Jilly: The Mistress Problem

I’d really, really like to find a different form of address for the gentlewomen in my WIP, especially my heroine.

Lately I’ve been working on a sequence of set piece scenes toward the end of the book. The setting is a fantasy world, historical, before the invention of guns. Horses ‘n swords. Vaguely Tudor-ish, with a few creative liberties taken. The action takes place at the most important event in the city’s calendar. Everyone who’s anyone is present: royalty, aristocracy, military, and a lucky few gentlefolk. All the guests are addressed formally, even (especially!) when they’re hurling deadly insults at one another.

The problem is my heroine, Alexis Doe. She’s 25. Unmarried, but old enough to be a wife and mother. Of no acknowledged family (her name indicates she’s illegitimate), but invited as a guest of the Princess Dowager, scary and powerful grandmother of the Crown Prince. Alexis has no title, but her connections would carry a certain level of cachet and she would be addressed with respect. As far as I can see, she would be called Mistress Doe.

I did a fair amount of reading around, looking for possibilities, and I found a fascinating article describing research done by Dr Amy Erickson at the University of Cambridge (click here to read more about Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: untangling the shifting history of titles).

Apparently both Mrs and Miss are abbreviations of Mistress. Miss as a form of address for unmarried adult women dates from the middle of the eighteenth century, so that’s no use (and more to the point, in the context of my WIP it sounds totally wrong).

Mistress originally bore no connotations of marital status whatsoever. In Dr Johnson’s time (1750s), it implied high social standing, a woman of expertise, one who governs, a teacher, as well as being used for a beloved/true love, or a courtesan, or a term of contempt.

I do not want Alexis to be Mistress Doe. To a modern reader the word carries baggage—it makes her sound married, or sexually experienced, or both. She’s neither. She’s not even a girly girl. Mistress feels totally wrong for her, and I hate it.

In my fictional world, I’d also like to make a distinction between umarried women like Alexis and married women like the hero’s mother. For now I cheated by giving her a courtesy title because she’s the daughter of neighboring royalty, but really she gave that up when she married. I’d switch it out in a heartbeat if I could find a better alternative. I wouldn’t mind calling her Mistress if I could find a different form of address for Alexis.

I’ve been wrestling with this one for ages and getting nowhere. At the moment I still have a manuscript full of mistresses, and they’re driving me to distraction.

If anyone has thoughts, comments, suggestions, insights to offer, they’d be most gratefully received.

11 thoughts on “Jilly: The Mistress Problem

  1. So, if I read the article (and the others I googled) correctly, around Tudor-ish times, someone like Alexis really wouldn’t have a title, so is there a reason you want her to have one? The fact that there are no “real” terms to use does give a certain amount of freedom. You can pick a term (or two – one for males and one for females) and just use it. I’m drawing a blank at the moment though on what those terms would be.

    As far as being at the ball as a guest of the Princess Dowager, maybe she’s referred to as “Daughter” Alexis – showing that she is held in some esteem by the Dowager? Or how about damsel? That does mean a “young unmarried woman”, or does it give off too much of a “damsel in distress” vibe?

    • I definitely want her to have a title. The occasion is political as much as social. Alexis is there as the companion of Kierce, the hero, not in her own right. The invitation is the result of some high level political wheeler-dealing between Kierce’s mother and the Princess Dowager. K&A are wearing the PD’s token, and technically under her protection, and it’s a huge social signal, but it means some kind of deal is being done. The Princess is a powerful and pragmatic woman, but not a very nice one. The guests are all about family and alliances, so they’d be referring to (and thinking of) everyone by their connections.

      You’re right that I need to invent something.

      I like the idea of ‘damsel,’ because you could pair it with ‘dame’ for a married woman, but Damsel Doe… Hmm. Maid. Maiden? Spinster is pejorative, but thinking about etymology–if spinster is one who spins, perhaps there’s some activity that would typically be the responsibility of a well-born single woman and which could, at a stretch, be extended to her.

      Or perhaps, thinking about your ‘daughter’ idea, there is a courtesy term for guests of the royal family. Something that means ‘invited ones’ or ‘protected ones.’ That could be very useful. Hmm. Off to cogitate.

      Thanks, Elizabeth!

  2. If your timeline is Tudor-ish, then it’s after both the Roman and the French invasions, so you could borrow from either of those languages. I like Dame/Damsel for the reasons you mention. If you go that direction, Kierce can find it completely hilarious that Alexis has a title that suggests feminine weakness and dependency.

    • Apparently damsel is a really old word, which surprised me. I was thinking demoiselle, which is relatively modern, but apparently damsel is Middle English, from Old French damisele. A ladylike appellation would not suit Alexis at all, which may be an excellent reason for choosing it. And you’re right. Kierce would laugh himself silly.

