I have just been re-reading Maggie Lane’s brilliant Jane Austen and Food. In it, she makes the perceptive point that Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is ironically named - from the French nourrice, a nurse. She behaves in the most un-nurturing way towards Fanny Price and seems to take every opportunity to put her down.
I began to think about other Jane Austen surnames which might be significant in some way. Fanny Price’s own surname, for example, could also be viewed as ironic. For much of the novel, she is seen to have little value. Her own mother is happy to give her away to her rich relations, surely a traumatic experience for a timid ten-year-old girl. And Henry Crawford values her only as a plaything when he aims ‘to make a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’.
Fanny is not taken in. Underneath her shy and retiring exterior, she is spot on in her judgement of the Crawfords and, when Henry proposes, she courageously refuses him, in spite of her uncle’s strong disapproval of such wilfulness. She is, as Sir Thomas, Edmund and even Henry Crawford himself eventually realize, priceless, with a moral worth beyond value.
Even the cloddish Mr Rushworth’s name carries a hint of irony. Maria rushes into her engagement with him, unable to bear the humiliation of Henry leaving without declaring himself. And worth is not a quality we associate with Mr Rushworth – or, indeed, Maria.
We might note, too, Mary Crawford’s letter to Fanny about Tom Bertram’s illness. She makes it clear that, if Tom dies of his fever, then a future ‘Sir Edmund Bertram’ would sound very well.
In Emma, there is surely more than a touch of irony in Frank Churchill’s name. Frank – that is, honest and open – he is not. And Churchill carries associations of Christian good behaviour, which, again, is wide of the mark. By contrast, Mr Knightley’s name suits his character and we see him taking the time and trouble to be kind to Miss Bates and Harriet Smith, both persons of little social consequence.
In Sense and Sensibility, the name Dashwood might be interpreted as an oxymoron. Marianne certainly has the dash which leaves Elinor with too much of the phlegmatic, though steadfast, wood. Elinor needs more dash and Marianne needs to be more grounded (wood), which is exactly what happens over the course of the book.
Persuasion is, perhaps, the novel with the most interesting surnames. We know that Sir Walter Elliot is very aware of the value of a good name. He is scathing of Anne visiting an old school friend Mrs Smith: ‘A mere Mrs Smith – and everyday Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot…’ Anne makes no reply, though she is well aware that her sister’s friend, Mrs Clay, a woman with no fortune, and ‘no surname of dignity’ is covertly making up to her father.
Mrs Clay’s surname sounds suitably cloddish and sticky but she has enough guile to elope with William Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir, at the end of the book.
Sir Walter himself is overly concerned with appearances. At the end of the book, when he learns that Anne is going to marry her former love, Captain Wentworth (a match which had gravely displeased him ten years earlier), he decides that, (Captain Wentworth’s) superiority of appearance might be not unfairly balanced against her superiority of rank; and all this, assisted by his well-sounding name, (a name of ‘worth’) allows him to give them his blessing.
The surnames in Pride and Prejudice make a different point. Both Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh have surnames of Norman-French origin, thus demonstrating their aristocratic credentials. However, and this could be an example of Jane Austen’s ironic sense of humour, the maiden name of both Darcy’s mother and Lady Catherine was Fitzwilliam, a surname which indicates illegitimacy as fils (French: son) was used for the illegitimate children of kings or princes. Fitzwilliam might be an aristocratic name, but there’s a definite whiff of irregular behaviour about it.
The one book which doesn’t appear to use surnames to indicate anything about their owners is, surprisingly, Northanger Abbey. Why, I wonder.
All pictures are from The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine