I’ve been fascinated by first names ever since I was a child: where they came from, what they meant, and which names were fashionable when, and why. When I came to write historical novels, this was even more important.
So which female names were most frequently used in 1800? My information comes from research into English parish records undertaken by The Names Society, founded in 1969 by Leslie Dunkling.
The top fifty names are as follows:
1-10: Mary, Anne, Elizabeth, Sarah, Jane, Hannah, Susan, Martha, Margaret, Charlotte
11-20: Harriet, Betty, Maria, Catherine, Frances, Mary Ann, Nancy, Rebecca, Alice, Ellen
21-30: Sophia, Lucy, Isabel, Eleanor, Esther, Fanny, Eliza, Grace, Sally, Rachel
31-40: Lydia, Caroline, Dorothy, Peggy, Ruth, Kitty, Jenny, Phoebe, Agnes, Emma
41-50: Amy, Jemima, Dinah, Barbara, Joan, Joanna, Deborah, Judith, Bridget, Marjorie
It’s interesting to see that most of Jane Austen’s female characters’ names are here. I was surprised to find Lydia at number 31, I had supposed it to be an uncommon name. I also expected to find Henrietta, Louisa and Isabella, which aren’t there.
What can we learn from this list? First, nearly half originate in the Bible, like Susan, Martha, Rebecca, Esther, Lydia, Ruth, Jemima, Dinah, Deborah and Judith. Some come in several versions, for example, Mary/Maria/Mary Ann; Anne/Hannah/Nancy; Elizabeth/Betty/Eliza; Sarah/Sally and Jane/Joan/Joanna/Jenny.
It’s noticeable that a number of what were once pet names have become independent names: we have Peggy and Marjorie as well as Margaret; Kitty as well as Catherine, and both Fanny and Frances. It’s, perhaps, significant that these names have been used by Royalty, together with Charlotte, Harriet (from Henry), Sophia, Isabel, Eleanor and Emma.
Phoebe is a classical Greek name, as is Ellen (a variant of Helen). Grace is a ‘virtue’ name which came in with the Reformation. Remove all these and you have only Amy, Dorothy and Bridget to explain. All three had been popular since the Middle Ages. Dorothy and Bridget were saints’ names which managed to survive the Reformation which swept away many saints’ names as being ‘too papist’. The name pool is actually quite small.
The question for historical novelists is: how far do we want to take historical accuracy? Personally, I don’t necessarily want my heroines to have ordinary names. On the other hand, I don’t want to give them anachronistic names, either.
I allow myself to use any Bible name – it helps is I’ve found it on a tombstone. I’ve called a heroine Merab, for example. I also use names familiar from the Classical world, like Cassandra and Phyllida. I think ‘virtue’ names are fine: I have a Clemency. Italianate variants of popular names are justifiable, too, for example Dorothea instead of Dorothy, or Emilia instead of Emily.
I wouldn’t be happy giving my heroine a name which would never have been used at the period in which the book is set, though I try to use names on the above list for minor characters to give a feeling of authenticity. How about you? Does an anachronistic name worry you? What criteria do you use when naming a heroine?