Jane Austen’s Choice of Surnames

I’m sure I’m not just speaking for myself when I say that novelists choose the surnames of their characters with great care. I certainly agonise over mine. I was reminded of this when reading Maggie Lane’s brilliant Jane Austen and Food. In it, she makes the perceptive point that Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is ironically named – from the French nourrice, a nurse. She behaves in the most un-nurturing way towards Fanny Price and seems to take every opportunity to put her down.

‘My dear Sir Thomas, Fanny can walk.’ says Mrs Norris. Illustration by Hugh Thomson for Mansfield Park

I found myself thinking about other Mansfield Park surnames which might be significant. Fanny Price’s own surname, for example, could also be viewed as ironic. For much of the novel, she is seen to have little value. Her own mother is happy to give her away to her rich relations, surely a traumatic experience for a timid ten-year-old girl. And Henry Crawford values her only as a plaything when he aims ‘to make a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart’.

Fanny is not taken in. Underneath her shy and retiring exterior, she is spot on in her judgement of the Crawfords and, when Henry proposes, she courageously refuses him, in spite of her uncle’s strong disapproval of such wilfulness. She is, as Sir Thomas, Edmund and even Henry Crawford himself eventually realise, priceless, with a moral worth beyond value.

When Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas fully expects to find: ‘gross ignorance, some meanness of opinions, and very distressing vulgarity of manner’  but, he adds, condescendingly, ‘these are not incurable faults.’

By the end of the book, Fanny alone has seen through the Crawfords. ‘Sick of ambitious and mercenary connections, prizing more and more the sterling good of principle and temper…’  Sir Thomas eventually gives Fanny her due. Note the use of the word ‘prizing’.  He’s thrilled when Edmund and Fanny announce their engagement and gives his ‘joyful consent’ coupled with ‘the high sense in having acquired a great acquisition in the promise of Fanny as a daughter.’

Young Lovers fron the Ladies’ Pocketbook

Even the cloddish Mr Rushworth’s name carries a hint of irony. Maria rushes into her engagement with him, unable to bear the humiliation of Henry leaving without declaring himself. And worth is not a quality we associate with Mr Rushworth – or, indeed, Maria. There is also another definition of rush which Jane would have known from Dr Johnson, whose prose style she much admired. His Dictionary of the English Language includes: ‘RUSHLIKE: ressembling a rush; weak, impotent.’  It suits Mr Rushworth to a T.

We might note, too, Mary Crawford’s letter to Fanny concerning Tom Bertram’s illness: ‘I put it to your conscience, whether “Sir Edmund” would not do more good with all the Bertram property than any other possible “Sir”.’ A future ‘Sir Edmund Bertram’ would sound very well.  Fanny is disgusted by Mary’s ‘cold-hearted ambition.’

Frank Churchill in charming and informal mode, illustration by Hugh Thomson for ‘Emma’ 

In Emma, there is surely more than a touch of irony in Frank Churchill’s name. Frank – that is, honest and open – he is not. And Churchill carries associations of good Christian behaviour, which, again, is wide of the mark. By contrast, Mr Knightley’s name suits his character; we see him taking the time and trouble to be kind to Miss Bates and Harriet Smith, both persons of little social consequence.

In Sense and Sensibility, the name Dashwood might be interpreted as an oxymoron. Marianne certainly has the dash which leaves Elinor with too much of the phlegmatic, though steadfast, wood. Elinor needs more dash and Marianne needs to be more grounded (wood), which is exactly what happens over the course of the book.

Lucy Steele confides in Elinor. Illustration by Hugh Thomson for ‘Sense & Sensibility’ 

And what about the double-dealing Lucy Steele? Jane Austen says of her, ‘Lucy was naturally clever, her remarks were often just and amusing,’ and so far so good. Elinor finds her an agreeable companion for about half an hour. But, as she soon discovers, Lucy is also two-faced. Jane Austen mentions ‘her little sharp eyes full of meaning’ and elsewhere we note that Lucy is always eyeing Elinor to see how she takes her confidences about her secret engagement to Edward Ferrars, the man Elinor herself loves. Lucy may have a superficial stylishness but she is also deceitful and has a core of steel. She wants a husband with money, and, now she’s got her talons into Edward Ferrars, she’s going to make sure she keeps hold of him.

