Titles, formality and houses with no hallways…

One of the things I’ve noticed frequently is that people writing historical fiction today have a great deal of difficulty with the concept that in the past, people didn’t use others’ Christian given names.  They didn’t introduce themselves to strangers using their Christian names and they didn’t talk about their friends that way either.

We as writers want our characters to be appealling and friendly and engaging.  And how do we express that today–well, one of the ways is clearly through informality–removing what we see as the false barriers of formality, title, class.

But what about them?  How did they see it?

I have a theory.  And that is that the less personal space people in a society have, the more they employ other means–often verbal–to emphasise their separateness and position, their identity or intimacy of relationship. 

For example, many houses built in Britain before the 19th century didn’t have hallways off which the rooms opened.  Frequently it was just room leading into another room leading into another room…So the individuals had no privacy.  Not any. 

At any time, regardless of what you were doing, someone might walk through without knocking.  Using the chamberpot, marital relations, getting dressed each day–at any time, someone might walk through the room.  And that holds true of life in a cottage as well as in many of the great houses.  There simply was no such thing as privacy, it’s not really even a mental concept with which they’re familiar–like snow to a South Sea islander.

So how do you communicate your identity, your place in society, your space?  Through language and linguistic barriers.  You acknowledge the marital status of all, and the marital availability or otherwise of all the females.  Notice that all of Jane Austen’s married men speak of their wives, not by their given name, but as Mrs X.  Likewise in Pride and Prejudice, Lydia refers to her “dear Wickham” when speaking of her husband to her sisters.

Children use the given names of their siblings and of those whom they have grown up with, but that childhood informality stops there. 

Within a marriage, the given names would be used privately, between husband and wife only, and only when they were private together–which stressed the intimacy of their relationship.  (Others might see them together, but no one else had the right to use their given names…)

And throughout, men are known by their surnames or their titles, not their Christian names.  There are many reasons for this–a surname might initially tell a person where one was from, one’s political history and religion, a family trade and/or class.  And while we may not deem any of this as vital today, 200 or 400 years ago, this was all necessary information.  Indeed–and not to be melodramatic–it might mean the difference between life and death, or at least freedom and imprisonment. 

As for British titles, I honestly believe questions about them are best answered here at  http://www.debretts.com/forms-of-address.aspx on Debrett’s website.  Or here.   

But again, the titles were what was used in speech or writing, not the given names of the individuals. 

They didn’t see it as stuffy or de-individualising or classist.  It was just the way it was done.  And whether we agree or not, to them, the most important unit was the family, not the individual…individuals came and went, particularly in an age of huge infant mortality and female mortality.  So what needed to survive, to ensure the survival of the remaining children, for example, was the family. 

(Our modern concept of the self and the ego are relatively new in the scheme of things, only dating back to the late 19th century…)

Anyway, back to my theory.  In France, still today, when one enters a shop, the shopkeeper or assistant says “Bonjour Monsieur” or “Bonjour Madame” depending on the gender of the customer.  Even if they they know you well.  That is how one is addressed. 

France, like Britain, Holland and Germany and probably all the European countries, have a long history of many people packed into a tiny space with little room for privacy or personal space.  Even in the largest palaces, this is true.  If you don’t believe me–take a good look at the interiors of Versailles or Fontainbleau. 

Japan:  again, little space, great linguistic formality. 

It’s just a theory, of course, a musing, if you will.  But I hope it may go some little way to resolving at least one element in the gulf which can exist between modern writers of historical fiction and that which can often seem a a distant, foreign and incomprehensible country:  the past.

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4 comments on “Titles, formality and houses with no hallways…

  1. Noelle Pierce says:

    I can certainly understand that, and have no problems using titles and surnames for the men. What of second and third sons, however? They often had no title (unless conferred), if I’m not mistaken. They would share a surname, so how to reduce confusion? And what of siblings referring to each other (again, not referring to the firstborn son, who has a title to distinguish him)?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I think I’d cite Austen again–in Sense and Sensibility. Lots of siblings there.

      Edward Ferrers would say something to the effect of, ‘Miss Dashwood, allow me to name my brother, Mr. Robert Ferrers’. After that they might then mostly use the term, ‘my brother’.

      At home, or in intimate non-mixed sex company, they would possibly use just the first name, ‘my brother, Robert’.

      Does that help?

  2. junebugger says:

    I was biting my lips while reading this post. Damn it. Damn it. I know–I do know!–the historical inaccuracy I’m making by having Candover think of himself as Lucas. Candover just feels so impersonal to me. I just…can’t…do it…I’ve tried! But it’s so hard. Nevertheless, I’ll keep your words in mind.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It’s just a matter of what you’re used to. Try it for a month, and try thinking as him, not for him…

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