Names are significant. This simple statement seems like common knowledge, boring knowledge. However, this boring knowledge becomes important when it is time to choose a name. A child is given a name at birth and, usually, caries that name until their death. Shouldn’t it be a good one? One doesn’t want their child to be teased or avoided because of their name so it is with great care that parents choose a name. This process is also used when authors choose their character’s name. A villain named John is much too generic but Myron is more unique and noticeable. A character’s name can make or break that character. In the Victorian era, there were several popular trends that parents could use to name their child. These trends can be seen through Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Names are significant.
|Victorian baby picture|
One of the popular trends from 1840-1890 was to use Biblical names. “The Victorian era brought something of a revival of Biblical names, reflecting the evangelical zeal of that period” (West). Names such as Jacob, Joseph, Peter, Ruth, Sara, and Mary were commonly used Biblical names. This can be seen in the character list of Mary Barton. The main protagonist’s name is Mary, her father is John, and her aunt is Esther. Another character is Job Legh, a faithful friend of the Bartons (Gaskell). All of the names come from the Bible and reflect the Victorian trend of Biblically based names.
Along the lines of Biblically based names, characters in books can reflect their Biblical name. For example, in Wuthering Heights the unlikable but highly zealous butler is named Joseph. He consistently reprimands the other characters on their lack of religious behavior. In chapter three, he berates Catherine and Heatcliff saying,
“’T’ maister nobbut just buried, and Sabbath no o’ered, und t’ sound o’ t’ gospel still i’ yer lugs, and yah darr be laiking! Shame on ye!” (Brontë, 27)
As a character, Joseph embodies his Biblical nature to the extreme and is one of the main sources of Biblical interruption in the story. He reprimands the children for playing after his sermon and on the Sabbath. There is rarely a time when Joseph is mentioned that the Bible is not mentioned as well (Brontë).
|Collage of Victorian boys names|
In addition to Biblical names, some names were fused together. Common names became one and were indicated by a hyphen. In most cases, the first and middle names were melded together such as Sarah-Ann or Henry-James. Others included Louise-Marie, Marie-Grace, and Frank-Williams (Victorian). While this lengthened a person’s name, shortening a name became popular too. Nicknames also became popularly used as first names. For instance, Harriet became Hattie, Margaret became Peggy, Richard became Dick, and Francis became Frank (Popular). Other names were Annie, Bessie, Elsie, Lottie, Patsy, and Sally (Victorian).
Another popular trend was the use of botanical or “nature names.” For women, botanical names included Iris, Lilly, Magnolia, Pansy, Rose, and Violet. They didn’t just have to be flowers; names could be taken “from trees, plants, rocks, etc.” (Victorian). Examples of these “nature names” were Fern, Ivy, and Myrtle. Gemstones were not forgotten in this trend either with Beryl, Coral, Opal, and Pearl being popular choices for women as well. These names hold a natural beauty to them and have a pleasant ring to them. They also imply that the woman is as beautiful as the said natural element and who wouldn’t want to be compared to the beauty of a flower?
|Collage of Victorian girls names|
On the other hand, there were also names that were hard to live up to. Popular female names during the Victorian era were virtuous names such as Faith, Chastity, and Grace. Although they also have a pleasant sound, these names are difficult to live up to and could be constraining. Imagine a person’s name was Hope but she was the most pessimistic, hopeless person on the earth. Virtuous names were difficult to uphold and were limiting in one’s personality. Equally as taxing could be a repeated name. It was not uncommon to name one’s child after one’s self. This can be seen in Mary Barton. Mary is named after her mother Mary who dies in the third chapter of the book. Repeated names could be confusing as Mary Barton further shows. In a conversation with Wilson, John Barton says,
“Well, well, I call her ‘little’, because her mother’s name is Mary.” (Gaskell, 44)
Later in the conversation he specifies them further,
“…kissing both wife Mary, and daughter Mary (if I must not call her little)…” (Gaskell, 45)
Repeated names were common and it was not unusual to share a name with several past relatives.
|The cover of Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell|
Emily Brontë also uses the repeated name in Wuthering Heights when Catherine Earnshaw, who at this time is Catherine Linton, names her daughter Catherine. This becomes even more confusing at the end of the story as Catherine Linton, the daughter, becomes Catherine Heathcliff and then Catherine Earnshaw. Though this is confusing, it does hold symbolism in the story. The first Catherine was born Catherine Earnshaw. Her name was changed to Catherine Linton when she married Edgar Linton. Her daughter was born Catherine Linton but eventually became Catherine Earnshaw when she married Hareton Earnshaw (Brontë). This brings the name back to its origin and completes the cycle of cruelty the two families endured.
