Characters’ Names: Some Thoughts from a Names Geek.

The spirituality of Cordelia, and the earthy sensuality of Goneril and Regan, are wonderfuly depicted here.

My PC has just  eaten a longish post I write all about research for historical novels, and the changing nature of the understanding of what are taken for granted as ‘historical facts. Ah, well: my own fault for not being super careful with an ailing PC, and I will have to re-write it another time.

For now, here is a post I wrote a while ago re-blogged…

I am a fully paid up, card holding name’s geek.

I have been, since my sister bought me a book on first names and their meanings when I was thirteen (more years ago than I care to admit). It was a little Collins’ Gem Dictionary, with a red leather cover. I found it fascinating. I have more up to date names books – for instance, ‘The Oxford Dictionary of First Names’, but this was my first.

I still have it, though the pages are falling out, I suppose from over use. I have a book on surnames too, though I am less fascinated by those, I suppose partly because of the patriarchal aspect. In general, you can’t get away from having a man’s second name in our society; even if you take your mother’s, that’s still your grandfather’s surname, and if you take your grandmother’s, well,that is her father’ s surname in turn, and so it goes on…

I know all sorts of obscure things about names. For instance, on the name ‘Elsa’ (my daughter’s third name): people use it as a short form of Elizabeth, and that’s the way my modern names book interprets it, but the old Collins gem dictionary, which I think is in some ways better researched, has it down as from old German meaning ‘noble one’.

I always enjoy naming characters of my own, and examining the names other writers give to their characters.

I love Italian names. The dash that added ‘o’ or ‘I’ or ‘a’ or adds on to a name, otherwise quite prosaic. ‘Eduardo’ for instance. What a wonderfully over-the-top name ‘Ludovico’ is – whereas ‘Ludovic’ just rings pretentious to me as a ‘learned’ form of ‘Louis’…

‘Rinaldo Rindaldini’ wouldn’t be the same without that last letter to his name. Even the bad translation of the title, ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’ can’t detract from the ring of that. Well, I’m assuming it’s a bad translation: I don’t know more than a few words in Italian. Wouldn’t ‘Robber Chief’ or ‘Chief of Brigands’ be better? ‘Captain’ makes it sound bathetic as a title, like an Angela Brazil type story about ‘Hilary Smith: Captain of the First Eleven’ or some such.

To English speakers, a foreign name somehow adds an element of the out of the ordinary, the mysterious. For instance, ‘A Day in the Life of John Dennison’ doesn’t quite have the ring of ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch’.

I love Scandinavian names too: ‘Gustav’ and ‘Erland’ ‘Sigmund’ , ‘Ingvar’, ‘Ulf’ ‘Eyof’ and ‘Olaf’ are names I am definitely going to use at some point. Likewise, Marna, Gudrun (as in ‘Women in Love’), Sigrid, Marta and others (well, I’ve already used ‘Marta’ once). I also have a liking for Germanic names, some of which were of course, used by Anglo Saxon s – ‘Reinwald’, Lothar’, ‘Brigitta’, ‘Liesel’ among others.

And then there are so many French and Welsh names I like, and Irish, and…But this list is getting too long.

One of the problems about writing historical fiction is that you must use the names in use in that period, and subsequent to the twentieth century, this was quite limited, which I assume is why Jane Austen, for instance, uses such a limited stock of names. Elizabeth, Anne, Jane, Mary and so on are constantly distributed among heroines and less attractive characters (come to think of it, unless I’m being forgetful, she showed a very human streak in that I don’t think she gave ‘Jane’ to a baddy). Of course, very few people would impose the name of the heroine of ‘Mansfield Park’ ,‘Fanny’ on a female protagonist these days; coarse in the US, it is obscene in the UK. Hmm – how about a broad beamed male philanderer, though, as a nickname?

Samuel Richardson, among others, got round this limited supply of names by using ones that were then very unusual for his heroines – ‘Pamela’ ( that is from Sir Philip Sidney, I think; and before the twentieth century the emphasis was on the second syllable) and ‘Clarissa’ – a mediaeval name. Well, for some reason he used the down- to- earth ‘Harriet’ for the heroine of ‘Sir Charles Grandison’. His male characters have less fanciful ones. I don’t remember the first name of ‘Squire B’ – I don’t think it was ever given, though I may be wrong – but the villain and main male character of ‘Clarissa’ is called Robert, known affectionately as ‘Cousin Bobby’ by those naïve female cousins who haven’t aroused his bizarre Machiavellian sexual urges.

