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Titleless? Honorary Duchess

Friends and readers,

Yesterday on NASSR-l the subject of titles came up, and one person said he thought all titles should be dropped. At that moment I found myself generally agreeing (though saying that when I began to grow old students simply addressed me as "Professor" as a response to my older presence and no other subtext), but then went off on a pet peeve of my own. I am made uncomfortable when anyone refers to me with just my last name without prefacing it with the title of Mrs or Dr. I do not identify as a schoolboy whose chums referred to them by last names. Rather I remember how servants are called by their last names with no titles -- in Victorian novels and in real life. I will go so far as to correct someone if he or she calls me Drake [Moody]. I'll say call me Sylvia or Miss Drake (aka Ellen or Dr Moody or Mrs Moody). And I'll explain why. I wince when I've seen my name in minutes of a faculty/staff meeting without either my first name or title.

I had not given thought to the specific instances that were the subject: 19th century poets and writers who today are still sometimes called "Lord' (Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson) or given a "Sir" (this increasingly dropped).

Well, titles which refer to people's jobs (and ultimately rank and salary) In a modern context are indeed used to categorize, stigmatize, segregate people (so invidious). I remember going to a Trollope conference in 2004 or so in Exeter. Trollope is one of those authors who has a fan base; at the conference just about all the speakers were academics, though many were not primarily Trollope but were rather Victorian scholars. The people who were not academics (period so to speak) were issued name tags which identified them as "independent scholars" and each and every one of them disliked this intensely. Why could they not just be there? No they had to have this division of affiliated scholar versus non-affiliated person imposed. I saw one man who is enormously well-read in Trollope crush the "damn" thing in his hand when this conference was over. They were alive to something shameful in the title, no? I remember thinking to myself that the title is actually honorific if you see someone who is not coopted by a institution as courageous and living on and for themselves, and doing their scholarship without a view to job promotion or salary. People who will not be controlled by institutions. But the people could not see it this way, probably because they were not academics or teachers. They saw something imposed on them that they weren't. They were lovers of Trollope who had read many of his novels, often more than the Victorian academics giving papers on Trollope. Were they alive to an implied accusation they did not make money based on their reading? They didn't want to be ranked at all. I can see that. Why not just their names. That's all one needed to begin a conversation.

The book that came out as a result of this conference was engendered by the same mindset: the opening had these tasteless paragraphs on the 15 people whose papers out of the 40 given chosen; the slightest activity someone had had in a university was given a formalization of title. One of its editors had been an independent scholar ,but she was now affiliated to Exeter through her husband and the invention of a title and rank. I thought about the three events I had gone to set up by the London Trollope society -- under the directorship of John Letts. None were super-expensive and none demanded of people they have a title.

I no longer remember what happened at the one JASNA I went to though I know that papers are chosen with a view to "balance" -- and the idea of balance that rules a particular conference (who gets to speak, what subjects are chosen for key note speeches) is determined by the composition of the committee that sets up the conference. So some JASNAs may have more scholarly papers, others have papers by more popularly oriented people, by fans who may not have any job at all beyond housewife but who may be a great organizer and of real value to JASNA therefore. Among Austen scholars and Janeties there's this faultline too: they really see Austen ontologically differently sometimes, and the scholars may feel they can't say what they want in the popular atmosphere which has the heritage industry and popular media behind it (JA as regency romance), not to omit conservative-Tory type lobbies. They usually try not to be blatant.

Naively none of this was on my mind when I talked on this list-serv of titles.

Then last night I was put in mind of this because I no longer have a specific title and my affiliation (library and database privileges) is tenuous and vague. How do I want to be identified was the core real question but the way it's asked is somehow worse. What title is yours is what I was asked.  Well I asked the Admiral and he said I am now "Honorary Duchess."  To get the real humor of that you have not only to be British but have read LeCarre (especially in Absolute Friends).

Duchess Sylvia
-- see new hopes.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
misssylviadrake
Sep. 20th, 2012 12:57 pm (UTC)
women's titles: another gender faultline
The thread on NASSR-l began on how to name Mary Shelley. Someone objected to calling her Shelley as that's Percy Bysshe. I wrote three times:

Just on the problem of a woman of letters taking her husband's last name when the husband is a famous man of letters known by that name. My example is Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One cannot ceaselessly say all three names; EBB is sterile in a way. Not a name. No one does call her Browning the way I've seen Mary Shelley called Shelley. I like Elizabeth Browning for a compromise.

Did anyone ever call this woman Barrett? in her life? Was it on the poems? "by Barrett" What name was on her publications?

Did anyone ever call her Barrett Browning as a married woman? "Hi, Barrett?" I believe Mrs Browning, yes. She was Mrs Browning. People who spoke to her who were friends and intimates called her Elizabeth. Family called her "Ba."

Browning called her Elizabeth. Her name was Elizabeth Browning.

I have seen Elizabeth Browning in print.

