I, Lowborn Cur

Colin Burrow

  • Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature by Alastair Fowler
    Oxford, 283 pp, £19.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 959222 7

Colin Burrow on literary naming.

James Bond was a well-known ornithologist. His Birds of the West Indies is an unusually rich source of names. According to Bond, the Sooty Tern is also known as the Egg Bird; Booby; Bubí; Hurricane Bird; Gaviota Oscura; Gaviota Monja; Oiseau Fou; Touaou. But when the keen birdwatcher Ian Fleming needed a name that sounded as ordinary as possible, he had to look no further than the title page of Bond’s great work. Why does the name of an actual ornithologist sound so right as the name of a fictional spy? Why couldn’t Fleming have used another pair of common monosyllables – John Clark, say? Bond is a solid, blue-chip, faith-giving kind of a name. Who wouldn’t prefer a government Bond under their mattress (we’re talking AAA British) to a petty clerk? Is your word your clerk? I don’t think so. Bond. It’s in the name.

More than most literary phenomena, names in fiction seem very straightforward until you start to think about them. The simple question, ‘why does a name sound right?’ leads to a whole range of questions. Are there rules about how names are given to characters? Do naming practices differ in different periods? Are they specific to particular genres? Do different authors use names in entirely different ways? There are also anxieties to address: is discussion of names in fiction snagged in a feedback loop, in which we think James Bond is such a good name for a spy because that’s what we know it to be? The answer to all these questions is probably yes, which means that however fascinating literary names are as a subject it’s extremely hard to write a book about them. If there are general principles to literary naming, and yet everybody does it differently, then it may turn out to be a practice as mysterious as language use and as idiosyncratic as aesthetic appreciation: there may well be underlying principles, but variations may be so extensive that instance and rule are always pulling against each other. One of the many things Alastair Fowler shows in the course of this fantastically learned and occasionally perverse book is that to think about literary names you have to think about more or less the whole literary system; and when you do so, individual instances of literary names rarely turn out to exemplify general tendencies.

For some realist writers the best names are invisible. Henry James was a great fretter over names, as you might expect from someone who had the same names as his father, both of which could be interchangeably a surname or a first name. He wanted his characters’ names to have a tang of truth but not too much overt significance. The name Moyra Grabham he thought had ‘a little too much meaning’ to be used in The Ivory Tower. Even James had his Archers and his Goodwoods early in his career, though, and listed ‘Remnant’ and ‘Masterman’ in his notebooks as potentially useful names when he found them in the Times. Jane Austen favoured names which give almost nothing away about status or nature (Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse), but she could in some circumstances use names which suggest meaning: the wild Marianne Dashwood is an early example of a flighty heroine lost in a moral forest, and Mr Knightley, well, he’s not going to be a cad, is he? The fact that Austen called the knightly Knightley ‘Knightley’ suggests the way the choice of a name can follow from the particular nature of a specific work, and may also feed back into a larger literary design. The point of the one-off over-explicit name is that Knightley’s knightliness is utterly obvious to the reader every time his name is mentioned, but it passes Emma by. That was a strong enough reason for Austen to break one of her unwritten rules about naming.

Some fictional names are filled with semantic clues about the nature of their owners: you know that someone called Gradgrind will not be an advocate of child-centred learning, and that Luke Skywalker will not stay long on Tatooine. A character called Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt is likely to be able to offer a girl a big house, though ‘Mallinger’ suggests it will come at a price. But there are still mysteries. Even ‘invisible’ non-significative fictional names can ‘seem right’. Quite how they do so is as mysterious as the reason why in any given year several thousand parents will simultaneously become convinced that their daughter ‘looks like’ a Joanna or a Niamh. P.G. Wodehouse apparently took the name Jeeves from a Warwickshire cricketer. Did the name sound right for a valet simply because it rhymes with ‘sleeves’? Wodehouse became rich by sounding ultra-British to an American readership. Perhaps ‘Jeeves’ so well suits the ultimate English gentleman’s gentleman because his name coolly eschews early 20th-century US slang: ‘Jeeves’ is definitely not ‘Jeeze’ or ‘Gee’, but contains hints of both. Or is this just fantasy? What are the rules when it comes to names?

