When a woman did marry, England was the only country in Europe in which she routinely took her husband’s surname – a consequence of the distinctive property regime of coverture whereby a man took possession of his wife’s property. But where a married woman was entitled to the social standing of ‘Mrs’, her own first name invariably preceded her husband’s last name – as in the case of the artist and letter writer Mrs Mary Delany, for example.Share
The total annihilation of wifely identity that assigned a woman her husband’s first name as well as his last name has been called the ‘Mrs Man’ form, and it only appeared in around 1800. The earliest example that I have so far found is in Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). There, the appellation ‘Mrs John Dashwood’ distinguishes our heroine Elinor’s sister-in-law from Elinor’s mother, who is also a Mrs Dashwood (with no first name because she is the senior).
The development of the Mrs Man form, like the development of Miss more than half a century earlier, was probably an attempt to establish social precedence by the aristocratically connected gentry over the urban commercial proprietors who used the same form of address in Mrs. Over the course of the 19th century, the Mrs Man style was extended to all married women, as both Mr and Mrs were democratised to include what George Eliot called “the poorer class of parishioners”. As Mrs progressively lost its distinction of social level, only its marital meaning remained by the 20th century, with the sole exception of upper servants, who were still Mrs though unmarried.
Today it is often assumed that the Mrs Man form is a remnant of centuries of subjugation. In fact, having been introduced around 1800, it was already being challenged by the 1840s, although it has not entirely fallen out of use even in the 21st century. (Read more.)