Persuasions #12, 1990 Pages 35-37
Forms of Address and Titles in Jane Austen
Supposing you were introduced to the Queen? Would you be struck dumb? Or, for that matter, to Lady Catherine de Bourgh? Or to Sir William Lucas and his wife?
If you are not positively sure what you would say, read on.
Americans renounced such distinctions as titles with the Declaration of Independence and the statement that all men were created equal. Yet, as Mrs. Edwards observes of the Osbornes, “Great People have always their charm,” and those of us in North America who read Jane Austen, and who may occasionally fantasize about being introduced to the Queen – or, more probably, to a knight or a baronet at a meeting of the English Jane Austen Society – would not wish to disgrace ourselves on such an occasion. (It is Your Majesty, then Ma’am.) Incidentally, while we are on the subject, how did you know which queen I meant? I did not specify Queen Elizabeth II of England, did I? I have a feeling Americans do think of her as “their” queen, though I’m told they would never bow or curtsy.
Jane Austen does not besprinkle her pages with titles in order to give artificial importance to her characters. Sensibly, she restricts herself to those likely to be found among 3 or 4 families in a country village. No dukes and duchesses, no marquises or marchionesses, at least none on stage, though the Hon. John Yates does refer to Lord Ravenshaw and the “duke” who were to have played in Lovers Vows at Ecclesford; and General Tilney wishes to leave Bath because he is disappointed in his “hope of seeing the Marquis of Longtown” there.
The British form of address and usage is the same now as it was and ever has been. The order of precedence from the highest to the lowest is: duke, marquis, earl, viscount, baron, baronet, knight. Precedence is everything, not only on royal occasions such as coronations and weddings, but also for seating at the dinner table, and even for going through doorways. We remember that Miss Elliot had for thirteen years been “walking immediately after Lady Russell out of all the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms in the country.”
If we begin at the bottom rung of the ladder, the lowliest person of title amongst Jane Austen’s people, we must choose Sir William Lucas who had been knighted during his mayoralty, a practice which still obtains. The “Lord” mayor of London, for example, is always knighted. Knighthoods are bestowed for eminence or success in one’s field: Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Francis Austen.
A knight is always addressed and referred to as Sir Firstname. Nothing more. This is not disrespect, but correct and proper usage. Sir Yehudi, Sir Winston, Sir Francis. Never, never, Sir Menuhin, Sir Churchill or Sir Austen. Wives of knights, on the other hand, are always addressed as Lady Husband’s Lastname: Lady Menuhin, Lady Churchill, Lady Austen. A knight’s title is not inherited. The young Lucas who would drink a bottle of wine a day if he were as rich as Mr. Darcy will never be Sir Firstname Lucas. If writing a letter to a knight and his first name is not known, the address is Sir – Lastname. Never, never Sir Lastname. These are things that used to be learned at one’s mother’s knee. All these forms of address apply equally to baronets, who are the next rung up the titled ladder.
Lady Russell, “Herself, the widow of only a knight … gave the dignity of a baronet all its due.” A baronet’s title is hereditary, thereby implying land, estates and a family history of some generations. Hence the concern felt by Sir Walter on his lack of a son, and the genuine possibility, well understood by his daughters, that he might indeed marry Mrs. Clay to procure one. A title can be inherited by any direct male descendant from a deceased male holder of the title. Sir Walter’s heir, as inscribed by him in the all-important volume, was “William Walter Elliot, great grandson of the second Sir Walter.” Sir Thomas Bertram has two sons to ensure the title. An heir and a spare as the saying goes.
Sir John Middleton is another such a one. Jane Austen does not tell us, but Chapman declared he was “undoubtedly a baronet.” Why? Because it shows. In Sanditon Charlotte observes of Sir Edw: Denham, “Perhaps there was a good deal in his Air & Address: And his Title did him no harm.”
In fact if one were to meet any of these said baronets in company with Sir William Lucas, and was told to pick out which one was the knight, one could easily make the distinction. Up against the Air & Address of the baronets, poor Sir William would make a very poor showing – at Rosings, you remember, he was “so completely awed by the grandeur surrounding him that he had but just courage enough to make a very low bow and take his seat without saying a word.” Not to the manner born!
Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her sister Lady Anne Darcy were daughters of an earl, even as the former Lady Diana Spencer is the daughter of Earl Spencer. Lady Catherine is always addressed as Lady Catherine, and never as Lady de Bourgh which would be demoting her to the wife of a mere knight, (which, of course, is so, she being the widow of the late Sir Lewis de Bourgh). When a woman marries, however, she keeps her own rank if it is higher than that of her husband, but if it is lower she is elevated to the rank to which she is entitled as his wife. Princess Diana, for example.
As for the various clergymen who frequent Jane Austen’s pages, the correct form of address is always “Mr. Lastname.” Officially, in writing, it is the Rev. William Collins. Harriet’s “evil stars had led her to the very spot where, at that moment, a trunk, directed to The Rev. Philip Elton White-Hart, Bath was to be seen … ” But this same gentleman is always talked about, or spoken to, as “Mr. Elton.” Never, never the Rev. Elton. This applies today.
As for daughters, it was most necessary to know which was the eldest. “The younger ones out before the elder are married!” cried Lady Catherine in horror. The “outs and not outs” being a subject of interest to Mary Crawford with regard to Fanny. So, formally, it is “Miss Elliot” and “Miss Anne Elliot,” “Miss Bennet” and “Miss Elizabeth Bennet.” The Musgroves called Anne, “Miss Anne,” Mr. Collins says “My dear Miss Elizabeth,” and Miss Bingley addresses her as “Miss Eliza.” Cassandra was Miss Austen, and Jane was Miss Jane Austen. This is still correct.
In Jane Austen’s own family when her brother Frank became Admiral of the Fleet Sir Francis Austen, his wife, her friend Martha Lloyd whom he had married in late middle age, became Lady Austen. This occurred after Jane had died, but perhaps life was imitating art. Surely it was a family tease when Jane caused Sir Walter Elliot to remark: “Lord St. Ives! I was to give place to Lord St. Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat.”
In Britain the rule of primogeniture is observed. This is often cited as being the strength of British estates. In France and Russia, for example, where each son inherited a title and the estate was divided, inevitably the holding was diminished. Estates were also entailed; we think of Longbourn and Mr. Collins. Primogeniture applied to non-titled landowners, also. We remember Emma’s distress on behalf of “little Henry” if Harriet Smith were to marry Mr. Knightley and he were to lose Donwell. Later she is obliged to acknowledge “with a saucy conscious smile” that it would be she, herself, and her sons who would be the cause of disinheriting her nephew.
Titles were and are almost never inherited by women except in very exceptional circumstances. A modern example is the Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who succeeded to the title on the death of her father, Lord Mountbatten. The countess’s husband, Lord Brabourne, the film director, is a direct descendant of Fanny Knight, whose son became the first Lord Brabourne.