Jane Austen and Names, by Maggie Lane – A Review

Jane Austen and Names, by Maggie Lane (2014 )From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

It seems only natural that an author would be interested in names. My writer friends collect interesting names for future characters and are constantly putting together different combinations. A young Jane Austen playfully tried out a selection of husband names for herself in her father’s parish register of marriages. Expectant parents pour over lists of baby names and struggle to find just the right one. As Maggie Lane points out in the introduction, “The pleasure of choosing names for progeny is one that maiden aunts normally forfeit. But not Jane Austen.” Jane Austen and Names explores her choice of character names and what these choices reveal about the culture she lived in. We also learn about Austen’s personal likes and dislikes through excerpts from her letters.

Ms. Lane begins with a chapter titled, “A Brief History of Names” in which she outlines the changing “common stock” of English Christian names. Names are drawn from a variety of sources and each name has an origin and meaning. The author asserts that these are much less important to most name choosers (parents and authors) than the cyclical rise and fall of names on the social scale. The following describes the cycle that applies as much to our current-day name choices as it did to Regency England.

“Typically, a name or set of names will be taken up at the top of the social hierarchy, being found alien, even absurd, by the majority. Eventually, through familiarity, it will become acceptable to a broad range of people; and by the time it has percolated to the very base of the pyramid, it will have long been shunned by the trend-setters, who are now looking elsewhere. Elsewhere might be a new set of imports, or more likely the revival of an old set of names.”

The next chapters examine the social status of various categories of names as well as naming patterns and practices at the time Austen’s novels were written. Jane’s own name is used to illustrate the trend away from diminutive forms (Sally, Nanny, Betty) very soon after her birth. Her father wrote to relatives in 1775 to announce her birth, declaring, “She is to be Jenny.” However, she was never known by this name, presumably because Jenny began to seem dated, a name for old ladies or servants.

In the last three chapters, the book comes into its full power, examining the use of Christian names to mark the level of intimacy in a social relationship and Austen’s “Feeling for Names.” In our much more casual society, we may miss the full meaning of referring to someone as Catherine rather than Miss Morland. But, as Maggie Lane points out:

“To use a person’s Christian name was a mark of intimacy. Well-bred people with feelings of delicacy towards others did not presume on this intimacy until it was clear that an acquaintance was becoming a real friendship. Most acquaintance, of course, never progressed this far, and people would remain on formal terms for as long as they knew each other.”

Here the author contrasts the friendships between Catherine Morland, Isabella Thorpe and Eleanor Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Where Isabella rushes Catherine into premature intimacy “with no foundation in real feeling” and the two are quickly calling each other by their Christian names, Eleanor and Catherine’s friendship progresses much more slowly and is based on “secure knowledge of one another’s character and values.” Examples from Jane Austen’s other works are included in this chapter, and I look forward to re-reading each novel while paying special attention to the use of names.

The book concludes with an alphabetical index of the names used in Jane Austen’s novels. Ms. Lane’s research is impressively detailed and even includes characters referred to in other people’s conversation. I found only one minor error, referring to “Admiral Crawford” in Persuasion rather than “Admiral Croft” under the listing for the name Stephen. Thanks to Ms. Lane, I now know that Stephen was rarely used by the gentry in Jane Austen’s day, and that she used this name for two servants, one of whom was the Admiral’s man in Persuasion and the other was a groom or postilion in Mansfield Park.

Originally published in print format by Blaise Books in 2002, this digital eBook was recently re-issued by Endeavour Press Ltd. Well-written and engaging in its tone, Jane Austen and Names provides a wealth of information about Jane Austen’s time and a greater understanding of her works. It would make a wonderful addition to any Janeite’s bookshelf.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen and Names, by Maggie Lane
Endeavour Press Ltd. (2014)
Digital eBook (91) pages
ASIN: B00JYJ0WWO

Cover image courtesy of Endeavour Press Ltd. © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 2014, Austenprose.com 

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

9 thoughts on “Jane Austen and Names, by Maggie Lane – A Review

  1. I’m thrilled to see someone plowing this relatively untilled field of Jane Austen studies! I missed your book when it was issued previously, but will hunt it down now. I became interested in Jane Austen’s use of names (though never carried the study to the wonderful lengths you have) when trying to predict possible directions for the plot of The Watsons by tracking her use of names in stories written before and after that fragment. Certain names seemed to be associated in her mind with certain personalities or types of behavior–Musgrave/Musgrove is a recurring one, also Tom, etc. It sounds as if your story goes much wider, tracing names through British society in JA’s day. Well done!

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  2. I love the premise of this book–I’ve read snippets on this topic in various places, but I like the idea of a focused look at names in Austen.

    Especially interesting is the movement away from the diminutive names–I always wondered why Jane was never actually called Jenny.

    I downloaded this book to my tablet, but your review has reminded me to read it!

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    • I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. In saying it would make a great addition to any Janeite’s bookshelf, I suppose I should have said “virtual bookshelf” since it is an e-book!

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  3. When writing I usually have a problem coming up with the right names that seem so natural and becoming. I always admire authors who could/can do this – and it’s wonderful to see somebody has written a book about names in my favourite author’s books and time. Thank you for this information.

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    • Finding just the right name is difficult. I enjoyed mulling over the significance of JA’s character names. I liked the fact that she used Emma because she liked the name, even though it was less-plain than her other heroines’ names.

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  4. How many of us, having read Jane Austen, have imagined attributes from just the pronunciation of certain of her character’s names? Miss Austen obviously put great emphasis on what a name ‘sounded’ like. Am I making any sense? Thanks for a very fine review to introduce us to what looks to be an interesting read.

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