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Naming British Characters And Places In Historical Novels, by Judith Cutler

When you write a contemporary novel you can at least equip yourself with a list of the most popular children’s names, and you can call characters your age after your friends – subject to certain obvious constraints.  Not being a historian, naming characters in novels or short stories set in the past has had me scratching my head.

For Anglo-Saxon and Norman names, I’d check the Domesday Book, which includes the fabulous name, Humphrey Aurei Testiculi – a name my husband had great fun with in The Ravens of Blackwater. Roger God-save-the-Ladies pops up in the Domesday Book too…

For more recent names, the first place to look would be parish registers, or you could have a quick trip round an old churchyard.  It seems to me that the Bible is most influential. Some Biblical characters seem to have been particular favourites.  Matthew and John seem to predominate over Luke and Mark, in my limited experience.  Forget poor Andrew and a whole lot of other saints, in the Georgian and Regency periods.  You might turn to the Old Testament: Jedediah is a cracking name, isn’t it?  I’ve written a couple of short stories featuring a parish constable called Jedediah Voke, but it doesn’t really hold a candle to Obadiah Slope, who creeps around Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles.

Dickens invented the most wonderful names too.  I fancy few of us would take the risks he took, with a character’s name indicating all too clearly what we might expect of him. Uriah Heep, for instance, simply couldn’t be a nice chap who bowled decent off breaks.

Clym Yeobright simply has to be a simple, malleable countryman. My own near namesake Jude (of the actual namesake perhaps the less said the better, though I did take a different view of her in a short story for an anthology of Biblical and other religious crimes) was always going to have problems, since St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes – and is actually the saint to whom my Tobias Campion’s parish church is dedicated.

Choosing names for places requires care, amazing as it sounds.  Recently I wanted to use the name of Kinver, a small town in Staffordshire, for the family name of a couple of fictitious aristocrats.  But then I found it was actually called Kinfare at the time, which wouldn’t have fitted in with the pattern of names derived from unpromising Black Country locations I was having fun with at the time.  When I was inventing a village in Kent for the characters in my current contemporary series to live, I was brought up short by my dear friend Amy Myers, the author of the terrific Marsh and Daughter mysteries and much more, because the name I’d chosen didn’t fit the part of Kent I’d selected.  Great Hogben does, thank goodness.

What I should have done is indulge one of my favourite traffic jam games.  While my husband sits and drums his fingers in frustration, I simply let my eyes wander at leisure over the Ordnance Survey map I usually have handy.  Why not try it?  I guarantee you won’t have to travel many miles before you find a name, such as Gibbet Tree to inspire you.


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One Comment Post a comment
  1. The other problem with Anglo Saxon names is they didn’t have access to Baby Name Books and had a limited sock to call upon. Probably fine in scanty populated villages, but a real headache for novelists when several historical characters have the same name! Harold/Harald and Edith for example. I had three main characters called Edith In my novel Harold the King (titled I Sm The Chosen King in the US) in the end I changed the spelling: Edith, Edyth and Alditha. I can’t help thinking I wish Anglo Saxon parents had had more imagination though! LOL

    October 21, 2013

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