|The cover of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë|
Along with repeated first names, some families “recycled surnames for Christian names and the mother’s maiden name would often be inserted as a child’s middle name” (Popular). This meant that names typically used as a surname became a middle name, no matter its gender partiality. For example, “John Butterfield Smith, Charles Stewart Parnell and Louisa Jefferson Jones are just three well-known examples” (Popular). The name “Butterfield” could have been John’s mother’s maiden name that she gave up in place of “Smith.” The name “Jefferson” is typically a boys name but could have been a surname that the family wanted to recycle. In each example, gender does not seem to play a deciding factor in the name choosing. Rather the significance or meaning behind the name is the driving factor.
Most of these names sound familiar, as they have not completely gone out of style. However, the Victorians did have a sense of humor at naming their children though some may call it cruelty. A team at a “London-based genealogy firm Fraser & Fraser [has] spent more than 40 years compiling a list of comical names and [has] discovered more than 200 bizarre identities” (Rousewell). Looking at past birth certificates and records they have come across names like “Friendless Baxter” and “Time of Day.” Yes, “Time of” is the first name and “Day” is the surname. Quite funny, really!
|Record of a girl with 26 names, one for each letter of the alphabet!|
That is until you get to ‘One Too Many’ Gouldstone or ‘That’s It Who’d Have Thought It’ Restell. With these names, one wonders if the parents were intentionally cruel or it was a mistake by the record keepers. The strange and weird names continue in this survey. The top odd names were Mineral Waters, Zebra Lynes, Windsor Castle, Leister Railway Cope, Faith Hope Charity Brown, and a woman with 26 names, one for each letter of the alphabet (Rousewell)! (See above picture) Leister Railway was named after the notable railway because he was born there and poor Faith Hope Charity had a lot of virtue to live up to. Another great example of odd Victorian names is in this short clip by Horrible Histories:
(Please excuse the angle to the video)
Another influence to the naming process was what was popular during the time or who was popular at the time. Many people named their children after the royal family or favored politicians. The Victorians were not unlike modern people in naming their children after celebrities. The name “Victoria” became very popular, as befitting the Queen. Her children’s names also became popular and periodically spiked in popularity when one of her children was in the news. That could include their birth, an award, or a marriage. Although modern parents may not name their children after politicians like the Victorians, they do look to celebrities and people in the news for inspiration.
Names are not only significant; they can be entertaining as well! They can be chosen with care or with humor or even cruelty. Names define people and characters. In stories, they can reveal more of the character and create more depth to the characters. Literature also reflects trends of the time as seen in both Mary Barton and Wuthering Heights. Names are significant and can open people to a whole new level of understanding.
- Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Paul Elek, 1947. Print.
- Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin English Library, 1982. Print.
- "Horrible Histories Victorians: Schoolchildren Have Unusual Names. Queen Victoria Workout." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHFNK-3lZ1U>.
- "Popular Victorian Names." On AboutBritain.com. About Britain, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.aboutbritain.com/articles/victorian-names.asp>.
- Rousewell, Dean. "The Top 10 Oddest Victorian Christian Names from Friendless to One Too Many." Mirror. Little Woods, 17 Feb. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/top-10-oddest-victorian-christian-5180415>.
- "Victorian Names." Language Dossier. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://language-dossier.webs.com/victoriannames.htm>.
- West, Ed. "Say Hi to Ethel Mary: Victorian Names Are Back in Fashion – Telegraph Blogs." News Say Hi to Ethel Mary Victorian Names Are Back in Fashion Comments. The Telegraph, 4 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/edwest/100127208/say-hi-to-ethel-mary-victorian-names-are-back-in-fashion/>.
- Mary Barton. Digital image. In the Cactus Garden. Square Space, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://inthecactusgarden.squarespace.com/books-on-my-parents-shelves/2010/8/3/books-176-180.html>.
- Popular Victorian Boys Names. Digital image. About Britain. About Britain, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.aboutbritain.com/articles/victorian-names.asp>.
- Popular Victorian Girls Names. Digital image. AboutBritain. About Britain, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.aboutbritain.com/articles/victorian-names.asp>.
- A record detailing a woman's 26 names. Digital image. Mirror. Little Woods, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/top-10-oddest-victorian-christian-5180415>.
- Victorian Baby. Digital image. Language Dossier. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://language-dossier.webs.com/victoriannames.htm>.
- Wuthering Heights. Digital image. Repeat Review. Repeat Fanzine, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <http://www.repeatfanzine.co.uk/Reviews/wuthering%20heights%20amy.htm>.