Jane Austen: What’s in a Name?

I have long been fascinated by Jane Austen’s choice of first names for her characters, and today I’m looking at how the early 19th naming system worked. The 1800 name pool was, by modern standards, surprisingly small, and this is echoed in Jane Austen’s constant reuse of the same names. Take the name Mary; there are two Marys in Pride & Prejudice (Mary Bennet and the heiress Mary King, pursued by Wickham); a Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park; and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion. According to research done by The Names Society, Mary was the most common girl’s name in 1800, closely followed by Anne and Elizabeth, so perhaps we should not be surprised. Jane Austen even calls two major characters by her own Christian name, Jane, which comes in at number 5 in the 1800 list. There is Jane Bennet in Pride & Prejudice and Jane Fairfax in Emma.

Male character’s names are also reused. For example, the top male name in 1800 was John, (followed by William and Thomas) and Johns abound in Jane Austen’s novels: there are two John Knightleys in Emma: her brother-in-law and one of her nephews; and the obnoxious John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey; John Dashwood, the heroine Elinor’s half-brother who inherits Norland Park in Sense & Sensibility , as well as the handsome but duplicitous John Willoughby; and Mrs Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton, who offers her Barton Cottage, after her husband’s death.

Few novelists nowadays would have three characters with the same first name in the same novel – even if they are not major characters. However, as we shall see, Jane Austen both mirrors and comments on the customs of the time.

Continuity with regard to names was very important in the 19th century for demonstrating family connections, as the history of the Elliot family entry in the Baronetage demonstrates ‘with all the Marys and Elizabeths they had married’ mention on page 1 of Persuasion.

The convention is for the eldest son and daughter to be named after their parents, as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, née Maria Ward, do in Mansfield Park. Jane Fairfax in Emma is named after her dead mother. In Persuasion, Charles Musgrove’s elder son is named Charles, and so on.

However, money also has an important role in the choice of name. In Emma, John Knightley is a younger son with no estate of his own. The Hartfield estate, where his wife Isabella was brought up, has no male heir, so it is the elder daughter, Isabella, who will inherit Hartfield. The financial importance of that is echoed in their eldest son’s name. ‘Henry is the eldest; he was named after me, not after his father,’ says old Mr Woodhouse, Isabella’s father. Plainly, such a departure from the norm needed an explanation. Otherwise, the John Knightleys are traditional – or possibly ambitious: their children are named Henry, John, George, Isabella and Emma. The second son is named after his father, and the third, George, is named after John’s elder brother, Mr George Knightley, who eventually marries the heroine, Emma, Isabella’s younger sister. I’ve often wondered if John and Isabella had an eye on Emma Woodhouse’s fortune of £20,000 when naming little Emma.

If a child has little in the way of fortune, then a wealthy god-parent is essential. In Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, Mr Primrose’s wish to call his daughter Grissel is ignored. Instead, ‘a rich relation taking a fancy to stand godmother, the girl was, by her direction, called Sophia’. Mr Primrose is not wealthy; he falls in with the godmother’s wishes. So we see that it was customary for a child to be named after a wealthy godparent.

Another wealthy godfather is Mr Darcy, senior. Mr Darcy’s son is named Fitzwilliam, which is his aristocratic wife’s maiden name – and it cannot be an easy name to live with. Its use as a first name surely indicates that Lady Anne Darcy’s superior breeding is of major importance to the Darcys. Jane Austen may also have intended it to say something about its owner’s pride in his rank.

We are not told the senior Mr Darcy’s first name. However, his daughter is named Georgiana, rather than Anne after her mother, and George Wickham is his god-son. Jane Austen’s contemporary readers would have picked up these clues and concluded that Mr Darcy’s first name was George.

They would also have assumed that Anne Elliot was named after her well-to-do, childless godmother, Lady Russell. Doubtless, Anne’s spendthrift father, Sir Walter Elliot, hopes that Lady Russell will leave her fortune to Anne.

Names, therefore, are not chosen because the parents like them, as they are today, but with regard to family connections or a hoped-for inheritance. In Mansfield Park, we don’t know Mrs Norris’s first name but we do know that she is Betsy Price’s godmother (Betsy being a pet name for Elizabeth) and the poor child is going to need a dowry. Mrs Price would almost certainly have named her daughter after her sister – and is hoping (probably in vain) for a legacy.

We can tell more. Most people at that date had only one Christian name. A second name indicates something significant, as we see with William Walter Elliot, the heir to the baronetcy and Kellynch Hall in Persuasion.

