Debrett’s goes digital | The Economist
DDROP-DOWN MENUS can be revealing. Purchase a subscription to Times, a conservative paper, and under the option “Titles” it offers you a duly conservative selection: “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Miss”, “Mrs” and “other”. Left Guardian does not offer any title. Debrett is different. He offers not only “Mr” and “Mrs”, but also “Lord”, “Lady”, “Sir”, “Hon. “,” Capt. “, ” Collar. “And” Rev. ” Signing up is less like shopping online and more like participating in a Jane Austen adaptation.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on ios Where Android.
Drop-down lists are needed as the publication has just gone digital. This is in many ways disappointing. Peerage & Baronetage by Debrett, a snobbish guide to the British aristocracy, gives the impression that it should be written on vellum and served by butlers, rather than hosted on internet servers. Austen’s “Persuasion” opens with Sir Walter Elliot leafing through the much-loved pages of the Baronetage. Nancy Mitford mocked her chronicles of “ancestors in the names of PG Wodehouse” and “fates of Walter Scott”. In Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” when Sebastian Flyte is asked about his family, he says curtly, “There are many of us. Look for them in Debrett.
Its fine fabric pages whispered quietly of a forgotten world, one of the silver spoons and iron covenants that covered the correct way to address a duke (“Your Grace”); the daughter of a duke (“Your Lady”) and “Dames divorced” (as you wish). But as times change, formats must change too. When the Queen has a Twitter account (@RoyalFamily) and 4.6 million followers, perhaps it was inevitable that Debrett would go online.
He also branched out, not quite selling family silverware but allowing the lower classes to contemplate him, like an aristocrat opening the country seat for afternoon tea. He gives advice on etiquette, including table manners (“it is vulgar to bite into bread”); Zoom (“never eat on screen”); and social kissing (“under no circumstances should there be any suggestion of saliva”).
Keeping it fully up to date is, according to Wendy Bosberry-Scott, its editor, almost impossible, since “people are born, marry and die every day”. Being digital is an advantage here. One year a particularly important Duke died on the day of going to press: Debrett had to call the printer and replace the page. “It cost a fortune.”
The entire database, dating back to 1769, is now searchable: 2,000 hereditary titles, over 700 lifetime peers, and around 150,000 matching relatives – or, as Debrett calls them, “collaterals” (aristocrats, as accidents cause fallout). Even including collateral, it covers just over 0.2% of the UK population. This is an influential 0.2%, including many prominent politicians, including David Cameron, the former Prime Minister whose reckless decision to hold a referendum brought Britain out of the European Union unexpectedly (motto: “Carefully and constantly”).
But Great Britain, although still in the class, is less dominated by the titled toffs today. In the 1860s, three quarters of deputys were of patrician origin; now these are exceptions, not the rule. It’s good for Britain, but bad for Debrett. Walk into a library in 1900 and you would have found shelves of such volumes: Debrett’s, “Burke’s Peerage” and “Kelly’s Handbook”: class bound in red cloth. Now Kelly’s is gone; Burke was last printed in 2003; and Debrett’s most recent print edition, in 2019, only produced 700 copies. It was almost certainly the last. As few know better, things are born and die every day. ■
This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Baron net”