The Real Viscount Milton

The Real Viscount Milton

As many readers of Jane Austen Fan Fiction know, certain elements are common to many JAFF stories that aren’t actually found in the cannon of Austen’s work. Christian names or character attributes are frequently consistently applied by JAFF Authors. I personally find this practice helpful as a reader —it lends continuity to the genre and can orient a reader within the story. For example, I adopted the name “Richard” for Colonel Fitzwilliam, as have many JAFF authors before me.

Another common one is the name Madeline for Mrs. Gardiner. Austen never told us her name, but she did indicate that the first initial was “M.” Perhaps because there were already so many Marys in the list of characters, another “M”name, “Madeline,” was selected in early JAFF stories and it stuck.

Then there is Viscount Milton. The name is innocuous enough that I’d probably seen it in three or four JAFF stories before I even noticed it, but when I had decided to use him in the plot of Constant as the Sun, the reason for it became clear as soon as I started researching. Within the Fitzwilliam family, the heir to the earl was given one of the earl’s lesser titles as a courtesy until he inherited the earldom, and that title was Viscount Milton.

4th Earl Fitzwilliam of England / 2nd Earl Fitzwilliam of Ireland (Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons)
Viscount Milton (Regency Era). Became the 5th Earl Fitzwilliam of England / 3rd Earl Fitzwilliam of Ireland (Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons)

Jane Austen would never have been able to do this. She was already using the name “Fitzwilliam” for Darcy’s uncle who was an earl. The name itself was imbued with meaning and projected certain qualities by association. By using that name, however, for legal reasons, she had to be careful. There was only one earl by the name of Fitzwilliam in the real world, and he had one son. By making Colonel Fitzwilliam the second son, there could be no misunderstanding that he was anything other than a fictional character.

By leaving the details of the first son blank, however, Austen left an implied character wide open for JAFF authors to fill in the details. Two-hundred years down the line, we aren’t subject to the same legal constraints as she was. Hence, in Constant as the Sun, the Viscount Milton was an antagonist.  I fear that Austen might not approve, considering that it goes against the implied meaning of the name Fitzwilliam she so carefully selected. Some of the characteristics of the family name of Fitzwilliam are loaded.

Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons
  1. The Fitzwilliam family held peerages in both England and Ireland.
  2. They were rich. Not just slightly rich, but one of the richest families in England. At the time of his death in 1833, the Earl Fitzwilliam had an income of £60,000 per annum.
  3. They were famous. Everyone in England had heard the name and most would know enough about them to pick up on the implications of being linked to that family.
  4. There was a decided lack of scandal associated with the Fitzwilliam family. Their reputation was pristine.
  5. They were deeply entrenched in Whig party politics, including spending a small fortune in an election to place Viscount Milton in the seat previously held by a Tory. This happened around the time Jane Austen was re-writing on Pride and Prejudice, so there was more publicity around the name than usual.
  6. They were extremely generous with their employees and tenants, with higher wages and lower rents than others have. They also provided affordable food, and for the elderly, there was extra coal and blankets.
  7. They were religiously tolerant at a time when persecution of Catholics was common.
  8. Their connections, social, familial and political, were persons of prominence and power. They even threw a party for the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York in 1790.
  9. They invested money in trade during an era when others of their station avoided being associated with industry in the belief that it would taint their reputation. Mr. Darcy’s friendship with Mr. Bingley seems more likely in this circumstance, doesn’t it?
  10. The 4th Earl Fitzwilliam had inherited the massive Wentworth-Woodhouse estate on the death of Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, his maternal uncle. This added to the portfolio of multiple properties he already owned.
    Wentworth Woodhouse Estate (Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons)

By associating Mr. Darcy with that name, Austen was attaching him to the very best of reputations and a family of extensive holdings as well. Just reading this poem, written by Lord Carlisle, one of Fitzwilliam’s school friends give you a sense of this:

Say, will Fitzwilliam ever want a heart,
Cheerful his ready blessings to impart?
Will not another’s woe his bosom share,
The widow’s sorrow and the orphan’s prayer?
Who aids the old, who soothes the mother’s cry,
Who feeds the hungry, who assists the lame?
All, all re-echo with Fitzwilliam’s name.
Thou know’st I hate to flatter, yet in thee
No fault, my friend, no single speck I see

Making the Viscount Milton a villain goes against all the weighted meaning Austen gave Darcy in making his mother a member of the Fitzwilliam family. It’s over two centuries later, and adding a black sheep to the family doesn’t really challenge their legacy – it isn’t political. It’s fiction.


