I may be a Miss, but you can call me Madame

By Jane Shilling. This is an extract of ‘Times2’ (THE TIMES, 14/04/06):

Shocking news from across the Channel — and I don’t mean the rioting youth, but the fact that French feminists are agitating for the abolition of the title of Mademoiselle. As my colleague Adam Sage reported this week, an organisation called Les Chiennes de Garde (so difficult to translate into English the precise nuance of this moniker — “The Guard Dogs” , as it was rendered in the report, doesn’t quite convey the miasma of female menace, while “The Guard Bitches” is troublingly unidiomatic. Oh well, you get the idea . .)

Anyway, as I was saying, Les Chiennes have got up a petition demanding the removal from all official documents of the offensive administrative question, Monsieur, Madame ou Mademoiselle? on the grounds that (as the text of their petition trenchantly puts it): “The option Madame/Mademoiselle means that a woman has to give an indication about her availability, in particular her sexual availability. A letterbox is not meant to be a dating agency.”

Coo-er. I should say not. The very idea! Though, come to think of it, isn’t there something rather charming, not to say quintessentially French, about the thought of some melancholy young bureaucrat, rising in the morning and making his way from his humble lodgings in the banlieue to his desk in some windowless Government office, there to spend the sunlit hours in processing the tedious tax returns or driving licence applications of the French citizenry?

Tiens! But what is this? An irregularity on one of the forms; a crucial detail missing. Our hero knows his patriotic duty. On behalf of the Government he must ensure that the form is correctly filled in. There is nothing for it but to contact the applicant, a certain Mlle Chose, as it turns out. And then . . . And then . . . Ah, had I the pen of a Maupassant, or the cinematographic skills of a Rohmer, I think I might feel a short story — or a long film — coming on. Yes, well, let us pursue this fantasy no further but return to our feminists, one of whom, Emmanuele Peyret, wrote in the newspaper Libération that “the insidious passage from Mademoiselle to Madame is so painful that we may as well begin by being called Madame straight away, in the cradle”.

Now, this is interesting. The question of the “insidious passage from Mademoiselle to Madame” strikes me as a universal female, rather than specifically feminist, preoccupation. But at any rate that insidious passage, and one’s progress along it, is a journey to which I have given a good deal of thought.

Oddly enough, I had imagined that in France the transition from Mademoiselle to Madame might be accomplished with less pain than the equivalent manouevre here. Of course I noticed when I ceased, in France, to be Mademoiselle, the jeune fille en fleur, and became Madame, the grown-up lady. But, perhaps because I romanticise the condition of being a Frenchwoman, I felt that not everything was lost when I ceased to be Mademoiselle; that there was a certain compensatory glamour and sophistication to Madame which almost made up for the pain of the moment when my (then) boyfriend suddenly remarked, “you’re not coltish any more” (an observation that any man might privately make, but surely no one but an Anglo-Saxon would actually come out with).

Here, of course, the English equivalent of Mademoiselle, “Miss”, lost its overtones of sexy youthful bloom at precisely the moment that the Ealing comedies ceased to be made, and now conveys only frustration and disappointment. It is the linguistic equivalent of Miss Havisham’s withered bridal bouquet: the badge of the woman who never managed to graduate to “Mrs”. And yet, perversely, I find I cling to it.

The hospital where my son was born and the school he now attends both yearned to confer on me the faux-respectability of Mrs. “Ah, Mrs Shilling,” begins some master at parents’ evening. And “Miss!” I hiss, like a cornered viper.

In France, I am happy to be Madame; the term seems to lend a little poise to even the most trying circumstances. (Last summer on the beach, for example, when the lady of a certain age under the adjacent sunshade addressed me thus: “Madame, you have got your leg through the waist-hole of your bikini bottoms. But don’t worry. It could happen to anyone.”

Here I relish the ambiguous qualities of Miss — its complex cadence of lost love, lingering possibility and a certain racy defiance of convention. As for Ms, with its distressing upper partials of miserable and misery — no one, not even a Government official, has yet attempted to call me that.

And they’d better not try, either.