I've seen the same problem emerge for Anthony Trollope and his mother Francis or Fanny Trollope. He has been the Trollope meant until recent times. (And now we do have his brother Thomas too but he is not known widely and then usually only for his autobiography.) In some stores asking for the section on Trollope will lead you to Joanna Trollope.

************
Well, I was told that before marriage, Miss Barrett used Barrett for her publications and a list of her poem books published before she was married with the authorship "Miss Barrett" was placed before the eyes of the list-serv.

*************
So, I wrote:

Ah. Now I see why she's called Barrett by some. It's the modernization -- dropping her title (Miss) -- that's so jarring and makes it feel wrong. It's simply anachronistic -- many other women are re-named in these ways they would not recognize and would probably not care for.

In her own time her married name superseded her maiden name (which we have today begun to refer to as "birth" name), and in wider popular memory she is remembered for her romance and marriage to Browning.

Was she known or called [Mrs] Elizabeth Barrett Browning once she married Browning? or was it Mrs [Robert] Browning? Or Mrs Elizabeth Browning?

I admit to liking Elizabeth Browning and have seen it here and there.

**************
Then I was told of Barbauld and other women whose last names don't seem "jarring." The person objected to the idea it was "jarring" put in scare quotes to see this woman called Barrett.

And that it was in the interest of equality we did this.

***************
To which I replied:

True the other names cited don't seem jarring. But then the other women don't come with the same history as EBB -- the compromise or default position I see. I do use the modernizations but I am being honest. If asked about those I've published about, I'd say yes it's jarring because the woman would not herself have liked this new name or would not have recognized herself. I'm not sure that we do it to give them equality; rather we are turning them into the equivalent of males (the way males are named). Not the same thing. There's a sense in which we are erasing them too -- or aspects of them we want to de-emphasize.

I've had this issue with Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea. Of course I would not call her "Col Finch's lady," which is one name contemporaries at one point did call her. She got the nerve to publish in 1713 only because her husband unexpectedly inherited the title so then she was Lady Winchilsea. Had she heard herself called "Finch," she would have flinched. That's how you called your servants. And in some documents she does sing AW (Anne Winchilsea) perhaps just as 'right' as Anne Finch. And most of the time she writes "Ann," but Myra Reynolds the first editor liked the "e" and added it on.

Yes I wrote Finch but I'm not making her more equal; I'm erasing her, presenting an invention of ours that we prefer (for many reasons beyond equality).

Sylvia



Edited at 2012-09-21 02:29 am (UTC)
misssylviadrake
Sep. 21st, 2012 12:18 pm (UTC)
I should probably have tried to find the passage from _Absolute Friends_. The admiral's comment was meant as a gift, in a benign spirit, kindly, given I had just been asked to come up with a title, and yet he was making fun, mocking the whole idea as is done in LeCarre's book where the passages I was thinking of begin with this non-western character (Southasian maybe) saying to the hero, what is it with you English, making this ridiculous fuss over who becomes a duchess and who doesn't and there's a witty reply canvassing the tradition of such characters.
misssylviadrake
Sep. 21st, 2012 12:20 pm (UTC)
IN response to one comment off-blog:

I don't know if Independent Scholar regarded as a no-no title or term. I've seen it lots and lots and have never quite been able to tell if it is worse or better than adjunct. But I have seen famous old scholars who are now retired just have their names ont their tags. How silly. Why not keep the place they retired from? They have library privileges. Part of the ridiculousness of these titles is caring in this way; it supports them.

It's probably better to have a job since Americans respect money-making and academics institutional affiliations. I did see a quiet implicit dismissal of Byrne by a tenured scholar when she remarked to the group that Byne "never held a job" in academia. The very phrase reeks.
misssylviadrake
Sep. 22nd, 2012 03:52 am (UTC)
Independence versus conformity said a friend to me off-blog.

"No, I don't think independent scholar is a negative term at all, not a bit. But it depends on who you are. I'm very happy to be described as one, and think it even a little complimentary. I was only talking about accuracy. For you it may be a little bit diminishing as it doesn't reference or acknowledge your lifelong career as teacher in any way; it seems to imply that the person doesn't *have* and presumably never did have, any university affiliation ... Wow, "never held a job in academia" certainly does reek. Shocking. But that's exactly what I'm saying - you HAVE held one, for decades, and why shouldn't that be acknowledged?'

Me: I agree that the ethical issue clearly seen is one of a choice between independence and conformity -- once the person has income enough to live and does not need a job. My blog is about how people amorally treat one another through exclusion techniques and one part of this is _marking_ one another somehow. Part of the marking procedures are titles. They immediately give certain kinds of status information.

Perhaps there is no term for retired scholar except if you get a Professor emeritus or emerita. Unless you've become one of the privileged, and maintain some kind of power when you are retired you are cancelled out in effect. That's why a lot of people have a hard time adjusting to it. All most of us can hope for is to be lucky enough to retire with enough income to live comfortably with dignity.

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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