Shakespeare’s Juliet uses this argument to persuade herself that Romeo’s surname does not matter: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
But, cries the author of historical romance, would my character be as believable if she was called Tracy instead of, say, Tamasine?
Well, no. “Tracy”, my Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names informs me, is a recent import from the US. It was apparently a short form or nickname for Teresa, which was much in use in the 18th century when the common nickname was Tess. In modern times, this is usually Tessa. Teresa goes back to the 5th century as Therasia and was originally Spanish, and was carried across the continents when a St Teresa became famous. Fascinating stuff.
Tamasine (or Tamsin), by the way, is a Cornwall version of Thomasine, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. As Tamasine, she has turned up as a character in the Lady Fan novel I’m currently working on.
It’s not simply the fact that a name was not in use in the period, but they sound wrong too. Just as an old-fashioned name can sound weird on a modern heroine. Personally, I can’t start a story until I’ve got the names sorted out. I’ve only once had to change a name because my editor didn’t feel the short version was appropriate. I kept the full name and changed the nickname.
Finding the right name is one of the fun parts of writing for me. I love trawling my dictionary. And I’ve culled names in lists in my notebooks - which are there for notes of ideas I have about potential plots. If I’m looking for a name, I tend to browse my name books and make up these lists. I wanted a jewel name once, which got me: Jade, Sapphire, Amber - I think I used Opal in the end, but that wasn’t historical.
I’ve got lists of unusual names: Amphelisia, Faramond, Hypatia, Alured, Salathiel - all actual names. Some are names I simply love, like Ozanne, Pertesia or Gide.
Then French names: Olimpe, Matheu, Violette, Antoine. Italian: Isolina, Ruggero, Zuccari, Lodolini - all these I copied from tombstones in a graveyard in Florence.
I also have a list of names for country people and servants: Gartrett, Audrey, Muriel, Roger, Samuel and the ordinary Dick.
The Oxford Dictionary is specific about which class of person used the name at what period in history. Fashionable names tended to get picked up by the working classes, at which point they were promptly dropped by the gentry. Even names came in for their share of snobbery.
I love playing with names. In Seventh Heaven, the gag is that the parents of ten children couldn’t be bothered to think of names for them, so called them by Latin numbers - Septimus being the seventh child of the title. In An Angel’s Touch, Verity and all her siblings have names of the virtues, but the single brother is called Henry, a source of extreme annoyance to Verity until it turns out to be the hero’s name too.
Often I find I like a nickname, and so I can give the heroine a less pleasant name just to get the contraction. Friday, for example, for Frideswid in Friday Dreaming.
In A Lady in Name, the hero’s mother is an eccentric who is obsessed with the Middle Ages and has saddled her children with Stefanus and Dionisia (Stefan and Dion to the reader). Our heroine, Lucy, has to quickly find an acceptable explanation for her full name, Lucinda, so that she can satisfy her hostess’s fastidiousness about names.
The culture of names is endlessly fascinating, no matter which language or country one is looking at. No wonder prospective parents find it so difficult to choose. I feel fortunate to be a novelist, and to have the joy of picking just the right names every time I create a new set of characters for the latest book.
Sorry, Shakespeare, but a heroine by any other name is simply not as sweet.