Characters’ First Names: How Do Authors Choose Them?

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

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 ‘Lodovico’ 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.

Hi 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…



The Inner Life of Characters in Classic Early Novels – Some Musings on Rinaldo Rinaldini and Richardson

imagesRecently, I did some reading, and re-reading of several ‘classic’ novels of varying merit – Joseph Conrad – brilliant, though not to be judged taking into account the awful racist assumptions of his times – Elizabeth Gaskell – generally very good, sometimes brilliant, often uneven, Christian Auguste Vulpius – an early groundbreaking novelist, melodramatic beyond belief, but certainly capable of delivering a stirring read, often of the So Bad It’s Good Variety and also Charles Garvice – vastly inferior to them all, generally purely terrible, though occasionally stirred into delivering a decent passage or two.

This got me on to thinking about the whole issue of what you might call the mental life of characters. Is this a modern phenomenon?

Gaskell, in fact, remarks in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ (Sorry, everyone; here I go again, quoting ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ ; have I got a share in the royalties or something?) that self awareness, self analysis, is a comparatively modern concept (it is also, of course, to some extent connected with personality; but that is a different matter). She was far closer in time to the era of the French Revolutionary Wars in which she sets this novel than we are, of course, and she has some memory of the mindset of the generations who preceded her. Their approach to life was then, markedly different from that of the ‘educated’ people of her own day.

Her character Philip Hepburn, is self-aware – in fact, quite self-conscious in the12618f13 uncomfortable sense of the word – whereas the other characters in the novel are not.

It is an irony that reflective as he is, Philip Hepburn still behaves dishonourably. That compared to modern people of a comparable intelligence he is on the whole less aware of himself and his motivation probably saves him from less stress and moral conflict than a modern thinking person in the same position would suffer.

She saw this lack of reflectiveness as an aspect of this former age, and suggests that our increasing self-awareness is not necessarily accompanied by a gain in superior moral insight, though it is accompanied by a general decrease in spontaneity, of exuberance, of vivid existence in the present. Presumably Philip Hepburn is meant to be an indication of this. His love interest the unthinking Sylvia, and his bitter rival the exuberant, opportunistic Charley Kinraid, are presumably meant to be of the old, extroverted type of personality.Rinaldo looking posh

This is a fascinating insight. When novels began to be written, as often as not in the author offered very little in the way of a character with a mental life. I admit that I haven’t yet read Sterne – but did read somewhere ( as I said earlier, geek or what?) that a lack of consistency of character and internal dialogue are drawbacks to his writing.

For instance, in Vulpius’ sensational story ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (for which he claims a moral basis, which I find questionable or decidedly unexamined) we do not hear much of the hero’s thoughts. We are told that he is anguished by his having drifted into a life as the ‘Captain of Bandits’ (that translation does make me laugh; it sounds like the Captain of the First Eleven!), and that he is given to dismal reflection on it, especially after he meets and falls in love with the virtuous Aurelia (and with good reason; when she finds out who he is, she screams and faints).

He does go in for some moral reflection on his situation – but typically, these are expressed externally, as in the dialogue I quoted in my recent blog post on the novel; for instance, he sings a song, accompanying himself by guitar, about this moral quandary (I assume he is meant to have written this as a lament rather than to clarify his feelings).

Before going on, I have to give a bit of background and say that one of the inconsistencies of this story is the time frame. From the point of view of Rinaldo and his fellow robbers, only a short while has passed between his finding out that Aurelia’s great uncle, alarmed at her having come to know him, has had her sent on her way to join a convent, and his coming on her as a bitterly unhappily married and disillusioned wife to the wicked Count Rozzio. From her point of view, months at least have passed.

Rinaldo had positioned his men to abduct her, but instead they had to fight off encroaching government troops, who decimated the robber band. Shortly after this he took up with the devoted gypsy girl Rosalia and meeting with the few survivors of his old band, set up a new one while continuing to protest that he wished to escape the country and his way of life.

Then finding an unhappily married Aurelia in Baron Rozzio’s nearby castle (there are lots of convenient co-incidences in this tale), he is insulted by the wicked count and his toadies and swears revenge. Although they evidently live in different time schemes, this doesn’t stop Rinaldo from deciding to free Auerelia at once and he sets his men on the castle.