  3. The problem, as I see it, with damsel and dame and mistress and all of those is that they all have heavy connotations for modern readers, and those terms still don’t convey what you want.

    First I thought Alexis (or everybody) could be called “Honorable” or “Excellency,” or “Elder,” but on further thought, I reconsidered. I don’t see why you should limit yourself to English/French Tudor-era titles with gender- or marriage-related specifics. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, right?

    I googled “honorific titles,” and there’s lots of great words out there. Wikipedia lists tons of honorifics in several languages, and the Japanese section alone has san, sama, kun, chan, tan, bo, senpai, kohai, sensei, hakase, and shi—and those are just the “general” honorifics. (Wikipedia describes and explains each meaning, but I didn’t go that far.) Then there are the honorifics for royalty and officialdom, occupations, companies, martial arts, criminals, families, and “others.” Some of those words in their actual usage might come closer to what you want, and if they don’t, you could change some letters and go with a new word altogether.

    Couldn’t you?

    • Yes, I could!

      I have royals and aristos and soldiers and diplomats, but I need something different for Alexis and as you say, it doesn’t have to be gender or marriage related (though most of the characters present would pigeonhole people they met using those criteria first).

      What I think I need is a new word meaning protege (in the original sense of being a protected person). The honorific could be applied to both Alexis and Kierce for that one specific occasion, and I think it would enrich the story. Many of the names in my world draw from Celtic/Germanic/Nordic sources, so I guess that’s the place to start.

      Thank you, Kay!

      • It’s too hot here to work, but it’s not too hot to play on the internet. I found http://heraldry.sca.org/titles.html. This site has a bunch of tables for various language groups and the standard honorifics. In the table for Hebrew/Arabic, they have all the standards, including Master and MIstress (as the other language groups have), but then this language group also has Master/Mistress subgroups:

        Master [Mistress] of Arms: Ba’al[ah] Nshek
        Master [Mistress] of the Laurel: Ba’al[ah] Dafneh/Ba’al[ah] Meekzoh-ah
        Master [Mistress] of the Pelican: Ba’al[ah] Shaknah-ee/ Ba’al[ah] Chasidah/Nadiv[ah]

        I love master and mistress of the pelican. I might have to write this book myself! So this has just been a hoot and a half today. Thanks for the opportunity to surf!

        • Mistress of the Pelican? In charge of luggage?

          To get back earlier in the thread, how about Apprentice, or Prentice? Prentiss might work, too. Kouhai loosely means something like Hai who follows or comes later. (Vs. Senpai which is Early Hai, or Hai that comes Before.) I’m guessing “hai” means something like cohort. Under? Younger? Youngster? Young’un? Starter?

        • Mistress of the Pelican??? You made my day 🙂

          That’s got to be worth a book, or at least a writing sprint.

  4. (-: Let me get my thoughts down:

    You could simply advance the timeline of the Mistress history, and allow Miss and Mistress in your world. Or even Miss and Mrs., although I feel there’s something rather modern and/or casual about Mrs., depending on how the reader views it.

    “Missy” is often used for an obnoxious young girl. “Look here, Missy.”

    Goodwife and Goody were often used in colonial America. See also Sister or Mother as possible titles.

    How does society view illegitimacy? Doe is the surname of choice for them, apparently, not taking the mother’s name. So, apparently it’s quite important to identify them. If they are looked upon as a burden that must be taken care of and to some extent cherished (even if the cherishing is fake), there might be a title reflecting that. Dear Alexis. Poordear Alexis. In a world where the population isn’t growing fast enough, the illegitimate and orphans might be valued quite a lot, and the circumstances of their birth might be recognized so that other people can try to be nicer to them and encourage them. Poordear might be a stigmata in some cases, but it might also be an encouragement in others: “I see you, and I am going to give you a little extra leeway.” Cher Alexis?

    • There are plenty of illegitimate children who are acknowledged by at least one parent and included in ‘normal’ family life. And then there are children born to mothers who (for whatever reason) can’t keep or acknowledge them. Those pregnant mothers go to orphanages attached to monasteries, nunneries or other places of sanctuary. The mothers leave without their babies, who may become monks or nuns, lay brothers or sisters, or find adopted parents within the community. These children take the surname Doe. It’s not automatically a stigma, because those that are raised by the monastery (frex) get a great education and may go on to become quite powerful.

      The girls generally follow a different path–not bad, just in keeping with the societal divides of the time–but poordear Alexis (you will amazed to learn) is no ordinary girl 😉

      I like poordear!

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