Is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose? There seems little to distinguish Rose Maylie (who sweetly tends Oliver Twist in 1837) from Rosa Budd (the sweet childhood fiancé of Edwin Drood in 1870) or from Rose Maybud (the sweetly satirical heroine of Ruddigore in 1887). But from a literary point of view, would these Roses be as sentimentally one-dimensional by any other name?

Alastair Fowler made his name as a particularly learned Miltonist in 1968. Now officially eminent, he has written a physically slight book on many aspects of how names function in literary works that should prove differently enticing to both scholarly and common readers who have their own mental name-hoards. The book has already inspired, for instance, a glittering riff of a review by Colin Burrow in the London Review of Books.

Some chapters take up individual authors—Shakespeare, Milton, Thackeray, Dickens, James, Joyce, Nabokov; others include less categorizable topics—arrays of names, such as the Catalogue of Ships; the arcane rules of renaissance rebuses, acrostics, and anagrams; assumed and imposed names in literary hoaxes.

To get our thinking started, Fowler uses two technical terms taken from a Socratic dialogue: “Hermogenes argues that names are arbitrarily assigned; Cratylus thinks them natural and meaningful.” In fiction, John Doe attempts to signify as little as possible (perhaps too ostentatiously so) versus Sir Fopling Flutter, hardly “natural” in the sense of “likely to be found in real life” but clearly chosen to convey a specific meaning. But the valences of fictional names, whether ordinary or striking, depend on their surrounding name-world. Let’s say I try to contrast the Hermogenean neutral-sounding Tom Jones with the Cratylically freighted Mr. Knightley. In Henry Fielding’s novel, we don’t have to work very hard to guess what we’re supposed to think of Squire Allworthy and the schoolmaster Mr. Thwackum—and Tom’s pursuit of love ends in the possession of Sophia (nudge nudge, wink wink). Within this Cratylic context, however, I might be led to wonder if I ought to give more thought to plain old Tom Jones. And it is precisely because Jane Austen usually chose Hermogenean names like Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates with an eye to “ordinary plausibility” that Mr. Knightley’s name functions as a manicule to his larger significance.

Fowler begins his study proper with a chapter on the history of “real names” before moving on to the history of literary names, particularly as character names became correlated by genre: Hector and Ajax can’t tend pastoral sheep, Colin and Corydon can’t wield swords. Moral naming is particularly marked in satires or allegories. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata means “loosening the army”—she was, literally, demobilizing. Christian’s journey through Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) introduces him to Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Pliable, Timorous, Obstinate, Wanton, Lord Hate-Good of Vanity Fair, and the giants, Despair and his wife Diffidence. (The clergyman Charles Kingsley’s 1862 Water Babies might be almost the last gasp of this tradition in the characters of the two fairies Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby and her sister Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.) Now that we’ve lost our taste for allegory, satire carries most of the burden for moral naming. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–48) gives us his acute social climber Becky Sharp and the corrupt aristocrat Lord Steyn (pronounced “stain”). In Decline and Fall (1928), Waugh’s Lady Circumference “rather wanders from the point;” her son, little Lord Tangent, is accidentally grazed in the foot by a bullet from a starting gun and his death is barely mentioned. Martin Amis has taken up this mantle: Money (1984) presents the antihero John Self, the restaurant owner Krud, and the porn star, no longer young, named Caduta (“sagging”).

Fowler credits Edmund Spenser with breaking the bonds of generic naming. In The Faerie Queene (1590/1596), Spenser brilliantly blended and coined names. Consider the various sources behind Adonis, Archimago, Arthur, Britomart, Errour, Florimell, Gloriana, Hecate, Matilda, Night, Numa, Perissa, and Red Cross. Fowler senses “a drive towards synthesis . . . towards a single fiction, comprehensive and diverse, like the world itself.” Spenser’s reflections of the world are still worlds away from the mirror that the novel held up. Sir Walter Scott, when he was looking to name a hero in 1814, wanted “an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter be pleased to affix to it.” He chose Waverley (a name his readers later chose for the train station in Edinburgh, perhaps the only station named after a fictional character).

Despite Fowler’s allusion to both the historical Casaubon and the literary character named after him, he has not attempted to write a Key to All Onomastics. His book is suggestive rather than encyclopedic. Perhaps it for this reason that even his occasional mistakes—Fowler misremembers Dickens’s Esther Summerson as Summers (illegitimate Esther inhabits the wintry-named Bleak House, after all); he misspells Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe who should be the yet more brusquely pointed Sharp; the author of Miss Lonelyhearts is not the British bank Nat West but the American Nathanael West—can also point to new directions to think in. Unusually for a scholar of such deep erudition, Fowler appears to have either the modesty or common sense to follow Frank Kermode’s precept: “Names can have power, but not always.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 9, on page 78
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