June 25, 2009

So the other night I watched the movie of The Count of Monte Cristo on pay-per-view. As I’ve said before, recently, The Count of Monte Cristo is my all-time favorite book, because it is basically 1,100 pages of revenge, which warms the cockles of my cold and bitter heart. The problem with adapting it for the screen (or for the stage, for that matter, which I once attempted, with disastrous results) is that what makes the book so fabulous is the inexorable slowness of it. He takes 800 pages to ruin the lives of everybody who framed him. It simply isn’t possible to convey this in less than, oh, say, six or eight hours. Apparently there is a French mini-series but I’m scared to see it because it stars Gérard Dépardieu.

In any case, I watched the movie not in hopes that it would be a particularly good adaptation, but simply because I enjoy a good costume drama.

What I do not enjoy is when people in a costume drama call each other the wrong thing. Everybody in the movie kept on calling the Count of Monte Cristo “Your Grace,” and it made me want to claw my eyes out.

“Your Grace” is what you call a duke or, in some cases, a bishop.

Nobody would everhave called the Count of Monte Cristo “Your Grace.”

Yet movies and TV shows get this wrong all the time. I can’t think off the top of my head of a royal costume drama I’ve seen in which people didn’t fling “highness”es and “majesty”es around indiscriminately as if they were water balloons at summer camp.

It’s not that hard, people.

In addition to the fact that forms of address have changed over the centuries, there’s a great deal of flexibility built into the system, so royal and noble tempers can be appeased and nobody’s head gets chopped off. In this case, there’s even more flexibility, since people seem to be speaking English on screen when we understand that they’re actually speaking French, so there are two different aristocracies to deal with and a translation. But it’s one thing to write a script in which people call a bishop “Your Grace” when strictly speaking they should be calling him “Your Excellency”; change the country he’s from and/or the country he’s in and you might be right after all. But for people to slouch around calling counts “Your Grace” is as realistic as people addressing the mayor of their town as “Mr. Ambassador.”

Counts are actually a particularly tricky case, since although in English we have the word “count” there are in fact no counts in England; the corresponding English rank is earl. The wife of an earl is a countess. An earl is addressed as “My Lord,” a countess as “My Lady.” So presumably one could get away with calling the Count of Monte Cristo “My Lord.” In French the usual form of address is “Monsieur le Comte,” so that would be fine, although translating to English and calling him “Mister Count” would just be weird. (The Count of Paris is addressed as “Monseigneur le Comte,” but I have yet to see him in a movie.) It’s also possible to address a count as “Your Excellency” (in French “Votre Excellence”).

Notice that “Your Grace” does not appear in the list of options.

Herewith, therefore, a brief and not comprehensive discussion of how to address various people in English. (These are all to be used the first time one speaks to the person in question. After that you just say “you” (or “sir/ma’am”) and drop the title occasionally into the conversation depending on how obsequious you want to be.)

Kings and queens are addressed as “Your Majesty.”

Their prince and princess children are addressed as “Your Highness,” unless they are directly in line for the throne, in which case it’s “Your Royal Highness.”

Emperors and empresses are addressed as “Your Majesty” but referred to in the third person as “His/Her Imperial Majesty.”

The pope is addressed as “Your Holiness” or “Holy Father.”

Cardinals are addressed as “Your Eminence.”

Bishops are addressed as either “Your Excellency” or “Your Grace” (depending on the place of their bishopric, but screenwriters have enough to worry about that I feel they ought not to be required so to extend themselves on research).

Pretty much everybody is addressed as “My Lord” or “My Lady.” This includes barons and baronesses, marquesses and marchionesses, viscounts and viscountesses, and plain old lords and ladies. There are a lot of complicated rules about the older and younger children of all of these people, which I won’t go into here.

Other possibly useful information:

When the king or queen of one country writes to the king or queen of another country, the salutation is “Sir My Brother” or “Madam My Sister,” unless the two rulers are actually related, in which case that gets stuck at the end; e.g., “Sir My Brother and Father.” (Let’s just not touch the incest implications here. But all those royal families are inbred anyway.)

When a king or queen writes to the president, the correct closing is, shockingly, “Your good friend.”

When the Holy Roman Emperor (you never know when that’ll come back) speaks of himself to someone else, he says “Ma Majesté.”

And one other thing about The Count of Monte Cristo, the movie: at one point, the hosts of a party that the count has been invited to see another couple there and say “what are they doing here?” Then it becomes clear that the count has invited the second couple to meet him at the party.

The Count of Monte Cristo would no sooner have issued a second-hand invitation than he would have chopped his own arms off.

And the next time I hear somebody address a princess as “Your Majesty” I won’t be held accountable for what happens.

(I will admit the infinitesimal possibility that I’m wrong about some of the above particulars, though I don’t think so; if I am, though, “Your Grace” for the count is not one of them.)

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21 Responses to So the other night I watched the movie of The Count of Monte

  1. Bruce Reynolds says:

    I thought that the royal Dukes in England (brothers to the King or Queen) were called “Your Grace”.

  2. Todd says:

    You watched that movie and the thing that got your panties in a twist was the use of “your grace”? I too put TCoMC as either my top novel, or at least in the top 3 (2 years before the mast, and Absalom, Absalom rounding out the list); however I found that the unappealing and particularly modern ethos of FORGIVENESS OF ONE’S ENEMIES in the movie as completely anathemic to the beauty of the novel, turning it into a eviscerated, weak, and pedantic fable. That is the true horror of that movie, IMHO.

