When kings and queens from all over the world came to Windsor Castle for luncheon with the Queen to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee, they greeted their hostess in a remarkable variety of ways. Some amongst the illustrious gathering, which included an emperor, a sultan and an emir, plumped for a modest bow and a handshake. There were several mutters of "Your Majesty." The Grand Duke of Luxembourg, however, who is the Queen's third cousin once removed, was clearly taking no chances. In a breathtaking catchall combination of formal and chummy hails, he planted a kiss on both cheeks, shook her hand, and finally kissed it for good measure. All that seemed to be missing was a high-five followed by a slap on the royal posterior.
If how to address Elizabeth II left the foreign monarchs wringing their hands in anxious confusion, their angst was nothing compared to that of the Victorians, whose lives were dominated by correct form. Countless etiquette books were published offering advice on such dilemmas as when a visiting gentleman should carry his hat and cane into the drawing room, to dark warnings of the vulgarity of wearing diamonds in the morning. They invariably included a chapter on how to address those with a title, which offered huge potential for causing offence. Mrs Humphry's Manners for Men, published in1897, advises that a duke, for example, should be referred to as "Duke" in informal speech, but as "Your Grace" in a formal situation. Misjudge it and you risked never having a decent invitation to display on your mantelpiece again.
What caused the Victorians untold trepidation was precedency — people's social ranking which determined, amongst other things, the order in which they entered the dining room. "… a Knight of St Michael and St George must not be sent in to dinner before a Knight of the Star of India; neither must a Knight of the Star of India be sent in before a Knight of the Bath; nor must a Knight Bachelor be sent in before either of these, however popular he may be personally," insists Au Fait's Social Observances, published in 1896.
Just to add to the confusion, not everyone was in agreement as to what the rules were. There was no consensus over whether a country gentleman should precede a vicar, for example, or whether a seat in the House of Commons conferred precedency at all.
Spare a thought, then, for the humble 21st-century novelist grappling with a cast of Victorian grandees. My third novel, The Pigeon Pie Mystery, is set in Hampton Court Palace in 1898, and is stuffed with aristocrats. The one advantage of writing about a society so strictly governed by etiquette is that it offers such potential for humour. During his testimony at an inquest, Cornelius B Pilgrim, an American houseguest, gets the name of one of his fellow witnesses muddled, and such is the coroner's indignation, he dismisses him from the stand: "The woman to whom you refer is the widow of a baronet, Mr Pilgrim, and should therefore be addressed as Lady Montfort Bebb," he snapped. "If she were the daughter of an earl, marquess or duke, then you would be correct in addressing her as Lady Angela. But as it is, I'm afraid you've committed a vulgar error…".
It's all very well writing a jolly scene about a character's woeful grasp of etiquette, but had I got it right, I wondered, despite extensive research of the period? Would the British aristocracy write to me for the next 20 years pointing out all my vulgar errors? There are several widows in the novel who have children, which brought up the thorny question of whether these ladies should be dowagers. What about the precedency of my principal three widows? While I knew from my period etiquette books that the Countess of Bessington would outrank her two closest friends, who was the social superior out of Lady Montfort Bebb, the daughter of a viscount and the widow of a baronet, and Lady Beatrice, the daughter of a marquess and the widow of an army captain? What about the troubling Major-General, which according to Debrett's, the keepers of the nation's manners, should be referred to in speech as "The General", and not as "The Major-General" as one might assume. I had a duty to get it right, not only for my readers, but for my publishers.
There were only so many nights of missed sleep imagining the indignant outrage of the British upper classes, perceptive commoners and readers of The Times that I could handle. So I approached the historical advisor for the hit TV drama Downton Abbey, the first series of which starts in 1912, so close to my fictional events of 1898 (the codes of etiquette have a nasty habit of changing over time). Prof Alastair Bruce, OBE, also advised on Oscar-winning films including The King's Speech and The Young Victoria. Not only that, but in 1998, the Queen appointed him as one of her heralds in the appointment called Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary, with some responsibility for the heraldry of Britain and its Royal Family. If anyone knew, he would.
Prof Bruce very kindly read my manuscript, checking all the characters' titles and how they address and refer to each other. He suggested that European gentry might baulk at addressing my protagonist, an Indian princess, as "Your Highness," and suggested "Princess" instead, in the same way some referred to Dukes and Duchesses as "Duke" or "Duchess." He drafted the formal letter that the Lord Chamberlain sends to Princess Alexandrina offering her a grace-and-favour home at Hampton Court Palace, pointing out that he, the Earl of Kellerton, would simply sign as "Kellerton." Not only did Prof Bruce give me peace of mind, but the knowledge that I needn't fear the determined approach of my postwoman.
I'm not sure of the correct form for greeting one's historical advisor before luncheon. I have a sneaky suspicion that it doesn't involve throwing oneself at their feet in gratitude. But if I ever meet Prof Bruce for lunch, I'm not certain that I will be able to stop myself.
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Books mentioned in this post