In a creative writing class I read out a story I had written about a young man on his paper round who was asked by one of his customers if he would give her a hand to do some decorating in her house. She asked him because she needed a hand with her decorating and she thought he might appreciate a bit of pocket money, and he accepted her offer for entirely different reasons. The story then became about them working out their different, though not necessarily contradictory, understanding of the situation. It depended upon a frisson of excitement to exist in the gap between why the offer was made and why it was accepted, and for this to be effective it was necessary for the reader to believe the woman was sexually attractive to the boy, even if he did not yet realise this. I called her Thelma.
When I read the story out the other students in the class were pretty unanimous in agreeing that I had given her the wrong name. Although they were not able to say exactly why, what they meant was that names are more than merely labels and that choosing names for characters is an important part of the writer’s art. There is a sense in which I agreed with them; in the world inhabited by creative writing students boys do not have girlfriends or sexual fantasies called Thelma, they have aunts called Thelma. Names matter.
Clearly, William Shakespeare never attended a creative writing class because in Romeo and Juliet he had Juliet tell us that, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” by which she meant to suggest that names do not matter. It is not what she is called that matters but what sort of person she is. But Shakespeare only suggested this possibility, he did not say it was so, he merely asked us to consider it.
I had called the woman in my story Thelma because it was very slightly autobiographical. I never had a paper round and none of my neighbours ever invited me to help them with their decorating, but when I was at an age when I could have had a paper round there was a woman whose invitation to help her with the decorating would have been most welcome. Of the two things I knew about her one of them was that her name was Thelma. To me, the name has connotations, it has a history of being provocative, mysterious and exciting. When I say Thelma it does not thud like a telephone directory dropped from a great height, it floats, and tingles on my lips imprinting in the creases the unwritten history of our first kiss. So it would seem that Shakespeare was right, or at least that he was on to something, that maybe names do matter, sometimes.
I was thinking about this recently whilst writing an essay on part of my family history. During the nineteenth century there was a tradition that families would name their children after specific ancestors. The first boy was named after his father and the first girl was named after her mother, and so on. I’m not suggesting that all families did this, or that families did it all the time, but there are lots of examples of families where every generation has its Charles, or William or Henry and where daughters are named after their prematurely dead sisters.
That naming tradition was brought to a level of previously undreamed of perfection in the family of my ancestor, John Killingray (1781). He had six children, four of whom were boys. The second son was named John (1815) after his father, but two of the others were called William (1811) and Henry (1819). William had a son called Henry (1839) who in turn had a son called William (1871). The original William (1811) also had a son William (1843) who had a son Henry (1869) and a son William (1868) and this latest William also had a son William (1899). That’s five William’s in just four generations.
My father was christened Charles William, but he was known all his life as Bill. Even my mother called him Bill, until they divorced that is, after which he was always referred to by her as, “your father,” as though she’d had nothing to do with it. I have a cousin who was christened Zoe, but she changed her name by deed poll and is now known by a single name, Walker, her father’s surname. These people obviously thought names mattered, that it was important to be called one thing and not another, and when I left the military I gladly left behind the nickname I had acquired and reclaimed my birth name, because it mattered to me.
There is, though, another naming tradition, that sees people being given names that don’t appear anywhere else in the family tree. I am an example of this tradition, being the only Martin in sixteen generations of my family, and my brother and both of my sisters are also unique in our family in the same way, even though their names are as perfectly normal as mine. We have in our history a lady called Zilla Horn, named, in 1856, after a character from the bible. We have just one Donald, one Victor and one Lillian to complement the reams and reams of William, Henry, Charles and John.
The first naming tradition, the one in which children are named after their forebears, has one particular and rather poignant significance. Life expectancy for infants was not high until fairly recently and one of the reasons why families tended to have lots of children was because many of them died tragically young. I have an ancestor John Umfreville (1870) who was the elder brother of John Umfreville (1863-69), for example. I have an ancestor called Samuel Umfreville who married, in 1848, a woman called Elizabeth and her mother was called Celia. The marriage of Samuel and Elizabeth lasted forty eight years and only death in old age would part them, but none of their three children, all girls, survived to their first birthday. The first child was christened Elizabeth in 1850. After she died they had Elizabeth Celia in 1853 and a third girl Celia Elizabeth was born and died in 1854. After seeing this pattern repeated time and again in family after family it becomes difficult to see those pairs of names as anything other than a tune playing down the years; not the insistent march of time signalling a confident progress into an unseen but hopeful future but a lament, played softly on a muffled drum, that quietly reminds us that at the end we are all just stardust, and to the stars we will inevitably return.