There is also the class factor. Most of the female servants in the novels have Old Testament names, for example, Mrs Price’s maid, the slap-dash Rebecca; Mary Musgrove’s maid, Jemima; and Hannah who closes doors quietly in Emma. These names came in with the Reformation and were taken up by Puritan families; Old Testament names were seen as anti-Papist and somehow staunchly Protestant; and, from the Tudor Reformation in 1534 on, we find names like Samuel and Isaac, Sarah and Rachel being widely used in England, and, later, in America. With a few exceptions, Old Testament names were rarely used by the upper classes in the early 19th century.

Jane Austen’s heroes and heroines usually have regal names of Germanic or New Testament origin rather than from the Old Testament.

Occasionally, Jane Austen uses a name as a pointer to character. Take the dreadful Augusta Elton in Emma. The name Augusta came in with the Hanoverians. George III’s sister and mother were both called Augusta, and his nine sons include: Frederick Augustus, Edward Augustus, Ernest Augustus and, in case you missed the point, Augustus Frederick. Jane Austen neatly indicates Augusta Elton’s social pretensions in the name she gives her.

Queen Caroline, wife of George II, and Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, brought their Christian names into fashion, and we find Caroline Bingley and Charlotte Lucas in Pride & Prejudice.

Frederick is another Hanoverian name: as well as the Frederick Augustus and Augustus Frederick we have already noted, George III also had sons called Adolphus Frederick and William Frederick. Doubtless, Captain Wentworth’s father had ambitions for his son and named him accordingly. Frederick became one of the most popular male names of the 19th century. And, of course, we have that amoral but sexually attractive cad, Frederick Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

I’m ending my post with a small quiz.

  1. What is Mrs Bennet’s probable first name?
  2. What is Mr Bennet’s probable first name?
  3. Why did Charles and Mary Musgrove name their second son Walter? Whose idea was it?
  4. Why did Lady Catherine de Bourgh name her daughter ‘Anne’ rather than ‘Catherine’?
  5. What will Mr Collins name his eldest daughter?

Here are my answers – you don’t have to agree with me!

  1. What is Mrs Bennet’s probable first name?

I would say, Jane, as this is the name of her eldest daughter.

2 What is Mr Bennet’s probable first name?

William is the most likely. We know that the heir to Longbourn is Mr Collins, whose first name is William. It would have been sensible for Mr Collins’ parents to have named their son after the head of the family, even if the Collins and Bennet families were estranged at the time. 

3. Why did Charles and Mary Musgrove name their second son Walter? And whose idea was it?

Their elder son is named Charles after his father, and I suspect that it was Mary’s idea to name her second son Walter after her own father, Sir Walter Elliot. Mary is very conscious of her superior social position as an Elliot, and I think that she would want to emphasise that.

   4 Why did Lady Catherine de Bourgh name her daughter ‘Anne’ rather than ‘Catherine’?

Lady Catherine and her sister Anne were the daughters of an earl. So Lady Catherine married down when she married Sir Lewis de Bourgh, a mere baronet. It is true that Anne married Mr Darcy, senior, a man without a title but he was one of the wealthiest men in England and owned Pemberley. We know that Lady Catherine and Lady Anne talked about a marriage between their two children (according to Lady Catherine) and, surely, Lady Catherine would have asked her sister to be her daughter’s godmother.

   5. What will Mr Collins name his eldest daughter?

Mr Collins has a choice. Traditionally, his first daughter’s name would be Charlotte after her mother, but I cannot help thinking that Lady Catherine would demand to be the baby’s godmother, so, naturally, the baby would be named Catherine. But I like the suggestion that he might think long-term and name her Elizabeth and ask the new Mrs Darcy, to be godmother. But such a step could make life very unpleasant at Hunsford Parsonage . Maybe it would be safer to stick to Catherine. 

 I don’t suppose Charlotte would have much say in the matter.

Elizabeth Hawksley


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18 thoughts on “Jane Austen: What’s in a Name?”

  1. Fascinating stuff. Thank you, Elizabeth. I can’t remember the answer to #3, but I’d guess Jane for #1 and John for #2 because it was common and because I can’t remember any family clues to suggest anything else. For #4, I’d say it’s because she’s ingratiating herself with her sister re the marriage she plans with Fitzwilliam. Question #5 is interesting. It depends on timing, I’d say. If a daughter is born soon and Mr Collins has no hopes of the Darcys, he’ll choose Catherine. But if a daughter is born late and he has hopes of the Darcys, he might go for Elizabeth.

