Friday, 5 October 2018

The Name Game (Cecilia Peartree)

We had a new addition to the family the other day, and something happened that made me consider the topic of people's names and what we expect from them. When I heard the name given to the new arrival, for some reason I immediately pictured him in 40 or so years' time as a professor, probably of archaeology. His mother, on the other hand, told me she saw him more as a sportsman. Apart from the fact that she was probably joking because she knows how much many other members of the family excel at sports, i.e. not very much, this started a train of thought that led to various different destinations.

My grandmother (top left) and her birth family
As a family history researcher I find people's names very interesting, especially their first names. In many Scottish families there was quite a structured naming pattern in place, perhaps for centuries. I think I was one of the first children in our family not to be named after some ancestor or other. But it used to be less random than that sounds, because in families that followed this pattern the first daughter born to a couple was named after the mother's mother, the second after the father's mother and the third after the mother herself. There seem to have been optional extra rules about when to name a child after their grandmother or aunt. Something similar happened with sons - the first son after the father's father etc. In late Victorian times with the large families many people had, they sometimes had to go back to great-grandparents for names, and two of the youngest of my grandmother's ten siblings were actually named May and George, I think after members of the royal family.

My mother, the second daughter in her family, was very lucky not to have received 'Montgomery' as a first name because it had been my grandfather's mother's name. After a family argument it was apparently agreed that this was a ridiculous name for a girl and she was given another family name, Christina, instead, with Montgomery as a middle name. When my late brother and I started doing family history research we found the first name Montgomery very useful because it was confined, as far as we could establish, to girls from a large inter-connected group of mining families from Fife, and it helped us to place people in this group. The earliest occurrence we could find was in 1764, when a coal miner's daughter was given this name, possibly after a Seven Years War hero.
My great-grandmother's full name was Montgomery Crystal, and my brother once set up a web page for her as a joke, depicting her as a 1950s movie star. Sadly I think her life was a lot less glamorous than that.

When it comes to naming characters in my novels, I draw on various sources. In my mystery series, for instance, I tend to borrow names from my family tree for the older characters. The fictitious setting for these books is on the Fife coast, not far from Dunfermline, where most of my mother's family were from, so this seems to make sense. These older characters are sometimes quite stereo-typically set in their ways, although one of them is a computer expert and another fancies himself as a racing driver.
In fact the plot for one of these mysteries, 'Reunited in Death', was also inspired by something that really happened in my family (but without the murders).

As well as raiding my family history for names and ideas, I do get them from other sources on occasion. I have one exotic character called Amaryllis, a retired spy, and some younger people have started to make an appearance - Kyle, Zak, Lee, Tiffany, Ashley. These young people are generally quite modern and forward-looking, whereas Harriet, a young woman with a more traditional name, tends to be rather prone to panic under the stress of modern life. I hadn't actually realised I had used names to signal character in quite such an obvious way until writing it down just now.

 In a way I find it rather sad that names have become so much less traditional and more subject to fashionable trends, and in another way it's probably a good sign that is symbolic of changing times and of people not wanting to weigh their children down with expectations that they will take after long-dead relatives.
Incidentally, I still miss the American secret agent who appeared in some of my earlier books, Pearson MacPherson. His name always made me smile, and indeed the fictional character was a bit of an idiot.


Umberto Tosi said...

I don't know which is more difficult or fraught with consequences - naming a child, or naming a character. Either way, names can be destiny, as you explain. When my daughters were born, we didn't want to, as you say, burden them with ancestral names, so - being modern parents of the late 20th century, we consulted baby-naming books. (Now it would be Internet naming sites.) We picked some lovely names that my children seemed content with, although sometimes I wonder if we didn't lose richness and connection by opting to be so "enlightened."

Griselda Heppel said...

Goodness, this opens a whole Pandora’s box (actually, that’s not a bad name). What if you can’t bear any of the family names you’re expected to give your children? At least by following tradition, you avoid grandparental criticism of the names you do choose. Now, here’s an interesting phenomenon: every generation, tired of the names they associate with their parents and grandparents, reaches back to names popular in their ,great-grandparents’ day, which are now rare because, yes, their own parents were tired of them. So the inevitable happens: your own parents will carp at the names you choose for your children because while they to you they are delightfully retro, to your parents they are boring. I absolutely love the instances of Hannah, Phoebe, Harriet, Lily, Agnes, Horatio, Hector and Archibald among my children’s friends, while my parents took time to get used to all their great-aunts and great-uncles reappearing in tiny form. Now Cora, Marjorie, Mabel, Mavis and Edgar are emerging as this current generation starts their families, and I find myself in a mist of my own grandmothers and great-aunts, all elderly, shrunken ladies in long shapeless dresses and perhaps a fox fur round their necks. But I’m getting used to it and rejoicing (ooh yes, we’ll have Joyce and Joy back soon too) in the new life - literally - breathed into names I thought had gone for ever.

Which leaves the question of how to name your characters in books - yes, your younger characters with their sparky names do sound more youthful, switched on and modern. Funny to think that in a couple of generations, people may think of them as their aged grandparents, and Harriet as the whizzy one...