I have long been fascinated by Jane Austen’s choice of first names for her characters and my research into the subject has shown that she both mirrors and comments on the customs of the time.
Continuity is important in showing family connections, as the Elliot entry in the Baronetage shows: ‘with all the Marys and Elizabeths they had married.’ (Persuasion).
The convention is for the eldest son and daughter to be named after their parents, as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, née Maria Ward, do in Mansfield Park. Jane Fairfax in Emma is named after her dead mother. In Persuasion, Charles Musgrove’s elder son is named Charles, and so on.
Money also has an important role in the choice of name. In Emma, John Knightley is a younger son with no estate of his own. The Hartfield estate, where his wife Isabella was brought up, has no male heir, so, as the elder daughter, Isabella will inherit. The financial importance of this is echoed in their eldest son’s name. ‘Henry is the eldest; he was named after me, not after his father,’ says old Mr Woodhouse, Isabella’s father. Plainly, such a departure from the norm needs an explanation. Otherwise, the John Knightleys are traditional – or possibly ambitious: their children are Henry, John, George, Isabella and Emma. I’ve often wondered if John and Isabella had an eye on Emma Woodhouse’s fortune of £20,000 when naming little Emma.
If a child has little in the way of fortune, then a wealthy god-parent is essential. In Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Mr Primrose’s wish to call his daughter Grissel is ignored. Instead, ‘A rich relation taking a fancy to stand godmother, the girl was, by her direction, called Sophia’. Mr Primrose is not wealthy; he falls in with the godmother’s wishes.
Another wealthy godfather is Mr Darcy, senior. His son is named Fitzwilliam, which is his aristocratic wife’s maiden name - and it cannot be an easy name to live with. Its use as a first name certainly indicates that Lady Anne Darcy’s superior breeding is of major importance to the Darcys. Jane Austen may also intend it to say something about its owner’s pride in his rank.
We are not told the senior Mr Darcy’s first name. However, his daughter is named Georgiana, rather than Anne after her mother, and George Wickham is his god-son. Jane Austen’s contemporary readers would have picked up these clues and realized that Mr Darcy’s first name was George.
They would also have assumed that Anne Elliot was named after her well-to-do, childless godmother, Lady Russell. Doubtless, Anne’s spendthrift father, Sir Walter Elliot, hopes that Lady Russell will leave her fortune to Anne.
Names, therefore, are not chosen because the parents like them, but with regard to family connections or a hoped-for inheritance. In Mansfield Park, we don’t know Mrs Norris’s first name, but we do know that she is Betsy Price’s godmother – and the poor girl is going to need a dowry. Mrs Price would almost certainly have named her daughter after her sister – and hoped (probably in vain) for a legacy.
We can tell more. Most people at that date had only one Christian name. A second name indicates something significant, as we see with William Walter Elliot, the heir to the baronetcy and Kellynch Hall in Persuasion.
There is also the class factor. Most of the female servants in the novels have Old Testament names: Mrs Price’s maid, the slap-dash Rebecca; Mary Musgrove’s maid Jemima; and Hannah who closes doors quietly at Hartfield. These names came in with the Reformation and were taken up by Puritan families, eager to demonstrate their religious convictions. They were rarely used by the upper-middle classes at this period.
By contrast, Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines usually have names of Germanic or New Testament origin rather than from the Old Testament. Names like, Mary, Elizabeth and Anne, or Henry, Edward and Edmund have been used since the Middle Ages.
Occasionally, Jane Austen uses a name as a pointer to character. Take the dreadful Augusta Elton in Emma. The name Augusta came in with the Hanoverians and might be considered somewhat parvenu. George III’s sister and mother were both called Augusta, and his nine sons include: Frederick Augustus, Edward Augustus, Ernest Augustus and, in case you missed the point, Augustus Frederick. Jane Austen neatly indicates Augusta Elton’s social pretensions in the name she gives her.
Frederick is another Hanoverian name: as well as the Frederick Augustus and Augustus Frederick we have already noted, George III also had sons called Adolphus Frederick and William Frederick. Doubtless, Captain Wentworth’s father had ambitions for his son and named him accordingly.
a. What is Mrs Bennet’s probable first name?
b. What is Mr Bennet’s probable first name?
c. If Lydia Wickham named her daughter ‘Jane’, what would she be hoping for?
d. Why did Lady Catherine de Bourgh name her daughter ‘Anne’ rather than ‘Catherine’?
e. What will Mr Collins name his eldest daughter?