Monday, June 21, 2010

Jane Austen and Names

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?

Elizabeth Hawksley


Phoebe's Sisters said...

Thank you very much for this post! It explains so much!

Jan Jones said...

This is interesting, Elizabeth. Had never thought about Georgiana / George Wickham in the light of Mr Dracy senior's first name before.

Thank you.

Jan Jones said...

Mr Dracy? I meant Mr Darcy, of course!

Jane Odiwe said...

A fascinating post, Elizabeth. What I especially love about Jane's characters is that even when she uses the same christian names as she often does, her characters remain so completely distinct from one another!
It was lovely to meet you the other day - at last!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Farida, Jan and Jane, for your interest. I enjoyed writing the blog on Jane Austen's names - it's a bit like detective work.

And great to meet you, too, Jane.

Jane Travers said...

What a fabulous, explanatory post! Thank you for explaining the topic so well.

Edna said...

Very interesting - I had no idea. What a Jane Eyrehead I've been!

Miri said...

Thank you very much for this wonderfully interesting post! I too never made the Georgiana/George Wickham connection.

Loved learning about the Hanoverian connotations.

Gemma said...

I've never considered the inheritance of names that carefully before. Thanks for this post, it was really enlightening.

I have felt a little defensive of Jane Austen in the past. I vaguely recall reading someone criticising her for reusing first names across her novels. They suggested that she only did that because her circle of acquaintances was so narrow, she didn't know enough names to add variety to her novels. (!)

I did some poking around in census records and came up with percentages of the population that shared the same first name. This showed that some names were incredibly common. Can you imagine over half the women being born sharing just 4 names? (Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah or Ann.) Or half the men? (William, John, Thomas or James.) [There are a couple other similar pages linked from the home page.]

Unknown said...

That was such a fun and informative post. Thank you!

Here's my stab at the quiz:

a. Mrs. Bennet's probable first name is Jane.

b. Mr. Bennet's probable first name is William, as that is Collins' first name, the heir of the entail.

c. If Lydia names her first daughter Jane, she'll ask her eldest sister to be godmother, and hope for some of the Bingley inheritance.

d. From the cradle, Anne is betrothed to Darcy, whose mother is named Anne... lest Darcy should forget! ;-P

e. Although Mr. Collins would probably be dying to name her Catherine, it will be too presumptuous of him to do so. It will be more prudent to name her Anne, as Anne would most likely remain unmarried and childless.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, thank you very much! It does shed some light on the names in JA's novels - something I've never thought about much.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Glad you enjoyed the quiz, JojoGo. I agree with your reasoning, though I might have gone for a Catherine/Charlotte choice for e). Still, 'Anne' would have a lot of advantages!

I only cottoned onto the custom of naming a child after a godparent after reading an entry in Pepys' diary where he went to the christening of his godson 'and named the child Samuel.'

Once the penny had dropped, I found it everywhere. Shakespeare, for example, named his twins Hamnet and Judith after their godparents Hamnet and Judith Sadler.

It's a custom with advantages for both sides. For a wealthy man, to have a number of godsons all bearing his name can only enhance his prestige. And the godsons can expect future advancement.

Jenny Haddon said...

Delicious post. I'd never thought of that before, though I suppose I had cracked Colonel Fitzwilliam/ Fitzwilliam Darcy and Mr William Walter Eliot subconsciously.

Fascinating that Hanoverian names for girls were still parvenu a hundred years after George 1 had clambered onto the throne.

I'm sure Mr Collins would have wanted to call his daughter after Lady Catherine or Miss Anne de Bourgh - but presumably he could only decently do so, if the de Bourgh ladies agreed to stand godmother? I suppose there's too much history to approach the new and now rich Mrs Darcy and call the girl Elizabeth? Charlotte might like that, and it would be a nice gesture of reconciliation between the old friends.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Enjoyed your website, Gemma.

William Gosling did some research for The Names Society into the top fifty first names of 1700 and 1800 taken from parish registers in England and Wales, which you may have come across. What is interesting is that, as you say, the name bank is very small and it scarcely changes in a hundred years.

The top five female names in 1700 were; Mary, Elizabeth, Ann(e), Sarah and Jane. In 1800, they were: Mary, Ann(e), Elizabeth, Sarah and Jane.

Not much room for scope there!

Glad you enjoyed the post, Jenny.

I considered 'Elizabeth' for the Collins' daughter. I remembered Mr Bennet's advice to Mr Collins to 'stand by the son. He has more to give' but decided that Lady Catherine would be outraged and Mr Collins might find himself out of a living.

I don't think that Hanoverian names were necessarily parvenu, after all, both Caroline and Charlotte became popular names. (Both George II and George IV's wives were called Caroline, and George III's was Charlotte.)

All the same, I can't help thinking that Jane Austen felt much the same about 'Augusta' as she did about the 'barouche-landau'!

LizA said...

Interesting. In my corner of the world (Western Autria) a lot of people still add the godparent's name as a second name. Not everyone does, but it is quite common. My own godchild/nephew has two godparents, my younger brother and myself, and ended up saddled with four names (his name, Maria [there is a tradition of adding Maria to both male and female children] Bernhard [for my brother] and Elisabeth [for me]. poor little boy!

melinda hammond said...

Brilliant post, Elizabeth. One of those moments when you read something and think, "of course!"

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Fascinating that other countries have a similar custom, LizA, though I do feel a bit sorry for your nephew. At least Elisabeth is a name with an impeccable historical pedigree. Wasn't there an Empress Elisabeth of Austria?

I'm sure he would prefer Elisabeth to a really girlie name, like Belinda or Arabella.

Anonymous said...

LizA, which part of Western Austria do you live in? (I'm only asking because I'm Tyrolean myself).

I'm not aware of the custom of naming children after their godparents, not in my neck of the woods. (Though my mother was, and so hated her middle name that I guess that could have been the reason why she didn't inflict a middle name on her children. Mind you, my first name is quite enough.) ;)

And yes, there was an Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the famous Sisi, poor soul (nothing to do with her name though).

Rike Horstmann said...

I like the quiz! I agree with the other posts, except for a) and b). I have always felt that Mr. Bennet must be John, as Jane is the only one among his children for whose name a male form exists. That would make Mrs. Bennet an Elizabeth!

Emmeline Cartwright said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emmeline Cartwright said...

Wow! Wonderful post and so well researched! Congrats to you from a humble Onomastic Scientist.
In my Master Thesis I wrote about the 18th Century Christian Names in my town and such naming fashions exist all over Europe (and probably everywhere, but I'm not a specialist in non-european languages...)!
In one of my papers I also spoke about the naming in Jane Austen's books. I did it with Stephenie Meyer as well and some other novels/series...
My own naming doesn't fit into this system so well, but it's author's freedom isn't it!?

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks, Emmeline. Sorry to take so long in replying.

Your Master Thesis on names sounds fascinating.

I really like your name, too. Just right for a heroine!

Unknown said...

Notice that she has used the name of Betsy for servant characters in at least 2 of her works.