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13 November 2007

What's In a Name?


An interesting discussion on Cate's Journal and Book Reviews recently got me thinking about names and forms of address. I blogged about names on on my own website this week, and as I still had more to say after writing a longer than usual post :-), I thought I’d go into it further here, with some historical examples.

Choosing a name is often one of first major decisions an author makes about a character. A name that fits the character, a name that fits the era, a name the character’s parents might believably have chosen, a name that doesn’t conflict with other names in the book. After one settles on the right name (which for me is often a long process involving lists and lots of consultations with baby name books, "The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names," and period family trees), one has to decide how the other characters in the book address that character. A particularly fraught question for an historical novelist when there are often so many possible names a person might be called (given name, surname, title, honorifics) and an intricate code about which names were used when and by whom.

I once heard Dorothy Dunnett give a talk where she discussed how brilliantly Georgette Heyer used different forms of address to delineate relationships between characters. For instance, in “These Old Shades," Justin Alastair, Duke of Avon, is “Avon” to most of his peers, “Alastair” to his old friend Hugh Davenant and to his old friend and sometime enemy Anthony Merivale (though both call him “Justin” in serious moments), and “Justin” to his brother and sister, not to mention “Satanas” in whispers among the beau monde and “Monseigneur” to Léonie. Dunnett uses this technique beautifully herself with Francis Crawford of Lymond, who is “Lymond” to most, “Mr. Crawford” to some, and also a variety of foreign titles he acquires in the course of his adventures. For someone to call him “Francis”–or for him to sign his given name to a letter–is a sign of great emotional intimacy. When a particular character who has addressed him as "Mr. Crawford" calls him "Francis" in the last book in the series, it indicates a profound upheaval in their relationship.

In many historical eras (certainly in the Regency/Napoleonic era when my own books are set) even husbands and wives addressed each other quite formally. Elizabeth Bennett’s parents always address each other as “Mr. Bennett” and “Mrs. Bennett”. We never know their given names. Turning to a real-life historical example, Emily Cowper (a patroness of Almack’s, the daughter of Lady Melbourne and sister of William Lamb) refers to her husband as “Lord Cowper” in her letters, But such formal address between husbands and wives was not invariably the case. Emily writes to her second husband (and long=time lover), Lord Palmerston, as “my dear Harry." Emily’s sister-in-law, Lady Caroline Lamb, refers to her husband as “William” not “Mr. Lamb." (Caroline refers to her lover Lord Byron as "Byron" however, leading one to wonder if anyone called the poet "George.") Caroline’s cousin, Harriet Cavendish, refers to her husband, Lord Granville Leveson-Gower, as “Granville” (his given name, which later becomes his title, when he’s created Viscount and eventually Earl Granville).

Siblings tend to refer to each other by given names. At the same time Emily is calling her husband “Lord Cowper”, she is referring to her brothers as “William”, “George," and “Fred." This can make the sibling bond seem more intimate and informal than the marital one, which perhaps it was in some cases, given the separate lives led by a number of aristocratic husbands and wives. Certainly sibling relationships would go back to the nurserv and the schoolroom, before the people in question entered society with its elaborate social codes. The exception to given names between siblings is eldest sons who had a courtesy title. The title holder is usually referred to by his title, but more informally, without the “Lord.” Harriet Cavendish and her sister Georgiana (whom Harriet writes to as "G.”), refer to their brother, the Marquess of Hartington, as “Hart," even after he assumes their father’s title and becomes the Duke of Devonshire.

The fact that a fairly narrow list of names was used over and over by aristocratic British families (Edward, George, Henry, Charles, William, Caroline, Mary, Anne, Elizabeth, Henrietta, etc…) can make it difficult for the historical novelist to find names that sound appropriate to the period without repeating (“Persuasion” has, I believe, three characters named Charles). It also meant that nicknames, pet names, and shortened forms of names were likely to be employed. William Lamb and his brother George both married Carolines. The family referred to them as “Caro William” and “Caro George”. Georgiana Cavendish, named after her mother Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was “G.” or “little G.” Harriet Cavendish was named for her mother’s sister Henrietta, Lady Bessborough (Caroline Lamb’s mother) who was called “Harriet.” To differentiate her from her namesake, Harriet was called “Harryo” within the family.

Valets, ladies' maids, and butlers were traditionally addressed by their surname, while housekeepers would be "Mrs. [Surname]" (Mrs. Fairfax in ":Jane Eyre"). Lower servants (footmen, housemaids, kitchen maids) were usually called by their given name or in some cases simpy by a generic given name used for everyone in that position ("Edward" for the first foorman, etc..). Governesses were usually "Miss {Surname.]" But here again there were variations. Harriet Cavendish calls her long-time governess, Selina Trimmer, "Selina" in letters.

