Victor Hugo, the nineteenth-century French writer best known for Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, was a keen observer of people and society. I’d wager he was something of a name enthusiast, too.
His books contain not just memorably-named characters, but also a lot of comments on names.
If someone has an unusual name, it usually has a back story. For example, Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, was named after the first word in the liturgy on the day he was found as an infant.
Hugo’s characters talk about names, their own and others, just like we do in real life. In Notre-Dame, a group of women laugh at Esmeralda’s outlandish name (although they can hardly talk, with names like Amelotte, Colombe, Mahiette and Oudarde). Elsewhere, a man called Félix complains that his name is a lie because he is not happy.
Hugo had a good eye for naming fashions, like the nineteenth-century love for romantic names from literature and history. He wrote in Les Misérables that in his time it was not unusual for working-class children to have fancy names like Arthur, Alfred or Alphonse, and for aristocrats to have classic names like Thomas, Pierre or Jacques. He mocked Madame Thénardier, an unpleasant innkeeper’s wife, for choosing her daughters’ names – Éponine and Azelma – from cheap romance novels.
If you’re thinking of using an author’s name, both Victor and Hugo are some of the most wearable names possible. They’re both highly international and more popular elsewhere than in the US, especially Hugo, which is the top boys’ names in Spain and a top ten name in France.
It’s worth mentioning Hugo’s second name, Marie. In Roman Catholic France, it was traditionally a common second name for men, though nowadays it’s only given to a handful of boys. It’s rare in the States too, although some men adopt it (or another form of Mary) as a religious name. There are some great examples of this over at Sancta Nomina.
The poster-girl of Les Misérables, whom we first meet as a neglected child, was officially named Euphrasie. Cosette is a diminutive given by her mother, Fantine. If you think that’s noteworthy, so did Hugo. He called it “a sort of derivative which disarranges and disconcerts the whole science of etymologists,” like Pepita from Josepha, and Sillette from Françoise. Written like a true name-lover.
Cosette has been growing in use in the US since 1988, the year after the stage musical of Les Misérables opened on Broadway, and even more since the 2012 film adaptation. The similar-sounding Colette, another literary French name, has also risen fast in recent years.
An attractive woman in Toilers of the Sea, which is set on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. Hugo explains the name as a diminutive of Saint Durande. It shocks her neighbours: they think it uncouth, and try to persuade her guardian to change it to something prettier, like Nancy or Marianne.
Victor Hugo lived on Guernsey for years, and it’s possible he heard the name there. Other names in this novel include Guilbert, Jacquemin, Lupin, Perrotine, Douce and Grace. Hugo specifically noted that the last two were favourites in Guernsey.
Poor Éponine in Les Misérables has a hard life after her family’s fortunes plummet, and she sacrifices herself for love. Her mother may have got her name from a romance, but Hugo turned it into a bona fide literary name. Name-lovers often mention Éponine – perhaps because it has the same rhythm as stylish names like Josephine and Emmeline, as well as the literary association – but it’s very rarely used.
The beautiful and exotic heroine of Notre-Dame, Esmeralda’s birth name was Agnes. She got her Spanish name (“La Esmeralda”) when she was brought up by gypsies. Esmeralda leapt up the charts the US after the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out in 1996. It’s currently in the top 400. Besides its romantic sound, nickname possibilities like Esme make it an appealing choice.
A fisherman of Guernsey in Toilers of the Sea, who notably fights a giant squid. In the novel, this is a Guernsey pronunciation of an unknown surname that might be French or English, but Gilliatt is also a genuine surname and a medieval diminutive of Giles, Julian or William. It fits perfectly with stylish -tt names like Beckett and Elliott.
As the main love interest in Les Misérables, it’s a mystery why Marius isn’t used more in the English-speaking world – although it has risen a little in the thirty years since the stage show opened. Marius was in the top 100 in France in 2012, and it’s also popular in Norway, Denmark and Romania. With classical names like Atticus, Cassius and Darius in the top 1000, why not Marius too?
In Notre-Dame, this archer’s name intrigues both his would-be lover, Esmeralda, and his rival, Archdeacon Claude Frollo. Another name for Apollo, and easy to pronounce thanks to the familiarity of Phoebe, this could join the pantheon of mythological names that are in style today. Incidentally, Phoebus’ fiancée has the super-French flower name Fleur-de-Lys.
Jean Valjean is the hero of Les Misérables and would make a great literary namesake. An ex-convict who rebuilds his life more than once, he spends most of the story hiding his name and his true identity. To my pleasant surprise, Valjean was recorded for boys in the US every year from 1921 to 1964.
Would you use any of these names? Because of the literary associations, or despite them?