Writer's Tip: Epithets
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
This one's dedicated to my ever-patient editor, Jack, - and with sincere apologies to Jane Austen, who first taught me 'wrong'. Jack's right, my dear, and we'd best not pout.
As I worked through the edits to the sequel for Always a Princess (those of you asking for Valkin to get his HEA, please know you've been heard), my editor pointed out to me several bad habits I'd picked up - and one of the worst is the one I gathered from Ms Austen herself. That is, it was a common enough literary device in 1813, but it's time I put it away and I am so grateful to Jack for helping me to see it, and rework, redo, and improve (and lord did it take reworking!!). The end result is a much tighter book and sharper prose - but perhaps I should explain the de-epithet-ing of The King's Mistress. This isn't nearly as sexy as it sounds - I promise.
What are Epithets?
When one of my characters 'mutters an epithet', it's usually a curse word (and if you'd like to learn a few, do signup for my newsletter on my About page - I include a Regency slang term in each issue and most are curse words because, well, I like it this way). That isn't what I'm discussing in this post.
Epithets, in editing, are the ways the characters reference each other - not only in direct speech, but also in thought (or 'internal dialogue'). If you know your Austen, you may recall that the delightful Miss Elizabeth Bennett is frequently referred to as 'sister', 'Lizzie', 'Elizabeth', and 'niece', and a variety of other epithets in Pride and Prejudice. This often happens in the cinematic adaptations as well.
I think this has something to do with the formalised speech of the day, when keeping people, and relationships, 'in their proper places' was far more important then than it is now. People's professions, and titles, mattered a lot. There's a moment in Austen's Persuasion where the baronet (Sir Walter Elliot), points out Austen's hero, Captain Wentworth, to Lady Dalrymple, the Dowager Countess (oh, and I epitheted all over that one Jack - apologies again).
In order to correctly delineate the relationship of Wentworth to himself, Sir Walter describes him thus:
“A well-looking man,” said Sir Walter, “a very well-looking man.”
“A very fine young man indeed!” said Lady Dalrymple. “More air than one often sees in Bath. Irish, I dare say.”
“No, I just know his name. A bowing acquaintance. Wentworth; Captain Wentworth of the navy. His sister married my tenant in Somersetshire, the Croft, who rents Kellynch."
In less than two lines of dialogue, Sir Walter has made it clear that the man is not of his class, is not well-known to him (and really, is almost beneath his notice), has a profession, and is not of the landed gentry as he himself is - but that he knows Bath society well enough to recognise the fellow, who is a connection of another 'social inferior'. The Captain's name (which is Frederick) is not mentioned at all, and Sir Walter may not be aware of it despite having rented his country estate to Wentworth's family.
The relationship is distant, and that distance is meant to be emphasised and maintained - especially while Sir Walter converses with those of greater rank in society than himself. Likewise, we are never given first names for the Lady Dalrymple in the novel, or her daughter. Class - and class prejudice - is a major theme in the novel, and it's Austen's only novel where the heroine is of a higher rank in society than her hero.
How Many Epithets?
In our short exchange above, Wentworth is referred to as: - Wentworth
- Captain 'of the navy'
- A well-looking man / A 'fine young man' with an 'air'
- A 'bowing acquaintance'
- Relation of 'His sister' (ie, a brother of Sir Walter's tenant Admiral Croft).
Frederick remains nameless in this scene, and this is quite common in Austen because her novels were written in a time when where you were placed in society was more relevant than who you were. Sir Walter's objections to his daughter renewing acquaintance with an old friend who'd come down in the world (widowed and poor by the time Anne sees her again) makes this point fairly effectively as well. Frederick's name matters far less than the other identifiers listed above.
In Pride and Prejudice as well, the only place Darcy's first name is even mentioned, is when he signs off his famous letter to Elizabeth. Outside of (fairly) intimate correspondence, he is 'Mr Darcy' unless he is being discussed in reference to someone else. For example, when seen in relation to his sister, he is an 'ideal elder brother', to Colonel Fitzwilliam he is 'my cousin', and to Bingley he is a friend and 'a great tall, fellow' (though Bingley speaks this in jest).
I fell into the habit of allowing my characters to address each other similarly. Sometimes, this works - especially if I'm seeking to create distance between them and/or the way they see each other. However, there are times this jars on modern readers because, after all, distance is not conducive to romance, and certainly not to intimate connections. Austen's heroes at least conveyed this well, by only referring to her heroines by their first names once betrothed. Anything else would be taking a liberty, and even in 1813, heroes didn't do that.
In The King's Mistress (the sequel to Always a Princess), my heroine has long cherished a fondness for Valkin - so her thoughts regarding him are (initially) necessarily more intimate than his regarding her. In her mind, he needs to feel 'closer' to her than she does to him. The use of epithets in my drafts had to be corrected - over and over again - as she thought of him by his first name more often than his title (though she dared not use it until permitted to do so).
The difference this makes to the emotion in the story is powerful. My beta readers report it's less confusing for a character to only have one or two epithets. This way, the prose is clearer because, unlike Austen, my readers do not live and think in 1813. Thank you Jack!