As usual, when the men who have previously treated him with contempt discover who he is, they fall on their knees. Aurelia swoons, and on recovering consciousness, pleads with him to be ‘As kind as you are terrible. Deal with me honourably…Abuse not your power, nor make my yet unspotted name the jest of mankind.’Rinaldo reclining

One assumes from this that she is concerned that Rinaldini might abduct her by force, and one wonders if he did intend that, as his response is to sigh: ‘Now I feel what I am!” Typically, we aren’t told exactly what his plans were, if he, a man of action rather than thought, knows himself.

Anyway, that told him! He does what Aurelia asks and takes her to her mother in a nearby convent. He always declares that he worships Aurelia’s virtue as distinct from his own wickedness, but we wonder at times how far Vulpius intends this declaration to be sincere. Because the character’s inner life, such as it is, is so sketchy, we have no idea. We may assume that the fact that Aurelia’s great uncle the hermit Donato tells Rinaldini, ‘You cannot love her in an honourable way, and your love is a crime…’ is a pointer, but the cursory and uneven portrayal of character in this novel makes it difficult to tell.

An ugly incident when Rinaldo’s men sack Rozzio’s castle shows his opinion of how women who are not virtuous (or anyway, virtuous with anyone but him) should be treated; he gives the Count’s former concubines, who have been invited to live at the castle and have insulted Aurelia, ‘to his men’ as the equivalent of war prizes.

He goes off to indulge in his earthy relationship with his willing slave Rosalia, who doesn’t seem all that troubled by loving the chief of a band of brigands except when she finds that she is pregnant (this difficulty is got over by the poor girl’s subsequent miscarriage). She never expects him to marry her and he never offers. Perhaps her status isn’t sufficient to tempt him, though he was originally a goat-herd himself.

This scene is typical both of the melodrama of this novel, and the fact that if indeed it does have a moral purpose the author claims in his preface, it fails. The whole question of Rinaldo Rinaldini’s realisation of his own degradation and brutalisation in his life as a bandit is dealt with too cursorily and as asides, though usually in terms of high drama. For instance he exclaims as he looks at the dawn: –
‘Even on me the golden sun (said he) bestows his light; on me, as on all men, whether good or bad; on me, to whom his beneficient rays are as a lightning flash, threatening destruction on my guilty conscience.’Rinaldo in pub

This piece of poesy doesn’t prevent him from shortly afterwards holding a pistol to the breast of the unfortunate Marchioness who has suggested, not knowing who she speaks to, that Rinaldini is a coward, and demanding ‘The trifling sum of a hundred sequins’ or from giving Count Rozzio’s unfortunate courtesans as war prizes to his men (we never hear any more about them; we may assume that the author of this moral novel thought that as they were women of easy virtue, it didn’t matter particularly if they were raped).

Rinaldo is increasingly shown as attempting to escape from his life as a bandit – but some chance meeting or co-incidence always brings him back to that course of life.

As this novel progresses, this sabotaging of the brigand hero’s plans for escaping to a new and blameless life becomes almost ludicrous. The Old Man of Fronteja comes constantly to pop up as presumably, the physical manifestation of Rinaldo’s conscience. He wants him to fulfil his destiny and become a military hero.

Whether intentionally or not, these recurrent manifestations become ludicrous, and one is put in mind of some pantomime character.Rinaldo looking posh

We begin to feel that he is somehow sabotaging himself through unconscious motivation, though of course, such psychologizing was completely outside the mindset of early writers of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. Characters were made to have certain goals but to be pushed in contrary directions by fate or divine will or for that matter, the author’s own will, as reflected in the requirements of the plot.

Another lady-love of Rinaldo’s, Dianora, also screams and faints when she finds out who he is (she has just found out that she is pregnant but like Rosalia, miscarries).

This dramatic moment is in fact illustrated by a wonderfully tacky illustration in the book, and as I have said before, I wish I had a scanner to show it in this post).

