It’s easy for me to understand why members of the ton during the Regency as well as wannbe members of the ton would have enjoyed thumbing through their peerage reference books for hours on end.
Of course, during the actual Regency (1811-1820), only Debrett’s was in existence. Some sources say it began in 1769, but others date Debrett’s to 1802. By that date, peerage “guides” had been around for a couple of generations. Burke’s Peerage came along in 1826.
For years I wanted to own my own copy, but ones from the early nineteenth century were very expensive. I opted to buy an inexpensive CD-Rom of the 1845 Burke’s on Ebay. To my disappointment, it was not searchable. My husband quickly remedied that by thinking to convert it to Word.
I have spent many, many hours reading about long-dead English peers. Just yesterday, for a work-in-progress, I wanted to search my heroine’s name to see if it was a name generally in use during the Regency. I was fearing that it wasn’t. My heavy research into the era has told me that aristocratic ladies tended to have the same 15-20 Christian names, which included Sarah, Mary, Jane, Ann, Diana, Augusta, Susan, Mary Ann, Elizabeth, Fanny (for Frances), Henrietta, and Harriette. It’s sort of a pet peeve of mine for current Regency-set romance novels to have heroines with contemporary-sounding names like Courtney. (My author friend Gerry Bartlett jokiningly says, “Courtney spelled Cortni!”)
Sure enough, I was right. My heroine, tentatively titled Lady Leigh, was in possession of a name that would never have been in use during the Regency. My search of Burke’s yielded zero results. Even when I searched the Biblical Leah, I came up with zero. Like I said, those Regency/Georgian mothers pretty much stuck with the same fifteen names.
Even though Sophia is one of those Top 10 names given to baby girls in 2010, it so happens it was in use in England before and after 1845, the year of my Burke’s Peerage. After I searched my Burke’s and found a gazillion Sophias just in the A’s, I remembered one of Mad King Georg’es daughters bore that name. Therefore, I’ve done a search-and-replace of my entire document to change Leigh to Sophia.
My Burke’s is also handy when I want a good English-sounding surname for one of my characters, since it gives all the family names. There were (and are) title names and family names. For example, the Duke of Devonshire’s family name is Cavendish. (Did you all know the famous Kennedy sister who died young was married to a Cavendish who was in line to become the duke, had he not been killed in World War II? Or that Fred Astair’s sister and original dancing partner married one of those Cavendishes?) The Duke of Bedford’s family name is Russell.
Because I read a lot of diaries and letters of those who lived in Regency/Georgian England and early Victorian England, I especially enjoy searching my Burke’s for a complete listing of the various aristocratic families. Each family is traced from its origins. All a peer’s predecessors are listed, as are their siblings, the date they married – or died – and the name of all their offspring. The peerage even gives the name of their family seat. I am far better acquainted with names of eighteenth-century British peers than I am with today’s. I’ve even learned how many of the various families were interrelated over the years.
As time marches on, the 107th edition (and most recent edition) of Burke’s was published in three volumes in 2003. Americans can purchase it online for around $400, including shipping. A little pricey.
Both Debrett’s and Burke’s are now available through online subscription. Debrett’s will give one access to its 3,000 pages for an annual subscription of £75 – over $160. Burke’s offers a yearly subscription for £64.95, or £7.95 a month for access to its 15,000 references.
Perhaps for my next birthday. .