An article by the Cambridge historian, Amy Erickson [‘Mistress and Marriage: or, a Short History of the Mrs’, History Workshop Journal (September 2014)] casts interesting light on the evolution of the terms ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, both of them derived from ‘Mistress’. Dr Erickson points out that until the eighteenth century neither term was an indication of marital status. ‘Miss’ was only applied to girls, never to adult women, and upon adulthood a ‘Miss’ became a ‘Mrs’ regardless of her marital status. A ‘Mrs’ was a woman of some status who possessed capital, whether economic or social. However, during the nineteenth century the term ‘Mrs’ became (with a few exceptions) one that solely designated a married woman. Thus the unmarried bluestocking Elizabeth Carter was invariably known as ‘Mrs’ whereas her younger (also unmarried) contemporary Hannah More was described as ‘Miss’. Within a generation the usage had changed.
Erickson goes on to argue that at the end of the eighteenth century a married woman lost her identity and was only known by her husband’s name,a designation that has been called the ‘Mrs Man’ style. The earliest example she has found is the dreadful Mrs John Dashwood (née Fanny Ferrars) in Sense and Sensibility (1811). Austen fans will also be aware of a slightly later example: that of Emma Woodhouse’s sister, Isabella, who has married George Knightley’s brother and has thus become ‘Mrs John Knightley’.
A study of the usage of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ among the women of the Clapham Sect does not invalidate Erickson’s argument, but it slightly challenges the chronology. In March 1796 the Yorkshire merchant’s daughter, Marianne Sykes, married the Claphamite Henry Thornton, Wilberforce’s second cousin. A year later, when she was due to give birth, Hannah More wrote to Wilberforce that she was ‘anxiously watching every post in hopes it will bring me word that Mrs H. Thornton’s trial is safely over’. (Quoted Stott, Wilberforce: Family and Friends, Oxford, 2012, p. 86) This suggests that the ‘Mrs Man’ designation was in force as early as 1797 and was common enough to be used without comment.
There were three Thornton brothers living around Clapham Common. Elizabeth was the wife of Samuel, the eldest of the brothers, a governor of the Bank of England. The Bank possesses a painting entitled Mrs Samuel Thornton Presenting Colours to the Bank Volunteers at Marylebone Cricket Club, depicting an event that took place in September 1799. As has been shown, her sister-in-law, Marianne, was Mrs Henry Thornton, and her other sister-in-law, Maria, the wife of Robert Thornton was Mrs Robert Thornton. Her nieces and nephews called her ‘Aunt Robert’. (My copyeditor was so startled by this that he asked me if I had made a mistake – yet it is a usage that should be familiar to readers of Victorian novels! It persisted into the twentieth century. I remember an elderly Quaker telling me that an aunt by marriage was always known as ‘Aunt George Stacey’. )
When Barbara Spooner married William Wilberforce in 1797 she did not become ‘Mrs William Wilberforce’ but ‘Mrs Wilberforce’ because her husband did not have a father or an elder bother. However, when their son, William Wilberforce junior, married Mary Owen in 1820, she became ‘Mrs William Wilberforce’. Rather than regarding this as a loss of identity, she seems to have felt that the name gave her enhanced status. In a rather catty letter to Hannah More, Marianne Thornton the younger wrote that she had greatly improved and gained
‘freedom from all the nonsense wh. the first dazzling effect of becoming Mrs William Wilberforce had upon her manner’. (Quoted Stott, Wilberforce, p. 220)
In discussing Hannah More, Erickson notes that she only ever published under her name alone or as Miss Hannah More, but that nineteenth-century engravings of her portrait are titled ‘Mrs Hannah More’. This implies that it was a posthumous nomenclature. In fact, however, she seems to have been referred to as ‘Mrs’ from about the year 1800, when she was fifty-five. The scurrilous publications at the time of the Blagdon Controversy, published in 1801 and 1802, have titles like The Controversy between Mrs Hannah More and the Curate of Blagdon. The younger Marianne Thornton addressed her in her letters as ‘my dearest Mrs H. M.’ She was therefore designated as ‘Mrs’ in her own lifetime, a mark perhaps of the high status she had achieved, even at a time when the term was using its original connotation.
The Clapham Sect therefore, followed contemporary usage when referring to women. If there were some confusions and inconsistencies, these simply reflect the changes taking place as terms that had previously reflected a woman’s position in society were coming to denote her marital status.
Update: Since writing this Dr Jacqueline Reiter has found a reference to the ‘Mrs Man’ usage as early as 1776, when ‘Mrs John Pitt’ is referred to in The Letters of Lady Harriot Eliot, 1766-1786. The fact that the term is used without comment suggests that it was already common by that date.