What’s In a Name?
Jane Austen and Names
By Maggie Lane.
Blaise Books, 2002. 79 pages.
1 b/w illustration. Softcover. £
Reviewed by Susannah Fullerton.
“The pleasure of
choosing names for progeny is one that maiden aunts normally forfeit.
But not Jane Austen…. The fertility of her brain secured for her the
pleasure, the power and perhaps the puzzle, of choosing Christian names
for more than two hundred characters. How she did so, and to what
effect, is what this book is all about.”
selected every detail, every word, with care and precision, so we can
be certain that just as much thought went into the selecting of first
names for her characters. Jane
Austen and Names, by well-known
Austen scholar Maggie Lane, shows how Austen chose and used names, the
history and meanings of those names, fashions, and Austen’s own
personal preferences in naming.
Chapter One, Names
and the Novelist’s Art, discusses the
colorful, unusual names of the Juvenilia (e.g. Ethelinda, Jezalinda,
Philander and Polydore) and how these burlesqued the literary fashions
of the day. However, Maggie Lane proves naming to be a serious matter
in the mature novels. Responses to names form an integral part of
characterization. “The name is good in itself” is Mary Crawford’s cool
comment on the name Edmund. There is nothing cool, however, about
Fanny’s response: “There is nobleness in the name of Edmund. It is a
name of heroism and renown.” Emma contains revealing games and wordplay
on names: Mr. Knightley so enjoys the sound of Emma’s name that he
speaks it no fewer than 68 times, while the sterility of the Elliot
family name in Persuasion is neatly
illustrated by “all the Marys and Elizabeths” recorded in Sir Walter’s
fashions in naming and Maggie Lane explores the way the Norman
Conquest, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment affected name choices,
leading us to the time of Austen’s birth so we can see the naming
heritage she drew upon. When you learn that from 1750–1799 one-fifth of
all English boys were christened William and almost one-quarter of
girls were christened Mary, it comes as no surprise to find nine
Williams in her novels and eleven Marys, to which can be added the
variants of Marianne and Maria. Latinate names, usually ending in an
“a” (such as Louisa, Isabella, Henrietta) suited the classical taste of
the Georgian Age, and Austen tends to use these in her fiction for
pretentious or shallow characters. Servants, on the other hand, have
old-fashioned Biblical names such as Hannah, or those ending with a “y”
such as Patty or Sally.
have social or financial implications too, with children named for
godparents. (One intriguing speculation in this book is that Mrs.
Norris could well be Elizabeth, since her goddaughter is Betsey.)
Naming could also be unequal—four of the Austen children were given two
names each (Henry Thomas, Cassandra Elizabeth, Frances William, and
Charles John), while the other four were given only one. In such a
propertied, patriarchal society, names were chosen with purpose.
interesting is the chapter on the usage of Christian names. The Bennets
famously refer to each other as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and Maggie Lane
explains how common this was, along with the other regulations
governing first-name terms. We see which characters break these
rules—Henry Crawford and his “dearest, sweetest Fanny,” which makes her
“draw back displeased,” Willoughby’s familiar “Marianne,” and Mrs.
Elton’s “Jane” instead of Miss Fairfax. The correct forms of name for
children, parents, relatives, aristocrats, and servants are all
explained, and when Jane Austen deviates from usual practice,
illuminating reasons are given.
We all have our
preferred names, and Austen was no exception. Henry, Emma, and
Frederick were favorites with her and Maggie Lane shows how she
bestowed them on witty and charming characters. For Richard “she had
the strongest irrational antipathy”; she was not enthusiastic about
John or Thomas; and “the name of Rachael is as much as I can bear.”
section of the book is a useful alphabetical index of all the Christian
names that Austen used. In each listing, detail is supplied about the
history and popularity of the name, and then a commentary is given on
the characters bearing that name in the novels. For example, the entry
for Harriet explains that the
name was invented in France as a corrupted feminine form of
“The name seems to have suggested shallowness to Jane Austen,” for she
gave it to Harriet Smith, Harriet Morland, Harriet Forster, and Harriet
Harrington (the last two are friends of Lydia Bennet).
concludes that Austen’s “world is peopled with characters whose names
rarely draw attention to themselves, but which add subtly to the depth
and truthfulness of her portraits. The more we know about these names,
the more fully we can enter into this world.” I strongly recommend this
book to those who wish to increase their knowledge and appreciation of
Fullerton is the President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and
Editor of Jane
Austen—Antipodean Views. Among her writings
on Jane Austen is the Persuasions article “Jane
Austen’s Art of Naming.”
v.19, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 15
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