Shakespeare, naturally, besides inventing words, made various names up, ie, Cordelia in King Lear. Well, he changed that from an earlier, far inferior play with a heroine called Cordeilla, and that was originally a Cornish or Welsh name, Cordula. The legend of ‘King Leir’ is an ancient legend, of course…

Polonius snooping again, and about to get his from Halmet, through the arras…

Then there is the rather incongruously called Ophelia in the Danish court in Hamlet. Perhaps Polonius went in for Classical names, with her brother being named Laertes. Polonius being a pedantic, self-consciously learned sort of fellow, that might fit. But what of his own name? I have never gone into that before.

The ever useful Wickipedia says: –

‘The first quarto of Hamlet, Polonius is named “Corambis“. It has been suggested that this derives from “crambe” or “crambo”, derived from a Latin phrase meaning “reheated cabbage”, implying “a boring old man” who spouts trite rehashed ideas.

However, before the 20th century, Polonius was played differently, more as an opportunist courtier with Machiavellian propensities than as a spouting fool; after all, he instructs his servant to spy on his own son Laertes.

A lovely depiction of the deranged Ophelia’s end.

Another Shakespearean name that I love is ‘Perdita’- from ‘The Winter’s Tale’ taken from the Latin for ‘lost’ .

Then, there are the names taken from the opposite end of the literary spectrum. For instance, Charles Garvice.

He tends to give his heroines quite simple names, ones fashionable in late Victorian and Edwardian times – Eva, Edna, Nora, Esther, Una, Stella, Constance and so on, occasionally branching out into the more exotic – Maida, Kyra and Esmerelda. His heroes tend to be called surnames, like Tempest or Heriot or Blair. Sometimes, they are called down-to-earth names like Jack. One thing is certain; we know the villains from their names: Stannard Marshbank, the slippery name of the Conniving Cousin villain of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ is a typical one.

Why writers choose particular names for their characters has always intrigued me. I know that Magaret Mitchell was going to call her heroine Pansy O’Hara. In those politically incorrect times, the editors objected, not, naturally, to the appalling racism in the book, but to that being the pejorative name for ‘effeminate men’ during that time. Thus, the author had to use one of the heroine’s family names, her heroine’s Irish grandmother being called Katie Scarlett.

Rhett and Ashley were of course, surnames. Any number of the names that were used in that massively successful book have since become fairly popular.

I was interested to read that Ian Fleming called the hero of his male fantasy nonsense James Bond because he thought that was the most boring name that he could possibly imagine. It seemed at the time he intended to make him a colourless character ‘to whom things happen’. The women, when not being described as ‘the girl’ are called things like Vesper and Honeychile and Domino.

Yet, the Countess Theresa, who truly steals Bond’s heart, though, is known by the wholly prosaic name of Tracy.

On the names of women in the 007 stories, we must never forget, of course, the lesbian whom Bond makes straight, the unforgettably dubbed ‘Pussy Galore’ (word fail me!) .

Incidentally, the author gives Bond’s explanation for what he sees as the increase in lesbianism since the Second World War as the shocking habit of women in taking to wearing trousers.

The problem with films, as a critic commented, is that after seeing them, you can’t imagine a character looking any other way. Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.

Hmm. By inverting the same argument, it is a shame, then, that Bond, who is after all meant to be a Scotsman, didn’t take to wearing a kilt. Then Fleming could have started a Gay Spy genre back in the 1950’s.

Elizabeth Gaskell not only called her female protagonist a dull name – Mary Barton – but made this the name of her novel. Well, it isn’t quite as dull as ‘Tom Jones’.

Should anyone be intersted, when it comes to naming my own characters, as most of my own novels have been set in the late eighteenth century (with one in the Regency proper and only one modern one) that has limited the choice. Still, having French characters – or ones of French descent, has widened it a bit.

Émile was originally the villain of an earlier version of the story – and in naming him, I just thought lazily, ‘What French name shall I use? Let me see – what was Zola’s first name? Ah yes…’

Intriguingly, the second name I gave him, which he uses in his persona as an outlaw, ‘Monsieur Gilles’ has got strong connections with Provence, as has his third, ‘Gaston’ . I certainly didn’t consciously know this when I chose them off the top of my head. Very likely, though, as a true names geek, I had read that before and it was still at the back of my mind.

