Saturday 15 January 2022

Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane - Review

Book Cover: Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane
Today I’m bringing you a review of a book I read a while ago. I had been meaning to read this book for literally years so I was pleased to finally get to it. The title of the book is Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane and as you will have inferred from the title, it takes a closer look at the character names that Austen used in her works. Let’s look at the blurb and then I’ll bring you my review.

Book Description

For Jane Austen, Edmund was a name the represented heroism and chivalry, Maria signified heartlessness and Richard was a joke.

She had a weakness for Emma and a passion for Frederick which endured from her earliest years until she bestowed it on her last, and most romantic, hero.

Unlike most novelists of her period, in naming her characters Jane Austen confined herself to the names found in everyday life, choosing them to fit not only their personalities but their place in society.

While the classic English names are her staple, she also drew on the Old Testament for her low-born characters and eighteenth-century creations for the would-be fashionable.

In this study of a hitherto neglected area of the novelist’s art, Maggie Lane looks at the history of English nomenclature up to Jane Austen’s time and at the naming patterns and practices current in her society, including who was entitled to use the Christian name of whom.

A section on Jane Austen’s own taste in names is followed by an alphabetical listing of all the Christian names used in her mature fiction, with their history, social status and associations.

'Jane Austen and Names' is a must-read for anyone interested in the great novelist.

Book Cover: Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane
Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane – My Review

Maggie Lane has written a number of books about different aspects of Jane Austen’s works, and this particular one looks at her character name choices, to see what, if anything, can be gleaned from the choices. The book lists the character first names alphabetically, and looks at what characters have each name. 

One thing I think is particularly interesting is that although it’s generally accepted that Jane’s elder sister Cassandra was the person closest to her, I couldn’t think of any characters named Cassandra in her adult works (although it was also their mother’s name, which might have made a difference!) so I wanted to see whether there was a Cassandra that I was unaware of. There was a Cassandra in a very short story in Austen’s juvenilia, ‘The Beautifull Cassandra’, but no Cassandra in her adult works.

The other interesting name choice for me is Jane – there are a couple of Janes that spring to mind, namely the almost perfect Janes of Bennet and Fairfax, both of them beautiful and serene, and Jane Fairfax also very accomplished. I don’t think this naming could have been by accident – I really think that Austen was having a laugh with this name choice as even though Jane isn’t an uncommon name, surely for a character to share the author’s name must be a deliberate choice, but the author of this book doesn’t agree with me!

If we look at the other Austen siblings (James, George, Edward, Henry, Francis and Charles) I can think of examples of all their names being given to her characters.

So, what did I learn from this book? Firstly:

‘In the six published novels and three mature fragments which form the body of her work, Jane Austen uses 26 boys’ names and 55 girls’ names. These she repeats and distributed among the one hundred and fourteen male and one hundred and twenty-seven female characters on whom she bestows a Christian name.’

This is also an interesting point; that some characters aren’t given a first name – for some of those there are clues though, such as Mrs Norris’ god-daughter being named Elizabeth, perhaps for her god-mother? A lot of eldest girls are named after their mother, for example Maria Bertram and Fanny Price. So we could make a guess that Mrs Bennet could be a Jane too, although it always tickles me to think that Jane may have been named after another relative (like Anne de Bourgh being named after her aunt) and the second Bennet daughter was named after her mother, because then we would have two Elizabeth Bennets, very different from each other! 

One character that isn’t given a first name is Pride & Prejudice’s Colonel Fitzwilliam, who is very often called Richard in JAFF (Jane Austen Fan Fiction), so much that it has become Richard in ‘Fanon’ (fan fic canon). The name Richard doesn’t seem to be an Austen favourite – being mocked in both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey where Catherine Norland’s father is described as ‘a very respectable man, though his name was Richard’. I am not convinced that Austen was a fan of Colonel Fitzwilliam, so maybe she would have been on board, who knows!

Maggie Lane points out that the use of a person’s first name was a significant marker of intimacy – this is useful information for the modern reader as although a contemporary reader of Austen would know what name usage signifies, a modern reader might just read on without noting the significance as it means nothing to us.

She also points out some things which I’d overlooked, such as names ending in an ‘a’ being bad news, and a general indicator for pretentious or shallow young women (Bertram sisters, Lydia Bennet etc.). Emma is about the only exception to this. It’s interesting how names might flag this sort of characteristic. On the flip side, Charlottes are very sensible.

I thought this was an interesting read, and as it’s just basically a book listing names it’s an easy read to pick up and put down and you could read it among other reads. This author has written a number of books about Austen’s works and life which I’ve been meaning to read for so long, and I’m pleased I’ve finally managed to read one. I’d rate it as a 4 star read.

4 star read

Book Cover: Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane
Buy Links

Jane Austen and Names is available to buy now in Kindle and Kindle Unlimited. It’s also available in paperback, but you’d probably have to pick it up second hand. 

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