Category: literary namesakes
By Emma Jolly
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with names.
Growing up in the English countryside, I entertained myself by making lists of names from all my favourite books. Each of my toys was named only after due consideration. I also used to write stories, usually spending more time on my characters’ names than on plots. Thinking ahead, I had full names planned for each of the nine children I intended to have. After having two real, noisy, hungry children, I decided that nine might be too many, and had to return to naming imaginary people in my fiction writing.
In my day job as a professional genealogist, I come across many interesting names. Some are useful in that they fit into a naming pattern or contain an ancestral surname that can provide clues to their family history. Others indicate a religious family, or perhaps one that is socially ambitious. Many parents in the 19th and early 20th centuries named children after family members or used fashionable options. In 1911, for example, parents opted for contemporary choices: the most popular girls names in England and Wales were Edith, Doris, Florence, Elsie and Gladys.
Those that most trigger my curiosity, however, are the names that suggest a passion of the parents for something literary, artistic, musical, or political.
The best known bearer of this name, French-Cuban writer Anais Nin, was born Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira and is most famous for her diaries, which spanned sixty years. In addition to being the name of a popular perfume, this lovely French Provencal version of Anne was used by rocker Noel Gallagher for his daughter.
We’ve talked a lot about Shakespearean literary names and characters in Dickens and Jane Austen, but we’ve overlooked three of the best namers in literary history—the sisters Brontë. We love their own names—Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and we love their initial-appropriate male pen names—Currer, Ellis and Acton. We even love their surname, which a number of parents have chosen for their daughters.
But it is the particularly rich cast of character names in their novels that we love the most. One of them, in fact, had a considerable effect on baby naming of its era. Though it’s long been said that it was Shirley Temple who promoted her given name in the 1930s, she wasn’t the first. In Charlotte Brontë’ second novel, following Jane Eyre, the protagonist of Shirley was given that name because her father had anticipated a boy, and Shirley was a distinctively male name at the time. The novel’s Father Keeldar made a gender switch that has proven to be permanent.
The plays of William Shakespeare are a mother lode of wonderful names, rich and diverse, drawing from the history and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, tales of Renaissance Italy, the royal courts and noble estates of England and Scotland–not to mention those that sprung from the playwright’s imagination.
We were inspired by Kat’s recent name board comment on the “Underrated Baby Names” question of the week to revisit the subject of Shakespearean names, starting from her excellent list and then digging a little deeper into some of the major and more minor characters that may not be as strongly associated with the Bard, but still boast some Shakespearean cred and cachet.