What’s In a Name?

When I went to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 1981 I had two books in print, one on the verge of coming out (I got the galleys to proof while I was at the workshop) and had just, by dint of considerable force of will, turned a fourth book in to my editor.

The first book, I’d written for the hell of it; the second, because I’d succeeded with the first and was kind of giddy about it.  The third–well, I had a contract, and  I was proving to myself that actually keep doing this stuff.  By the time I got to the fourth, I was beginning to run into the limits of a happy ending, but hadn’t figured out how to go outside the strict drawing-room confines a London-Season-romance, as much to engage myself as the reader.  I began to feel a little panicky: I had written three books, but how on earth was I going to come up with a plot for the fourth?

And then I remembered title nomenclature.

My editor at Fawcett had, a few years before I began writing that fourth book, sent me a book on formal styles of address. Really, this stuff is fascinating, a relic of a way of life, a series of customs and assumptions about the way the world works. The way a bishop is addressed in England is different from the way a bishop is addressed in the U.S.  A comte in France is an earl in England (but the earl’s wife is a countess, and for that matter, a marquess is married to a marchioness). “Honorable” and “Right Honorable” have very specific meanings that signal the place of a person within the hierarchy of class.  And the wife of the younger son of a duke takes her title from her husband, the most famous example of this is Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey (second son of the Duke of Denver). Lord Peter is a courtesy title; when he marries, his wife does not become Lady Wimsey; she becomes Lady Peter.

I’d encountered a bit of this in real life when I worked in England; by the world’s coolest twist of fate, I wound up temping at Thomas Cooks’ office in the basement of the Houses of Parliament, mostly typing invoices to the peers and MPs whose travel arrangements were handled by Cooks (I got to type politely threatening letters to peers who owed money, threatening to take the matter up with “the Queen’s Whip.”  Well, I thought it was cool).  On occasion one of the peers or MPs would come down to the office to make arrangements or pick up tickets in person, which could cause a bit of a flutter, with the manager of the office coming out to present the folder of travel arrangements or chat with My Lord or Sir Whatever, while the rest of us pretended that we didn’t feel a slight frisson of glamor.

So I was wandering through the pages of my editor’s highly useful gift, and I started thinking about having a heroine named Lady John.  Because to American ears it sounds odd, right?  But Lady John would not be Lady John unless she were married to Lord John, which would rather put a damper on your standard romance.  Still, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to tell her story.  I decided to break out of London and, at least at the beginning of the story, take a peek at that conveniently bloody war across the channel: an excellent place to lose an inconvenient husband and leave our heroine available for more romance.

In figuring out Lady John’s back story (her marriage, her husband’s death, her family, his family, and the man she really loved) I found myself writing the book and finishing it.   Lady John debuts as an e-book today here at Book View Café; meanwhile, every time I see my copy of Styles of Address on the shelf, I remember that inspiration is where you find it.

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Madeleine Robins is the author of  The Stone WarPoint of HonourPetty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, just out from Plus One Press).  She is also the author of a double-handful of short fiction, most available on her bookshelf. Her first Regency romances, AltheaMy Dear Jenny, and The Heiress Companion, are now available from Book View Café; Lady John joins them today.  She has just completed The Salernitan Women, an historical novel set in medieval Italy, and scheduled for release in winter 2013.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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What’s In a Name? — 11 Comments

  1. As an Englishman whose teeth this particular convention has always set on edge, I’m glad to hear it’s finally found a use in the world!

    It occurs to me that I have yet to see, even in the most exotic fantasy scenario, a set-up where gender privilege or the cult of bloodline differ from our own in such a way as to allow that very great and gallant swashbuckler who first came to public notice when he so dramatically won Lady Etherstone’s heart in the Affair of the Dragonbone Cameo – the bold Harry Cockerill, or, as we must now call him, Lord Sophie.

  2. …And then of course there are those nuns who take the name of their favourite saint and never mind if he was male; I’ve met more than one Sister John. (Of course Catholic boys frequently get “Maria” as a middle name, Jose Maria and so forth, but I don’t think I ever met a monk who’d chosen a female saint’s name.)

  3. I’ve been doing some heavy research into French history of late, and it’s surprising how many of these tough pre-Revolutionary (or Revolutionary, but born during the Ancien Regine) commanders had baptismal names like Anne-Marie sprinkling their pedigrees.

  4. Sherwood and Madeleine: Actually, the more I think about it, the more I want to read it too! And most unhappily, I’m not in a position to write it for myself at this point.

    So I’m compelled to fall back on the hope that Madeleine will in fact get the genuine alt-English job into Sarah Tolerance – a series I’ve not yet read, but which deficiency I was already planning to amend at some point this year. It sounds like something that I, and quite possibly several of my kith and kin, ought to enjoy a lot.

  5. I don’t know that I could actually call the husband Lord Sophie beca–wait a minute. I’m writing slightly alternate history here.

    It won’t work for this book, but perhaps for the next…

  6. Madeleine: I didn’t intend the beg to be half that specific! However, you’re more than welcome to ‘Lord Sophie’ or anything that goes along with him, if he or his can be of some service to you.

    I’m looking forward to reading Sarah’s books, in any case.