What Is In a Name?

Good morrow, fair readers. This morning I thought I might muse on a topic unexpectedly dear to readers hearts: the names JAFF authors bestow upon the multitudinous unnamed characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

Several JAFF authors are adamant about bucking trends – giving the otherwise unnamed Colonel Fitzwilliam the Christian name of Edward, for example – meanwhile, readers tell me that if he is not Richard that it strikes a discordant note with them. (I have heard, but not yet come across the reference personally, that Jane Austen loathed the name Richard, hence the origin of several of my fellow authors’ avoidance of it.)

a quill and inkstand sitting atop a small, antique dark brown wooden decagonal table with a dark brown, cane-bottomed chair
Jane Austen’s writing table, Chawton House Museum

Reviewers have docked me stars because Mrs Bennet in Second Son was Maria Bennet, not Fanny, or because my colonel in Total Want of Propriety was the aforementioned Edward. I shall give y’all a cheat sheet. (Yes, my dear focus reader, I know my southern is showing!) If Mrs Bennet is Fanny, you will not like her. If the dear colonel is not Richard, like Edward Fitzwilliam in TWoP, he is actively thwarting any romance between Our Dear Couple.

There is a reason for the latter: when I first read a JAFF with a Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, the image of one of my best friends in high school, a bluff, hale-fellow-well-met lad, filled my mind’s eye. This image truly does fit the well-meaning, if blundering, best-friend of the staid Darcy presentation of Colonel Fitzwilliam. Thus, when writing Second Son, I used ‘Richard’ as a cheat sheet to create the vibe for his character. (Not that any of my colonels have been replicas of my friend.)

There were names I where I wanted to buck the norms. I wrote Second Son, using the historic Earl FitzWilliam as the name of Darcy’s uncle. It was the last edit I made, mere hours before publication, changing it to the Earl of Matlock, because I was unsure of legalities given the 10th, and last, Earl FitzWilliam’s death in 1979. Perhaps it was overcautious, but I chose safer over sorry. I went with Earl of Matlock, whilst keeping the general history and holdings of the Earl FitzWilliam family, because that is the name most JAFF readers associate with Darcy’s titled uncle – possibly from the 1995, 6-hour BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries.

a Medieaval illumination in tan, blue, red, and green of armoured knights fighting with swords and lances
The Battle of Crecy from an illumination in Les Chroniques de France, c1350

I know not the origin of the commonly used names in the genre. For Mr Bennet, perhaps some of the early authors stumbled across the same obscure Google book reference I did. I had not intended to use Thomas for Longbourn’s master – I initially outlined him as ‘Robert’ in honour of my late brother – until I found a single line in a book from the early-1800s citing a gift of land by King Edward III to a Thomas Bennet in Hertfordshire for service in the Battle of Crecy. Further research into the Bennet (one t) family revealed a Sir Thomas Bennet, a highly successful and politically active mercer (silk merchant), who was knighted by King James VI/I during the former’s stint as Lord Mayor of London in 1603-04.

Thus, Mr Bennet is Thomas in each of my stories. Who am I to argue with history?

My DH finds it odd that we humans associate certain names as somehow fitting a person – how the name Richard creates certain assumptions in my head – though none of us choose our names. Not even characters in novels choose; we the authors choose for them.

And DH asks: Would a Darcy by the name of Ralph still be our favourite romantic hero?

black and white of Ralph and Alice from the 1950s era sitcom, The Honeymooners

Dear readers, do you have strong opinions about otherwise unnamed characters?

Fellow authors, do you have any stories to shared about your name choices?

14 responses to “What Is In a Name?”

  1. Amanda Kai Avatar
    Amanda Kai

    I chose Richard for Col. F because it was easiest, fans already liked it. I am now so familiar with that name for him that when I read others that use a different name (I have read more than one author that uses Edward, as you do), I actually have to remind myself, “oh, that’s Colonel F in this). I did write one story where I made fun of the naming tropes. In that parody, Richard and Elizabeth dub themselves “Dick and Betsy”. It was great fun!

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      It seems that the readers are very fond of the dear colonel being ‘Richard’, Amanda Kai. Because of my friend, it fits – though also because of my friend, I cannot have ‘Richard’ be a bad-guy Colonel Fitzwilliam. It’s funny the associations we have.

  2. Maria Thomas Avatar
    Maria Thomas

    I just read one where the Colonel was named James and I kept having to figure out who they were talking about. Is James the name of Richard’s brother? Ha! I even went back to the beginning of the story to see if the author had initially called him Richard and then switched to James mid story. Nope. He was James all along.

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      As someone who reads A LOT of JAFF, I, too, can need to do a double take when I come across a non-Richard colonel, Maria Thomas. I’ve settled in on Henry for his brother, the viscount, and Helen for his mother – however, his father, the earl, has yet to have the same Christian name in any of my stories. Mayhap because he has been such a different characterisation in each story?

