Inheritance FAQs (or, how to disinherit a duke)

I have just read a review of a British-set histrom. The hero is a duke, but he has a problem: the conditions of the title stipulate that if he isn’t married by the age of thirty, he will be stripped of the dukedom and it will pass to the next heir. Great romance set-up, right?

No. Oh God, no.

There are historical realities you can muck about with, tons of them. Have a zillion dukes by all means. Let them marry governesses and plucky flower girls, fine. These things are wildly implausible, but this is historical romance, and we’re here to play.

And then there are things that you cannot mess with, because they don’t play with the world, they break it. Chief amongst these in British aristocracy romance would be, er, destroying the entire system of British aristocracy. Which is what this plot does.

The point of a system of primogeniture—the whole, sole, single, solitary purpose of it—is to establish that nobility is bestowed by birth. The monarch can bestow a title on a commoner because of their merit on the battlefield/skill in the sack, but once it is granted, it operates under the rules. Nobody ever gets to decide who will inherit their title—not the monarch, nobody. It goes to the first in line: end of story. And once a peerage is bestowed it cannot be removed by anything less than an Act of Parliament or Royal prerogative. Certainly not by a previous holder’s whim.

If inherited titles can be given or withheld on any other basis, if you start asking “Does the holder meet basic standards?” or “But is this really the best person for the job?”, the whole system falls apart. It is infinitely better for the aristocratic system that a chinless idiot should make an absolute mess of his earldom than that the right of firstborn nobility should ever be questioned.

Hence this isn’t a matter of suspending disbelief / plot implausibility: it destroys the entire house of cards. Allow me to quote GK Chesterton:

Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.

A duke marrying a lowly chimney-sweep’s daughter is merely implausible. But a duke whose title can be removed if he doesn’t meet a certain standard of behaviour, or a nobleman who can disinherit his older son and bestow the title on his second? That violates the laws of the aristocratic primogeniture-based world you’re writing in.

Some readers won’t notice of course. But many, even those who aren’t versed in the specifics of those laws, will pick up that you neither know nor care to know about the world you’re writing. And that does rather raise the question, why bother?

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Herewith some Inheritance FAQs for UK historical romance authors.  See this other incredibly long post for more on getting titles right.

Can my bastard hero (the illegitimate kind of bastard) inherit his father’s title?

Not in England, possibly in Scotland.

A bastard (born outside wedlock) cannot inherit his father’s title or any property entailed to it. He could be raised to the peerage, i.e. given his own title, by the monarch, but he can’t inherit one because that would break the system of primogeniture. A title could fall into abeyance (stand vacant while waiting for someone to claim it) and potentially then be awarded to the bastard son by the monarch, but it would not be in his father’s power to leave it in his will.

In England a bastard cannot be legitimised by the marriage of his parents unless your book is set after 1926, when the law was changed to retroactively legitimise children if their parents married (as long as neither parent was married to someone else at the time of the birth). The legitimised son of a peer is not entitled to inherit the peerage, though he would be able to use a courtesy title if one was available.

However, if a Scottish bastard hero’s parents married as above, he would be legitimised and able to inherit the title, as that has been Scottish law for ages.

Can my hero renounce his title? Can he nobly give it to his cousin instead?

Not before 1963 but see below, and he can’t ‘give’ it to anyone.

When a peer dies, his heir claims the title by making a petition to the Crown, giving his claim in detail. The heir can use the title while waiting for the formal approval to be granted (start calling himself Earl of Bingley) but it’s not actually his until it’s granted. Hence you could have two rival claimants walking around London both calling themselves Lord Bingley, to everyone’s embarrassment.

The petition is reviewed and, if straightforward, presented to the monarch for rubber-stamping. However, if there are complications, the petition goes to the Committee for Privileges. While this is happening, anyone else who believes they have a claim can petition the House of Lords to have it heard.

Let us say the time and place of Lord Bingley’s marriage to his housemaid are shrouded in mystery, but they lived as a married couple and have an acknowledged son, John. When Lord Bingley dies John petitions the Crown for the title. He can’t give details of his parents’ marriage, so the petition is referred to the Committee for Privileges. Meanwhile his cousin Peter comes forward to claim that Lord Bingley wasn’t legally married and that the title should instead come to him. The whole thing then gets thrashed out in the Lords, whose decision is final.

If John doubts his own claim to the title but has no proof either way, he can decline to make a petition to the Crown, and then the title would simply lie in abeyance until his death, at which point Peter could petition for it. Or if the title has been granted to John already, he can refuse to use it and call himself Mr. But while John lives, the only way for Peter or anyone else to be Lord Bingley would be for John to be conclusively proven illegitimate before the title was granted.