All of which leaves the historical novelist with myriad options for how characters address each other. A different form of address can give a completely different view of the character being address, the character speaking, and the relationship between the two (imagine if someone showed up who called Lady Catherine de Bourg “Kitty”). A couple who address each other as “Lord” and “Lady” or “Mr.” and “Mrs.” convey a different impression about their relationship from a couple who habitually use each other’s given names or endearments such as "my love, "my dear," "dearest," or "darling." A shift to a more or less formal form of address can indicate an emotional shift (for a bit in my book "Secrets of a Lady," Charles is so angry with Mélanie that he can’t call her anything more intimate than “madam"),

As a writer, do you enjoy thinking through how your different characters address each other? As a reader, do you notice these distinctions? Can you think of examples from books where names are used to delineate relationships in ways that are particularly memorable?

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20 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

As an actress, I studied Shakespeare in performance with the prickly Patrick Tucker, who developed techniques with John Barton and Cecily Berry to teach the RSC actors. Every once in a while he'd come to the U.S., and that's how I got to take his class. He had the actors parse out the lines looking for forms of address between characters -- even the lines a servant delivers (there's an entire relationship in , i.e., "My Lord, the king approaches" and "My liege, the king approaches" and a distinction between the two, not only in the form of address but in the relationship between master and servant in each instance.

In BY A LADY (set primarily in Bath, 1801), I have the hero, Lord Darlington, addressed, variously, depending on the speaker, as my lord, his lordship, Darlington, and Percy (his name is Owen Percival), which is the intimate nickname given to him first by an elderly character who dotes on him, and later by the heroine, who breathes it with as much risk as if she were to address him by his first name.

To return briefly to Shakespeare, "What's in a name?" A LOT. For my fictional characters I always try to use names that would have been popular (or known to be daring) at the time. I have a wonderful little book that lists all of the character names in Austen's novels, which is one great little tool. No Tiffanys, Zoes or Ambers in 18th and 19th century England. I hate to say it, but romance novelists seem to love to do this, and, call me madcap (or much worse), but it takes me right out of the story. If the author doesn't know enough to know that Tiffany sounds about as appropriate as a lobster at a bar mitzvah, then what else did she get wrong?

6:41 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

In historical romance, when the herorine and hero finally start adressing each other by their christian names . . .I consider that one of the first steps toward physical intimacy (which would make the total 13, not 12 as contemporary psychologists use.)

9:34 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating about forms of address in Shakespeare, Amanda! Shakespeare is so wonderfully rich in clues to characterization and relationships, even with characters who only appear briefly. I love your hero being called by nickname based on his surname--there's something about that that seems so real and so specific to the character.

I have to look for the book that lists the names in Jane Austen novels. That would be wonderful! I too try to pick names that fit the era and also that the characters' parents would have chosen (which may mean a very conventional name or something more unusual). I changed the name of Charles and Mélanie's daughter from "Cristina" to "Jessica" because I realized Mélanie was much more likely to have named her daughter after a Shakespeare character than after her mother :-). Names that are totally out of period drive me nuts too and totally throw me out of the story. Surprisingly, enough, Tiffiany actually is an historical name (not common but possible). Georgette Heyer has a Tiffany (not a heroine, a spoiled secondary character) and that always sounded anachronistic to me until I got "The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names." According to the ODECN, it's a shortened form of "Theophania" which is connected to "epiphany." "It was given to girls born at the season of Epiphany, and if found in England from about 1200." (The latest example they mention if 1695, so it doesn't seem to have been as much in vogue in the 18th/19th centuries). If I ever used it for a character I'd make a point of explaining its origin, because it sounds *so* modern!

10:38 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kathrynn, I totally agree about the moment when the use of given names being another stage of intimacy. Names have such a lot of power, particularly in an era where they were used so formally. Imagine a scene where a pair of ex-lovers meet at a ball and address each other with great formality. Then, when they're alone, one uses the other's given name. That in and of itself speaks volumes about their relationship.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating about Tiffany.

I'm a stickler for conventional names too -- as well as the diminutives that the upper classes use for each other well after they're grown up (in Portnoy's Complaint, when the hero has a very upper class girlfriend, he says it was as though she'd gone to school with Donald Duck's nephews).

I also like the names of homes. I read in one of Lawrence Stone's books that it was an aristocratic thing to closely identify your family with the land and the house. So in The Slightest Provocation, Kit's family live at Rowan Castle, or just at Rowan. While Mary's family (her father's a wealthy brewer) have a country house called Beechwood Knolls (horrendously middleclass, to Kit's snobby ears).

