Thursday, 22 January 2015

Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane


After finishing Jane Austen and Food  it was time to get on with Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen and Names. Names have a special meaning to most of us, and mostly names mean more than just the name itself. In this study, Maggie Lane has looked at an area which has not been given much attention. She looks at the history of English names up to Jane Austen’s time and the pattern of giving names in society, and the way Jane Austen uses names that fits the personality of her characters, as well as their place in society. Unlike most novelists of her period, Jane Austen used names found in everyday life.

Sometimes she uses a name to explain the characteristics; “Her Charlottes are usually clear-eyed pragmatists and her Henrys are rarely without charm. More often, characters given the same name have nothing in common at all. In one novel Fanny might be a despicable, mercenary snob, and in another the timid, tender-hearted heroine. George Wickham and George Knightley are morally worlds apart. No fewer than three of Jane Austen’s most vulgar characters are named Anne; but so too is the possessor of the most refined mind she created.” 

In her six published novels Jane Austen uses 26 boy’s names and 55 girls’ names. They are repeated through her novels for the naming of 114 male characters and 127 female characters. For some characters she just uses only surnames; Mr and Mrs Allen, Mr and Mrs Bennet, Colonel and Mrs Wallis etc.


Between 1750 and 1799, 20% of boys in England were called William, 19% John and 16% Thomas. Most of the others were named Edward, Richard, Robert, Charles, Henry or James. 24% of girls were called Mary, 19% Elizabeth and 14% Anne. We do recognise many of those names from her books. Marriage, seniority and social status also played a part when calling a person by his/her Christian name or by the surname. Servants were mostly called by their Christian name and Jane Austen often uses the names of Thomas, John, Stephen, Willian and Robert. “Edmund was a name that 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.”  

The purpose of this study, says Maggie Lane:

"…is to show that in nomenclature as in every other aspect of the novelist’s art, Jane Austen had as much imagination and interest in the subject as her sister-novelists, but her sensitivity to the social nuances of names drew her in the opposite direction from most of them. For her, “Nature and Probability” were all-important, and she chose the names of her characters accordingly. As a result, her world is peopled with characters whose names rarely draw attention to themselves, but which add subtly to the depth and truthfulness of her portraits. The more we know about these names, the more fully we can enter into this world." 

As for Jane Austen and Food, this book is very well researched, and also quite academic. I find it fascinating to see how important the names can be in a book, and it seems that Jane Austen was one who gave it quite a thought. Especially with lovers; can we even imaging other names for some of the lovers in history or books, like Tristan and Isolde, Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius, Elizabeth and Darcy, Catherine and Heathcliff, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Scarlett and Rhett, Claire and Jamie and many others.

Maggie Lane’s research into the naming world of Jane Austen, also gives you “food for thought”, on how important a name is. A person is characterised by a name and often when we hear a name we know, we associate it with a person in our surroundings.  I will think more now, on how writers name their characters after having read this book.

These two books give you an insight into the world of Jane Austen and how she managed to include real life experience into her fiction. That makes them even more interesting, and maybe that is why they are still popular 300 years after they were written. We can still see something there today, that we recognise. Both books make an interesting addition to the studies of Jane Austen and her world.

This book was given to me to review by Endeavour Press. The views put forward are my personal ones.

Jane Austen and Names, by Maggie Lane
Endeavour Press Ltd. (2014)

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