Duchess of B---
December 24, 2004 6:40 AM   Subscribe

I've finally started reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and I've come across a passage that reads:

"You will not regret it, my dear sir!" cried Drawlight, "for three weeks ago I chose a set for the Duchess of B—— and she declared the moment she saw it that she never in her life saw anything half so charming!"

I don't know any English teachers, so Ask Metafilter is my best hope: what's the deal with the "Duchess of B——" thing?
posted by schustafa to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Reminds me of Dickins, who tended to do that, instead of naming certain people. At least, I think it was Dickins. Purely a style choice, just a reference to the style of the time. I think.
posted by graventy at 6:48 AM on December 24, 2004

The same way "page six" refers to heartthrob Johny D-- canoodling in a swank manhattan bistro.
posted by Megafly at 6:56 AM on December 24, 2004

Graventy is right, it's something that writers used to do to make generic names (and dates). Dostoevsky does it in Crime and Punishment for the names of bridges and streets, and Shelley does it in Frankenstein for the year, i.e. 17--. Personally I find it irritating, but that's probably because I'm not all that used to it.
posted by Who_Am_I at 6:59 AM on December 24, 2004

It started as an attempt to provide some sort of veracity to the events and characters portrayed within (sort of like Dragnet's disclaimer). Here I presume it is a stylistic choice to hearken back to that 18th/19th century style choice.
posted by Gnatcho at 7:06 AM on December 24, 2004

Hmm, that was an ugly sentence.
posted by Gnatcho at 7:06 AM on December 24, 2004

G----- : The problem is that you can't have people with the same letter in their last name, otherwise confusion erupts. For instance, am I responding to graventy or Gnatcho?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:16 AM on December 24, 2004

It's a common satirical trick, later used in other literary contexts, that dates to at least the seventeenth century. A satirist who used the letters + hyphen combination could avoid legal prosecution (after all, s/he hadn't actually named anyone...), even though everybody knew who the target was. See, for example, John Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe" (1682). Later on, as Who_Am_I points out, writers used it to create the illusion of a real-life referent.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:30 AM on December 24, 2004

Gnatcho has it most accurately. It was a suspension-of-disbelief device. The fact that the name is being 'hidden' is supposed to suggest that maybe you're reading a true story, and if just a few more details were provided, it would be scandalous. These days, it's usually used as a parody of that idea, i.e. 'There was a certain M. Scu----- who Inquired, upon a certain Forum, about the identify of one Duchess B-----.'

On preview, also what thomas j wise said.
posted by bingo at 7:33 AM on December 24, 2004

listening to the audible.com version of pride and prejudice left me wondering where "blankshire" was england. the _____ is much easier to read than to listen to.
posted by heather at 8:44 AM on December 24, 2004

Armistead Maupin used this in his "Tales of the City" stories. Specifically, he used it to refer to Rock Hudson as the lover of one of the characters, but since these stories were written well before Rock was out (or outted,) Maupin referred to the character as ____ ____.
posted by glyphlet at 10:28 AM on December 24, 2004

Also, while it sounds like you were asking about the blanks, the Duchess of Bedford is what came to my mind.
posted by GaelFC at 2:17 PM on December 24, 2004

Best answer: To synthesize what Gnatcho, thomas j wise, and bingo said:

It's something people did in novels of the 18th and 19th century in order to give people the impression that the characters and places they were writing about were taken from real life; the novelist is following the pattern of 18th-century journalists and satirists who, when they were writing about real-life people, places, and events, would use an initial followed by a blank in order to simultaneously hint to readers whom they were discussing, but avoid libel charges by not actually using the subject's name.

Clarke, then, is consciously harking back to this old-fashioned device as a way of giving a period flavor to her book.

And DickEns was not the first to use the device at all.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:35 PM on December 26, 2004

Sorry, Sidhedevil, only place I remembered seeing it.
posted by graventy at 10:14 PM on December 26, 2004

Either Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace (can't remember) does this sometimes. I find it annoying as well.
posted by callmejay at 9:14 AM on December 27, 2004

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