‘Rules’ is probably the wrong word. There are some loose generic principles which influence the choice of literary names, and which most readers of fiction will have grasped whether or not they are aware of having done so. Aristotle claimed that characters in comedy tend to have ordinary names, and this seems to have been largely true of the New Comedy of Menander. But comic dramatists also often seem to have been attracted to what Anne Barton has called Cratylic names – those which appear to endorse the view of Plato’s Cratylus that there is an intrinsic relationship between name and nature. Aristophanes has Dicaeopolis (‘just city’) and Lysistrata (‘disbander of armies’). Plautus has a braggart soldier called Pyrgopolynices, whose name suggests either ‘conqueror of many fortresses’ or ‘many burning conflicts’, but either way is audibly over the top. Anticipatory nominative determinism – where a name tells us what someone is likely to do – is probably more common in plots with comic outcomes than in other types of fiction, and comic names tend to be rich in semi-relevant associations. Bertie Wooster, audibly something of a waster, has a first name which associates him with the womanising Edward VII, but with that surname, a cockerel with a weak r, a Wooster trying to be a Rooster, he could never hope to be a hit with the ladies. As for his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle (whose name suggests Wodehouse learned a trick or two from Evelyn Waugh, for whom double-barrelled names tend to be for dimbos): no one with a name quite so obviously heedless could enjoy more than a walk-on part even in a 20th-century comedy. The more delicately named Jane Eyre is both the invisible element we breathe and (finally) heir to the whopping fortune which enables her story to end as a comedy of sorts.

But, as Fowler showed so well in his earlier work, literary genres tend to be rule-bound only in the way that language is rule-bound. Theorists might insist that some names are distinctively pastoral (Tityrus, Meliboeus, Corin), but the conventions are in general tolerant of intelligent transgression. Indeed ‘literary’ effects, as against genre-following diligence, are often the result of an author’s appreciating the existence of a convention and playing with it. So in comedies a name does not have to show a fate or a characteristic. The name Philip Pirrip, known as Pip, sounds like the cry of a bird: a pirr is both a name for and the cry of a tern, which Pip might well meet in the Kent marshes, along with the odd ‘melancholy gull’. As Fowler notes, pips can grow big and move upwards too. The opaque cheeriness of the name augments the mystery of the great expectations promised by the novel’s title and feeds the unfolding mystery of its plot: the pip grows, but it all comes back to the landscape of terns and gulls, to Pip’s encounter with Magwitch on the marshes. Tom Jones, on the other hand, gives its hero the least interpretable name you could imagine. This hero sounds not just ordinary but so ordinary he must eventually become as significant as his guardian, the over-aptly named Allworthy. Giving a character a completely flat name in a comedy can have the effect of delivering a joke in a deadpan voice: it creates a calm before the punchline.

Comic novels can also hybridise names in ways that deliberately obscure their narrative purpose. The vintage example is Tristram Shandy, who acquires his first name because a maid can’t get the word ‘Trismegistus’ out, and a curate, all set for the baptism, thinks she must mean ‘Tristram’ (his own name), for which Shandy senior ‘had the most unconquerable aversion … thinking it could possibly produce nothing in rerum natura, but what was extremely mean and pitiful’. So Tristram acquires a knightly name, a form of Tristan, by accident. It’s no accident, though, that the name he was supposed to have, Trismegistus, is a name for Hermes, the god of interpretation, who is in Plato’s Cratylus associated with Hermogenes, who believes that names are given arbitrarily. By surname he is ‘Shandy’ or ‘wild, half-crazy’ (the lemonade and beer mixture was the invention of a later age). The combination pulls a reader all over the place, as does Tristram Shandy, which is a wild transformation of knight errantry into verbal and narrative digression.

Fiction never quite presents anything as simple as an absolutely straight Cratylic name, which instantly manifests a character and a nature in a word. In a narrative or a drama there is necessarily some delay between the revelation of a name and the manifestation of a character’s nature. Even in allegories – which it’s tempting to regard as grounded in a simple conflation of name and nature – a personification often appears, acts and is described before he or she is given an appropriate name. The same tendency to make names part of a drama of recognition can also be apparent in narrative fiction. Gradgrind gives us his aria on Fact before he reveals his name, and even this arch literary empiricist curiously insists that his first name, Thomas (rather than his surname), is the real sign that he is a person of no nonsense: ‘You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind – no, sir!’

