Last year I wrote this post on the importance of names in fiction. Seven days ago my husband and I named our second daughter: Somerset Wilder Macgregor, so I thought it would be nice to republish the post.
The name Somerset Wilder is a coming together of many things we love: a beautiful place in our beloved England and an echo of two writers who bind us as a couple. Both W. Somerset Maugham and Thornton Wilder wrote prose fiction and drama – the two genres in which Hugh and I work. Indeed, Wilder is the only writer ever to have won the pulitzer for both a play and a novel. We also love the connotations of Somerset: summer dwellers and the end of the beauty that comes from the summer coming to an end.
Last Tuesday, on the 4th of April, my dear friends, Helen Dahlke, a writer and librarian, was working in the English department of the school where I used to teach. She was organising a shelf of plays and found Tennessee Williams next to Thornton Wilder. At the same time, an ocean away, I was in hospital giving birth to my second little girl. Tennessee and Somerset were just meant to be.
First published on the 31st of March 2016
‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’ argued Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. My husband and I worship at the altar of the great bard and yet, on this point, I disagree. First, because I believe that names do influence our perception: I’m quite certain that I wouldn’t have the same relationship to a rose were it called Norma or dungheap or toad.
And secondly, because I believe that names do matter – in all kinds of ways.
The sound of a name matters: whether its vowels are long or its consonants short and jagged.
The way a name fits with another matters: its surname or how it sits alongside the name of a friend or a lover. I’m currently reading Eleanor & Park and there’s something glorious about how these names work together. The same is true of Romeo and Juliet, Oscar and Lucinda and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The origins and connotations and associations (personal, literary, mythological, cultural), of a name – matter too.
Above all, I believe that names matter to my characters, to my stories and to my readers. And they matter to my real life too: why else would I have given my little girl a name like Tennessee Skye?
Here are some reasons why…
The state of Tennessee and the state of Virginia are pressed up right next to each other, so there’s reason enough: we were meant to be together.
Next, Hugh, as a dramatist, and me, as a writer and English teacher, love the works of Tennessee Williams (who, by the way, gave himself the name Tennessee – he was originally a Thomas).
And finally, the name came out one of those glorious, spiralling conversations that Hugh and I had when we were falling in love. The type of conversation that lasts until three in the morning and makes you feel like you’re about to change the world – or your world, at least. Beautiful, tangential conversations that you never quite have again.
At the time, I was living and working in a boarding house of close to 70 teenage girls. And so, quite naturally, we imagined that, one day, we would have 10 daughters (crazy, crazy idea, but we were young and naive and childless..). Anyway, we soon realised that we’d be stumped when it came to finding ten girls names we liked – and names that didn’t have associations with pupils we’d taught: between us, we have taught thousands of children.
We love America and so we came up with an ingenious idea: we’d give each of our 10 daughters the name of a state: our twins would be called North and South Dakota, another girl would be called Carolina, another Maine…And then we came to Tennessee – for a girl. And we liked it. Its originality, its soft sibilant sounds, its associations with the musical heart of America. And, in the following years, still childless, we found ourselves referring to the little girl we would have one day called Tennessee. We were mischievous. We went on holiday and wrote notes in guest books: Tennessee loved running along the beach with us…Tennessee’s had fun playing in the maze…
We imagined her into our lives before she was even conceived.
And then, when I fell pregnant and we spent months trying to find a more conventional name, we kept coming back to our little Tennessee. And it had to be Skye too, of course, for its Scottish associations and because Hugh always talks about the sky and because I love the name – and because it’s a cool name she can fall back on if she doesn’t love Tennessee quite as much as her parents do!
As a small and wonderful aside, when Tennessee was a few weeks old, some of our students did a 24h concert to raise money for their singer-songwriter tour of Tennessee. Hugh stayed up all night supporting them, a little Tennessee Skye, only a few weeks old, balanced on his knee. These wonderful pupils improvised a song for her called ‘Tennessee Skies‘, which they went on to record in Nashville in one of the oldest recording studios in the world.
When we give someone a name, we imbue them with an identity, a spirit – and we establish a relationship to them. As writers, we create those relationships for our characters and our readers.
The literary term for giving a character a name, which echoes a particular idea or theme, is called ‘onomastic imagery.’ Some writers have taken this to extremes. Think of Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak or Angel Clare or Charles Dickens’s Gradgrind. Other writers have been more subtle. The naming of the two women from opposing social classes in The Great Gatsby are called Myrtle and Daisy. Sometimes, the name doesn’t need to have obvious symbolic associations: as I mentioned above, its sound might be enough to trigger an emotion in the reader or its associations to other names – or to something in the story itself.
In What Milo Saw, I chose the name Milo for my main character, for all kinds of reasons: it’s short but original, its somehow loveable, it’s also quite neutral, socially speaking, it also has a lovely ‘O’ in it which mirrors the pinhole through which Milo sees. And it works beautifully, on an alliterative level, with his surname, Moon – which also mirrors the appearance of his damaged retina. It also echoes the title of Henry James’s book, What Maisie Knew, which is also an adult book with a child narrator, in which that child confronts a darker side to adult life. And, on a much simpler level, I just like the name Milo.
In The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells, there’s a very obvious association: my Norah, with an ‘h’, is a reincarnation of Henrik Ibsen’s Nora from A Doll’s House. There are also quite a few names associated with jazz as that’s a motif which runs through the book – and because Norah is a jazz trumpeter. So the dog is called Louis, after Louis Armstrong and one of the daughters is called Ella, after Ella Fitzgerald. And the father, Adam, is named after the first man, the ‘everyman’, the guy who struggles to grow up to be a dad and to take responsibility and to hold it all together. Who falls for the wrong woman (or what she offers) and then tries to redeem himself. And then there’s little Willa, who embodies all the strength and stubbornness and courage which that name suggests.
All this is to say that I believe that names are a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to enrich our characters and our narratives, as well as the relationship the characters have to each other and to the layers of the stories they inhabit.
On a more trivial level, the fun of giving my characters names, is one of the perks of my job as a writer! I may only have the chance to name one or two children of my own (and a few cats and goats and pigs) – but I can dream up names for whole casts of fictional characters.
As an afterword, I wanted to share a gorgeous, gorgeous story with you. In tune with my love of names, Hugh and I decided to have a naming ceremony for Tennessee (rather than a baptism or a blessing). Our hope was to celebrate the name we’d given her and what it meant to us – and how, at a year and a half, she was already inhabiting all those vowels and consonants.
One of Tennessee’s best friends is a glorious little girl called Willow Wells (yes, one of my inspirations for Willa and for the surname of my family in The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells). Her mother, Rae, a deeply kind and creative soul, wrote a story about the two girls, using their names as an inspiration. Here’s the story…enjoy – and get out hankie!