Once again, a publication that hides most of its material behind a paywall has kindly left accessible to one and all an article I want to share: in this case, Colin Burrow’s LRB review of Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature, by Alastair Fowler. Here’s the start:
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.
And here’s a bit on Jane Austen:
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.
How can you resist a reviewer who finds a way to work “knightly Knightley ‘Knightley’” into a review? The book sounds like an enjoyable (if dense) read itself, with the proviso that Fowler is one of those innumerate people easily led astray by coincidences, a folly which Burrow spends the last half of the review exploding—the particular species of folly in this case being an over-ready acceptance of the idea of hidden anagrams (compare Saussure’s similar succumbing to wacky ideas): “Fowler […] 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.” I should add that my title is borrowed from Burrow: “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’.”