The only way you can mess around with renouncing a title is with an heir who isn’t generally known to exist. Let’s say Lord March was a bigamist, has a son Terence by his first marriage who lives quietly in a village, but as far as the world is concerned, his son James by the second, bigamous marriage is his heir. While this remains secret, James and Terence can decide between themselves if Terence is going to lie low or if James is going to nobly declare himself illegitimate–or indeed knowingly lie to the House of Lords to claim the title. But this entirely depends on Terence’s identity remaining a secret. If it becomes known to the Committee of Privileges, only Terence will be awarded the title, and John is out whatever happens.

NB: It was not possible for a peer to disclaim his title until 1963 when the law was changed. A disclaimed title lies unused until the former holder dies and then inheritance operates as normal.

Can my heroine inherit a title of her own?

Depends.

English titles usually descend down the direct male line. For many titles it is specified that the title passes to “the heirs male of [the holder’s] body”, i.e. legitimate sons only. If you run out of legitimate sons, the title goes into abeyance.

However, some titles are deliberately created with a special remainder allowing it to pass to women/down the female line. Many more Scottish titles than English are created this way. And lots of the older English titles descend in fee simple, meaning the title can go to a female heir, or to other relatives if the line of descent has died out, without going into abeyance. These are almost all baronies or earldoms. Where an English title is in fee simple, sons have precedence over daughters.

Take the earldom of Polkington. The earl is called Alan, and has children Lady Bertha, Charles and David, in that order. Alan’s younger brother is Eric.

In the heirs male system, Charles is heir, with David next in line. If both of them die the title falls into abeyance. Eric can then petition to inherit as the only surviving son of the last-but-one Earl; Bertha is out.

However, if the earldom is held in fee simple, the order of inheritance would be: Charles, David, Bertha, Eric. So if you want a heroine to have a title in her own right, there you go.

NB that if Bertha becomes Countess of Polkington in her own right, her husband John Smith does not become Earl of Polkington or get any courtesy title. He remains Mr Smith unless given a title of his own. (He might well take her surname under these circumstances so their children would have the earldom’s family name.) If Bertha’s husband was Sir John Smith, he keeps his title of Sir. If Bertha, Countess of Polkington marries the Marquess of Mandrake, she will probably style herself Marchioness of Mandrake because it’s higher status.

My hero’s mother was playing away and he isn’t the duke’s biological son—can the villain threaten to disinherit him with this knowledge?

No.  

It is not easy to disinherit the heir to a peerage (because primogeniture). If Lord and Lady Welford are married, Lady Welford’s eldest son is the legitimate heir to the marquessate and entailed property, even if he bears a striking resemblance to Lady Welford’s lover. Lord Welford’s heir could potentially be disinherited if it could be proved beyond doubt that Lord Welford could not have had sex with his wife for a goodly period around the time of conception—but that would be “could not” as in “she was in England, he was in China”, not just a claim that they weren’t sharing a bed at the time. (For once, the man’s word on the matter doesn’t carry all the weight! Woop!)

Moreover, Lord Welford would need to repudiate the child from the first and stick to that decision. He can’t come back from China, forgive his erring wife, bring up the boy with his name, then change his mind in five years’ time. And even then the case would have to be thrashed out in the Committee of Privileges.

Can my hero be stripped of his peerage if he fails to fulfil the terms of a will, or removed from the line of succession by his irate father because of his rakish ways?

Literally, and I cannot state this clearly enough, no.

The irate father can leave unentailed property/money elsewhere, but titles are not in anyone’s gift. The legitimate firstborn son will inherit the title. Peerages can only be granted along the line of succession and, once granted, can only be removed by an act of Parliament. This virtually never happens, and only for things like treason, which tend to come with other (terminal) consequences. Once the title is formally granted, that’s it.

This is the case even if there is an obvious error. Suppose Lord Manders has an eldest son Roger who died abroad, and a second son James. James will need to provide proof that Roger is dead in order to inherit the title, and if he can’t, it will not be granted. If it is granted, and then Roger turns up a few years later explaining it was all an amusing misunderstanding, James can’t just renounce the title of Lord Manders and let Roger have it.

But I really want my elderly duke to force his handsome son, nephew, and bastard to compete over who will inherit the dukedom!

Tough shit. They’ll just have to fight over money like everyone else.


Talking of bastard dukes, my latest release is Any Old Diamonds, in which Victorian jewel thieves collide with degenerate aristocracy.

An Unnatural Vice: out now, with more art!

An Unnatural Vice, book 2 in my Sins of the Cities sequence, hits the ether today. unnatural vice

Sins of the Cities is my take on the Victorian sensation novel. There’s murder, family secrets, disputed inheritance, peculiar lines of work, ongoing love stories, and fog. Lots of fog.

