaged to his younger brother (his father remarried after the death of Ewan's mother), which is intensely upsetting to Anna's social-climbing mother Marion. She says, while she and Anna are discussing the new duke, "Don't be stupid! It decides whether my daughter is the Duchess Brahm or just just plain Mrs. Fitzgerald." Where to begin! A duke's brothers are Lords. Like Lord Peter Wimsey. So it would be Lord Richard. And isn't it the Duchess of Brahm? I seem to recall that the Queen has (had?) as one of her ladies-in-waiting, the Duchess of Grafton. Another example, it's Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire. Anyhow, that's certainly taking me out of the story.

A great story trumps almost everything, for me. I can't understand how though, with all the marvelous resources available to authors and editors, some of these more blatant mistakes slip through.
7. Magdalen
JanetW: I'm widja on this issue. But, although I first read Georgette Heyer 40 years ago and fell in love with Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter shortly thereafter -- a love affair that got me to read the books and thus learn that his wife is properly known as Lady Peter! -- only in the past year have I learned that the daughters of earls are accorded the courtesy title of Lady Ann, Lady Betsy, Lady Caroline, etc., but that the younger sons are just Hons. , as in the Honorable Zebediah, the Honorable Yul, the Honorable Xavier...

And it was my ex-husband (who is a delight in all ways but never more so than when he can explain truly obscure stuff to me) who thought of the only way that an earl's younger brother could be a lord in his own right. The explanation requires different mothers, a medieval title and a lot of childless cousins, but it can be done...
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
8. tnh
Syl @3:
Who's her copy editor?
Bungluna @4:
My question is, where are the editors? Or does no one care about these things?
If the book in question was published by a conventional publishing house, long odds are her copy editor was a freelancer who may or may not have any acquaintance with the Regency period, and who was hired by someone in production (i.e., not the editor; different department) who may or may not have read the book.

I'm not slamming copy editors, who are often the Thin Red Line of defense against inaccuracy and inconsistency. Thing is, the standard assumption in the trade book industry is that the copy editor and proofreader don't do any fact-checking. (Why? I don't know. It was that way when I got here.) The good freelancers do it anyway, to the best of their ability; but there's no provision made for it.

It's hard to know who's at fault for some error if you can't look at the manuscript and galleys. I worked on one book where a daft copy editor (not one of the good ones) had put a lot of effort into making a hash of the author's correct and consistent use of titles and other specialized language. An editor may or may not put a lot of work into a book, and if they do, it may or may not be judicious. The same goes for the work done by the production editor, copy editor, proofreader, and slugger. Sometimes authors simply refuse to cooperate with the whole process. And then there are the straightforward mishaps, like the wrong version of the manuscript getting sent to production, or the typesetter's hardware and software developing a case of the hiccups. Stuff happens.

Do people care? Generally speaking, yes, they do. And if time and resources allow, they'll fix whatever problems arise. If not, outcomes vary.
Lisa Cox
9. brontëgirl
@tnh--Good comments.
If it's something specialized, the developmental editor should supply the copyeditor with a style sheet that has all the specialized info on it so the copyeditor won't change it. I've done a first pages proof on a non-fiction book that had a six-page style sheet and I referred to it often when proofing.
If a style sheet isn't supplied, yes, the copyeditor should take the initiative and check facts and conventions of language use for the era, etc.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
10. tnh
Brontegirl @9: You work in nonfiction. The assumptions and procedures are different. (Periodicals are way different.) I'm not sure I've ever seen a trade fiction stylesheet that was compiled by the editor. Authors may do their own stylesheets, and copy editors compile stylesheets while working on the manuscript.

Copy Editors are responsible for stuff you can check using a preferred dictionary, or a style book like Words into Type or the Chicago Manual of Style. Anything beyond that is unpaid virtue for its own sake. What's remarkable is how many of them do it anyway.

