ARISTOCRATIC TITLES date back to the Middle Ages and traditionally were given to the great landowners in England. The name attached to a peer’s title usually refers to the location of his landholdings, i.e., the Duke of Northumberland. The greater nobility or peerage were originally advisors to the King, and it was in their consultations with the Monarch that the seed of Parliament may be found.

Here is the title hierarchy :

I. The Royal Family (addressed as Royal Highness)

King

Queen

Prince

Princess

II. The Peerage (addressed as Lord and Lady)

Duke or Duchess

Marquis or Marchioness

Earl or Countess

Viscount or Viscountess

Baron or Baroness

III. Lesser Titles (addressed as Sir and Lady)

Baronet

Knight

The peerage consists of the upper aristocracy that I have just described. All original peerages were hereditary—that is, passed on to the eldest son according to the tradition of primogeniture—and included the right to a seat in the House of Lords. However, the Monarch could confer both hereditary and lifetime peerages as a reward for services to the state and often did so to broaden the base of the upper house of Parliament. As a result of new peerages created in the eighteenth century, for example, the nineteenth-century House of Lords became more broadly representative. Even some manufacturers sat in the Lords during Victoria’s reign, but the majority of peers were, of course, landed aristocrats. Peers have enjoyed other privileges, too, such as the right to be tried by other peers for treason or felony (abolished in 1948); but access to the House of Lords was the primary advantage because it meant that well into the nineteenth century, a peerage was the requirement of high political office.

As can be seen by these facts alone, no governing political or social body in the United States today quite compares to the nineteenth-century peerage in terms of power and privilege. While the Senate, the upper house of the American Congress, is an elected body (since 1913), the House of Lords traditionally functioned with no formal obligation to represent an electorate, as a self-interested group with a tradition-based loyalty to the Crown. If it were smaller, the American upper class would compare to the peerage, but it is too large, heterogeneous, and depoliticized. During Victoria’s reign, the total number of peers was under 400; the number of peers and Baronets was about twice that, or smaller than most graduating high school classes in the United States. Finally, although peers and Baronets possessed the money and glamour of modern celebrities and were to some extent envied in the same way, they also had political power and unity, influence over the Church, common traditions and beliefs, social prestige, the best education available, and almost total assurance of their future through property inheritance and large investments in industry and trade.

English titles involve a highly complicated set of rules and exceptions to those rules, relating to modes of address and inheritance. For the purpose of understanding titles as they appear in English fiction, however, the subject can be simplified as follows.

While his father holds the peerage, the eldest son of the family bears by courtesy his father’s secondary title, but does not have a right to a seat in the House of Lords. For example, the eldest son of a Duke becomes a Marquis, the son of an Earl a Viscount, and so on. The eldest son of a Viscount or Baron inherits only the right to be addressed as ‘The Right Honorable” plus surname. When his father dies, the eldest son succeeds to his father’s title and is then called up to the House of Lords. If he marries, he retains his title, no matter how far beneath him in the social hierarchy his wife may be.

The younger sons of a peer do not inherit titles—i.e., the family estate or the right to be called up to the House of Lords—nor do any of the daughters, and it is by means of this exclusion that the English aristocracy remains small. These offspring do receive a particular mode of address, however: “Lord” and “Lady” or “The Honorable” followed by their first name. The younger son of a Duke or Marquis, for example, would be addressed as “Lord John.” The younger son of an Earl, Viscount, or Baron would be addressed as “Honorable William.” Should his older brother die without issue, he would inherit his father’s title. The daughter of a Duke, Marquis, or Earl would be addressed as “Lady Diana,” as in the case of Diana Spencer, whose father is an Earl; and the daughter of a Viscount or Baron would be called ‘The Honorable Mary’ The sons of these younger sons would have no titles or distinguishing modes of address; neither would the daughters unless they married a man with a title. In a technical sense, these grandchildren may be said to have fallen out of the aristocracy; but this would be misleading. The granddaughter of a Duke would be a welcome addition to any social climber’s circle, more welcome, say, than the wife of a Baronet, who enjoyed the address of “Lady.”

House of Lords

This brings up a frequent point of confusion among novel readers : that between the daughter of a peer and the wife of a Baronet or Knight. “Lady” followed by the first name indicates the daughter of a peer (i.e., Lady Diana); “Lady” followed by the last name indicates the wife of a Baronet or Knight (i.e., Lady Bertram and Lady Lucas, characters in Jane Austen’s novels). In most social situations, the daughter of a peer would take precedence over the wife of a Baronet or Knight.

Knights and Baronets appear more frequently than peers in the nineteenth-century novel not simply because there were many more of them; they were closer to the middle class with which the novelist was mainly concerned. They are only technically noblemen; general usage does not consider them members of the real aristocracy. They have titles but are commoners by law, and they do not sit in the House of Lords. Baronetcies are inherited; they were first conferred at the beginning of the fifteenth century in the reign of James I as a means of raising money for the Crown. They were much easier to attain than peerages; basically, anyone with sufficient cash and the land to support the dignity of a title could have one. By the eighteenth century, many more baronetcies had been created than peers, although only a handful of pers could claim continuity in the male line from a medieval feudal grant; the rest of the peers owed their status to great property. The granting of a peerage required much more land and money than the granting of a baronetcy.

Compared to peers and Baronets, Knights have little social prestige and are not members of the aristocracy, since the title is not hereditary but granted in recognition of service to the state in any field of endeavor. For example, the present Queen Elizabeth offered to knight the Beatles, who refused the honor. Artists, writers, and professional persons of note are often knighted. Women who receive knighthoods, like the actress Edith Evans, are entitled to be addressed as “Dame.”

The hierarchy I have described suggests the social importance of the peerage over all beneath it. Sir Walter Elliot, a Baronet in Persuasion and one of Austen’s greatest snobs, grovels to receive an invitation from the widow of a peer. He consoles himself for the relative insignificance of his title by paging through the Baronetage in “pity and contempt. . . over the almost endless creations of the last century.” His own relatively early patent was created during the reign of Charles I (1600-1649).

In other words, not everyone with a title is an aristocrat. And if we read the novel assuming this is the case, as Americans often do, major portions of the novelist’s satire will be lost. By the same token, the possession of a title does not automatically raise its possessor above the entire untitled world. An ancient though untitled family of great wealth could easily be higher on the social scale than a recently created title. We see in Pride and Prejudice that Darcy, who is untitled, does not have much time for the attentions of Sir William Lucas. In the words of English critic B. C. Southam, Darcy’s blood and wealth would make him “persona grata in the highest circles.” Sir William is only a retired businessman, knighted for his achievements in trade. Jane Austen does not set store by these distinctions herself. They are there, part of the whole network of pride and prejudice with which her heroine must contend.

The English aristocracy, traditionally small and changing, presents a sharp contrast to the larger, more self-contained aristocracies of continental Europe. In continental nobilities, the titles of Prince and Princess are not confined to the Royal Family, as in England, and every child of a Prince becomes a Prince, every son of a Duke becomes a Duke. In England, only the eldest son of a peer inherits the title of the father; the rest of the children are commoners by law. If, as Tocqueville said, the idea of the gentleman saved England from a revolution, the structure of the aristocracy helped to make this possible. English younger sons and daughters were often pushed downward into contact with persons of the upper-middle class in order to bring about profitable marriages. In the English novel, a “trade” of social status and wealth often occurs between offspring of the nobility and the wealthy middle class, with the idea of the gentleman providing the bridge.

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