At once point Rinaldo does have a brief respite in escape to a quiet island where by chance he meets his beloved Dianora (the unfortunate Rosalia is now dead). He becomes able to shed tears and pray, and she is convinced that as he is now becoming ‘a good man’ she should forgive him, but malign fate brings about another attack from government troops. In no time he is loading his pistols again, determined to fight it out from a cave, and finally exasperated at his recidivism, his tormenting mentor and first tutor, The Old Man of Fonteja, tries to stab him to death…

Interestingly, a much earlier novel – Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’ has a far more self conscious and reflective narrative viewpoint, that of the beleaguered heroine. We never find out much about the thought processes of Mr B, except that he suddenly and dramatically has a conversion towards respecting her spiritual integrity as well  as cove41ZYpCCMnoL._AA160_ting her body, and that from then on he treats her as an angel rather than a whore. Thankfully, we are spared whatever scanty mental processes take place in his head, but we are told in the sequel, ‘Pamela In Her exalted Condition’ that he didn’t really intend to rape her when he held her down on the bed with the assistance of the wicked Mrs Jewkes, or leaped out of cupboards – it was all a misunderstanding.  I see; well, if his readership could swallow that piece of mendacity, they were capable of believing anything, including that ‘the reformed rake makes the best husband’.

I am far from unusual in finding both the heroine’s moral outlook and that of the author one of self-serving hypocrisy – she is quite happy to put herself into the hands of her tormentor, putative seducer and would be rapist, the arch rogue Mr B, once their relationship is put on a nominally respectable basis – but my point is, that there were very few novels with a purported moral lesson which even in this period, did depict moral reflection and also, a self-aware protagonist. Richardson’s are unusual. In his subsequent, and far less clumsy novel ‘Clarissa’ this moral reflectiveness was refined almost to the pitch of an art form. 200px-Pamela-1742

Vulpius’ novel is an exciting read (which Pamela, despite Mr B’s habit of springing from closets, is not) but in the absence of the balance of a detached viewpoint, his aim to stir the reader’s blood detracts from any plausible moral values becoming clear. Even apart from that, Rinaldo is a strangely ambivalent and patchy character, passionate without depth, and lurid without being vividly human. The work, then, makes a fascinating example of the blunt techniques of the early novelist as regards character development, somewhat refined by Richardson and then transformed by the human and sympathetic heroines of Jane Austen.


Moral Transformations of Scoundrels Through the Love of a Good Angel

41ZYpCCMnoL._AA160_EmileDubois-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalI was rambling about how the whole thing about reading Vulpius, Gaskell etc and brooding on their revelation of character, especially as regards moral transformation of a ‘bad’ into a ‘good’ person, made me think again about how much revelation of a character’s’ mental life is sufficient to make that character deep and rounded without being as it were, over exposed, how much mystery there should be, how far the narrator should be omniscient in this regard, etc etc.

As I said in my last, too, the depiction by Vulpius of Rinaldo Rinaldini’s mental life and especially his becoming disgusted with his life of violence is patchy, so that he certainly doesn’t come across as a rounded character, with human weaknesses (his passion for women hardly counts). If the author had stuck to the goal of writing and exciting story, that would be less of a problem – it is only because of Vulpius’ claim that his novel is ‘moral’ and his hero high minded that the reader is struck by this inadequacy.

Rinaldo is, however, shown gradually becoming disgusted by his life as a ‘Captain of Branditti’ rather than suddenly transformiing as a result of falling in love with his virtuous maiden, though this disillusionment with life as a robber seems to be originally inspired by his meeting with Aurelia. At first, he appears to delude himself about how he can deceive her about his previous character if he can escape with her.

When he finds out that Aurelia is being sent to a nunnery – whether willingly or not is far from clear – he says he will ‘bring about the contrary’ and lays plans for his men to seize the carriage and bring her to him. This is foiled, however, by an attack on his band by government troops.

As I said in my previous post, his intentions when he and his band attack her wicked husband Count Rozzio’s castle are far from clear – it is uncertain whether he intends to abduct her or not – but after her plea to be allowed to join her mother in a nunnery, he escorts her there and his outburst: ‘Now I feel what I am!’ is presumably meant to indicate a dawning realisation that no idealistic girl is going to like his chosen career.

