Thursday, June 28, 2012

Oh, What's in a (Victorian) Name?

(Victorian authors Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning enjoyed popular Victorian names and influenced name popularity with some of their characters.)
Stemming from my recent stint of Victorian history related posts, I have been doing some research on said era and have run across dozens of stories, hundreds of facts, and thousands of names that have caught my fancy.  Names have always fascinated me.  They tell one so much about a character or a person and are able to evoke memories and judgments as easily as a Proustian madeleine.  Shakespeare’s Juliet famously posits, “that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.”  I’m not entirely convinced that this is true.  I may put a lot of stock in names but I do not believe Romeo and Juliet would be the characters we know and understand today had their names been Joe and Rhonda.  In literary characters and even historical figures, names are essential components of personality and significance.
While I could really begin to wax philosophical (I’ll spare you), I just needed a segue into a post about historical celebrity baby names and popular Victorian era and Turn of the Century America and Britain.  Some of these names have endured but I am quite pleased to say that some have not.  You can be the judge on most but let me simply say that I am happy most royals were traditionalists and pleased that authors have traditionally been unafraid to use their imaginations when it comes to naming their characters. 

(Charles Dickens, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Samuel Clemens a.k.a. Mark Twain)
Victorian Americans and Englishman took names, like everything else, quite seriously.  While they were influenced by religion and moral virtue, they also valued art and innovation above almost anything else.  So while many names during that era were and are thought of as traditional (John, Thomas, Anne, Elizabeth, etc.), they were heavily influenced by artists and from cultures and the classical era with which they were so obsessed.  Though many names certainly reflect the religious zeal and traditionalism of the time, many also seem to reflect the ornate nature that was so evident in the fashion, architecture and decoration of the Victorian lifestyle. Victorians were fancy.  Fancy people named their children fancy names.  They enjoyed creating nicknames and using them as proper first names (Carrie, Ellie, Sally, Allie, Nelly, Ollie, the list goes on).  Here is a list of some of the more creative, innovative and "fancy" names from a list of the top 200 baby names of the 1890s:  

Boys                           Girls
1. Raymond                1. Lillian
2. Eugene                    2. Gertrude
3. Frederick                 3. Agnes
4. Edwin                     4. Hattie
5. Leonard                  5. Maude
6. Theodore                6. Blanche
7. Everett                    7. Beatrice
8. Victor                     8. Olive
9. Julius                      9. Daisy
10. Warren                10. Inez

(Victoria and Albert with five of their celebrity babies)
The Original Celebrity Baby Names 
As we all know, celebrity baby names these days range from the realm of adorable and meaningful to hysterical and downright ridiculous.  While names come and go, some names hold their place at the top of baby name lists for decades, even centuries.  Popularity is based on so many factors: traditionalism, religious meaning, family usage, and the whims of trend and chance.  One cannot deny, however, that usage in the celebrity realm certainly helps a name's popularity to endure.  Once a name is tied to a well-known person or character, its chances of surviving increase exponentially.   We have the Beckhams for inspiration now, but a little over a century ago, celebrities were artists, authors, and for the most part, the reigning royal family (one thing America was definitely lacking in its historical development, might I add).  People were inspired by royals and often copied their names and the names of their children.  This was an especially popular practice in Great Britain and France in the 1800s.  

Queen Victoria had nine children and stuck to an extremely Victorian formula for their names (including the requisite recycling of the parents' names for two of them).  She and Albert had Victoria, Albert Edward, Alice, Alfred, Helena, Louise, Arthur, Leopold and Beatrice.  She seemed to get a bit more creative as she ran out of traditional family names to use.  I personally enjoy Leopold and Beatrice.  

(Alexandrine Victoria would eventually become Queen Victoria. A strategic choice for a royal was choosing the correct name under which to rule.)

Interesting Fact: Queen Victoria was actually born Alexandrine Victoria but decided to be known simply as Victoria when she ascended to the throne (a slightly better outcome than having to refer to the Alexandrinian era; though undoubtedly a lovely name).  

Royals weren't the only ones to create lasting personas and popularize names.  Authors not only used names common to the Victorian time period, they created characters that allowed their names to endure.  Lewis Carroll's Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for example, as well as Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray and Earnest.

Then, despite the terrible terrible book, you have to admit that Emily Bronte's Catherine and Heathcliff are pretty unforgettable names; as are Huckleberry Finn and Hello Central.  Royals might have been traditional and authors might have played it safe sometimes, but their creativity inspired generations of names.  
(Modern Victorian babies Stella, Hattie, Liam, Marion, and Tabitha)
According to several modern sources - including The Telegraph - Victorian names are coming back into style.  Victorian names have even hit the celebrity realm, making their comeback official.  Courtney Cox might have Coco and Gwyneth Paltrow might have Apple, but Tori Spelling has baby Hattie, Sarah Jessica Parker has Marion Loretta and Tabitha, and Lily Allen just recently welcomed Ethel Mary.  Even outside the realm of celebrities, according to the Social Security Administration's annual lists of top baby names, names that were enjoying popularity one hundred to one hundred and fifty years ago are catching another glimpse of the limelight.  Met an Eleanor, Maude, Lucy, Alice, or Florence lately?  How about an Alfred, Earnest, Oscar, or Fred?  The top 10 men's names of the 1880s do not differ much from many on the same list today, but there is a definite shift toward the turn of the century when it comes to female names. 

While the trend more recently represents a shift in preference toward "old-fashioned" names, the Victorians were influenced by more than a a desire for chic nostalgia.  Religious values and moral virtue were a huge part of Victorian era family life and society, making Biblical names along with names such as Prudence, Faith, Temperance, etc. equally as popular for the devout and morally conscious Victorian family.  Mary was the number one name on all of the baby name lists for decades.  Only  recently (post 1950's) did it begin its gradual decline.  Religious devotion undoubtedly has little to do with the upswing of the usage of Biblical names in recent years (at least in the United States and Britain); however, their resurgence has everything to do with the  fact that the Victorian era is gaining popularity as a historical time period that is envied and emulated.  

Here is a list of popular names from the 1880s and 1890s which are making the same cut today (these were all top 100 then and now):

Boys                           Girls
1. Samuel                    1. Lily
2. Benjamin                 2. Ellie
3. David                      3. Faith
4. Jacob                       4. Hattie
5. William                   5. Madeline
6. Alexander               6. Stella
7. Jack                        7. Abigail
8. Oliver                     8. Sophia
9. Charles                   9. Lucy
10. Isaac                   10. Charlotte

(Sisters and authors Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe wore their Victorian names well as did the enduring characters they created in their books.)
For more interesting Victorian names, check out THIS list which allows you to search the top 1000 names by decade!  Bored?  Here's a fun activity: peruse your Victoria heart out and then pick your (either favorite or most absurd) Victorian name as well as your Victorian children's names.   

My Victorian Name: Alice Cora (I kept my first and middle initial the same)
My Victorian Children:  Frederick Luther and Lucile Cornelia  

1 comment:

  1. Joe and Rhonda! HA!

    I, too, have a bit of a thing for names, as in, I've already got my future brood named.

    I simply LOVE the name Madeline, and I've always had a bit of a thing for Stella too!