  3. Glynis Avatar

    I admit I do prefer the name Richard for the Colonel. I also like Thomas and Fanny Bennet along with Edward and Madeleine Gardiner. However I certainly don’t reject books using different names. I am getting accustomed to the Colonel being called Edward but then what is Mr Gardiner’s name? However in life people have the same names so why not in books? Alas I think if he was Ralph I would have Elizabeth continue to refer to him as Mr Darcy 🙂

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      At least Mr and Mrs Gardiner as Edward and Madeline have some basis in canon, Ms Glynis. Mrs Gardiner’s letters are signed: M. Gardiner; and Mr Gardiner’s express is: Edw. Gardiner. I tend to favour Marianne for Mrs Gardiner, and Mr Gardiner could be either Edward or Edwin and still be canon accurate.
      Your point about common names is particularly true in the Regency; I sometimes get frustrated by the limited number first names for the time period. I’ve strayed from the commonly historically accurate at times – using Harold, a Saxon name, for example. Harold was unlikely to be used by a culture which praised the Norman heritage, but I can imagine it might have been a family name in the correct context.

  4. Regina Jeffers Avatar

    In truth, my colonel is always “Edward,” my father’s name, and, as I started writing Austen fan fiction going on nearly 17 years ago, I have not changed, despite those who started reading it a mere 5-6 years ago who ding me for not knowing the colonel’s name is Richard. There are some who credit me with Madeleine for Mrs. Gardiner. Madeleine and Floyd were my mother’s aunt and uncle, with whom she and I lived when I was very young. I also tend to use the same names for minor characters in each of my stories. Mr. Nathan is Darcy’s butler at Pemberley and Mr. Thacker is his butler at Darcy House. Mr. Farrin is his coachman. Jasper is one of his footmen. Etc. Like most writers, family names creep into my stories. You will find more than one character with the name “Whitmore” and quite a few “Spurlocks.” I also tend to choose names for the person’s character. For example, in one of my Regency tales, the heroine is Ebba, which is a German name meaning “strong.” In my novel, “His Irish Eve,” I named the heroine Aoife, for the name does not just mean “beautiful,” but carries the references to “Eve.” The hero is Adam Lawrence. Adam and Eve, get it. [Note: The daughter of our beloved Captain Wentworth, Ciarán Hinds, is named Aoife. She is also an actress, known for the Hulu series “Normal People,” etc.]

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      I, too, have chosen names that ‘fit’ the character, Ms Jeffers. Sometimes I borrow characters from literature – Tulkinghorn the lawyer in TWoP, or Blanche Ingram in Mistaken Premise, for example. When outlining and developing Mistaken Premise, I nicknamed the antagonist ‘Lady Tyrant’. I scoured books for a nasty lady of rank, looked into other translations of Tyrant, and ultimately decided to do the Dickens thing where I create a name that embodies the trait I seek – thus, Lady Tyranholt.
      Cool trivia about the ONLY Captain Wentworth.

  5. Marie H Avatar
    Marie H

    Good blog article. The Thomas Bennet history was unknown to me. I am non-apologetic for liking the Richard, Thomas, Fanny, Edward and Madeline Gardiner names. They appeared as such in the first dozen or two books I read back then and they just felt right. In a book where they were all different, it was a big adjustment trying to keep everyone clear in my mind. I used be a bit growly about the lesser used appellations, but now I try to lend the author their creative license and not complain too much, especially since some are my favourite authors! Sometimes, however, a name just doesn’t fit. Calling the Colonel’s father ‘Richard’, for example, just seems wrong.

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      It seems that readers allow authors the most leeway when naming the colonel’s parents and brother, Ms Marie H. I know not why; perhaps it is because their characterisations cross SUCH a broad spectrum – from ‘practically perfect in every way’ to ‘evil incarnate’?

  6. Michelle David Avatar
    Michelle David

    It’s funny how we get used to certain names and get cranky when it’s different. I prefer Richard for the Colonel and Madeline & Edward for the Gardiners and Thomas & Fanny for the Bennet parents. Though the main reason I like Fanny for Mrs. Bennet is because she’s an a** to the girls so the name fits 😉

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      And you have hit, my dear Ms Michelle David, the very reason why, if my Mrs Bennet is ‘Fanny’, readers shall immediately know NOT to like her. LOL

  7. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    I like the name Richard as that was my late father’s name. But I think it suits Colonel Fitzwilliam. I like Thomas and Fanny for the Bennett’s as well.

    1. Author Cherith Boardman Avatar

      ‘Richard’ seems to be the one that draws the most ire from readers, Cindie Snyder, with ‘Fanny’ being second. I’ve seen Mr Bennets as Thomas most often, but Edward is a close second, and Robert being a strong third.
      I always thought it odd that Ms Austen gave us more of the back story of Sir William Lucas than she did for Mr Bennet, the patriarch of Longbourn and father of the heroine.

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