Friday, 17 June 2016

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 17 June

What’s in a name for today’s woman? Thomas Blaikie offers some suggestions – but Ms definitely is not one of them

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
My daughter and I would like your opinion on a discussion we had. When two of my daughters married they kept their maiden names. Our discussion was about the title by which they should be addressed. I said it should reflect their married state and should therefore be ‘Mrs’. The surname is immaterial. But my daughter uses ‘Miss’, as she thinks ‘Mrs’ denotes ‘Mistress of’. I said that ‘Miss’ makes it seem as though they are just cohabiting. ‘Ms’ is anathema to both of us, so not to be considered. We then dissolved into giggles and I said, ‘I know, I’ll write to Thomas Blaikie.’
Valerie Simmons, Stow-on-the-Wold

Dear Valerie,
What an intriguing problem and very much of our day. I do agree about ‘Ms’. It just sounds awful. On the other hand, I can understand that a woman might not want to be ‘Miss’, which is often used as an insult: ‘Quite the little miss, aren’t we?’ A ‘Miss’ is someone who lacks a husband as if this were a failure.

‘Mistress’ is the root word of ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, just as ‘Mr’ is a short form of ‘Master’. These days a Mistress is something else, although there are positive uses: ‘I am mistress of this house.’ The trouble is the terms are from the 15th century when we know a wife basically was her husband’s possession. A further objection is that a ‘Mrs’ conventionally takes her husband’s name.

So there is a lack of suitable terminology for the needs of a modern woman. As if it wasn’t complicated enough, you mention, rightly I think, that a woman’s married state should be reflected in her title, at least some of the time. What exactly is the point of being married if nobody is to know about it? Although, of course, a man is ‘Mr’ whatever his condition.

One solution is to be doublebarrelled: so a wife would be, say, ‘Mrs Courtney-Wildman’. But what are her children to do if they want to marry? They might face being quadruple-barrelled.

I think the only way out of this is something of a compromise, but there we are. Essentially you duck out of having any title for much of the time. In their professional lives, many woman retain their maiden name and are ‘Anne Robinson’, ‘Joan Collins’, etc. The old-fashioned way of signing letters ‘Grace Barlow (Mrs)’ has quite gone out. At work, it’s neither here nor there whether a woman has a husband. Elsewhere, why not go the whole hog as a married woman? Our dear editor of The Lady is Sam Taylor – in that role. But as a married woman she is the Honourable Mrs Mark Wilson.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER


An extraordinary story in the Mail On Sunday. In the 1960s, Jean Handcock and her husband, Michael, went to Kent looking for a hideaway to buy and got lost in Seal, near Sevenoaks. They knocked on Audrey Ede’s door to ask for directions. She said, ‘If you’re interested in country cottages, come back at 3pm and I’ll show you mine.’

To cut a long story short, Mrs Ede turned out to be the possessor of an important Japanese garden in a state of decline. Thereafter keen gardener Mrs Handcock travelled down from London every week to help in the garden for no pay. Eventually Mrs Ede died and Mrs Handcock was surprised to learn that she had inherited the house and garden. Another point of etiquette: don’t tell anyone what’s in your will, particularly if it is something unexpected or unusual. In these days of mobile phones people rarely knock on a stranger’s door asking for help.

Strangers were always coming to us, in deepest Devon in the 1960s, wanting to use our phone or the lav. The custom should be revived. You never know, you might end up inheriting a major Japanese garden.

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