Who Gets to Be a Lady?

Who Gets to Be a Lady?

Ever since my husband bought me Scottish land titles as a birthday gift last year, we have enjoyed jokingly (and sometimes not-so-jokingly) referring to each other as “my lord” and “my lady.” And while the idea of being lord and lady of the manor is extremely fun, there is something to be said about actually being a Lady, capital L, in a formal way.

The good news is that there is actually a very objective way to distinguish who gets to be styled as a “Lady” in terms of British aristocracy. The bad news is that the vast majority of us normal people might never have the chance to be one!

The easiest way to remember who exactly gets to be a lady is to narrow down the qualifications to two simple facts: you are either born a lady or made one through marriage to a lord (or a knight). Between the two, marriage is the easier one to understand, even if remembering what to call everyone might be a little convoluted. When a woman marries a marquess, an earl, a viscount, or a baron, she gains the title that is the “Lady” counterpart of her husband’s “Lord.” Different rules govern the titles of wives of baronets and knights, but we’ll get to that later.

The marchioness married to the Marquess of Hadford is “Lady Hadford,” and the wife of the Earl of Kipper is “Lady Kipper.” Do note that the family’s title is often different from their last name, such as Robert Crawley being the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey. The “Lord” or “Lady” address always uses the title rather than the surname. So the Crawleys were always Lord and Lady Grantham, not Lord and Lady Crawley.

There are some cases, of course, in which the title might be one and the same as the family’s last name (e.g. Lord Bridgerton). In that situation,  the husband would be Lord-Last Name, with his wife being the corresponding Lady-Last Name.

One deviation from the rules above is that baronets and knights are addressed as “Sir-First Name,” while their wives are still addressed as “Lady-Married Last Name.” Hence, the fictional Sir Jacob Powell would be called “Sir Jacob” while his wife would be “Lady Powell.”

As opposed to women who become capital-L ladies through marriage, those who are born that way retain that privilege throughout their lives. This right, however, is reserved only for daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls. Unlike their mothers, who would be styled according to the family’s title, these daughters get to go by “Lady-First Name” since birth. If a woman born to such a station marries a man with a title, she would switch to that title upon marriage. If she marries someone without a title, she may continue to be styled as Lady-first name-married last name, with the most familiar example of this being Lady Anne Darcy, Mr. Darcy’s mother. As an earl’s daughter, she was Lady Anne Fitzwilliam since birth. But since she married the untitled Mr. Darcy senior, she became known as Lady Anne Darcy for the rest of her married life.

It’s taken me a while to get used to all these formal addresses, but characters do sound so much fancier with them!

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7 Responses to Who Gets to Be a Lady?

  1. Austen apparently enjoyed showing the hypocrisy of peers and the aristocracy. She usually managed to stick a title somewhere in most of her work.

    [Persuasion] Sir Walter Elliot, baronet [non-peer], and his snobbish daughters, well… not Anne.

    [Sense and Sensibility] Sir John and Lady Middleton.  

    [Mansfield Park] Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and the Honorable Mr. Yates [who was not so honorable and eloped with the youngest Bertram daughter].  

    [Northanger Abbey] General Tilney’s friendship with the marchioness.

    [Emma] hmmm… I can’t remember one. However, Emma was conscious of rank and her position as a leading lady [small ‘l’] in the community.

    [Pride & Prejudice] In most fanfiction, Sir William [a knight] and his wife, Lady Lucas were the only titled people in Meryton and they enjoyed that distinction.

    The highest rank in Austen’s stories would be the Fitzwilliam family. Lord and Lady Matlock [or whatever name the author chose], their son the Viscount [again, author choice of name], and their Honorable children. The Earl’s sisters, Lady Anne Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, you mentioned. I have read stories that added additional siblings.

    Regina addressed Lady Catherine. I agree she would not be pleased to be called Lady de Bourgh. In her mind… her courtesy title, as the daughter of an earl [a peer], trumped all others. The distinction of rank must be preserved… you know.

    Because I am an American, titles, protocol, manners, and such, confuse me. Back then, they were taught how to introduce, address, and show precedence to those holding rank from infancy. Whew! I find it exhausting. However, I enjoy a good story. I appreciate you addressing this issue. Thanks for this post. Blessings.

    • It is definitely exhausting! One can have fun pretend fantasies, but the actual rules and dictates of such class differences were probably not as nice to live with. You’re right that Austen also provided very nuanced portrayals of what it was like to actual live with these people who think themselves better because of their titles. It definitely shows that it’s a matter of character, at the end of the day.

  2. The same can be said of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She chooses to retain her right as an earl’s daughter and be “Lady Catherine.” Her husband was a baronet. Sir Lewis de Bourgh. As the wife of a baronet, she could be Lady de Bourgh, but using “Lady Catherine” indicates her higher rank in society, and, I imagine, anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice would understand Lady Catherine’s motives for the higher rank.

    Often I read a JAFF story where the author confuses the knighthood presented to Sir William Lucas. As this is an “honorary” title presented to him for his services as mayor in Meryton, his wife becomes “Lady Lucas.” This is not a title which can be inherited, but many write it as such. A baronet or a knighthood are not part of the aristocracy.

    • Yes, knighthoods and baronetcies are not hereditary, which I think makes their bearers either less pompous or more pompous, depending on the circumstances. Hehe.

      Sometimes, I wonder what the love stories were like for the previous Fitzwilliam generation. What made the earl (probably still the viscount then) marry the eventual Lady Matlock, Lady Anne marry George Darcy, and Lady Catherine marry Sir Lewis? Maybe that’s an interesting prequel idea!

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