Wednesday, October 2, 2013

'Downton Abbey' names

A recent post on Facebook suggested you could invent your ‘Downton Abbey’ name by combining your grandmother’s (or grandfather’s, if you’re male!) name with the name of your first school.
In my case, that led to Lucy Andrews or Catalina Andrews. Bet you’re now trying to work out your names, so do tell!
What proved fascinating with this exercise was how people stereotyped names as being ‘upstairs’ or ‘downstairs’ in Victorian/Edwardian times e.g. Lucy Andrews – downstairs; Catalina Andrews (or, even more accurately, Catalina St. Andrews) – upstairs. One friend did the same with hers: Edna Laurence (down) and Frances St. Laurence (up), and another friend had Ellen Joseph (down) or Amelia Joseph (up).
This perception of names is interesting, and makes me wonder why we define some names as being upper class and others as working class. My great-grandfather had 11 brothers and sisters, born between 1841 and 1865. All their names are ‘standard’ Victorian names – John, James, Robert, William, Henry, Richard, and Mary, Sarah, Hannah, Jane, Margaret, Alice. This was a family of cotton mill workers, but of course you can find these same names among the middle and upper class too.
After all, what defines Violet Crawley or Edith Crawley as upper class (which they are in Downton), and Charles Carson and Thomas Barrow as servant class? In fact, both sets of names could apply equally to upper or lower class. But, with the examples I cited above, Lucy, Edna and Ellen were confined to downstairs, and Catalina, Frances and Amelia to upstairs.
Having said all that, and quite apart from perceived class differences, do we stereotype our character names depending on where they live, or even their occupations? Are some names inevitably linked with e.g. Irish or Scots characters, like Patrick or Angus? Do we have a lawyer called Bronco, or a cowboy called Ronald? Do we have a model called Mabel, or a cleaning lady called Araminta? Probably not, but of course it’s possible.
Some people trawl through baby naming sites, looking for names that reflect their characters. I’ve never done that, simply because parents do not know their child’s character (or later occupation) when they choose a name for their baby. If I’m stuck for a name, I look at the popular names in the decade when a character was born and wait for a name to jump out at me, regardless of its meaning.
But maybe one day I’ll turn convention on its head, and my lower class hero will be called Clarence St. George and my upper class heroine Bessie Bloggs. I challenge you to think of some more examples!



  1. Very interesting, Paula! Yes, we do classify our authors by their names. I wanted a wealthy man in Heart of a Hero--contemporary, and I came up with Matthew Carrington III. And it popped in my head.
    Last names to three syllables often sound upper-class to me.
    In my wip Texas Dreamer, my hero is Lee King. My heroine--Emilie McDougal? Which came from a well-to-do family?
    I loved all you examples.
    So, my name would be:
    Sarah Bowie--doesn't exactly sound musical, does it? Very plain. And probably not wealthy. And that's how I am.

  2. Interesting point about three syllable surnames, Celia! We don't use the I, II or III after surnames here but that immediately suggests 'upper' class or at least well-to-do family.
    My guess is that Emilie is from the well-to-do family, am I right?
    Sarah Bowie could be either. Any relation to Jim Bowie? Or David?

  3. I am one who uses baby name sites for names, simply because I'm not creating a name for a baby whose future is unknown. I'm creating a name for a specific character with traits I want illustrated in a variety of ways. And I completely agree that some names sound more regal than others.

  4. Roberta was my grandma's name.
    Maurice was my granddad. His friends called him Morrie.
    I never knew my father's parents.

    I come up with names that I think will project an image of the character. Stormy Hawkins is one of my heroines.
    Does this make you think western? And she's feisty?

    Angel Foster is an orphan who time travels after a near death experience.

    Ammi Folkright is my newest heroine. She's an herbalist and ammi is a flower genus. Folkright hopefully implies that she is from good, honest stock--even though her folk-singing mother disappeared when she was one and her father is incarcerated in a prison hospital for her mom's murder.

    Great post, Paula!

  5. Jen, didn't realise you used namea to illustrate your characters' traits. However, although you aren't naming a baby, your character was named as a baby by its parents! Therefore I stand by my premise that we have to look at the characters' backgrounds. Would an 'old-fashioned' family call their child Trixabelle or would 'hippy' parents call their child John or Michael?

  6. I'd be Marie St. Paul or Eleanor St. Paul.

    Although I have no idea if those make me uptown or downtown.


  7. Interesting names, Ana. This might sound weird, but my main characters have a habit of naming themselves! One example was Jack in Fragrance of Violets. I called him Jack originally because I couldn't decide what to call him, so this was just a name to use 'temporarily', but then he 'became' Jack, and after that I couldn't change it to anything else! Sometimes I ponder over secondary characters' names but, more often than not, I give them the first name that comes into my head!

  8. Debra, somehow as soon as a surname becomes 'St.' something, it becomes upper class! So you're in good company with your surname :-)

  9. I don't know the name of my first school. I was in Germany and school was on the army base. Roberta Frankfurt. Maurice Frankfurt.
    This makes me think of hot dogs.

  10. You make a good point, Paula. I tend to pick names that fit my characters' psychological profiles, while making sure they fit other traits as well--nationality, time period, etc.

  11. Very interesting post, Paula - I love choosing names but have to get them 'right' before I can carry on writing. Sometimes, I'm too impatient and end up having similar names in different stories!