BOOK REVIEWS
Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey


When a Lady is a Lady

Titles and Forms of Address: A Guide to Correct Use.
A&C Black, 1997.
xxxi + 191 pages. Paperback, $17.

Reviewed by Caroline Cracroft.

In the 1940s, boys at English public schools were still constantly reminded by their middle class school masters not to give their athletic coaches (the "professionals" on staff) the prefix "Mr." They were to be addressed and referred to simply by their surname, such as Barker, just as one would address servants. Thus did the schoolmaster, wrapping himself in the gentility conferred by a BA, cling to his precarious perch on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. Doubtless the same schoolmasters would have been punctilious in their use of "Esq.," a title used indiscriminately after World War II in order not to cause offence, but which became so common as a result that it slowly but surely began replacing "Mr" all round. It lingers on in the USA among lawyers, even lady lawyers.

Jane Austen would not have needed a book like this to help her address her letters. As the great, great niece of a Duke; the great niece of the Master of Balliol College, Oxford; the daughter of a parson; the cousin of a French countess; and the sister of two admirals, Austen had the aristocracy, academia, the Church, and the defence forces down pat. She slipped a bit when it came to Royalty, but then, they were not family.

Many American readers of Austen are confused when they see that some titles involve the use of first names and others are followed by surnames: what distinguished Lady Dalrymple from Lady Catherine? Austen knew exactly how to refer to the dowager and the daughter of a viscount (Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret, Persuasion) on the one hand, and to the widow of a baronet, who, though she had married down, had, as the daughter of an earl, retained her own title of Lady and her own forename (Lady Catherine De Bourgh. Pride and Prejudice.) As Titles and Forms of Address explains, she would also have retained the same name had she married the younger son of an earl, because she would have outranked him. The volume from A& C Black is useful for clarifying these complexities.

In a sense, Jane Austen's world was fairly uncomplicated; she knew her way around the prescribed codes of her society. There were only a handful or so of "letters after the name." There were, for example, only four orders of chivalry (compared with the 12 contemporary orders, each with multiple divisions). The present volume lists 559 abbreviations or "letters after the name" (including, interestingly HM, but omitting HRH). Whereas Sir William Elliot prized his Great Book for what it could tell him about his own and other people's antecedents, the value of Titles and Forms of Address lies in enabling us both to wend our way through today's labyrinth, not so much of the aristocracy (whose forms are pretty much frozen) but of the newer social and professional hierarchies. To those readers, however, who find Austen's world sufficiently confusing, this book may prove useful.

All societies create hierarchies, and forms of address. Like etiquette and protocol, they are designed--contrary to popular belief--to make life simpler, not more complex, by laying out who goes first and how to behave in a given situation. Protocol lets each one know where one stands, literally. When protocol is silent, uncertainty and discomfort ensues, as when HRH The Prince of Wales went to Paris to collect the body of his former wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, and no one had thought to indicate on the programme whether he or the President of France should exit the hospital first. Two courteous men each begging to go behind the other resulted in an unseemly shuffle. (Titles and Forms of Address is silent on the style of the divorced wife of the heir to the throne, or on the divorced and remarried daughter of the monarch.)

Few of us now need to know how to address the remarried former wives of eldest sons of marquesses, or the dreadful mistakes that can occur in the case of the wives of the younger sons of dukes and marquesses, but the rise of the professional woman, who is honoured in her own right, is still a novelty.

One real shortcoming of this book is the absence of a table of precedence. Without it, we shall not be able to write to a Bishop (male or female) married to a Lord Justice of Appeal (male or female) and know whose name comes first, unless we follow Titles and Forms of Address usage and always put the husband first. Though presumably even this volume would not ask us to address an envelope to: "Captain Timothy Laurence MVO RN and HRH The Princess Royal."

An adept of Titles and Farms of Address will find much to study in the life of a great Englishwoman, Violet Bonham Carter (d. 1969). Born Miss Violet Asquith(1887), she became Mrs Maurice Bonham Carter on marriage (1915), Lady Bonham Carter when her husband was knighted (1916), Lady Violet Bonham Carter when her father was created an earl (1925), and Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury when she was made a Life Peer (1964) in her own right.

Ultimately, Titles and Forms of Address can help us understand how Austen uses titles and precedence to help portray her characters. Just as Lady Catherine has slipped a rung or two in marriage, so Sir William Elliot, that unmitigated snob, is placed so brilliantly by Austen in that "twilit region between the nobility and the gentry" (D.W. Harding, in his introduction to Persuasion, Penguin 1965). A baronet is a hereditary knight; he holds a title, but is not a member of the House of Lords. As Austen shows, it is always the socially precarious who cling officiously to precedence, such as Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion, both obsessed with outranking their older unmarried sisters and setting themselves up as arbiters of form.


Caroline Cracroft, a graduate of the Sorbonne and Somerville College, Oxford, where she read Modern History, is an Englishwoman who has lived in the United States for the last 30 years. She works at the British Consulate in Chicago.

JASNA News v.15, no. 1, Spring 1999

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