And is it too far-fetched to wonder if the duplicitous John Willoughby’s surname has a touch of wavering about it? One might add another adjective, ‘wily’. He certainly pulls the wool over Marianne’s eyes as he sets about finding a rich wife.

Sir Walter Elliot kow-tows before the aristocratic Lady Dalrymple. Illustration for ‘Persuasion’ by Hugh Thomson

Persuasion is, perhaps, the novel with the most interesting surnames. We know that Sir Walter Elliot is very aware of the value of a good name. He is scathing of Anne visiting an old school friend Mrs Smith: ‘A mere Mrs Smith – and everyday Mrs Smith, of all people and all names in the world to be the chosen friend of Miss Anne Elliot…’  Anne makes no reply, though she is well aware that her sister’s friend, Mrs Clay, a woman with no fortune, and ‘no surname of dignity’ is covertly making up to her father.

Mrs Clay’s surname sounds suitably cloddish and sticky but she has enough guile to elope with William Elliot, Sir Walter’s heir, at the end of the book. And her first name, Penelope, the epitome of the faithful wife in the Odyssey, carries more than a touch of irony.

Sir Walter himself is overly concerned with appearances. At the end of the book, when he learns that Anne is going to marry her former love, Captain Wentworth (a match which had gravely displeased him ten years earlier), he decides that, (Captain Wentworth’s) superiority of appearance might be not unfairly balanced against her superiority of rank; and all this, assisted by his well-sounding name, (a name of ‘worth’) allows him to give them his blessing.  

Lady Catherine confronts Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Illustration by Charles E. Brock for ‘Pride & Prejudice’

The surnames in Pride and Prejudice make a different point. Both Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh have surnames of Norman-French origin, thus demonstrating their aristocratic credentials.  However, and this could be an example of Jane Austen’s ironic sense of humour, the maiden name of both Darcy’s mother and Lady Catherine was Fitzwilliam, a surname which indicates illegitimacy as fils (French: son) was used for the illegitimate children of kings or princes. Fitzwilliam might be an aristocratic name, but there’s a definite whiff of irregular behaviour about it.

The one book which doesn’t appear to use surnames to indicate anything about their owners is Northanger Abbey. It was an early novel, first mentioned in 1798, and we know she worked on it over the next five years though it wasn’t published until 1818, two years after her death.

Ruined castle.

It could be that, in a novel debunking the excesses of the Gothic novel, as in Mrs Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, where the heroine is called Emily de St. Aubert and the hero is the Chevalier de Valancourt, Jane Austen, by contrast, wanted ordinary surnames for her Northanger Abbey characters.

Jane Austen’s use of surnames is subtle – no Trollopean Mr Quiverfuls or Dickensian Mr Pecksniffs for her. Nevertheless, the alert reader will find her choice of surnames enlightening, from Penelope Clay to Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Elizabeth Hawksley


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4 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Choice of Surnames”

  1. I had not noticed these clever and subtle hints. Thanks for bringing them out.
    I too agonize over names. I can’t start a book until I have the names at least of the principals sorted out.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. I do so agree. And then there’s the problem of inadvertently getting fixated on as single letter. One of my early novels has far too many characters whose surnames begin with H – and neither I nor my editor noticed it!

  2. I will read Jane Austen with fresh eyes in future. I certainly never noticed these little hints before. I agree with what you said in your reply to Elizabeth Bailey – what is it about certain initial letters? With me, it’s J.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Susanna, particularly the bit about tending to use names beginning with J in your novels, which made me smile. I’ve just read a book by a best-selling author where most of the male names began with W. (Walter, Wallace, William) or else the characters’ first names – or surnames – began with M: Mortimer, Mostyn, Maurice, Montague, Matcham. Surely, I thought, she’d have noticed, but she obviously didn’t.

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