In tragedy the significance of names tends to bleed out belatedly, as part of a larger process of recognition enacted by both the audience and the characters in the fiction: Oedipus means ‘swell-foot’, but the sense ‘know-foot’ hidden in his name becomes painfully audible towards the end of his story. Ajax hears the resemblance between his name and ‘aiai’, a cry of agony, in Sophocles’ tragedy about his death. The meaning ‘misfortune’ in the name Desdemona (dusdaimonía) is not remarked on by any character in Othello, but is a horrible accident waiting to happen, while Othello himself, perhaps haunted by the ‘demon’ hidden within his wife’s name, comes to regard her as a devil. Ophelia’s name derives from the Greek for ‘help’, of which she gets little, though again that irony is left as a silent suggestion. This belated or fleeting recognition of the appropriateness of names by no means has to happen in tragedy: it’s a potential element in the generative grammar of tragedies. It is certainly possible to write a tragedy about a character with a completely transparent or apparently Cratylic name, as Arthur Miller did with Willy Loman. Here the ‘wrongness’ of the name for its literary kind is a way of marking the adversarial relationship between Death of a Salesman and tragedy as traditionally practised and conceived. The name insists that Loman’s death is as much a tragedy as a tale about the fall of princes.

Names in parodies and mockeries tend instantly to sound wrong, and the more heavy-handed the satire the more loudly significant the names tend to be. Fielding’s Shamela makes Richardson’s Pamela a sham. The name Austin Powers suggests that his prototype James Bond is really just a crappy English car fitted with a turbocharger, while his enemy Dr Evil is, well, too silly even to discuss. The spoof fairy-tale romance The Princess Bride has a heroine who defies convention by being called Buttercup and not being a cow. It also has a character called the Dread Pirate Roberts, which is not just deliberately wrong (we all know pirates have names that suggest facial hair or booty) but wrong in being hereditary, like ‘caesar’. We discover that previous Dread Pirate Robertses have included a man originally called Ryan, who inherited the name from someone called Cummerbund (it’s nice that the dynasty stretches back only as far as a slightly out of date item of clothing). The Rape of the Lock, a more delicate exercise in literary pastiche, has names that flitter rather than crash through literary boundaries. Pope gives his sylphs Spenserian names (Zephyretta, Momentilla, Crispissa) which, like that of the heroine Belinda, seem to have wandered into epic from pastoral romance, where women with Italianate names which have diminutive or gerundive endings are a speciality.

The practices of literary name-giving are also dependent on the kinds of information available to different writers in different periods. When a relatively small but influential part of the population knew Greek it was possible to give names with thinly veiled significance, such as Philanax (‘dear or friendly king’) and Euarchus (‘good ruler’), to characters in an Arcadian romance, as Sir Philip Sidney did. Or, like Edmund Spenser, whom Fowler sees as the great originator of English characteronyms, you might mingle popular pastoral names such as Colin in among the Red Cross Knights of allegorical narrative and the Belphoebes born of royal panegyric. You could import from Arcadia a frenzied Pyrochles and bring in the odd Italianate name (Duessa) for a whorish sorceress, as well as cautiously admitting a touch of the Irish (Sir Ferraugh, and perhaps even the holy Una, whose name may try to bring the Irish Oonagh into the unity of the English Church). Spenser belonged, as Shakespeare did, to the period in which William Camden was at work providing etymologies for many names, and that is part of the reason he was so alive to the resources and buried senses of nomenclature. Writers in the 19th and 20th centuries could scour newspapers (and in Dickens’s case council education lists too) for names to mine for fictional use. This technique, along with so many other conventions of realist fiction, Joyce mischievously transformed when in Ulysses he composed a spoof list of names invited to the marriage of the grand high chief ranger of the Irish National Foresters, which includes ‘Mrs Barbara Lovebirch, Mrs Poll Ash, Mrs Holly Hazeleyes’ and other arborial frolics.

As it lists and explores literary names, riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, this rich book seems itself sometimes choked by the riches it reveals. It tells you about the names of slaves, about pseudonyms (Thackeray wrote as Charles Yellowplush, Ikey Solomons, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Bashi-Bazouk, Folkestone Canterbury, George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Dr Solomon Pacigico and Launcelot Wagstaffe), about Homeric catalogues, about allegory, about Milton and Spenser and Shakespeare and Joyce and Nabokov. Some pages are so drily compressed that the jacket of a second edition perhaps might warn its readers to dilute it before reading.