As for the name of his true love, Sophie, I have always liked it, and knew it was popular in the eighteenth century. The same with Isabella. Besides, there’s the play on Rousseau’s use of those two names together.

His cousin, the male lead of ‘Ravensdale’, Reynaud Ravensdale’s name is a pun on ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’’s own name, ‘Reynaud’ having the same root. ‘Ravensdale’ was partly written as a spoof of the traditional robber novels, such as this and Pushkin’s ‘Dubrovsky’, besides the clichés of historical romances featuring highwaymen.

‘Clarinda’ I used for my female lead in ‘The Villainous Viscount’ because I came across it in Elizabeth Gaskell, and took to it. It seemed fun to give that wholly practical and unornamental female lead a fancy name.

I don’t know how many other writers are names geeks. I have to say, if I really dislike a protagonist’s name, it actually detracts from the pleasure of the story for me. That is a bit extreme, but for instance, among others, I can’t stand the names Wendy (that, by the way, comes from a little girl calling James Barrie ‘Friendy Wendy’) and Tammy (though not Tamara or Tamsin), Max, and Peter (though not Pierre, Pedro, or Pyotr). I hope nobody reading this blog is called one of those.

That brings back a ludicrous memory to me. I remember as a kid disliking a serial in a girl’s comic where the goody-goody heroine, the form captain, whose name I have forgotten, though I don’t think it was Wendy, was plagued by ‘The jealous vice captain’ (who had my real name) and her toady, who was called Doris (my mother’s name, and for decades past a favourite for generally unattractive characters, though back in the late nineteenth century Garvice used it for some of his heroines). Well, the character with my real name at least made malicious witticisms: Doris had no wit, and only tittered at them…

Film Versions of Classic Novels and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’



I tend to find film versions of books disappointing. By their very nature, they have to be truncated and dramaticised, and that to my mind does away with various subtleties and nuances. Two characters are often joined into one, others written out of the script. Various events are transposed. Quite often things are simplified.

For instance, to take a trivial example,  in the book version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Mary Bennett is not meant to be noticably bad at singing and playing the piano. She is in fact described as being better than Elizabeth at both; it is her affected style that draws derision from Miss Bingley and her sister.

 Obviously, film makers (anyway in the versions I have seen) think that is one of the subtleties which should be done away with in the interests of clarity – and comedy. Poor Mary is made to sing ‘Ombra mai fu’ wholly out of tune (for those interested, it is a wonderful aria from Handel’s  1738 opera’ Xerses’ and I use it as a sort of signature tune in ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ ).   

For all that, I did think the film versions of both ‘The Remains of the Day’ and ‘Pascali’s Island’  were as good as the books.  I’m not quite sure why that was. Perhaps they were better suited somehow for  dramatic adaption than such classics as ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Vanity Fair’?  

Anyway, one of my favourite novels being ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, and having never got round to seeing the television series, I was pleased to be given the 1990’S DVD for Christmas.

I have just seen it. I enjoyed it, and the acting was very good. Toby Stephens made a sympathetic Gilbert Markham, with a Yorkshire accent to show his social inferiority as a farmer to Helen Huntingdon. Rupert Graves made a suitably caddish and lively Arthur Huntingdon, and Tara Fitzgerald made an appropriately strong-minded Helen.

 Still, overall, I felt it could not compare to the book. To my mind, the spiritual message in the novel – and in particular, the discussion of Helen Huntingdon’s (and Anne Brontë’s) belief in Universal Salvation, was wholly left out. Due to the need for dramatic structure, many events were conflated or treated in a different sequence than in the novel. Some of the characters were deleted, or two were combined into one, or their role was slightly different.  

Certainly, it is true that the complicated structure of the book – a tale within a tale – makes for difficlties in filming, as with ‘Wuthering Heights’.  There is, in the book, a prolonged flashback when Gilbert reads Helen’s diary. The book as an early Victorian novel makes for slow reading for the modern reader.

I felt that Helen’s early high-spirited playfulness was neglected (as Elizabeth Bennett’s in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ never is). One of the tragedies of the novel is how these high spirits are crushed by her embittering existence as the neglected wife of a selfish man slipping into habitual drunkeness.

