The Importance of Being ‘The’

Writing historical fiction is full of potential minefields, and rather than feeling their way circumspectly past the lethal lumps in the ground, some authors seem almost to rejoice in crossing the field like blind twenty-stone gorillas on pogo sticks. Perhaps this is particularly true of language. Obviously, replicating the original speech patterns and language is impossible – presumably The Name of the Rose would have sold rather fewer copies of it had been written in the appropriate Norman French and Greek – but go too far to the other extreme and the linguistic thought police will soon be on your case. Take, for example, the TV series Downton Abbey, where people with rather too much time on their hands have objected pedantically to anachronisms of every kind; I believe someone even suggested no husband would have called his wife a bitch in 1916 (presumably this mindset might struggle to cope with, say, Pepys calling a girl a slut in his diary entry for 15 December 1661).

When it comes to early modern British history, the mines tend to be chock full of the shrapnel of semantics and above all that peculiarly British WMD, the grapeshot of aristocratic titles. The latter, in particular, always tends to throw the best. The West Wing is undoubtedly one of the greatest TV series ever written and one of my all-time favourites, but even there, knowledgeable Brits galore would have tittered at the hilariously implausible set of titles accorded to Roger Rees’s shambolic but deceptively brilliant character, Lord John Marbury. I had a query recently from someone who had assumed that because nowadays only Privy Councillors are entitled to be addressed as ‘Right Honourable’, that was always the case. Not so; in the 17th and 18th centuries, Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty (note: not ‘Lord Commissioners’) were equally entitled to be so addressed. It was an age obsessed with precedence; witness the arcane incident described by Pepys in 1668. I’ve tried to reflect this in the journals, for example by attempting to get forms of address as accurate as possible. In the newly completed third book, The Blast That Tears The Skies, I have a scene set at a council of war where the attendees include the Duke of York, the Duke of Cumberland, and the Duke of Monmouth. But the former, as son and brother to Kings of England, was addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’; Cumberland (Prince Rupert), a foreign prince, was addressed as ‘Your Highness’; and Monmouth, as a non-royal duke, was addressed as ‘Your Grace’. In the Quinton journals, Matthew is the brother of an Earl. Modern (i.e. Victorian) etiquette dictates that he would be entitled to be addressed as ‘the Honourable’, and I’ve used this occasionally, but it wasn’t a hard and fast rule in the seventeenth century. And so on. Phew – think I got through that minefield, anyway…

All of which is a very long-winded way of getting to my main point. The naval historical fiction genre is dominated by the age of Nelson and Napoleon, and by then, British warships were normally known as HMS Unspeakable, without the definite article (which, of course, the French have retained). However, any author who tries to apply the same principle before about 1750 – even, to an extent, 1780 – is metaphorically jumping up and down on one of the biggest lumps in the minefield. Before that time, British warships (and I’ll come to the whole ‘English/British’ thing in a later blog) were never named without the definite article, and ‘His/Her Majesty’s Ship’ was never, ever, abbreviated. This might seem to be one of the pedantic oddities of the Quinton journals, but it’s simply an attempt to stay true to the practice of the times. This is why the title page of Part One of The Mountain of Gold begins ‘His Majesty’s Ship, the Wessex’ and Part Three ‘His Majesty’s Ship, the Seraph’, and why you will never see the abbreviation ‘HMS’ in any of the books. I think this piece of semantics has two important consequences. The definite article seems to me to make the ship more unique, more distinctive, more of a ‘personality’ in its own right; while the full form, ‘His Majesty’s Ship’, reminds us that this really was a ‘royal navy’, the property of the monarch, and – in Charles II – a monarch who felt a real affinity with, and played a hugely significant part in reshaping, the service that defended the nation in his name. So long live ‘the’!

5 Comments

  1. Sam says:

    This is an interesting post, especially considering Canada’s MarCom is going to once again become The Royal Canadian Navy.

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  2. Christine Hancock says:

    Should a ship (Merchant, not just Navy) be written for example The Worcester or the Worcester? From your examples I assume “the”.

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  3. Nicholas Blake says:

    True about the ‘the’, but the comma in His Majesty’s ship, the Seraph is almost always going to be wrong.

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