In the early pages of The Uncommon Reader, the Queen selects a book off the shelves of a bookmobile visiting the palace grounds. She recognizes the author, Ivy Compton-Burnett, but is surprised to discover that the book has not been checked out since 1986. The librarian explains she is not a popular author “Why, I wonder?” the Queen muses. “I made her a dame.”
This got us wondering. How exactly does one become a dame in Great Britain?
Basically the title is the female equivalent of a knight. In the system of such honors in Great Britain, this can be the title of any women who has been awarded the Order of the Bath, the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Royal Victorian Order and the Order of the British Empire.
For example, authors Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie have all been named Dame Commanders of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). The Order of the British Empire was established by King George V in 1917 to fill in a gap in the British honors system. The other three orders were restricted to senior military officers and civil servants for the Order of the Bath; diplomats for The Order of St. Michael and St. George; and those who had served the royal family for the Royal Victorian Order. The Order of the British Empire allowed knighthood and damehood to be bestowed on a wider range of honorees, including writers and other artists.
Other well-known authors with the DBE include Barbara Cartland, Rebecca West, Ngaio Marsh, Iris Murdoch, Catherine Cookson, Muriel Spark, A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble.
We Americans supposedly reject Britain’s royal class system. While we have our share of book-related awards, if we could give such titles to American’s literary class, who would you choose as American Dames? We might select Emily Dickinson and Pearl Buck to start. Anyone else?
Note: We’ll take a break on Friday, July 4 and return with a new posting on Tuesday, July 8.