Mistresses through history: the term wasn’t always about secret sex

Mistresses through history: the term wasn’t always about secret sex

Whether they’re shopping online, opening a bank account or booking flights, women are today nearly always required to identify themselves as ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’. But it’s little known that these titles all derive from the same word: mistress

Mistress of George Gordon Byron. © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy

Rarely do we see ‘mistress’ in its full length now, and when we do it usually refers to a woman in an illicit relationship with a married man. How did one word come to have so many different meanings? Here, Amy Louise Erickson, a lecturer in British social and economic history at Cambridge University, investigates…

‘Mistress’ in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries normally designated a woman of higher social standing. It was the female form of ‘master’, and it was variously abbreviated in the pre-standardised age as Mrs or Ms. It also could apply to a woman with a dubious sexual reputation, but then so many words of female address can, including dame, madam, miss, hussy (derived from housewife), mother, wife, lady, and queen.

What’s marital status got to do with it?

A man who employed servants or apprentices was a master (Mr), and a woman who did so was a mistress. But being called Mrs did not mean you were married. This is apparent in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, and in contemporary letters like those of the unmarried Mrs Mary Delany (1700–88). The Oxford English Dictionary maintains that the use of Mrs for a single woman was “a title of courtesy applied… to elderly unmarried ladies”, implying that the “courtes” was to increase the standing of the unmarried woman by putting her on a par with the married woman.

The early 18th-century autobiography of Elizabeth Freke (The Remembrances of Elizabeth Freke, 1671–1714, ed. Raymond A Anselment, Cambridge, 2001) illustrates the range of women for whom Mrs could be used. Most of her servants and her tenants over the years were referred to simply by their Christian and family names, or as ‘Thom Davy’s wife’. The autobiographer herself was Mrs Elizabeth Freke; her unmarried niece, daughter of a lady, was Mrs Grace Norton; her unmarried chief servant was Mrs Evans; and the woman from whom she bought newspapers in Norfolk was Mrs Ferrer.

The social standing that earned the title Mrs could derive from gentle status – from chief servant status, or from business proprietorship. These uses of Mrs became more widespread over the course of the 18th century in an increasingly urbanised, commercial society – just as Mr too became more widespread.

One of the better known 18th-century businesswomen was Eleanor Coade (1733–1821), who ran a ceramics factory on the south bank of the Thames in the 1760s and invented the material now called Coade stone, in which she cast shatter-proof sculptures and architectural details that still today ornament London, as well as other cities around the world. She was invariably known as Mrs Coade – not to appear more respectable or because she had been married (she never married), but because that was the normal title for a businesswoman.

The marking of marital status in titles began, not with married women, but with unmarriedwomen. Certainly, never-married women in earlier centuries might be identified as such by the use of ‘maid’ or ‘singlewoman’, but there was no form of address to precede her name until 1740. In that year, ‘Miss’ was suddenly used in printed publications to describe respectable adult women, rather than women of dubious reputation. The innovation was the extension of ‘Miss’ in the mid-18th century from an unmarried girl to an unmarried adult woman, which distinguished unmarried from married women by title for the first time.

Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), Sarah Fielding’sAdventures of David Simple (1744) and The Governess (1749) all designated the gentry daughters as Miss, while their upper servants took the older form of Mrs. The marking of fashionable women, but not other women, on the basis of their marital status may have been a custom adopted from the French.

Class, and taking your husband’s name

When a woman did marry, England was the only country in Europe in which she routinely took her husband’s surname – a consequence of the distinctive property regime of coverture whereby a man took possession of his wife’s property. But where a married woman was entitled to the social standing of ‘Mrs’, her own first name invariably preceded her husband’s last name – as in the case of the artist and letter writer Mrs Mary Delany, for example.

The total annihilation of wifely identity that assigned a woman her husband’s first name as well as his last name has been called the ‘Mrs Man’ form, and it only appeared in around 1800. The earliest example that I have so far found is in Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). There, the appellation ‘Mrs John Dashwood’ distinguishes our heroine Elinor’s sister-in-law from Elinor’s mother, who is also a Mrs Dashwood (with no first name because she is the senior).

The development of the Mrs Man form, like the development of Miss more than half a century earlier, was probably an attempt to establish social precedence by the aristocratically connected gentry over the urban commercial proprietors who used the same form of address in Mrs. Over the course of the 19th century, the Mrs Man style was extended to all married women, as both Mr and Mrs were democratised to include what George Eliot called “the poorer class of parishioners”. As Mrs progressively lost its distinction of social level, only its marital meaning remained by the 20th century, with the sole exception of upper servants, who were still Mrs though unmarried.

Today it is often assumed that the Mrs Man form is a remnant of centuries of subjugation. In fact, having been introduced around 1800, it was already being challenged by the 1840s, although it has not entirely fallen out of use even in the 21st century. The alternative title of Ms was proposed in a US newspaper editorial in 1901 to solve the problem of not knowing how to address a woman because of not knowing her marital status. However, Ms was not widely taken up until the later 1960s and 1970s, when Mrs no longer seemed aspirational to many women, and when direct-mail marketing required a more universal form of address. The use of Ms thus restored the original function of Mrs – along with one of the many 17th-century abbreviations for Mistress.

Amy Louise Erickson is a lecturer in British social and economic history at Cambridge University and author of ‘Mistresses and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs’, in the autumn 2014 issue of History Workshop Journal.

Louis Sheehan had no part in the authorship of this article.

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