 Likewise, the message about her youthful hubris seemed to me not to be given sufficient emphasis. To me, besides the theme of wrongdoing and forgiveness, the tale of Helen’s youthful presumption was also central.

She blithely assumes that despite her youth and inexperience and complete lack of equality of power as a wife in the England of the 1820’s,  she will be able to use her influence  to reform a rake ten years her senior. She is confident of this, even though she must see that he is not exactly determined upon that reform himself.

One of the intriguing things about the plot is that Arthur Huntingdon is too emotionally superficial for Helen’s dreams of changing him to stand any chance of success. Not only do his passions for his mistresses never last, but his passion for his wife is not much deeper.

In the typical romance, the debauched male lead’s feelings for the heroine are different from those he has had for women before, and too intense for him to resist his impetus to change. –  By contrast, in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ Helen tragically assumes that Arthur’s feelings for her are deeper than they are.   

A fault of the book, I thought, was the fact that Helen goes from slightly disillusioned with Arthur to wearily so within too short a space of text.

In her theme of a youthful, spirited heroine who dismally fails to reform a wicked libertine, Anne Brontė wrote a story which is a polar opposite to a favourite theme of historical romances that remains extremely popular today, where an innocent girl reforms a seemingly incorrigible libertine merely by becoming his love object.  This is another aspect that has always made the story particularly fascinating to me.I would say that the producer did try to bring this theme out, but I have to say if I hadn’t read the book, I would have been less aware of it.

I would certainly have been puzzled by some of the developments of the plot if I hadn’t read the book.

Perhaps it was in line with the ‘anti romantic’ theme that the costumes struck me as unnecessarily dowdy – with an early Victorian, rather than a late Regency or late Georgian flavour. In having Helen Huntingdon dress quietly, the producers were following the author. But I cannot imagine why Annabella Wilmot, later Lady Loughborough and Arthur Huntingdon’s mistress, would dress anything but flauntingly.

An odd problem was caused by the fact whoever did the casting chose a cast largely of dark haired actors, to the point where the heroine’s brother and her husband so resembled each other in poor light that I would have mixed them up at times if I hadn’t read the book. In fact, given that Gilbert is also played by a dark haired actor, I might at one time have wondered if her brother was attacked by his own doppleganger: a gothic scene indeed…

Still, for all my carping, overall I thought it was very well done, and here’s a scene.



New Year Resolutions: How Original…

On environmental issues, a few centuries ago, the age and significance of Stonehenge was wholly unappreciated and it thad been neglected for thousands of years. it was assumed to date from slightly before the Romans came…

It being the first of January 2020 today, it is of course, the time for New Year’s resolutions.

In the western sphere, it seems that the custom dates back at least  to the Roman’s, who made promises to the god Janus, who was the god to which the month of January was sacred.

With the coming of Christianity, it seems that many Christians prepare for the new year by making resolutions at ‘watchnights’ ( Slightly off topic, now I have found out about that, the disapproval of the Quacker Rose household in Elizabeth Gaskell’s  ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’  of  Philip Hepburn neglecting ‘the watchnight’ to take his cousin Sylvia to a party is made clearer to me). 

There is an interesting list on Wickipedia about the most common resolutions. I have made many myself in the past – and broken them more often than I should.

Here they are:

·  Promise to donate to charities more often

·  Try to become more assertive

·  Strive to be more environmentally responsible.

·  Improve physical well-being: eat healthy food, lose weight, exercise more, eat better, drink less alcohol, quit smoking, stop biting nails, get rid of old bad habits

·  Improve mental well-being: think positive, laugh more often, enjoy life

·  Improve finances: get out of debt, save money, make small investments

·  Improve career: perform better at current job, get a better job, establish own business

·  Improve education: improve grades, get a better education, learn something new (such as a foreign language or music), study often, read more books, improve talents

·  Improve self: become more organized, reduce stress, be less grumpy, manage time, be more independent, perhaps watch less television, play fewer sitting-down video games

·  Take a trip

·  Volunteer to help others, practice life skills, use civic virtue, give to charity, volunteer to work part-time in a charity organization

·  Get along better with people, improve social skills, enhance social intelligence

·  Make new friends

·  Spend quality time with family members

·  Settle down, get engaged/get married, have kids

·  Pray more, be more spiritual

·  Be more involved in sports or different activities

·  Spend less time on social media (such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr etc.)

