Dukes, Duchesses and Dowagers: Knowing One's Peerage
Updated: May 4
By Noell Chesney, author of All That This Entails
When you’ve read Jane Austen’s novels multiple times over the last 25 years, and you’ve seen the movies and miniseries, and you’ve immersed yourself in fanfiction and variations of Jane Austen’s stories and world and characters, you begin to feel that you know all about Regency England. However, when you decide to write a variation of your own, you begin to realize exactly what you don’t know!
Once I had decided to write a variation that involved inheritances and titles, I knew I had some research to conduct. As an American, the idea of aristocracy is somewhat foreign to me. The closest I’d ever come to any type of aristocrat was a high school teacher who was originally from England. His family owned an estate and we jokingly called him “Lord Hurst” in a terrible British dialect which he sportingly allowed. (No relation to the Hursts in Pride & Prejudice as far as I’m aware.) Because there is no American aristocracy, we don’t have volumes about the However, the Brits do! The works by Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage are probably some of the most famous, having started publishing lists in 1769. I was unable to get a copy from my local library, so I utilized the online information that Debrett’s publishes. It was a great resource. I learned about the different ranks and titles. It was also a great resource for how members of the peerage are addressed by different people and other forms of courtesy and etiquette.
Unfortunately, Debrett’s did not have all the information that I needed. When I was unable to find the answers in Debrett’s, I searched other websites and found what I could. This is also how I answered other questions I had regarding inheritances, wills, entailments, Regency weddings and marriages, and other issues of which I’ve had no personal experience. I wanted the idea of the Bennets' inheritance to be plausible, but still somewhat sensational. When I first posted my story on the online forums, I received some feedback that the amounts of money the inheritance would generate seemed unrealistic for the time period. I had to consider that Darcy is said to have made £10,000 per year. The Bennets, with their inheritance, needed to have considerably more income for my story, but I apparently went a little too high initially. I listened to that feedback and scaled back the amount of annual income the estates generated as well as the dowries to give to the Bennet daughters.
Another challenge was, of course, what to call Agatha, who had been the Duchess of Everard until the untimely and unexpected deaths of her husband and brother-in-law. Again, we turned to Debrett’s, as well as a second source, Titles and Forms of Address: A Guide to Their Correct Use. London: A. & C. Black Ltd., Third Edition, 1932.
Agatha was a unique challenge because she was not truly a dowager, as she was the cousin of the Duke, not the mother. But what to call a duchess-turned-cousin was unclear, particularly since, as an older, more experienced woman, she assumed a maternal role within the family, in helping the ladies of the house adapt to their new position. A dowager duchess, as you see in the table below, can be referred to by her close friends and family as Duchess FirstName. So, despite the fact she was not truly the dowager, given her age and her role within the family, we felt it was appropriate that the newly raised Bennet family should call her Duchess Agatha, as if she were a dowager. After all—she had lost so much it seemed rather hard to make her lose her name along with it!
Then during the editing process, it was interesting to discover how many phrases or words I had used that were not in the vocabulary of Jane Austen and her characters. I am glad that most of them weren’t as modern as our time, but several came from the 1850’s or similar eras. Being an absolute novice to the writing world, I had not even thought about these issues when I wrote the story originally. It is a very interesting process to write a story and then go through editing, especially when you haven’t looked at the manuscript in over 12 years! It was also enjoyable to work with the different editors and get their perspectives on what worked and what did not.
The entire journey has been such a unique experience. I’m very grateful for the interest and the ability to share this story with a larger audience. I hope that it adds to the world of Jane Austen fanfiction in a positive way and allows more people to delve into the world of Regency England and come to know it in a way that I’ve always found fascinating.