It is only towards the end of the novel, when Rinaldo is on the run from both the Old Man of Fronteja and his old associates as well as the government authorities that he seems to be willing to put much effort into breaking away from his fellow bandits – but all his efforts to escape to a life of tranquility are foiled by the ubiquitous Old Man who insists that it is Rinaldo’s fate to become a military hero. As I have said too, the moral conversion aspect is dealt with rather sketchily, but it is at least demonstrated as a gradual process.

Dislike Richardson’s Pamela as I do – and the author really has achieved something to make me dislike a young girl powerless and trapped by a lecherous employer and potential rapist – she can’t be accused of not having a vivid mental life, a defect very obvious in Mr B, the anti hero whose moral transformation she achieves.

As I hope to read Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth this year, I’m expecting to encounter something on the same lines from them, but hopefully, with more sympathetic heroines. However, as in Richardson, as in Vulpius, a reader should expect the writer’s understanding of the mind to be limited by the understanding of the age in which they lived (the only exception to this limitation appearing to be – of course – Shakespeare).

As for Richardson’s rake who reforms – Mr B – he is always seen ‘from the outside’. We never know what he thinks except in so far as he reveals it through his speeches. These, for the most part, are a lot of self justifying nonsense, so one assumes his thoughts are on the same lines, along with a lot of pornographic visualisation of Pamela’s lovely bosom and ‘sweet shape’.

We see him only through Pamela’s naïve eyes, first as a black hearted wretch and then as her fiancé and ‘Dear Master’. It was fairly astute of Richardson, this not including any confiding letters from Mr B in the novel; if we knew what he was scheming the plot wouldn’t work so well.

Though Mr B accepts that he has been wrong about Pamela, how far this acknowledgement of her virtue and softening towards her is meant to illustrate a general moral change is far from clear. Mr B’s moral reformation is rather questionable, like his character.

Usually, Jane Austen’s heroines are charming and a pleasure to read about. It us unfortunate that the most virtuous of them, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, who is meant to be a personification of kindness and virtue, comes across as priggish and prudish, so horrified by the thought of an elopement that she likes awake shaking with disgust all night.

When the immoral, heartless flirt Henry Crawford (as near a character to a villain as you are likely to meet in Jane Austen, along with the ‘W’ team, Willoughby and Wickham) decides to trifle with her feelings, he ends up genuinely falling for her, a delightful touch. She is cold to him throughout, much preferring the virtuous and bland Edmund Bertram.

Yet, Henry Crawford ‘s passion for the strict Ms Price does come across as genuine – as his being persuaded into a lukewarm elopement with the former Maria Bertram does not.

I have to join with Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra in wishing that the author had brought a repentant Henry Crawford to win Fanny Prices’ grudging affection – so unfortunately, I must be something of a romantic.

Henry Crawford’s mental processes are only vaguely touched on by the author. From what one learns of them, one gets the impression she is puzzled by such a superficial man, though heartily disapproving. His basic motivational forces seem to be a combination of vanity, cynicism and laziness.

His attempt at moral conversion seems to have been mainly inspired by a desire to win Fanny Price. We do hear that he loved her ‘deeply as well as passionately’ and that he could have won her love had he been more persistent in his attempt to be virtuous, and this gave me at least a feeling of regret that the story ends as it does.

Henry Crawford, then, is the only character in Jane Austen who comes near to being a villain who attempts a moral transformation, and he fails dismally.

Mr Darcy has a moral transformation – but he is no villain; priggish and ungracious he may be – but he is always a Good Man, though Elizabeth thinks that he is capable of treachery.

The later, infinitely less skilled (though best selling) writer of romances in the late Victorian era, Charles Garvice, portrays his characters’ mental lives almost as sketchily as Vulpius a century earlier. In that strange combination of boys’ adventure story and sentimental romance that makes up ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ we know very little of the thoughts of Lord Heriot Fayne, the said outcast.

This hero is given a basic motivation for a rebellion which doesn’t seem to be owing to a clash of ideas but rather on a sense of outrage at being neglected by his parents.

As to what goes on his head, perhaps not much does, as we only hear of it in crisis points of the novel; for instance, when falling in love with the heroine Eva he decides that he must reform, and at once. He paces about, thinking so hard that his face becomes haggard with the unaccustomed effort. After some mental and facial contortions, he decides that he must break away from his decadent companions and their habit of drinking hard, brawling in music halls and betting on racecourses and sets off on foot to earn his living for the first time as an itinerant musician.

