George Justice, Editor

What’s In a Name? 
Jane Austen and Names

By Maggie Lane.
Blaise Books, 2002. 79 pages.
1 b/w illustration. Softcover. £ 4.95.

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.”

Jane Austen 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 favorite volume.

There are 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.

Naming could 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.

Particularly 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.”

The last 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 Henri. “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).

Maggie Lane 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 Austen’s artistry.

Susannah 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.”

JASNA News v.19, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 15

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