I’m struggling with naming conventions at the moment – both the conventions of the late 18th / early 19th century when the characters in my book were alive, and the conventions I should use myself as a historian writing about them now.
The main character in my book is Walter Stevenson Davidson, whom I’ve discussed before (see tag). Walter was named after his mother’s brother, Walter (later Sir Walter) Farquhar, who was his godfather. Sir Walter’s wife Anne had the maiden name of Stevenson, so I’m assuming she was WSD’s godmother. I’ve come across this convention before, where godmothers’ godsons are given the woman’s surname as a middle name. So for instance Sir Walter’s daughter Eliza Farquhar was godmother to her cousin’s son, who was named George Farquhar Leslie.
Anne was a widow when she married Walter Farquhar in 1771, with 2 children, John and Elizabeth Harvie. John died young, but Elizabeth grew up and married Simon Halliday in 1787. As Elizabeth Halliday she features regularly in family correspondence and her husband went into partnership with one of Sir Walter’s sons. They were clearly well integrated into the Farquhar network.
So here’s the puzzle: Anne Farquhar went on to have 7 more children with her second husband, 3 boys and 4 girls, and the youngest girl, born in 1783, was named Eliza. I know that families used to recycle particular names, often reusing the baptismal name of a dead baby to ensure that a name survived if it had particular significance. And every genealogist knows, to their frustration, that a small set of first names are repeated endlessly within the family circle. But surely have 2 living daughters named Elizabeth and Eliza would be a touch confusing?
My friend Jenny Harrison, who is an expert on family history, tells me that families did often use confusing (to us) combinations of names within the family – perhaps a John and a Jack, say, or a Margaret and a Peggy. This doesn’t seem satisfactory here though, because Eliza and Elizabeth are so clearly versions of the same name. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is called Elizabeth (Darcy), Miss Eliza (sneeringly, by Miss Bingley) and Lizzie (by the family). It’s very odd.
Jenny tells me that there was a particular convention at work in choosing family names, from generation to generation. When the rule worked perfectly (and of course it rarely did), the eldest son was named for the father’s father, the second son for the mother’s father, the third son for the father. For girls, the priority could be for the first daughter to take her maternal grandmother’s name, the second her father’s mother’s name, and so on.
In Walter Farquhar’s family this naming practice works only partially. The eldest daughter was named for his mother Catherine, but his eldest son was named Thomas Harvie Farquhar after Anne’s father and her first husband (unless, of course, the Harvie comes from a godmother somewhere whom I haven’t yet located). The second son, Robert, was named after Walter’s father; the third was called Walter.
The other side of this problem comes in the writing: how do you differentiate between generations of people, all with the same name? WSD was always referred to in his own time as Walter Stevenson Davidson (or W S Davidson) to distinguish him from his cousin Walter Davidson of Calcutta, but referring to him by all 3 names becomes a bit heavy going after a while. That’s why I use the abbreviation WSD for my own convenience, though I’d be wary of doing so in a formal paper. Amongst his business associates, who knew both men, he was referred to as ‘China’ Davidson to distinguish him from ‘Calcutta’ Davidson.
There’s another naming convention that I struggle with. Do I refer to characters by their first name, or surname, or ring the changes somehow? And do I treat men and women in the same way? This is a troubling issue for any feminist historian, made more complicated because our naming conventions are at odds with those of the past.
In WSD’s day, people called men by their surname alone, even – perhaps especially – within the family circle. Darcy is Darcy to his aunt and his cousin, and we wouldn’t even know what his first name was if not for his signature on that letter. Women, on the other hand, were called by their first name within the family – Jane, Lizzie – or more formally with a title – Mrs Bennet. Neither is satisfactory in a serious historical work, and using the surname alone indicates class (Hill is a servant). Nor will many people these days pick up the nuances of ‘Miss Bennet’ (Jane, the eldest) and ‘Miss Eliza’ (a lower mortal altogether in the complex family hierarchy that determined who sat closest to the fire, or walked into dinner first).
Which brings me back to the curse of too many Elizabeths. At the moment I’m writing about society in early New South Wales through the eye of a small group of middle aged women: Elizabeth Macarthur, Elizabeth Marsden, Elizabeth Paterson…. Are you beginning to pick up a pattern here? Around the time these women were born in the 1770s, Elizabeth was clearly a very popular name. Governors Bligh, Macquarie and Darling also had wives called Elizabeth.
So thank goodness for diminutives. I know John Macarthur called his wife Elizabeth, whereas Samuel Marsden and William Bligh called theirs Betsy / Betsey. Governor Darling’s wife was Eliza, as was Elizabeth Macarthur’s goddaughter Eliza Kingdon, who was possibly named after her. John and Elizabeth Macarthur’s granddaughter was Bessie, while a grandniece, daughter of Hannibal Macarthur, was known as Libby. Stay tuned for Beth, Betty and Lisa.