Thursday, January 05, 2012

What's in a name: top female first names in 1800

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?

Elizabeth Hawksley


Sarah Mallory said...

That is so interesting, E£lizabeth. I shall copy it and keep it to hand ready for my next book!

Thank you - your posts are always worth reading.

Sarah Mallory said...

Oops, sorry about adding a pound sign into your name (an omen, perhaps??)

I think names are evocative of the period. For example, I know there were some Alberts in England during the Regency, but for me the name sets the scene very much in the Victoria era.

I have a book coming out this year where I have called the heroine Zelah after the village in Cornwall (I have pronounced it Zeelah, although some native Cornish speak may correct me). I have no evidence that it has been used before, but the village is there, and it is such a pretty name...

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your kind compliment, Sarah. I do try to make my posts interesting and entertaining - especially if I don't have any appropriate pictures!

Re: Zelah. The actress Zelah Clarke was terrific as Jane Eyre in a TV adaptation many years ago. She pronounced her name Zayla - to rhyme with 'sailor'. I agree it's a pretty name.

Sarah Mallory said...

Of course, I saw that version! Well, it's not too far off!

Names are so important - I suppose is why some of us take pen names!

Anne said...

I do think it's important to choose a name that fits the character and is also reasonably historically plausible, if not exactly accurate.

I've called a heroine Tallie, which was short for Thalia, from Greek mythology. I also tend to use pet names, probably more often than they might have been, though it's hard to tell, as I suspect people tended to write more formally than they spoke.

Sarah Mallory said...

I think you are right, Anne. Think of P&P - Elizabeth is called Lizzie by her family and even if I recall, Eliza. JA has put used it int he dialogue, suggesting that it was usual to have pet namess. Sometimes the name comes with the character. In the Belles Dames Club my heroine's youngish and v pretty step-mother's name is Helen, but I always thought of her as "Mama-Nell", even before I wrote the book.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

You are right about the common use of pet names, Anne. We even have Jane Austen's word for it!

In 'Northanger Abbey' she introduces Catherine's sister Sarah, saying: 'Sally - or rather Sarah (for what young lady of common gentility will reach the age of sixteen without altering her name as far as she can?)...'

And what about Kitty Bennet?

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