Wench Jo Beverley has been known to call the Regency historical “the setting that ate a genre.” And it’s true. When I first started reading historical romance, settings were all over the map. Lots of medievals and Westerns, American colonials, Victorians, et al. Granted, most books were set in English speaking places but there was a wide variety, plus globe trotting books where the protagonists bounced all over the place. At that time, Regencies were the traditional sort, descendents of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, generally comedies of manners with clever dialogue and no explicit sex.
Judith McNaught says she had trouble selling her Regency historical, Whitney, My Love, because editors thought of Regencies as ‘those little books.” Nonetheless, she sold her book, it became a huge hit, and the race toward market saturation of Regency historicals was on.
Mind you, I love the Regency, as attested by my backlist. It’s a great setting with lots going on: a “good war” against a evil tyrant, wearable fashions, and an exciting period of reformation and creativity as the industrial revolution helped turn society upside down.
But what the really big appeal of the period? I’ve long suspected it’s all those lords and ladies. Americans, having broken free of the British empire and banned all hereditary titles, turned around and fell in love with the idea of an aristocracy.
American heiresses visiting in England fought for the right to be presented at court. I once wrote a novella for Harlequin under the title “The Wedding of the Century,” and a major source of Gilded Age material came from the delightful book To Marry an English Lord. It is now sadly out of print, but if you can find a copy, it’s chock full of details about the intersection of American money and impoverished English aristocrats. (With great pictures and sidebars!) My story was inspired by the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough, but mine had a happy ending, naturally.
Why are we so fascinated by people with titles? Why has a presumption that they are somehow superior lasted into our democratic age? Maybe it’s the sheer exclusivity of the aristocracy. According to Laura A. Wallace, who did the excellent title site http://laura.chinet.com//html/titles02.html ,in 1996 about 1200 people were entitled to sit in Britain’s House of Lords, and some of those were Law Lords, Archbishops and Bishops, who aren’t hereditary peers.
The fact that there aren’t many real life lords doesn’t mean that we can’t stock our books to overflowing with fictional peers. (I recall one publisher wouldn’t buy a Regency set historical unless the hero was a lord. That may still be true.) There is a particular oversupply of dukes, the highest rank of the peerage. Personally, I don’t like to use dukes very often because they are supposed to be addressed as “your grace,” which is clumsy. The four lower ranks—marquess, earl, viscount, and baron—can be called ‘my lord,’ which is much easier.
As to that presumption of superiority—a lot of real life Regency lords were raised with a vast sense of entitlement, and at the same time were wrenched from their homes at tender ages and sent to brutal schools where they were subject to all manner of abuse, and sometimes rioted most ferociously against the masters. (That’s Eton on the left.) I suspect that a lot of them were not very nice people as a consequence of their upbringings—certainly not the sensitive studmuffins who populate our books. Which is why I so frequently torture my heroes—I figure that some suffering will make them better better men and more perceptive lovers. <G>
For a writer, it’s important to know correct title usage, since some readers have a very low tolerance for sloppy usage. When I started writing Regencies, title information was harder to come by (though I did make the effort), but these days, it’s easy to find on the internet, so there’s no excuse for egregious errors.
Briefly, from lowest to highest, the hereditary peerage in Britain is baron, viscount, earl, marquess (or marquis), and duke. (The title of baronet is hereditary, but they’re not Peers of the Realm, which is quite a different matter. James I invented baronetcies to sell to rich merchants so he could raise money. It was considered something of a cut-rate title since it was acquired by money rather than force of arms, but better than nothing.)
Let’s start with the Baron. According to Wikipedia.com, “William I introduced "baron" as a rank into England to distinguish the men who had pledged their loyalty to him (see Feudalism)." In the middle ages, "barons" was sometimes used as a general term for the nobility—King John the Only was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his barons.
Next up is the Viscount, which can be construed as lieutenant to a Count, who ruled a county. (More below.) I once read that the title was imported to England when a weak king gave it to one of his favorites, thereby infuriating all the barons who had to yield precedence to a good-for-nothing upstart. (May have read it in one of Thomas Costain’s history books, but cannot vouch for the accuracy of my memory.)
Onward to the Earl, perhaps my favorite title—high, but not stuffily so. Wikipedia again: “in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England, the king’s companions held the title of earls and in Scotland, the title of thane.” (Think “Thane of Glamis and Thane of Cawdor” for you fans of Macbeth.) “Jarl” was a Scandinavian variant of “eorl” or “earl.” In England, a lot of the early earls were in charge of counties, and they bore those names for their titles: Earl of Suffolk, Earl of Lincoln, etc.
An English earl is equivalent in rank to a French count—and since there is no earless, the wife of an earl is a countess. No one ever claimed this stuff is logical!
My one medieval, Uncommon Vows. featured two men, hero and villain, vying for control of Shropshire, one loyal to Queen Matilda and the other to King Stephen. My research had revealed that at that point there was no formal Earl of Shropshire, so why not let my guys fight it out?
Next up: Marquess (the usual English form) or Marquis (French and Scottish) is derived from the German title Margrave. The distant ancestor word was “marca” for a frontier or borderland. (Think “mark.”) A lord who had extra responsibilities for maintaining order on the frontier got a title that reflected that. In England, there were “Marcher Lords” who maintained the frontier between England and Wales. (Those rowdy Welsh!)
The highest title, Duke, is derived from the Latin “dux,” for leader or war leader. Historical romances have created enough fictional dukes to fill a football stadium. Royal Dukes are another matter, being members of the royal family, and include traditional titles like Duke of York and Duke of Cumberland. On the Continent, there were principalities headed by dukes, like the Duke of Burgundy.
That’s Thomas Lawrence’s famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington, a favorite of mine because he earned the title through blazing merit. Winston Churchill was offered the title of Duke of Dover for his achievements in leading Britain through WWII, but he turned it down. As the grandson (and cousin) of Dukes of Marlborough, he might have figured he didn’t need any additional titles.
So those are the lords. There’s no question that noblemen are great fantasy objects, so I expect that we writers will continue to create them. Including that delightful subgenre of the stable boy who proves to be a duke, or variants thereof. (Guilty!!!)
And if you want to carry the fantasy further—or perhaps give a gift to an Anglophile, here’s your chance: http://moonestates.com/shop-kincavel.php
For a mere $65 or so, depending on the exchange rate, you can become a Laird or Lady of Kincavel, an estate on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in far western Scotland, with views across the sea to the lovely Isle of Mull. (I’ve visited, and Mull was one of my favorite places in Scotland.)
You will own one square foot of land. It’s in a conservation area so you can’t build on it, but you can visit, and maybe picnic on the seashore. You will also have the right to call yourself Laird (or Lady) of Kincavel, which is an ancient title attached to ownership of land rather than a rank of the peerage.
From what I can tell, this is entirely legal, and really kind of fun. The land was originally owned by the Sonachan Hotel, http://www.sonachan.com/ , which looks like a nice place to stay when you visit your mini-estate. The whole program is a clever way for the original owners of the land to generate some income toward the conservation of native flora and fauna. So this is your chance to become a Scottish Lady! The perfect gift for that hard-to-buy for Laird in your life!
After all, why can’t we make some or our fantasies come true? <g> Left is a picture of Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, and her family. She later divorced the duke. Some fantasies are better left in the imagination.
So how do you feel about all those lords and ladies? And to you have some favorite Regencies where the hero isn’t an aristocrat? There are some out there!