As I have said in an earlier post, the country air and living with country folk appears to cause a moral change in him – after a few weeks he ‘feels a change’ and stops being bad.

So that’s it – that’s the thing to do with ruffianly young men, then! Set ‘em off on a healthful tramp in the countryside as semi tramps to earn a living as buskers. Well, it makes a change from suggesting a return to the use of national service or flogging.

Leaving aside the absurdities of this peculiar cure, what is interesting here is that this popular author gives us only occasional glimpses into the workings of Heriot Fayne’s brain – and here he may be wise, for the little we do see is hardly riveting. Though the character is described as having an ‘acute gaze’ which can assess the selfishness of Eva’s father in a glance, this strange penetration isn’t accompanied by any originality of thought or moral reflection.

In fact, while Vulpius’ earlier Rinaldo Rinaldini can hold his own when discussing a moral conundrum we may be sure that Garvice’s Heriot Fayne would come out with a lot of clichés in which any idea of questioning accepted conventional moral standards would find no place. Eva is good and pure; Lord Fayne has been a naughty boy and disgraced his family; he can only find moral redemption through reverting to some state of innocence and going in for dramatic episodes of heroic self-sacrifice.

Meanwhile, Eva, though in no need of moral redemption, is also busy sacrificing herself like anything for her selfish father in agreeing to marry a man she doesn’t like, but again we only see the external symptoms of this – her white face, her dropping her head on her arms, her occasional fainting fits. As we are told she is already perfect, there can be no development of her character – except possibly in her understanding of evil in the machinations of the scheming villain which are exposed at the ending.

The moral reformation of villainous characters then, is a complex issue and difficult to portray convincingly. Did their rebellion against moral norms come as part of a general – and very likely, commendable – rebellion against convention and hypocritical moral standards? Is their violence – or their collusion in violence – any worse than that of their respectable peers? If the wicked rogue’s wish to reform is bound up with falling in love with a Conventional Good Angel, surely it must be the beginning of a long and gradual process?

The instant desire for moral transformation of Garvice’s flawed heroes (Heriot Fayne is only one of many) through the love of an innocent girl is highly unconvincing. Mr B’s moral transformation seems to have an equally questionable basis, while Henry Crawford disgraces himself by falling in love with an innocent girl and wanting to change but only making a nominal effort to reform before falling by the wayside. Shame on the cad! That did disappoint me; I would have loved to see the brilliant Jane Ausen writing about the successful moral transformation of a rogue.

Those, anyway, were some ideas that influenced me when I had my own villainous hero – Émile Dubois, decide that after meeting his ‘Goody Two Shoes’ Sophie de Courcy, he will ‘put his horrible past behind him’. It is a very difficult subject to approach with humour and a lack of sentimentality, even in a Gothic novel – but, don’t think I don’t love a story where a bad person reforms, as I do – it’s just that I like it, even in a Gothic novel, to be credible.

By the end of the story (after a striking relapse as he briefly turns into a semi monster) he has progressed far enough under the influence of ‘his angel’ Sophie to suggest to his companion in arms Georges that it is ‘High time we reformed – comparatively.’

I am a great believer in the ability of love to transform lives and to transcend social barriers of all sorts – but change for almost everyone is generally a gradual process, however dramatic the moment when a person resolves to make the effort to make that change.

So, it did seem to me that even in writing a Gothic romance a certain scepticism about how quickly the worship of a Good Angel can reform a scoundrel was in order.

Emile, of course, is only ever ‘seen from the outside’ (I used that ploy to make him the more sinister as a scheming semi monster in the middle of the novel). As a human he is generally truthful – except for to the forces of law and order –
the reader can assume that he usually says what he means and means what he says – and he his quite sincere in wanting his good angel to reform him. Why, as an adolescent in ‘Ravensdale’ (the novel I’m currently writing) he even tells his cousin Reynaud Ravensdale that he intends to allow just such a ‘Miss Goody Two Shoes’ as Sophie to help him to undertake his reform, and in the meanwhile he owes it to this paragon to be as rascally as possible, so that she will be cheated of none of the credit for his transformation…