In fact, An Unnatural Vice is set during a real fog which was one of the worst of the 19th century. And I don’t just mean it was a bit murky out. The combination of pollution from home fires and factory chimneys and the murky atmosphere of a low-lying city in a river valley meant the air basically curdled. The 1873 fog lasted for a full week, during which time the Smithfield Cattle Show was held: more than 50 prize cows died of suffocation. Theatres had to be closed because nobody could see the stage. People died of respiration problems, in their hundreds, and also because they walked into ditches and the river.

A reporter wrote of a different and less severe London fog:

Night appears to be pressing close against the window-panes at noon-day… Traffic is not interrupted, although daylight is completely extinguished–so long as the pall remains above the housetops. When it descends to the surface of the ground, the discreet remain indoors; belated pedestrians are conducted home by link-boys […]; cabmen lead their horses, and vehicles moving at a snail’s pace frequently come to grief; the driver of the tram-car is unable to see his horses, and the conductor is hardly able to distinguish the hand that passes the fare.

To reiterate: that fog she’s describing is less bad than the 1873 one I use in An Unnatural Vice.

They called them pea-soupers for a reason. The air was thick; the fog would create banks in side streets and enclosed areas. You could not see to cross the road; lifelong Londoners would be hopelessly lost in their own neighbourhood. Now imagine you’re dodging a murderer…

An Unnatural Vice is set in that fog, and stars journalist Nathaniel Roy and fraudulent spiritualist Justin Lazarus, as they try to see their way clear in every sense. Nathaniel is a privileged moral crusader still mourning his long-dead lover; Justin is a gutter-bred scam artist who pretends to contact the dead for a living. It goes as well as you might expect…

“Spirits, if you wish to share your names now, give us that gift. Mark them where we may see them, if we are worthy to be told. Let us see now.” Lazarus closed his eyes, tilting his head back to expose his throat, a priestly action that had a wholly secular effect on Nathaniel.

Justin Lazarus was without question a disgraceful fraud, but as his lips moved in silent prayer, Nathaniel could not help the thought that he looked like a glorious fuck. The bad kind, of course; the kind that left a man feeling dirty and ashamed and degraded in his own eyes. The kind Nathaniel had never had in practice, and wouldn’t have admitted to imagining, but could see all too clearly. Bending the medium over his own table, holding him down. You want the furniture to move, Mr. Lazarus? That can be arranged.

All About Romance gave it a grade A/Desert Isle Keeper review, saying “I thought the first book in the Sins of the Cities trilogy was terrific, but this one is even better.  …  Their mutual enmity and lust are palpable, and the evolution of their relationship – from bitter enemies to devoted lovers – is gripping and romantic.”

I hope you enjoy it!

Publisher
Amazon.com
Kobo
Goodreads

The Sins of the Cities trilogy has an ongoing series plot (think of it as a sort of inside-out three-decker Victorian novel), so while you can read this one alone if you must, it’ll make more sense read after An Unseen Attraction. Book 3, An Unsuitable Heir, is out in October.

And to celebrate, let’s have some Mila May art…here’s Nathaniel, Justin, and Justin’s housemaid Sukey. The complete set of cards dealt so far can be seen here.) Enjoy!

CARD_NATHANIEL(2.25 x 3.5)CARD_SUKEY(2.25 x 3.5)CARD_JUSTIN(2.25 x 3.5)

Historical Romance: learn or die

I am not writing about the election. I’m not. If you want my opinion you can find it, extensively, on Twitter, although let’s be honest, if you’ve ever read anything by me you can probably take a stab in the dark as to what I think anyway.

Instead, I’m going  to talk more about getting British titles right in historical romance. Which seems a pretty trivial thing to write about at such a time but I have a couple of points to make, and only one of them is “JFC do your research”.

I wrote this post about aristocratic titles in large part because I’m sick of reading blurbs that begin,

Lord Michael Pemberley, the Earl of Northfield, has long delighted in the carefree existence he enjoys as the ducal heir.

That (with names changed because I want to pick on a general issue rather than this specific book) is a quote from a published book. I can see two (maybe three) glaring problems in that, the first line of the blurb, starting with the guy’s title.

 

 

 

***pause for writers of historicals to work it out. Here is your cheat sheet.***

 

 

 

 

An earl is addressed as Lord Title. If he is earl of Northfield, he’s Lord Northfield. “Lord Firstname” is a courtesy title granted to a younger son; Michael is the heir and thus the eldest son. This is not optional; he cannot be both an eldest son and a younger son. Calling him “Lord Michael the Earl” makes as much sense as calling him “Sergeant Pemberley the Admiral”.

Nitpick: Courtesy titles don’t take “the” so if this is introducing him, rather than a casual narrative reference, he ought to be Michael Pemberley, earl of Northfield (or Michael Pemberley, Lord Northfield).

