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In Iolanthe, by Gilbert and Sullivan, Phyllis sings (after discovering the "betrayal"):

So the richest and rankiest of you all
My sorrowful heart shall choose.

then:

I'll be a countess, shall I not?

and the peers say:

Rank, it seems, is vital,
"Countess" is the title,
Yes, countess, countess the title, the title,

Yet the only candidates are two earls which seems a bit odd, given that half the House courts her. I see a few options:

  1. No dukes or marquesses are available.
  2. She just picked a title (and nobody wished to contest that).
  3. Marchioness wouldn't fit in the song and duchess would be unrealistic.

But perhaps I'm missing some historical context or a subtle joke?

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I don't think your missing the joke, I believe that Gilbert emphasized the "riches" rather than the "rank" when choosing her two engaged, However I can address your points of concern.

Firstly in response to your third theory, the term "earl" does not appear in any of the songs in Iolanthe, so that I can definitely debunk.

Secondly I can address your first point. My first thought was that there were no Dukes or Marquises in the show. I was woefully mistaken. In the operetta it lists the chorus as

Chorus of Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts, Barons, and Fairies.

so there were Marquises and Dukes to be chosen. I would say that either none of them were in the running to marry her (as you said), or the Earls were richer than they were.

You also have to bear in mind that Phyllis maybe was not in the most sane state of mind, having just seen her boyfriend cheat on her and discovering that faeries were real. She could have just picked the first two she saw. This could confirm your 2nd point, if she is not thinking clearly and doesn't really care.

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  • some more evidence in favour of the riches (or not thinking clearly) interpretation: in the finale, Celia says that they are all "fairy duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, and baronesses" – Thanos Oct 11 '18 at 17:55
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According to Wiktionary, the wife of an earl is indeed a countess, as is a woman who holds an earldom in her own right. We just never came up with "earless", which certainly doesn't look right on a page.

So, for example, the wife of Edward Stanley, 19th Earl of Derby is Caroline Emma Stanley (Neville), Countess of Derby. If Phyllis marries an earl, her title would also be Countess.

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