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 Henry James: He cared intensely about the names of his characters

Where do writers of fiction get the names of their characters from? In his new book Alastair Fowler has delved into this fascinating question with great exuberance, taking us through English literature from the 16th century up to modern times.

The theme of the first part of his book might be described as "It's names that beget names." The names used by writers of stories and poems in the early Renaissance are mostly taken from classical literature, especially Theocritus and Virgil. Characters called Corydon regularly moped over their unsuccessful love affairs in romantic tales, while in his poems the lovelorn clergyman-poet Robert Herrick used the name Julia — the wife of Jupiter's priest — for many of his mistresses. He also borrowed some of the borrowed names that other poets had given their mistresses.

However, Puritans were by now giving moral names such as Temperance to their children in the hope that their children would live up to them, and these soon filtered into literature, as in the morality plays — and later, often with a touch of irony, into Ben Jonson's plays.

Do names in fact influence their owners in any way? Fowler pops out of literature into real life here, as he often does, to give one extraordinary example of that happening. Apparently "American dental rolls show a significant correlation between men called Dennis and men becoming dentists."

The culmination of this part of his book is his chapter on Spenser's Faerie Queene. Spenser uses more than 1,000 names in his epic, taking them now from many sources, including real life and history as well as myth and romance. Fowler loves tracing these sources, and sometimes a deafening roar of names rises from one of his pages, almost as if the Olympic Games audience had all stood up and shouted their names. (It would be as rich a mixture.) But he also urges source hunters to be careful.  One should not, for example, too readily assume that a name is taken purely from history. There was a living Sir Julius Caesar (1538-1636) who was Queen Elizabeth's physician.

In the chapter on Shakespeare, we get more attention for the first time to names invented by authors of fiction not for their obvious allusions, but because they sound right in some more obscure way. We are moving now towards the realm of modern fiction. Fowler praises many such names in Shakespeare, and tries occasionally to suggest precisely why they are apt. Osric, the foolish courtier in Hamlet, he thinks, might hint at "ostrich", because the ostrich shows off its wings but cannot fly — right for "an aristocrat given to idle display".

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