Let Me Call You… Mister

EtiquetteA friend mentioned the other day that she’d run into a novel set in the mid-19th century in which everyone addressed each other by their first names. All the time. Under every circumstance. It was driving her nuts; her interior historian kept being thrown out of the story. Wouldn’t there have been more formality?  And if the author was fudging this aspect of etiquette, what else was she fudging? Or getting wrong? Or figuring just didn’t matter?

It would drive me nuts too. I’m a very forgiving audience, except when I’m not–I can gloss right over what I believe to be an error in world building, if the story and characters are sufficiently engaging that I just don’t care. But make an error before you’ve got my heart and you’ve lost me.

So: how did people talk to each other in the Olden Days? How did they talk about each other? When did the new informality, if I may call it so, become a Thing? As so often happens when such questions are raised, I turned to Emily Post.

I have an absolutely wonderful edition of Miss Post’s Etiquette from 1947 which reminds me that, while standards were much looser than they had been a hundred years before, there were still rules to be aspired to. By 1947, people in the same age group and social set used first names all the time: “Muriel Manners, for example, taking a friend to the Country Club, greets a group of friends with ‘Hello, everybody. This is Sally.’ In the modern fashionable world the titles Mister, Missis, and Miss are literally never said except to outsiders.” Hidden in all this is the code for belonging: you call someone who belongs in your set by their first name; you use a honorific with someone who doesn’t belong. By the same token, if you were introduced to someone you didn’t want to be “belong” to, you might insist on calling them Mister or Miss, and being called Miss or Mister yourself.

Post goes so far as to point, with amusement, at those crazy kids in the Gay 90s who called everyone Miss and Mister all the time. “… every debutante, aged eighteen, was called “Miss” by all the young men who were introduced to her after her ‘coming out’, even by her most devoted beaux–aged nineteen to twenty-odd! She in turn called them “Mister,” not only until she knew them better, but for life, even though she might see them every day. Only when a man and a girl became engaged did they call each other by their first name.”

So we look at 1947 and find it weirdly quaint and formal, and Post was looking back to 1897 and finding it weirdly quaint and formal. A basic of world building is that custom–especially social custom–changes over time. A few years ago when I was writing Sold for Endless Rue, set in what is now Italy, in the 13th century, I realized that I needed a salutation for two peasants who run into each other. These days it would be signore, but technically that means lord. And believe me, in a world where there was nobility and there was everyone else, nobility was touchy about anyone using a title they weren’t entitled to. So what would they say? I did research. I asked academic folk. I got nothing. I wound up skirting the issue. I couldn’t have them say “signore” because it undercut the world I was building.

So much information can be packed into the use of Miss or Mr.  In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet calls for Hill, the housekeeper, (not Mrs., although the staff would have called her so) but the maids are called by their first names. Jane Bennet is referred to as “Miss Bennet”–she’s the eldest. Elizabeth and the younger sisters are all referred to as “Miss Elizabeth,” and so on.  If everyone flung first names around how would you know who fit where in society?

I read historical fiction for a lot of the same reasons I read fantasy and science fiction: I want to be somewhere else, where the rules are different. I like figuring out what the rules are from clues in the text. It’s part of the fun. For other readers the fun might lie elsewhere: in the history or the clothes or the language. But it doesn’t hurt to get the clues right.


*On the other hand, one did not use an honorific to a servant unless they were old enough to warrant it as a mark of respect. Otherwise a servant was called by either first or last name (insert elaborate rules here), and one did not introduce a domestic employee to a guest–but one could establish their name for the visitor: “If you’ll just give your coat and gun to Spriggins, he’ll make sure the bullets are removed.” So many rules.



Let Me Call You… Mister — 9 Comments

  1. Yes, it’s all these teeny little rules that make the novels so much more pointed. You realize how vulgar Mrs. Elton is, in EMMA, when she refers to her husband as Mr. E.

  2. I’m not surprised there wasn’t much about how peasants addressed one another–how often did they ever get away from home to meet strangers? And they probably didn’t have much beyond whatever Ave had become since the Roman times.

    It’s really interesting to read collections of letters, memoirs, and fiction from earlier centuries. You see examples of married people who addressed one another by Mr. and Mrs. all their lives. Friends, too: all through her sufferings, Clarissa Harlowe, in the eponymous novel published by Samuel Richardson in the mid 1700s, addresses her bestie as “Miss Howe.”

    • The other thing, which it took me years to understand, was the class issues displayed in the use of names versus honorifics. The rising middle class was almost always the group that was most formal, because they couldn’t afford to make mistakes. The best of society could be more lax because they had less to prove.

      • Well, the upper class had its own strict rules, which can be confusing because titles were used informally, and also there were the nicknames. Who could use the nicknames was fraught.

  3. I suspect the peasants used formal greetings for older people and others whose skill at various things entitled them to respect — particularly since the upper classes did not show respect to those people. But I’m guessing based on observations I’ve made in current times in communities where elders and leaders did not get respect from the outside world.

  4. I’ve read six historical novels this year so far (besides my usual rereadings of Heyer), and every single one had dreadful mistakes in this area, almost all of them in forms of address between a servant and not-a-servant (whether middle or upper class character). Even if you’re a duchess, servants don’t want you miscalling them out of their class, because *it lowers their standing with everyone else.* Don’t tell me your goddamned heroine is a republican and disapproves of class differences, so she’s going to address her dresser or her butler by their first name. Just don’t. The servants are keenly aware of their position among themselves. If master or mistress messes with that, then they are demeaning the servant in the hearing of everyone who is supposed to do it right, and thus inviting *them* to do it wrong, too, and damaging the very person they’re trying to honor with the intimacy of informal address.

    Present day example: When I was a temp in the Chicago office world in the 80s and 90s, I could always tell who was sleeping with the boss, because the boss was too familiar with that girl. Sometimes the girl struggled to keep her secret by calling the boss “Mister” in front of others, but he would undercut her with his inappropriate familiarity, which humiliated her in front of her coworkers. He thought he was conferring the honor of his special regard on her–and, of course, not incidentally showing off to his peers (other white guys in corner offices) that he had tapped that ass. She was hurt and offended. (Of course, he was the dumb-ass sleeping with his secretary. Her I absolved. “I’m a single mother,” was the common reply on the rare occasions when I, well, raised my eyebrows in silent question.) This can only tangentially illustrate the misery caused when superiors are inappropriate in address with their inferiors.

    Americans are proud to look the other way about class. This does not mean we don’t have class issues of our own. And it means we sometimes write crap historicals.

    Yours, fiercely crabby to the last,