I part company with Fowler when he gets on to anagrams and hidden names, perhaps because the best anagram of my own name is ‘I, lowborn cur’. Anagrams have long been a part of panegyric poetry: in the Caroline period more than one writer made use of the fact that Charles Iames Stuart is an anagram of ‘Claimes Arthur’s Seat’. Joshua Sylvester addressed James Stuart through the anagram ‘A Just Master’. The later and less complimentary political anagrams cited by Fowler are great: Shirley Williams is ‘I aimlessly whirl’, while Tony Blair MP decodes as ‘I’m Tory plan B’. There are more recent possibilities he doesn’t explore: Nicholas Clegg’s name suggests he could shift up a gear (‘I’ll change cogs’) or just slow things down (‘chain clogs leg’). Samantha Cameron should be warned that ‘David Cameron’ is an anagram of ‘adman divorce’, and we should all be wary of a politician whose name contains ‘random advice’. A really good anagram gives a similar sort of aesthetic pleasure to a perfectly appropriate fictional name. It seems like magic: a person’s nature has all along been hidden in their name, which becomes retrospectively a prophecy of their character and behaviour. But anagrammatists do of course find in a name only what they want to discover. Those who have been lashed by that notoriously severe critic and reviewer, Alastair David Shaw Fowler, may be amused to discover that his name is a perfect anagram of ‘Has a flaw: vitriol’s awarded’. (Fowler does not list that one.)

Fowler is convinced that poetry written before the Enlightenment is rich in various forms of ‘silent language’: numerological principles which determine how names are arrayed in lists, or cryptograms which might run through poems written before the regularisation of spelling and the rise of rationalism spoiled the party. Poets and patrons in the 16th century could take delight in visible acrostics and plays on patrons’ names, as Sir John Davies’s ‘Hymns of Astraea’, which inscribe ‘ELISABETHA REGINA’ in the first letters of each of their lines, exhaustingly show. The point of such acrostics was that they were readily noticeable displays of artifice which poets might hope their patrons would see and reward. But did Renaissance poets also create less visible anagrams? Fowler believes so, and cites with approbation an article by Roy Winnick (‘now I cry ink’) which he says ‘startled the scholarly world’ by revealing anagrams which spell out the name WRIOTHESLEY buried throughout Shakespeare’s Sonnets. We are told ‘Thy louers withering, as thy sweet selfe grow’st’ contains all the letters of ‘Wriothesley’ twice over, and that this ‘remarkable fact’ is very unlikely to be a result of chance. For Fowler this suggests not only the identity of the young man, but that Shakespeare was our greatest anagrammatist as well as our greatest poet.

I can reveal in these pages for the first time a more remarkable truth: that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were addressed not to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, but to a hitherto unknown young man. His name was Alastair Fowler. The name ‘Alastare’ (or ‘Alaster’, the more usual 16th-century form) is written in black and white in the first two lines of the most famous poem in the sequence:

ShALl I compare thee to A Summers day?
Thou art more louely And more tempeRatE:

The young man, though ‘fouler’ by name, is ‘more louely’ by nature. The key identifying word, ‘foul’ itself, we might notice, does not occur at all in the sequence until the poems to the dark mistress, when young Alastair reveals his fouler side. But here too the anagrammatic genius of Shakespeare – or ‘hearse speak’ as we cryptographers, who believe he speaks from the tomb, prefer to call him – veritably sings out the name of Alastair, first this time in its modern spelling and then again in the form ‘Alastare’:

In the ould Age bLacke wAS noT counted fAIRe,
Or if it weare it bore not beauties name:
But now is blacke beauties successiue heire,
And Beautie sLAnderd with a baSTARrd shamE,
For since each hand hath put on Natures power,
Fairing the FOULE with ARts faulse borrow’d face.

The reference to ‘beauties name’ is of course the sign that the beloved’s name is buried anagrammatically within this sonnet. Generations of inattentive scholars have failed to notice that the letters A, L, A, S, T, A, I and R all appear in the line which talks of ‘Fairing the foule’. In the very same line the constituent letters of ‘Fouler’ or ‘Fowler’ occur twice over too. This remarkable fact could not be the result of accident. Shakespeare was clearly obsessed by Fowler, whose perfect anagram ‘flower’ blooms no fewer than 13 times in his sonnets. The addressee of the sequence is ‘beauty’s rose’, whose essence should be distilled in order to produce generations of sweet Fowlers from beauty’s single, fairest, Al-encompassing flower. So there you have it: the riddle of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is finally solved.

The problem with the hermetic view of the Renaissance, of which Fowler has been the leading magus for many years, is that it invites us to believe that 16th and 17th-century literature followed utterly alien conventions. But once the all-learned hermeneut is brought in to crack the literary code, the obscure text is reduced to a single and simple truth: all the minor characters in The Faerie Queene are identifiable individuals; most characters in satires and epigrams are also real people; the young man in Shakespeare’s Sonnets is beyond all doubt Henry Wriothesley.