Now, the book in question goes on to have the duke’s heir marry a commoner of the lowest kind. In historical romance terms I have no problem with that. It’s wildly implausible, sure, but I like a good Cinderella story as much as anyone. I’m cool with a romance that overturns an established order; that is, in fact, what historical romance does, by putting women and queer people at the centre of the story.

So my problem isn’t a romance defying the established power system. My problem is when a book doesn’t understand the power system it’s nominally about. And this blurb (which I am picking on as just one of many) suggests precisely that because of a) getting the main character’s title wrong, and b) the description of the heir to a duke as having a “carefree existence”.

A story about a lower class woman with no rights and a male duke’s heir with immense wealth and privilege is a story about power imbalance. If you don’t understand the power system, you cannot write a meaningful story about power imbalance within it. If you’re writing about aristocracy, about class gaps, about people needing to marry for money, about people meeting or not meeting family expectations when they fall in love, about inheritance, about the freedom to live as you want or dependence on someone else holding the purse strings, about the need to fit into a social role and the chance that your love story will blow your position in that order out of the water, let alone possibly endanger your life or liberty…if you are writing a historical romance where any of those things ought to apply and you just handwave them or treat them as unimportant, I would ask very seriously what you’re writing historical romance for.

This is not just a matter of taste—“Very Serious Romances with lots of politics are better than ones with floofy dresses and fun!” It is, I think, a matter of craft.

Take Lord Michael the Earl enjoying the “freedom afforded him as the ducal heir”. What that says is, Wow, a really rich guy, he must have a great life. It’s not looking at, for example, what it would really mean to be heir to a duke, one step below the king, possessed of jawdropping wealth, vast landholdings, literally thousands of people depending on you. The weight of the position, the responsibility to which you were born. What sort of mentality it would take to ignore it, and why you would, and what that would say about your political views, micro and macro, what you’d ever been exposed to, how you’d have been brought up to regard other people. The hero might be crushed by his position, or he might indeed be an irresponsible pleasure seeker ignoring his responsibilities, or an earnest man shouldering them with enthusiasm. But he’s got to be in his place in society in time in some way because that’s what the “historical” part of “historical romance” means.

Writing “Lord Michael the Earl” pretty much advertises that you haven’t looked at the basic functions of the society you’re writing about or considered how people operate within it, which isn’t something I’d recommend slapping on your book cover. It proclaims the book to be contemporary romance with a dressing-up box.  And mostly, it misses out on the chance to explore different perspectives from those of, for example, a 21st-century mildly liberal white American.

I wrote a book, A Gentleman’s Position, which is the story of Lord Richard Vane, a marquess’s younger brother, who falls in love with his valet. The power balance is obscenely skewed, and the entire conflict comes down to whether there is any way that a relationship between two people in such grossly unequal positions, embedded in a class structure of inferiority and superiority, can work. For Lord Richard, following his heart feels profoundly morally wrong, for his valet it’s wildly transgressive and incredibly risky—and that’s without considering the effects of a grossly homophobic society. Lord Richard gets a lot of flak from readers for having a serious stick up his arse on the subject. (Quite fairly. What? I’m not here to make my characters’ lives easy.) But he considers himself responsible for the virtue and well being of his valet because that was what a good man in his time and position should do. It is a book that basically wouldn’t work at all without the historical attitudes because they are the source of the conflict.

I think this is one of the most romantic romances I’ve written, because Lord Richard  has to change his entire socially programmed way of thinking in order to be with the one he loves. And “learn to change your entirely socially programmed way of thinking” is not an outdated theme. I’d say it might be one of the most important challenges facing all of us if we want to confront racism and misogyny and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and xenophobia and all the other ways we have of keeping one another down instead of lifting each other up, which are all written on us by the world we live in.

Historical fiction has a unique opportunity to examine different ways of thinking and expand the reader’s horizons. The ways that good people can think things that we might now find hair-raising; the ideas and situations that used to be taken for granted; the ways society shapes people. Historicals can show us the continuity, the sameness, of humanity amid completely different societies and histories and pressures and constrictions—all of which will press and warp and shove that common humanity in different ways. Because society affects people, and we can hurt each other in so many ways when we don’t confront power structures, when we refuse to see them at all, when we take our way of thinking for granted or assume our version of “the right thing” is the same as everyone else’s.

That’s why I think it matters not to handwave historical attitudes or ignore the ways a society works in favour of taking our ideas and priorities and beliefs as the only right way. Because I think it’s pretty obvious at the moment that we 21st-century people are not in fact all-wise, that liberal values are not to be taken for granted, and that people who don’t learn from history are, indeed, condemned to repeat it. God help us all.

 

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KJ Charles is a writer and editor. Her next novel is Wanted, a Gentleman, out in January.

This is an edited and mucked-about-with version of a speech I gave at the Manifold Press Queer Company 2 event.