38 Responses to The Real Viscount Milton

  1. My head is spinning. I am so happy to allow you authors to do that research and I can read it at my leisure. I do take note when “Richard” or “Madeline”, etc. is not the name as I am just used to “hearing” those choices. I don’t take note to criticize but to make my mind pay attention as to who is being spoken of in the plot. I am also happy that we in the USA don’t have to pay attention to all those levels and names and what happens when one’s father dies, etc. Thanks for sharing your research.

    • Hi Sheila – I’m glad to share my research! It’s crazy how much fascinating information there is out there just waiting for us to find in our research. I am by no means the most knowledgeable on this historical period, so I am extremely grateful for those who have shared their extensive knowledge on this era, and on Austen. I am always pleased when others are interested in the bits I’ve learned and want to share. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Great passage Diana. Fascinating!
    I am currently enjoying villian Viscount Milton in your wonderful new novel Constant As The Sun: The Courtship of Mr Darcy. A wonderful follow up to One Thread Pulled which ranks as one of my favorites.

    • I know that for me, learning bits like this have enriched my reading of JA tremendously. I even begin to understand why Lady Catherine, as part of the Fitzwilliam family would be so appalled by Elizabeth. It was only recently that it occurred to me since de Bourgh is a French name, JA’s use of it was very possibly a reference to the nature of the aristocrats who inspired the French Revolution – still fresh history in that era. Oh, the layers!

  3. I’ve always thought it a deliberate irony that the Bertrams had interests in the slave-holding West Indies while they owned an estate called Mansfield Park. Considering that the real Earl Mansfield had a ward who was mulatto (the name of the time) and she was raised in his home, I think the usage was loaded.

    • I think you’re right that it was deliberate. I recall reading, around the time of the release of the movie “Belle” that Austen had met Dido Belle’s cousin, Elizabeth Murray, and was curious about the story and possibly used her as the inspiration for the character of Fanny Price. Oh look, I just checked my bookmarks and I saved the link to that article! It’s a great read if you’re interested.

      • Thanks for such an interesting post, Diana, and for the link to the Telegraph article. I’ve just finished listening to Juliet Stevenson’s narration of Mansfield Park, which was my first encounter with it for many years. It’s the one I’ve always struggled with the most out of Jane Austen’s works but I now have a new appreciation of it and that Telegraph article expresses it far more eloquently than I ever could. I guess I always though “Why Fanny, why Edmund?”

        The choice names Austen uses is a fascinating subject, isn’t it? Some critics say that she couldn’t possibly have known all this was going on, being the daughter of a country vicar, but she was obviously well read. You only have to read her letters to know that she mixed with higher echelons of society due to her brother’s connections and see the details of journeys, visits and outings that she made throughout her life. Shy and retiring? I don’t think so! Which means that I think she gave a great deal of thought to her characters’ names. To compliment on occasions, definitely, and to have sly digs at others too.

        • When “Belle” came out, I read everything I could find about it, an find that it informs my reading of Mansfield Park. As much as we love her work, those of us without an extensive familiarity with all the nuances of that society are reading Austen with some of the pieces missing. I’m always delighted when I find something that sheds light. Thanks for the comment, Anji.

  4. I’m a little less cynical than others. I believe it is totally possible and even probable that the Fittzwilliams were as upstanding as they appear. People are the same in all eras…there are people who are very good and people who are very bad, and people in between. Even the wealthiest families with the best reputations are capable of maintaining good behavior. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this interesting information with us! 😀

  5. Lots of great information here. If I was living in those times I’d definitely want to be working for that family. They sound like they were really kind and caring. Unusual for the time I think.

  6. Really enjoyed learning about the actual Fitzwilliam family. A lot of money and prestige, such as they had, probably covered up a lot of scandal. Is that terribly skeptical and caustic of me to say? However, they were generous to their tenants and employees, which says a lot – a good family for Darcy. Jane chose her characters very well indeed. Thank you for a fun post.

