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.