Shakespeare certainly liked what we call wordplay, and took both it and names seriously. But taking something ‘seriously’ in fiction can mean regarding it as a way of creating character and drama rather than believing it to be the best way secretly to encode the truth about who your patron or your lover might be. When poor old Malvolio is taunted with a letter that says ‘M, O, A, I, doth sway my life’ and believes it means him, Shakespeare is making a joke about cryptograms and anagrams and the wishful thinking that sees names in strings of letters. Much of the music of Twelfth Night emerges from its not quite anagrammatical names (Malvolio, Olivia, Viola; Illyria, Elysium) from which the rude corporeality of the names Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek are pointedly excluded. The fluidity of names anagrammatically reassembled was without doubt a powerful theatrical resource for Shakespeare, and names could suggest and feed his plots. The asymmetrical pair of Edgar and Edmund suggest likeness and opposition: more of the world (‘mundus’) can be heard in Edmund, and Camden records the sense of the name Edgar as ‘happy or blessed honour’. The trio of Goneril, Regan and Cordelia (which Shakespeare inherited rather than invented) suggest the outlines of a story, since only one of the sisters has in her name a heart, a cor. Shakespeare’s comic names again tend to tell rather clearer stories than their tragic counterparts: a Dogberry is a little dogged but probably quite sweet if you pluck and eat it, Mistress Overdone speaks for herself, as does Mistress Quickly, while Sir John Falstaff has an impotent droop (as well as false stuff) which cannot equal the proud Shaking of a Spear implied in the name of his creator. A Caliban is a cannibal who has elementary problems with literacy, but who, were he aware of Greek, might hear beauty (kalos) within his name. A cannibal who can’t quite manage to be a cannibal is a more likeable thing than a cannibal who can, and even when drunk poor Caliban can’t make a cannibalagram of his name: ‘’Ban, ’Ban, Cacaliban’, he sings, transforming the beauty of his name (kalos-ban) into ugliness (kakos-ban) once a libation has filled his middle (Caliban). He never realises that a cannibal ‘can’ rebel, and, remarkably, never utters the word ‘can’ at all, although the powerful Prospero uses it ten times. There is in all these names, and the shimmer of sounds which surrounds them, much brilliance and beauty, but there is no sign that Shakespeare wrote fictions in which names of real people were anagrammatically concealed like Easter eggs.

This is not surprising. Ben Jonson, who didn’t always practise what he preached, denounces logogriphs, palindromes and anagrams. George Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie describes anagrams or ‘poesie transposed’ as a pleasure fit for ladies, and presents his efforts to make prophecies out of the name of ‘Elissabet Anglorum Regina’ as trifles that made him smile. Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry (which has no time for cryptograms) positions fiction between the generality of philosophy and the specificity of historical example. This means that what Sidney calls ‘poesy’ (which was what fiction was called in the Elizabethan period) does more than refer under veiled names to specific individuals. It presents individuals who are representative of wider classes, who have proper names but who can function analogously to common nouns in encompassing a range of individual instances which might share a family resemblance. Philisides in Sidney’s Arcadia is not just Sir Philip Sidney, nor is Astrophil, the lover of Stella (‘a star, an aster’), in Astrophil and Stella. He is a name for a kind of lover that includes aspects of Sidney without being exclusively Sidney. There was no radical break, no moment of Enlightenment rupture in which the cryptic Renaissance was killed off. It never existed. The ability to encompass a general type within a specific instance is, and more or less always has been, the foundation of fiction, and that combination of the specific and the typical is often also a feature of fictional names.

But if Fowler is sometimes lured from the path of sense by his own profound learning, this book is nonetheless something of a marvel. It shows why names in literature matter, and how they participate in some of the most delightful and tantalising qualities of literature itself. They appear to be part of a system which has conventions over which all players of the game have some sort of grasp. But there are so many conventions and associations at work in literary naming (genre, social decorum, historical position, semantics, etymology) that even someone who could successfully use those conventions would not be able fully to articulate them in the form of precepts. Naming is a practice connected to so many different pieces of knowledge and belief, indeed, that each individual performance of the practice might appear to be sui generis. But when we meet a name that just seems right for its person, its genre, its time and the work in which it appears, a peculiar magic happens that is related to aesthetic pleasure: the instance both modifies and validates the invisible conventions that we didn’t know we knew.