    • In light of things we know about those with money, prestige and political power in our day, it isn’t a stretch to assume they weren’t as squeaky clean as they appear. People are going to be people, after all, make mistakes and not want them broadcast for all the world to know. Their Wentworth cousins were a little more prone to misbehaving than the Fitzwilliams were. Money can certainly help keep those things off the public radar. In general though, I think theres sufficient evidence of their generosity to support the idea that their reputation was solid for good reasons. Jane certainly gave her characters loaded names.

  7. I think you were bold, and completely right, to make this particular Fitzwilliam a villain. I have veered a little from the Jaff tradition by naming my Colonel Fitzwilliam Edward, but I do like Madeline for Mrs. Gardiner!

    • I’m glad you approve, because it’s a done deal now! 🙂 Richard and Edward are both kingly names, as are George, Henry and William. As for the name of Richard, she did use it for a character. In Northanger Abbey she opens with the bit that Catherine Morland’s “father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard.”

      I have read several theories about what she meant about the name of Richard there, and there were speculations that it’s some sort of private joke in their family. I learned about this after I had already used Richard as the colonel’s name. It’s a kingly name too, but when broaching the topic of that particular man, she said, “the character of this prince has in general been very severely treated by historians, but as he was York I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable man.”

      So there is something about the name “Richard” that seems to call respectability into question. LOL. Maybe that’s why they are sometimes called “Dick.”

  8. That was very interesting.

    I suspect Jane Austen intended her smarter readers to be able to pick up on the Fitzwilliam name and draw conclusions from it. I just checked and “Fitzwilliam” doesn’t occur until after Bingley& company leave Netherfield Park.

  9. I must admit that in the majority of the books I have that the Colonel is referred to as Richard. However as you say it is never mentioned in the original so I don’t mind what name is used. I have read some modern variations where Darcy and Elizabeth even have different names but as long as the characters are the same I can live with it. (although I do prefer it when their original names are used!) Thanks for this post on the real Fitwilliams.

    • One of the things writers often do is create a “character bible” with answers to numerous questions about our characters – backstory, favorite foods and colors, etc. Many times, these things don’t actually make it into the story, they just help the writer be consistent and often do round the character out in the mind of the writer. I wonder if Jane Austen had chosen a name for Colonel Fitzwilliam that she simply didn’t reveal. I want to know!

  10. Excellent post, Diana. I use “Edward” for Colonel Fitzwilliam’s name for it is my father’s name. I have not changed to “Richard.” I did have one nasty review where a reader said some to the effect of ‘She does not even know Colonel’s Fitzwilliam’s first name. How can she say she has read Pride and Prejudice?’ Needless to say, I was not the one who had NOT read Pride and Prejudice.
    As to Austen’s choosing of names, did you ever notice that despite coming from a Tory family, she uses an abundance of names from Whig families? Austen uses many “Whig” names in her stories: Wentworth, Woodhouse, Watson, Bertram, Brandon, Churchill, Dashwood, D’Arcy, Fitzwilliam, Russell, and Steele.

    • Ah, we have something in common. My father’s name was Edward too. In Constant as the Sun, I named the earl and his countess after my parents – Edward and Eleanor. I’ve seen a number of different names used for the good colonel, but Richard is so commonly used that I’m guessing there are JAFF readers who simply haven’t realized that Jane didn’t give him a name. One can hope that your reader will one day get around to reading the original.
      I was thinking about that Tory/Whig thing when I was working on this blog. I’m sure there’s some reason – perhaps she wouldn’t offend any of her family’s Tory friends that way, or there could be some deep psychological meaning behind it. It would be so fun to sit down with her and ask her all these questions, wouldn’t it?

  11. Enjoyed your thoughts in this post, Diana. And I particularly liked the list of characteristics of the Fitzwilliam family. I have also found it interesting that Jane Austen named her characters after individuals known in her day as well as the names of houses. i.e. Captain Wentworth and Emma Woodhouse. Jane Austen had a very sharp wit, and I would love to know why she chose certain names. Thanks again.

    • It really is amazing to peel back the layers of the onion on Austen’s writing, isn’t it? We know it’s all intentional. The Earl Fitzwilliam was even succeeded in one of his political offices by the Earl of Mansfield. They’re all linked!

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