What to call women: another language dilemma from the past

Here is another dilemma for those who write about the past: by what name should we refer to prominent women?

For much of history, middle and upper class women were routinely known by their husband’s names. I don’t just mean that they took their husband’s surname, but in public they often used his first name as well.

Lady Henry Somerset is one such. She was Lady Isabella – sometimes spelt as Isobel – Caroline Somers-Cocks before her marriage to Lord Henry Somerset. Elected President of the British Women’s Temperance Association in 1890, she was one of the principal founders of Duxhurst farm colony, which opened its doors in 1895 as a centre for ‘inebriate women’. She separated from her husband shortly after discovering that he was a homosexual, and famously won custody of their son.

By which name should we refer to her today? I’ve used both ‘Lady Henry Somerset’, which was how she was often referred to in the contemporary press, and under which she published; but I have also used plain ‘Isobel Somerset’. Is this a weaselly compromise, or – as I hope – a sensible solution which reflects modern sensibilities without sanitising the past?

A last point: my modern solution would have greatly offended Lady Somerset, who insisted throughout her life on using her title, which she held by birth as well as marriage.

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