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.