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.)