I’m starting this series with my favourite 19th century novelist, Thomas Hardy. If you’re looking for whimsical Victorian names, biblical rarities or wholesome old-timey nicknames, you’ll find them all in his books.
Hardy is famous for his stories of drama, scandal and (usually) doomed love set in rural southwest England, which he called by its historic name of Wessex. (Incidentally, that was also the name of his dog.) Besides the dramatics, his novels are also full of warm scenes of ordinary country life, which Hardy saw vanishing in his lifetime.
His two best-known characters both have short, sweet and successful names. You might recognise them from the title of their books.
Jude (the Obscure) is no longer an obscure name at all. It’s been rising in popularity over the last couple of decades, helped by Jude Law bringing it to public attention, and the Beatles song ‘Hey, Jude‘. In the US it ranks at 162 and might just break into the top 100 in the next few years. It’s already there in England and Wales, at 65.
Tess (of the d’Urbervilles) is declining in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, ranking 998 in the US and 763 in England and Wales). That’s not the whole story, as there are probably a fair few girls called Tessa and Teresa who answer to Tess. In the Netherlands, where short girls’ names are very on-trend, Tess was the top name in 2013, and in 2015 was no. 7.
His characters cover the whole social range from servants and farmhands to landed gentry, and their names are equally varied. Let’s take a look at some of the naming styles he used.
The Victorians loved unusual names from literature and history, and Hardy knew it. You’ll find this style on many of his upper-class and social climbing characters. They might have been chosen with tongue in cheek, but most if not all were really used at the time. They include:
–Old family surnames (Blount, Fitzmaurice)
The ultimate fancy sibset is sisters Gwendoline, Cornelia, Ethelberta, Picotee, Emmeline, Georgina and Myrtle (in The Hand of Ethelberta). One gets the impression their romance-loving mother had naming rights for the girls, and their father for the boys: their brothers are plain old Sol, Dan and Joe.
Quaint and biblical
Hardy’s lowly working-class characters also have their share of unusual names. These come not from high culture but from the Bible, especially the Old Testament. At the time they might have sounded amusingly old-fashioned and unsophisticated, but today they’re very much in style.
I don’t need to persuade you that names like Lydia, Levi, Elijah and even Ezekiel are great: they’re already way up in the charts. I do need to persuade Americans that Reuben and Martha are great too: they’re in the Top 100 in England and Wales, but in the States they’re down in the 700s and 800s. You’ll find plenty more names in this style in Hardy’s novels that have yet to be revived. What about Laban, Japheth, Vashti or Bathsheba?
Yes, Bathsheba. The spirited Hardy heroine Bathsheba Everdene (Far from the Madding Crowd) and the biblical Bathsheba (of bathing on the roof fame) make interesting namesakes, and just think of the nickname possibilities: Bea, Bibi, Betsy, Sheba. You’ll thank me when you’re ahead of the curve.
Wholesome and saintly
Other rustic characters have names that were fairly common in medieval times, but have gradually faded out of use. They’re not frilly, and they might have sounded quaint to the Victorians, but today they’re in the sweet spot: rare yet recognisable with a lot of history behind them. They include the saintly Clement and Giles, the sturdy Diggory, and the sweet Avice, which would make an excellent rare alternative to Ava or Alice.
You’ll also find the occasional virtue name on women of all classes, ranging from the well-known (Hope, Grace) to the less common (Unity, Modesty) to the probably ill-advised (sisters Temperance and Soberness).
Normal and nicknamey
Before you read Hardy’s novels and get disappointed that not everyone has an exotic name, I should warn you that you’ll find plenty of common names too. There are dozens of characters called John, William, Ann, Elizabeth and so on, many of them repeated down the generations, which keeps things feeling realistic. Just like in real life, some go by nicknames and diminutives. If you like a short form with a bit of old-fashioned charm, what about Rut (for Robert), Clym (Clement), Marty (Martha), Polly (Mary) or Sukey (Susan)?
Hardy sometimes made jokes about his characters through their names – like Amos Fry (Two on a Tower), known in the local accent as “Haymoss”. Or Cain Ball (Far from the Madding Crowd) whose mother meant to call him Abel but got her biblical figures mixed up. He also used names with subtle and not-so-subtle meanings. For example, St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, is a very fitting namesake for the unlucky hero of Jude the Obscure. Gabriel Oak (Far from the Madding Crowd) has the patience of a saint and keeps saving the day like an answer to prayers, but Angel Clare (Tess of the d’Urbervilles) turns out to be distinctly un-angelic. Isn’t it ironic?
Want even more inspiration from Hardy’s Wessex? Here are some more character names that are too good to leave out.
Retty (probably Margaret)
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