Garrow’s Law


For the benefit of those who can’t receive BBC1 television, I shall start by saying that Garrow’s Law is a period courtroom drama, set in late 18th entury London. Garrow is a young barrister intent on improving the quality of justice for poorer people, and he is based, apparently, on a real person.

The developing plotline concerns his relationship with the wife of Sir Arthur Hill, and here is my problem: the BBC takes great pains to get the period detail correct in costume, stage setting and the like, but obviously this can’t be carried to the lengths of having everyone speak in 18th century London accents (in the same way, both British TV series of Maigret, starring Rupert Davies in the 1960s, and Michael Gambon in the 1990s also accepted that it was unrealistic to affect French accents). We’re now getting to my linguistic point.

The wife of Sir Arthur, who is either a knight or a baronet (which is hereditary), is regularly referred to as “Lady Sarah”. She has been thrown out of her home by Sir Arthur, on the grounds of her supposed adultery with Garrow, and deprived of her child (who although claimed by Sir Arthur to be  Garrow’s, is being brought up by Sir Arthur). The correct usage for the wife of a knight or baronet is not “Lady Sarah”, but “Lady Hill”. For her to be “Lady Sarah”, she would have to hold the title in her own right, as the daughter of an Earl, Marquis or Duke. If she is the latter, where is her family? Shouldn’t they be defending her against Sir Arthur? If she is so aristocratic, I think we should be told. If she has no family, and was ‘elevated’ to her position simply by marriage to Sir Arthur, then she is being wrongly addressed and talked about by the whole cast.

Whichever is the back story, something is missing.

Sad, aren’t I?


  1. Good point, I like how you think. A bit like I do. Continue like this.

  2. Don’t you find that people nowadays constantly make this kind of mistake, when referring to both fictional and real titled people? It’s as though they feel it would be snobbish and un-PC to take the trouble to learn the correct usage for titles of nobility

    As regards Maigret and other dramas set in non-English-speaking countries, surely the characters represent Frenchmen speaking their own language, so why should they affect a “foreign” accent?

  3. Kate – I think the rot set in when Mr George Brown, then deputy leader of the Labour Party, was ennobled as “Lord George-Brown”. His proper title was then “George, Lord George-Brown”, but he was always referred to without the Christian name. The proliferation of titles since then – hundreds being created in the 1990s and 2000s, has made for confusion. When there are two people with the title “Lord Archer”, it’s easier to talk about “Lord Jeffrey Archer” (however much one might wish to avoid talking about him), than to say “Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare” every time, in order to distinguish him from “Lord Archer of Sandwell” (Peter Archer). And yet nobody has yet said, in my hearing at least, “Lord Alfred Tennyson”. He is still “Alfred, Lord Tennyson”. And as “Lord Peter Wimsey” (as the son of a duke) is correct traditional usage, the public is further confused.

    On your second point, the use of foreign accents for comic effect reached its sublime apogee in the BBC TV sitcom “‘Allo, ‘Allo”, in which the French characters all spoke with exaggerated French accents, the Germans with exaggerated likewise, the British with old-fashioned RP (and the French could not understand the British, and vice versa – but nobody pointed out that the Germans and French were communicating perfectly well!) – but only when speaking their own language. Officer Crabtree, the undercover British agent disguised as a gendarme, spoke atrocious French, and the only Frenchwoman to speak English spoke perfect RP to the British airmen. This joke was extended in later episodes to Italian. I once watched an episode with Swedish subtitles (I was on holiday in Denmark at the time, but watching a Swedish channel). This led to even greater confusion …

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