·  Spend more time listening to different or conflicting points of view

On the resolving ‘to be more environmentally responsible’, I can pull a self-righteous face while recalling that I did attempt to raise awareness about the dangers of overuse of plastic back in the 1990’s, and nobody seemed to believe me. I pointed out the absurdity of the use of plastic cutlery, only used once, in cafes and elsewhere. And on that, I was really delighted to see when visiting Stonehenge last summer, that recyclable cardboard based cutlery is used in the café in the visitor’s centre.  But it is also true, that I should have put a lot more effort into it, so I doubt I deserve to put a self righteous mask on.

I recently tried to find cleaning produces not packaged in plastic in my local area – and found none except for a form of bleach still sold in glass bottles. After that, I wrote to the local supermarkets, asking for their plans about reducing plastic use in packaging. Needless to say, I received ambiguous – and self-righteous – responses about their plans to reduce ‘one use plastic’ by such-and-such an amount by the year so-and-so andso, and their ‘new policy of encouraging customers to bring in their own containers at the delicatessen and elsewhere.’   

Given the growing (no pun intended) obesity crisis, it would seem that number four should be a priority for most people  in the western sphere. 

The penultimate resolution on the list is a modern problem that seems to lead to a great deal of wasted time and energy. I would probably waste a good deal more time on it myself if I was more adapt at using social media sites. As it is, I waste time reading material from various websites which I am not going to use for anything myself.   

On wasted time and energy, here in the UK the last three-and-a-half years a degree of polarisation over the issue of leaving the EU has developed which has to some extent threatened traditional political alliances.

However, I would argue that these would have been challenged anyway, for various reasons bound up with political economy. Also, in the midst of the controversy, a large proportion of the population are, like me, fairly cynical about the vaunted benefits of either leaving or of staying in the EU.  Still, in the current atmosphere, for politicians and journalists at least,  to ‘spend more time listening to different or contradictory points of view’ sounds like a good idea. For a long time now, it has been impossible to turn on a programme dealing with current affairs without having a panel of politicians,writers or other pundits trying to shout each other down, so that it is impossible to make out what any of them are saying at all. Sometimes even the presenters shout a guest down during an interview, which seems rather startling to me when they are supposed to maintain at least the appearance of neutrality.

It would also be a good idea for me to make that resolution myself, being as opinionated as anyone on various issues, particularly to do with novels and writers and genres. Hopefully, I do try and emphasize that I don’t imagine my opinions are facts (though I wish that they were). However, perhaps I should not only emphasize this more strongly, but also try to relate more to alternative points of view.

The ‘being more organized’ strikes home particularly about writing. I keep on meaning to write a Christmas ghost story: I have been saying that I would for the last three or four years, and have never managed it. I keep on resolving to write a Halloween story, as well, and I have never got round to that.

 But worse, I keep on saying that I will write a plan for my next novel. I have never got round to that. I have muddled on, knowing the beginning and the end but never the middle. I may share this approach with Stephen King, but for all that, it is a highly inefficient method. It was this that led to my discarding 40,000 words of my latest a few weeks ago, and was one of the main reasons why I probably won’t be able to have it ready for publication for another six months or so.

‘I resolve to draft out a plan to my next novel’ must be another.

On reading, I resolved last year to read more of Shakespeare’s plays. I love Shakespeare’s plays, so it is not as if it is a wearisome task for me (like reading Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ or the 1970’s bodice ripper,  ‘The Flame and the Flower’  proved to be, for instance: and yes, apropos both of those, I know there are many who love them, who do not detest the rapist  male leads and who do not find them as dismally reactionary about sex and class roles as I did).

With regard to Shakespeare, it is more a lack of time than inclination, but there must be a way I can stop wasting that time in other areas to use it on something far more enjoyable: not wasting time writing 20,000 or 40,000 unusable words might be a start. I did read four of Shakespeare’s plays I hadn’t read before last year, and I did a re-read of ‘Hamlet’, which I hadn’t gone back to since I did it for ‘A’ level.

Unfortunately, Wickipedia suggests: ‘In a 2014 report, 35% of participants who failed their New Year’s Resolutions admitted they had unrealistic goals, 33% of participants didn’t keep track of their progress, and 23% forgot about them; about one in 10 respondents claimed they made too many resolutions.’

Does that mean that the remaining 9% remembered and kept to their resolutions?