    1. I like your suggestion for the Collinses to name a later-born daughter Elizabeth. It neatly echoes Mr Bennet’s cynical advice to Mr Collins in his letter announcing Darcy’s engagement to Elizabeth, ‘Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But,if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.’

  2. I wonder if Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins might share the same first name, Mr. Collins’ father having hoped that his son might inherit from his cousin (at least before their falling-out).

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. Your suggestion is a good one and, don’t forget, the Longbourn estate is entailed on Mr Collins. His parents will have always known that their son would inherit it if Mr and Mrs Bennet had no sons.

  3. Fascinating post. I love names.

    1. I’d say Jane for Mrs Bennet
    2. Unsure on Mr Bennet. Possibly William, as Mr Collins is a William. Mr Bennet may not have had his disagreement with Mr Collins’s papa at that stage.
    3. Walter undoubtedly named for Mary’s father – it would have been her idea for sure, the Elliots being way further up the scale than the Musgroves.
    4. After Lady Catherine’s sister, Lady Anne Darcy. Lady Anne must have been small Anne’s godmother
    5. Catherine, after Lady Catherine. Mend the fence with the hole in now, rather than later!

    1. Thank you for your comments, Jan. Re: quiz question 4, Lady Catherine tells Elizabeth, ‘From their (Darcy and Anne’s) infancy, they have been intended for each other …While in their cradles we planned the union.’ Interestingly, this makes Darcy and Anne de Bourgh much the same age;I’d always thought of Anne as being younger, about eighteen, say.

  4. So interesting. For 1, I’m going out on a limb and say that Jane is named for her aunt, Mrs Gardiner, because Mrs Bennet might hope for something from her brother. For 2, I’d go along with William too (not that I recall Mr Collins being William, but I’m pinching it from Jan!), on the basis that if Mr Bennet did have a son, Mr Collins might hope his son would get some consideration, or perhaps hoped his cousin Bennet would stand godfather. For 3, I agree with Walter named for Mary’s father. And 4, has got to be Anne after the aunt in hopes of the marraige. For 5, I’m going to go with Charlotte, assuming Mrs Lucas is Charlotte too, because Sir William doesn’t have any sons, I wouldn’t think, and Collins is far more likely to get something from his father-in-law than either Darcy or Lady Catherine.
    Very interested to hear your answers!

    1. Thank you for your comments on the quiz, Elizabeth. I’m afraid that you are wrong about Mrs Gardiner’s first name being Jane. Towards the end of ‘Pride & Prejudice’ Lizzy writes to Mrs Gardiner to find out the truth about Lydia’s mention of Mr Darcy being at her wedding. Mrs Gardiner replies – and signs herself ‘M Gardiner’, so her first name cannot be Jane. If we go by the top 24 female First Names list of 1800, there is a choice of 5 names beginning with M: Mary (1), Martha (8), Margaret (9), Maria (13) and Mary Anne (16).

        1. It’s a tiny clue, Elizabeth. It’s very easy to miss. It took me ages to find it myself.

  5. I’m not well versed enough with Jane Austen’s novels to answer any of the quiz questions though I admire those who can. But as an experienced family historian, I can tell you that it works even for our more lowly ancestors too. One of my ancestors was a Richard Beddow, he named his son Richard then his son was also called Richard! The only way I could tell them apart was by using their birth years as an indication. The naming pattern of the day often helped to decide which baptism/death etc was the appropriate one too.

    1. Thank you for your interesting comment, Anne. I suppose that’s why there are so many pet names like Dick, Ricky, Dickon, and so on which must have helped our ancestors distinguish one Richard from another.

      You can see this in ‘Pride & Prejudice’ with regard to the name Elizabeth. The heroine is known in the family as Lizzy; but Charlotte Lucas always calls her ‘Eliza’. When Elizabeth stays at Netherfield to look after Jane, Miss Bingley refers to her as ‘Miss Eliza’ rather disparagingly. Other pet names for Elizabeth were Beth, Betty, Betsy or Libby. The Victorian writer, Elizabeth Gaskell was known in the family as Lily.

  6. When I was trying to figure out a particularly complicated title inheritance case, I had to make a chart because so many of the men involved, over multiple generations, basically all had the same name.

    1. You have my sympathy, Isobel! And I’m pleased that your experience with the complicated inheritance case backs up my thoughts on how Jane Austen’s novels accurately echo the reality of early nineteenth century naming customs.

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