Jane Austen’s Characters—What’s in a Name?
Every time I read Pride and Prejudice and come upon the name Mr. Wickham, I think of the word “wicked.” And then I think, how perfectly appropriate! Makes you wonder, did Jane intentionally select this name for such a dastardly character, or was it a fortunate accident, the result of chance?
World literature is full of authors and works, especially early novels of satire, and “morality plays,” where the names of the characters strongly reflect their personalities, and good characters bear positive sounding names, while the villains are usually stuck with evil or cruel sounding ones. But with the newer works—more modern and sophisticated literature, when the novel form really started to come into its own such as with Austen—if there is any leftover tendency to continue this practice, it would seem it is much more subtle. Or is it?
And so, what’s in a name? Better to say, what’s in a Jane Austen character’s name?
While Wickham’s name actually derives from Old English words “settlement” and “dairy farm,” it is much more fun to think of the connotations by sound, which are “wicked,” “wicker” (rickety, wood) “wick” (candle wick, fire), which suggests a wicked, unreliable, fiery hot man!
I decided to take a look at a variety of Austen character surnames and see how evocative they are, how much they reflect the personalities they portray, and also take a peek at some very basic etymologies behind the names. Don’t worry, I am not going to get into this too deeply, otherwise this blog post will turn into a wordasaurus monster. (As you can imagine, there is potentially enough material here for a linguistics doctoral thesis.)
Let’s start with the Bennet family. Bennet recalls the Latin root word “bene” or good, well, such as “benediction” or “benefit.” No surprise there, since we are supposed to think quite well of the Bennet family, despite some of the overall silliness of the younger girls and the mother.
What about everyone’s favorite romantic regency hero, Mr. Darcy? Here we go, and get ready for an initial giggle:
Darcy—a physics and geology term referring to a unit of permeability (named after a French hydraulic engineer Henri-Philibert-Gaspard Darcy, 1803-1858). Permeability? Can you say “wet shirtsleeves?” Hmmm! I knew you could! Okay, digging deeper, and in French, we get d’Arcy which means someone from Arcy or Orsai in France. Further yet, there’s the Latin first name Orcius, or in Gaelic it possibly means “a descendant of the dark one.” Obviously Darcy is a very long-standing name of many famous historical personages with variations bearing French, Norman, Gaelic or Latin roots. In short, we can say that the name evokes a great and prestigious pedigree for our own beloved Mr. Darcy!
Now let’s take a look at some other names, and I am going to go with my first impressions here, gut reactions to the words. If you want to dig deeper, there’s a fun etymological resource on the web, called Surname Database (surnamedb.com)—feel free to explore!
Willoughby—Anglo-Saxon “willow” tree and Old Norse “settlement.” Willow conjures something slender and elegant, and also flexible and bendable, which may also indicate Willoughby’s tendency not to be steady but to bend whichever way the wind blows—in this case, the wind of fortune and opportunity. Hence, a gentleman both romantically intriguing and yet not particularly steady, as Marianne discovered in Sense and Sensibility.
Bingley—is a very specific place reference to Bingley, which is a town in Yorkshire, UK. Nothing particularly exotic, but rather a snappy buoyant sound comes to mind, and a rather snappy (in a good way) gentleman. Bing!
Collins—I am thinking, a collie! Yes, Mr. Collins can be a real dog and a puppy in his fawning behavior towards people in authority such as Lady Catherine. The funny thing is, one of the many etymological definitions in Irish is a “young hound.” The other is the classic name Nicholas.
Dashwood—someone from Ashwood in Staffordshire, UK. But it immediately makes us think dashing (dash) and yet steady (wood). It’s a generally positive connotation for Elinor and Marianne, and surprisingly happens to have a great duality for both sisters in a single word, where one embodies high romance and emotion, the other loyal good sense.
Smith—Steady and commonplace, ordinary as Harriet herself in Emma.
Norris—Anglo-Norman-French roots, variously meaning “north,” “north house,” and “nurse.” To me, the first part that comes to mind is “no,” and Mr. Norris certainly says no a whole lot to Fanny in Mansfield Park.
Crawford—Derives from Anglo-Saxon “crow’s ford.” Sounds definitely like a crow or raven, and very much like Mr. Henry and Mary, both siblings being dark and somewhat scary and elegant.
Brandon—A “brand,” makes you think of intensity and solid permanence, just like the loyal Colonel who has certainly taken a brand upon his heart, and it is Marianne-shaped, forever and ever. Some of the roots of this name refer to “swords” and “sword-smiths,” but I also prefer to think of how a brand is a trademark of quality.
Knightley—Seriously, how awesomely obvious is this? Mr. Knightley is the perfect knight and gentleman, with or without his shining armor, and he serves as the wonderful better half for Emma and nobly comes to the rescue of poor Harriet at the ball, not to mention all the other knightly noble things he does for other people.
Ferrars—no etymological sources that I can find, but it sounds to me like “farrier” or better, “fair” and that last one works very well to describe Edward Ferrars, the shy, quiet, and diffident love interest of Elinor Dashwood.
Price—Fanny has no price indeed, she is such a sterling character. And also, her immeasurable worth is ultimately recognized by so many people around her, by the end of the novel. What a greatly evocative name!
Bertram—a Germanic combination of “bright” and “famous” and “raven” as in Odin’s bird. A positive strong name, and with noble connotations, fitting both to Edmund and his noble father Sir Thomas.
Woodhouse—Emma’s name is cozy and pleasant, yet reminiscent of something slightly quaint and with a bit of stodginess to it (just like old Mr. Woodhouse her father).
Tilney—can refer to “tilling” the ground, or the village Tiln in Nottinghamshire. But it sounds like “tilting at wind mills” to me, a quixotic name, and appropriate for such an unconventional, unpredictable, and droll hero as Henry in Northanger Abbey.
Morland—Anglo-Saxon primarily referring to “moor” and “land,” to me sounds like “more” and “land” conjures a honest and positive image, without many pretensions, and yet with a respectable weightiness to it. Quite appropriate for representing Catherine’s ordinary but happy family.
Wentworth—Goes back to Danish Vikings and could be “winter,” “wood” or “farm.” Sounds to me like he “went” away, and yet there is “worth” in him. How weirdly appropriate is that for the excellent Captain in Persuasion? It’s perfect!
Elliot—Old English roots going back to “noble,” “battle,” and “goat.” The name is so old that it represents a long-standing noble family tradition, and with Anne’s father, Mr. Elliot, it certainly makes sense.
Vernon—With Norman roots referring to “place of alder trees” and another Latin root for veritas or truth—how much truth are we going to get out of Lady Susan Vernon? Food for thought!
Overall, from this brief exploration, it seems to me that possibly Jane Austen knew very well she was selecting names to reflect the inner worlds of her characters—as any author does—and in some cases it was overt and even in-your-face. But in many others, it was far more subtle, and possibly unconscious, except as a remote nod to a personality, stemming from a kind of authorial sixth sense that allows all of us to pick just the right kind of name for our characters.
What do you think?