Of course, if they're not into history and they've never read anything earlier than Thomas Hardy, being willing to check facts may not be enough, because they're not going to know which ones to check.
11. Davidia
I am not alone! I agree with you, Myretta, that has always bothered me. It's such an easy thing to fix. Research is the key. It's hard to excuse from very well known Regency authors. It would be nice if their editors picked up on it too.

I also have a problem with the repeated use of was instead of were.
12. SLewis
I think I just finished the exact book you are talking about. Perhaps the Duke's surname started with an "M" and his "Dukedom" started with "F? I agree with you as that one point kept throwing me out of the story. He kept being called "Lord" or simply "M(surname)" and it was very jarring. In fact, I think he was only called Your Grace twice in the whole book.

Although, the story itself was fabulous and the characters were really well done. Too bad that one point wasn't fixed.
Alana Abbott
13. alanajoli
I do think the author should make every effort to get titles right, because it's clear that there's some large portion of the audience that will notice! I also think that it'd be nice if the ed team (freelance or no) were looking out for this sort of error, if only because of the particular genre. If I were a project editor, I'd tack on those sites mentioned in the style guidelines and ask the copyeditor to please double check the title usage. But I guess that's an easy thing for me to say here at this end of freelance land!
Olivia Waite
14. O.Waite
As an author of historicals, laying out which character has what title and all the names and surnames that go along with it is one of my favorite parts of creating a story. It's kind of like filling in a crossword puzzle that you can't see.

... Though you'll have to take my word for that, since my first book is set in an academy where nobody has a title, and my second one isn't out yet. :)
Carrie Strickler
15. DyslexicSquirrel
I don't think you're being petty, but that may be because I'm exactly the same way. Mistakes like that make my eye twitch. I love Karen Hawkins and her books and I've only ever noticed a mistake once, but it almost made me not able to finish the books (which perhaps make me petty because I loved the book otherwise from what I remember). There was a duke in the book and he was repeatedly refered to incorrectly. I freaked out... a little. Me and my stupid OCD.
Myretta Robens
16. Myretta
@SLewis. Yes, I believe that's the book. I agree that the story and characters were teriffic as are most of this author's books. I read it through to the end regardless of the errors.

@DyslexicSquirrel. This book was otherwise good enough to allow me to finish it even though the title errors drove me crazy. With a less well-written book, I would have quit a lot earlier.
Carrie Strickler
17. DyslexicSquirrel

I think that was the only thing that allowed me to get through Her Officer and Gentleman (I looked it up; I remember what the cover looks like). But I still grimaced every time the duke was refered to as "my lord."

Not that it has anything to do with anything, but I think in every book I've read that's first time in print, I've found at least one typo, usually it's something small and insignificant. But it's become somewhat of a challenge for myself. I hunt them down; it's like a game! Makes my grammar obsessed brain (Thank you nuns from St. David's) cackle with glee.
Lisa Cox
18. brontëgirl
@tnh, I see what you mean. Perhaps it's the researcher in me, rather than the copyeditor, who's thinking "Style sheet!"
Rachel Hyland
19. RachelHyland
@ 1. brontegirl

It has been documented that what Paul Revere actually said was: "The Regulars are coming out!" Longfellow took more than a little artistic license on that one. Just thought I should mention it, in the interests of accuracy... which is, after all, the topic under discussion. ;-)

I agree with everyone that a very little attention to detail would make us all much happier as readers; I've read a lot of mixed up peerage idiocy in my time -- including, if you will believe it, one instance where a baronet apparently held a seat in the House of Lords -- and these kinds of schoolgirl errors have never failed to affect me just as strongly as this particular bout of nonsense has affected Myretta.

Rest assured that romance readers are not the only ones so afflicted, however; try reading three media tie-in novels in a row (like those of Buffy, Alias, Charmed, Eureka and Burn Notice, or Stars Trek, Wars and -gate) and not find at least one instance where a character name is misspelled, a past incident is incorrectly cited or a fundamental of the universe is either undermined or disregarded completely. Irritating doesn't begin to describe it.
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