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. Continue reading