Names from Books: Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age Names
Wharton was one of the first authors to write about this period, and she knew it well, having grown up in it. Her books are about not only high society – the parties, the travel, the social deals – but also the private life that went on behind it. Love affairs, secret debts, scandalous behavior, it’s all there.
As Wharton was writing more or less a hundred years ago (although most of the characters would have been “born” decades before), it’s interesting to look at how their names have stood the test of time.
Some have followed the “Hundred Year Rule” (the idea that certain names and styles are popular, then go out of use, then are popular again after about a hundred years), while others break it by never coming back, or never falling enough to need a comeback. Let’s take a look.
Classic Hundred Year Rule names
Lily (Lily Bart, the beautiful tragic heroine of The House of Mirth) and Owen (Owen Leath, a love interest in The Reef) fit the rule perfectly: in the last few decades they have risen from very little use to sitting firmly in the top fifty.
Evie (Evie Van Osburgh, The House of Mirth) ranks lower, but that’s not counting all the Evies who are short for Evelyn, Evangeline, or another name. Other characters with once-again stylish names include Adelaide, Leila and Emerson.
A name that doesn’t fit this rule? Probably Wharton’s best-known character, Ethan (Ethan Frome). This disappointed old man’s name is patriotic (as in Revolutionary War soldier Ethan Allen), probably old-fashioned, and barely recorded at the time. Wharton’s novel gave Ethan a small boost, but it’s only in the last thirty years that it’s shot almost to the top of the charts.
Possible Hundred Year Rule names
Just starting to rise, but the numbers are too low to call these true comebacks yet.
Abner (Abner Spragg, The Custom of the Country) has hesitantly risen over the last twenty years, and was given to 197 boys in 2015. It’s a favorite of name nerds, who argue that it’s time to let go of the hillbilly associations. (Abner Spragg, a rural man in the city, doesn’t help the image much.) Abner ranks at 310 on the Nameberry charts, which may mean it’s poised to rise in real life. Other boys’ names beginning to rise include Lucius (Lucius Harney, Summer) and Gus (Gus Trenor, The House of Mirth).
Still waiting for a comeback
Most of these names were so common in their heyday that they still don’t feel fresh a hundred or more years later…or do they? Parents who use them now could be blazing a trail.
Ralph (Ralph (Ralph Marvell, The Custom of the Country) was huge in the 1910s and 20s, and while it’s never gone out of use, it’s on a slow fall that shows no sign of stopping. Other character names following this pattern include Elmer, Bertha and Percy.
Leota (Leota Spragg, The Custom of the Country) was as common as Molly and Kate a hundred years ago, although it was becoming old-fashioned and rustic, to judge by this character. Now it’s virtually unheard-of. Leo– names are back in for boys, so maybe it’s time to revive some for girls like Leota, Leonie or Leora.
Never out of style
These have had their ups and downs over the last hundred years, but have never been out of the top 1000. Edith Wharton’s own name belongs in this category at the moment – but it might climb high soon, as it already has in England and Wales.
Ellen (Ellen Olenska, The Age of Innocence) has never been as common as it was at the turn of the twentieth century, but it’s holding steady in the 600s and 700s. Vance (Vance Weston, The gods Arrive and Hudson River Bracketed) and Lawrence (Lawrence Selden, The House of Mirth) are other names on an even keel.
Rare when Wharton gave them to her characters, these names have never been used enough to make them dated.
Newland (Newland Archer, The Age of Innocence) and Medora (Marchioness Medora Manson, The Age of Innocence), although never popular, have sounds that are familiar from names that are getting lots of interest today, like Leland and Isadora.
Undine (Undine Spragg, the naïve social-climbing heroine of The Custom of the Country) has a sound you won’t find in many other names. The story goes that Undine was named after a hair product – something that happens in real life as well as fiction.
Zeena (Zeena Frome, Ethan’s wife) is a less ambiguous spelling than Zena or Xena, and was only given to 28 girls in 2015. The character is rather unhappy, but her name is fantastic: Zeena is short for Zenobia.
Agathon (Dr Agathon Carver, The Age of Innocence), another name from antiquity, is the rarest of all the names here: it’s never been used enough to make it into the records.