In the current book-that-must-not-be-named, I stole Donwell Abbey and called the house Wheldon Priory. An imaginative, classically educated little girl character finds it horribly stodgy how the family has hardly budged from dreary old Essex since Henry VIII had made them a gift of the house 3 centuries ago -- which is exactly the sort of thing that we love in our fantasy Regency world. The little girl (Sydney -- not so typical, but possible) has her own idea of a beautiful place name -- Cincinnati, Ohio. As it is, when you think about it.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

There's nothing that gets me hotter under the collar than writers who get the forms of address incorrect in novels. It's one of the things that easiest to check and if you're read enough historical novels from the era you can almost absorb it by osmosis. I also find novels where the hero is named Jake or Hunter and he's a regency or Victorian hero completely offputting. While I know that there are authors want to be different, I find it jarring. I've actually put down books I've picked up in the bookstore because the hero or heroine had a period inappropriate name.

Oh, and I agree with you Kathrynn, there's something so romantic and intimate about that moment when they use Christian names for the first time.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love what you did with the house names in "The Slightest Provocation", Pam! Just the names say volumes about Mary and Kit and the differences between their families. House names are their own delight and their own challenge. I often end up working out a whole history for the house (when it was built, when and how it was added to, when and how the family acquired it) in order to describe and name it.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Blogger just ate my post again! Damn, damn, DAMN! (to quote Henry Higgins). Fascinating about the derivation of Tiffany, but I think a character's tangential explanation of how they could have named their daughter Epiphany or Theophania, but like the more modern sounding name, would in itself take me right out of the story. I'd think "hmmm. Okay. Whatever. But it still sounds like the author showing her knowledge in defense of an idiotic name."

To me, Tiffany best belongs in a recognizable blue box, not in a book. :)

12:01 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I know just what you mean, Elizabeth. Reading 18th and 19th century novels and plays, forms of address become like grammar. It's the sort of detail that can really pull me out of the fictional world, like a wrong note in a familiar piece of music.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It does conjure up visions (quite lovely visions :--) of a blue box, doesn't it, Amanda? It's definitely not a name I'd be likely to use. But I have to say it very much suits the spoiled, willful young woman to whom Heyer gave the name.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Monica McCarty said...

Tracy,
I grapple with this all the time in my novels. It seems like there were about 10 mens' names in my period and 5 womens'. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but just a little. :) It became even more of an issue for me because I was writing about real people and the SAME family name would be used over and over each generation. Not a lot of imagination in the Highlands--no "Apples" to be found. LOL.

Because I'm writing in the Highlands in the early 17th century, I also have the Gaelic issue with which to contend. I made a decision early on to use some Gaelic names as "flavor" for servants and lesser characters and use the roman or english equivalent of the name for the main characters--its an accessibility issue. Fascinating topic!!!!

7:17 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Monica! Names of real historical figures pose their own problems. In the book I'm writing now, a real historical person who plays an important role happens to be named Charles, the same as my hero (and since this is the third book my Charles has been in, his name has to stay). I end up referring to the historical Charles by his title a lot to avoid confusion, but there are times when his beloved needs to use his given name. You've done a great job differentiating names in your books and finding interesting nicknames or shortened forms so it doesn't get confusing.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Tracy, hello! I love this discussion about names that you started with the post and the others have continued here. For last names, I find it easiest to look at a map and choose a single placename or a mixture of 2-3.

11:37 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Keira! I too often go to maps to look for surnames, titles, and names of estates. I also take notes during the credits of British television productions--lots of great names!

11:44 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm currently reading an excellent book about Greek art by a scholar named "Nigel Spivey." My husband, who found the book for me, said he was partly attracted to it because it sounded like a name I might have used for a secondary character. I was flattered, but I think he's overestimating me, as he often, wonderfully, does.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great name, Pam! It would work really well for a secondary character. The book sounds good too!

9:00 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Tracy, it's even worse when you could change a name but the character refuses to cooperate. :) There are some characters so connected to the name I first gave them that I can't cange it. The MC in my currently shelved Visigoth novel was Alamir before I knew I'd have King Alaric in it, too. I think I'll use the Gothic spelling Alhareiks or Alareiks for the king; it looks more authentic anyway. Or would it be too difficult to pronounce?

10:24 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Gabriele, I know just what you mean! Sometimes I'll sue a "placeholder" name while I'm trying to sort out the right one, and sometimes the placeholder name becomes so vivid for that character that I can't change it. I think the Gothic spelling for the king in your novel would be cool!

10:39 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Or a name change changes the character. When I decided to connect A Land Unconquered and Caledonia Defiant by a middle volume (Eagle of the Sea) and make it a trilogy with, among other fun, an ongoing family feud over several generations, I had to change the name of the Roman antag in CD from P Valerius Messala to L Cornelius Lentulus, and he became a lot meaner, more a true villain than an antag. *grin*

10:54 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Totally agree about the name influencing the character, Gabriele. Charles's sister, Gisèle, didn't come into focus until I settled on the right name (which I found when I realized her half-French mother would have given her a French name).

11:17 AM  

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