In The Three Musketeers, the queen’s English lover is referred to only as “the Duke of ------.” I always wondered why. The film versions I’ve seen always call him the Duke of Buckingham, on whom Dumas presumably based the character – but why hide it? (This came to mind recently while I was reading the new fantasy/historical novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clarke, which inconsistently uses this convention for some characters (and place names!) while not blushing to draft other named historical characters (such as the Earl of Liverpool) into the story.)
In Vanity Fair, Osborne and Dobbin’s regiment is always referred to as “the gallant -----th.” A more defensible choice, I suppose; one might invent a fictional regiment with a fictional name, but if you give it a number it would have to be the same as one used by a real-life regiment, unless it is a very high number indeed.
While American libel laws allow an author to avoid liability in the absence of an actual intentional telling of a mistruth about someone, English libel laws (and, I believe, Continental libel laws) allow for recovery if the author even mistakenly manages to say something untrue about someone. So if you were to say, e.g., Duke of Buckingham and describe an action by the Duke that didn’t actually happen, you put yourself at risk of being held liable for libel. Far better never to actually use a name, thereby running a substantially reduced risk of an unintentional libelling of someone.
There was a thread about this recently which of course I can’t dig up in spite of some very creative searching.
The gist of at least one post in this thread I’m remebering suggests that to put in “the Marquis of -------” or that some event took place in “L----” adds an air of authenticity to a novel, suggesting that it isn’t simply fiction but a true memoir. That had a certain appeal to the Victorians (hmm or should I say the Romantics?)apparently.
But, in English (and American) law, you can’t libel the dead – that is, nothing you say or print about a dead person can give rise to any cause of action for defamation. The Duke of Buckingham (George Villiers, favorite of James I) died in 1628. The Three Musketeers was published in 1844. So why take precautions?
I should amend that: it has nothing to do with real-world libel. It’s to give the perception that if you used the name it would embarass the character mentioned, but the key word is “character.” It makes the readers believe that the story is an actual event rather than something made up.
So you’re saying it’s like the old Dragnet/Adam-12 disclaimer, “the story is based on real events, the names have been changed to protect the innocent”, only in this case it’s a deliberate misdirection.
Edgar Allan Poe, among others, used this from time to time. In The Purloined Letter, the Prefect of Police in Paris is called “Monsieur G-----”, presumably to imply that the author is dealing with reality and trying to protect the name etc.
But it’s not limited to the Romantics. Ian Fleming used this technique in Moonraker, where M is introduced as “Admiral Sir M---- M-------”; again, to maintain the fiction that M is real.
In his Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle didn’t use a first initial followed by dashes, IIRC, but he sometimes went out of his way to avoid using a name at all. “The Illustrious Client” was probably the best example of that. In context and to the contemporary reader, it would be pretty clear that Holmes was working on behalf of the Prince of Wales (Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the future King Edward VII). A similar approach was used in the conclusion to “Charles Augustus Milverton.”
At other times, Conan Doyle made up the names of political or aristocratic individuals which his readers would know to be - and/or that Dr. Watson would explicitly say were - fictitious, in what would otherwise be presented as a “real” case. This was (I’m paraphrasing) “to prevent embarrassment,” to “protect the reputation of one of the leading statesmen of the Realm,” to “avoid a diplomatic incident that would surely precipitate a continental war,” etc.
Odd, every edition of the Three Musketeers that I have read specifically mentions the Duke of Buckingham, no dashes necessary. I can’t imagine that Dumas, who took such pride on weaving his stories around real people and events would cover it up like that.