DEAR MISS MANNERS: As an American corresponding with my husband's cousin, must I address the envelope "Lord Geoffrey and Lady Margaret"?
I am sure they prefer it, but it annoys me to call her "Lady." I don't mind addressing him "Lord," as he has earned the title bestowed upon him.
I know British protocol calls for the title, but do I have to do so?
GENTLE READER: Had you not caught Miss Manners in the middle of writing a book about the history and philosophy of American manners, she might have given you a quick yes and no answer. (No, not yes or no; yes and no. See below.) But it struck her that here is the heart of it, packed into the assumptions behind one little question.
It is not just that you, as a proper American, have an antipathy toward aristocratic titles. (Miss Manners knows that a great many Americans simply adore titles, and would curtsey to a kingfish if they had a chance, but this is not a proper American attitude.) It is your assumption that a title is better if the person who bears it has earned it.
Bless your heart, that is not the way the class system works, and it goes a long way toward explaining why America chose not to have one. The further away the title holder is from earning his distinction, the more distinguished he is considered. It may be all very well to be given a peerage for merit, presumably these days a life peerage, but it is far grander to be the inheritor of a title given to a remote ancestor for pulling a hapless king out of a ditch or some metaphorical mess.
Now let us get to the yes and no. Yes, you should address people as they wish to be addressed. Using someone's title is not a show of obeisance, the way bending the knee to a foreign sovereign would be. It is a violation even of good old American etiquette to annoy people on purpose.
But no, you don't have to address the envelope to Lord Geoffrey and Lady Margaret, because this would be incorrect. The full title is used on the envelope: "The Duke and Duchess (or The Marquess and Marchioness, or The Earl and Countess) of Middlehamptsonshirington;" or "The Viscount and Viscountess Twinkledee." Only the lowest-ranking peers, barons, receive mail styled Lord and Lady, and then not with their given names -- "The Lord and Lady Hemhaw."
In speech, Lord or Lady before a given name means that the bearer has inherited the title (and it is only a courtesy title, because under primogeniture, only the eldest son is ennobled, and his siblings are commoners) as the child of a duke, a marquess or the daughter of an earl (earls' younger sons being styled Honourable, as are the children of viscounts and barons).
So, unless Cousin Margaret is one of those, marrying up would not make her Lady Margaret, only "Margaret, Duchess of Whoopdeedoo." And Cousin Geoffrey wouldn't be Lord Geoffrey if he earned his peerage, unless it was by putting up with his irascible father.
Yes, yes, Miss Manners admits that she knows more about this sort of thing than a proper American should. There is even more: grace notes that are added to the title when it is business correspondence, the importance of "The" when giving the title, ways to address knights and baronets, and on and on.
Fortunately, you are not addressing the entire peerage, only two cousins, and they ought to be able to tell you how they came to be called whatever it is they are called.