By Any Other Name

The question of where fiction writers find names for their characters comes up sometimes at readings or conference panels.  I never had a problem finding plausible contemporary names when I was teaching at a community college.  I just whipped out my class rosters and there they were–Kayla and Jason.  Those among us who do historical mysteries, though, know that naming can be a headache.  Here are my reflections on early 19th century English first names, in case anyone’s aiming for that era.  Medieval or even seventeenth century names are another ballgame.

There’s a dead giveaway that a regency writer has done inadequate historical research.  In 1810 (give or take), aristocratic English families had many first names to choose from when a baby came along, but the patterns of naming were different from ours.  I won’t buy a regency, let alone waste time reading it, when the heroine’s name is Brandi and the hero is called Rock.  In a more serious vein, the writer can reveal a lot of the family’s backstory quickly by the names she selects for her characters.

Religion has a big impact on naming.  Catholics and Dissenters (Protestants who did not conform to the Church of England, also called Nonconformists) suffered under legal disabilities.  Unless they were willing to sign the Thirty-nine Articles (affirmation of Church of England doctrine), they could not serve in the House of Commons, nor could they attend the universities, nor be admitted to the Bar, nor rise above the rank of captain in the Army.  There were also restrictions as to inheritance and the holding of property, especially land.  As a result, prominent Catholic and other Nonconforming families sometimes raised the eldest son in the Church of England while the rest of the family continued to practice the old religion.  In aristocratic families that did support the Church of England and the Hanoverian monarchy (which was Protestant by definition), children’s names would reflect that allegiance–George, Georgiana or Georgina, William, Edward, Anne, and so on.  The mostly German princes and princesses the Hanovers married supplied other names (Sophia, Adelaide).  Families that had sympathy for the Stuart pretenders to the throne could indicate that by naming a son Charles or James–in the case of Charles James Fox, both.  Names from the Middle Ages or the New Testament (Thomas, John, Martin, Margaret, Barbara, Catherine, Mary, Paul) might betray Catholic leanings, whereas Protestant Nonconformists liked Old Testament names for their sons (Caleb, Ezekiel, Josiah, Samuel) and “ideal” names for their daughters (Prudence, Honour, Faith) or, of course, Old Testament names (Sarah, Deborah).

A classical education was highly valued and you could show yours off by giving your child a name from Greek or Roman history or mythology.  A boy might be named Hector or Horatio or Augustus, or a girl Daphne or Chloe.  I always liked the name of Wellington’s brother-in-law, Hercules Pakenham.  He sounds like a hero and was, though he wasn’t the brightest candle in the sconce.  Needless to say, some of the raunchier figures of mythology were not popular.  Diana or Diane was acceptable, but not Venus.  Names from other mythologies (Norse or Irish) were rarely used until much later in the nineteenth century–except for Arthur.  Arthur was perennial.

People have always been named for heroes and heroines, and kings and queens–and for Great Uncle Justinian or Aunt Madeline who might leave the kid a fortune out of family feeling.  The patron saints of England (George), Wales (David), Scotland (Andrew), and, to a lesser extent, Ireland (Patrick) recurred.  All kinds of families continued to use names from English and French history (Henry and Henrietta, Robert, Richard, Marie, Margaret, Jane, Eleanor, Roger, Louis and Louise, even Roland).  The current American fashion for naming little girls Cameron and little boys Watson sometimes occurred, most commonly for boys.  They would be given the mother’s family name, especially if it was historically significant (Russell, Howard, Percy, Shirley, Owen, Joyce, Wynne, Herbert).  What was not likely to happen in an aristocratic family was for a child to be given a family name that indicated a medieval trade (Taylor, Brewster, Webb, Tinker) although those names are popular now.  They might have got away with Clarke.  Names with the Norman Fitz- prefix (Fitzwilliam Darcy leaps to mind) indicate that some ancestor was the illegitimate child of a king or nobleman.

I could go crazy and indicate the names that might have been popular in Scots, Welsh, and Irish families but let’s not get tedious.  Angharad, Fiona, Angus, Liam, Mungo–the list is copious.  My favorite is Huw.  There was still a prejudice in favor of Norman-sounding family names, but the preference for German first names only came in with Prince Albert.

One thing we do, but that aristocratic families would not have done in the early nineteenth century, is to indulge in creative spelling.  English spelling had finally settled down, thanks to the printing press, so a person who spelled a first name eccentrically was either using an ethnic spelling like Huw or was illiterate, and illiteracy was more likely.

So potential writers of fiction set in early nineteenth century England, don’t complain that you can’t think of names for your characters.  There are lots of names available.  Go ahead and call your son or daughter Tyler if you want to.  Just don’t use the name for a regency era heroine unless her daddy tiled roofs for a living.


5 Responses

  1. “Not the brightest candle in the sconce”–I love it! What a perfect metaphor.
    This was a fascinating piece. You mentioned some of my own family names. I didn’t know about about the religious influences on earlier naming (other than saints’ names). Then of course the names are often handed down thru the generations, and scions don’t know why their great-aunts, whose name they share, were originally named Barbara or Anne.

  2. All your remarks (great, btw!) also apply in their own way to 18th-century France. Names go in and out of fashion in all eras and cultures. Novels set in C18 France with heroines named Yvette or Mireille bug the hell out of me–they may be popular names since 1950, but they sure weren’t in 1775. People stuck mostly to saints’ names and others related to Catholicism, plus traditional names like Francois–with the aristocracy adding in some classical or fancy-sounding medieval names for good measure.

    The best source I’ve found for C18 French names has to be — a huge, huge list of people executed during the Revolution! A quick look just turned up an unlucky young aristo named Max Hercule Rosset. What a wonderful name for a character. 🙂

    • Thanks, Susanne. It’s good to know about France in the pre-revolutionary period. It’s interesting to me that the names of medieval saints and historical figures continued to have such staying power. They still do, in spite of all the revolutionary changes

  3. Truly fascinating, Sheila, yes! In my 18th c. novel Midnight Fires I used the name Fiona for a young woman, and after publication, a woman told me it was first a pseudonym for 19th c.William Sharp, who wrote romantic works under the name Fiona MaCleod.Of course I was panicked, but too late to change it. Then, with further research I found a reliable source that said the name was invented by 18th c James Macpherson, and since my Fiona was only 18, I was saved! Though who knows what other odd spellings of that name occurred long before the 18th. One can never say “never.”

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