  3. Bruce: Alas, no.

    Todd: Oh, I just pretended that part didn’t happen. (Though it’s in the novel, too, really; he lets Danglars go, which has always struck me as the one weakness of the book.)

  4. David says:

    It’s not that hard?

    It was challenging enough for me to just read through the all the permutations you presented without getting a migraine. Few of us are as dedicated to honorifics are you are. So good luck with that.

  5. FortWorthGuy says:

    FYI…I am attaching a link to the Style Guide for the(UK) Times. This should be the section that discusses, in great detail and correctness, the proper nomenclature for titles etc:


  6. tominsf says:

    If I remember right, Miss Manners, along with other authorities, gives Americans dispensation from the use of most of the forms of address you mention. I think Miss Manners actively discourages them. If I were ever unfortunate enough to meet Elizabeth Windsor, I might stretch a point and address her as “ma’am,” but that’s a word that has not heretofore passed my lips, ever, and I hope it will never in the future, either.

  7. TED says:

    Is there a clinical name for the fear of Gerard Depardieu? There doesn’t appear to be a DSM designation for it, but my knowledge of the field is very limited. I’m sure that if you were to ask E.S., he could tell you definitively, and then you could have sex, which is where I was hoping this entry was going to end.

  8. FortWorthGuy says:

    #6 tominsf: Being from Texas the word “ma’am” passes my lips more times a day than I can count. However, if you are really from “SF” I can understand your fear of the dreaded phrase. Who would want there balls handed to them on a silver platter like your Senator Boxer did the other day to the Marine Corps general. I would not be surprised if her DNA is secretly hiding a Y chromosome somewhere.

  9. Travis says:

    I think I just had a spontaneous orgasm reading this post … without touching myself, either.

    Who says smart ain’t sexy? 😉


  10. APJ says:

    I have a movie pet peeve that others find similarly picky: I can’t stand when musical instruments are “played” on screen by performers who are not only clearly *not* actually playing, but haven’t even bothered to learn how to at least look as though they are. Interestingly enough, one of the most egregious films in this regard also stars Gerard Depardieu (“Tous les matins du monde”), just in case you needed more reasons to fear and/or shun him.

  11. JW says:

    How about “dude”? Dude works for everybody, right?

    I’m glad not only to be from a republic that categorically rejects titles, but from an part of said republic that is noteworthy for addressing most officials by name. Which is the People’s Republic of Multnomah. Power to the people.

    p.s. have your hits gone up since your Elton John post landed on Metafilter (I think it was Metafilter)?

  12. Aidan says:

    You are too cute.

    How exactly does one pronounce “Ma Majesté”?

  13. Ashe says:

    I’m with JW: “dude” works.

    In America, except for the Kennedys, royalty isn’t interesting.

  14. Ashe says:

    I’m with JW: “dude” works.

    In America, except for the Kennedys, royalty isn’t interesting.

  15. Diz says:

    I love when you rant out loud about the things I rant about internally.

  16. julian says:

    I totally thought I was the only person who noticed this. Good to know I’m not alone.

  17. Alan says:

    My pet peeve is with those who call former Presidents “Mr. President” or “President XXXX”‘ after they leave office.

    There is only one President of the United States at any one time, so former presidents should be addressed with the highest title, rank, or degree they earned prior to the presidency.

    Just FYI

  18. Will says:

    Your Blogship–

    I am fascinated to find that you are such a royalist, sir. From my long rejected Catholic upbringing, I can confirm that you are correct in your designations of the different forms of address by rank within the church hierarchy.

    Your good blogfriend,


  19. Campbell says:

    Bruce: WRONG WRONG WRONG! I guess you live in a republic, so you are never ever going to get the nuances right no matter how hard you try; the effort is very endearing but doomed.

    Royal Dukes in the UK are addressed in writing and when first met in person as ‘Your Royal Highness'(in person after introductions have been made and acknowleged you address them as ‘Sir’)

    The reason for this is that their princely status outranks their ducal status and one is always addressed by the most senior title to which one is entitled. I know I always am…..

    As a case in point when it was suggested that Prince George of Wales (later George V) on his marriage be gazetted as the Duke of York, his grandmother consented only with reluctance since, as she pointed out a royal prince was something while dukes were, comparatively, mere nobodies.

  20. Hedgie says:

    Sadly, it is becoming archaic to address Dukes and Duchesses as “your Grace”: apparently, it is correct these days just to call them “duke” or “duchess”. I discovered this shortly before being introduced to a duchess, and I hated it – “duchess” is the sort of thing one calls a prize pig. I think if we go to all the trouble of maintaining a fully functional monarchy we should stick with tradition in these matters.

  21. Charina says:

    I’m watching TCoMC right now, and it grates on my last nerve when ‘his grace’ is uttered. I’m bothered by it because, it’s lazy research, and for the time period it’s an incorrect form of address.

    Fernand came into his title by order of succession, since his father and brother died, and was too a count, so if the script writers were following that thought process, he then should have been also been referred as ‘his grace’. Also, French counts should be referred to a Comte.

    It was the incorrect form of address, period. These are things that for accuracy they have to get right.


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