This story starts, as do so many, in the vast swamplands of my ignorance.
That is to say, there was a time when I knew considerably less than I do now about Regency naming conventions, and in that state of limited knowledge, I decided to name my book’s hero Christopher.
Fine, time-honored English name, right? Christopher Wren, right? Christopher Marlowe? Christopher Plummer, Christopher Lee, Christopher Robin?
Now, maybe somewhere in the back of my brain I did note that I couldn’t recall ever encountering a Christopher in Jane Austen… or in any Regency romance I’d read… but I’d come across at least one in Dickens, and that was pretty close (especially if you overlooked the fact that the character was one of Dickens’s saintly poor kids as opposed to the overprivileged baronet-in-waiting I was writing), and the name sounded so nice (tremendously pleasing distribution of plosive, fricative, and sibilant-fricative consonants, for those who take an interest in those things), and really, what were the odds it would ever find its way to publication anyway?
So I back-burnered the issue of name accuracy, and wrote. And by the time the thing was finished, and the idea of publication was beginning to seem a little more plausible (it had placed first in a contest and netted some agent requests), I was mighty attached to that name.
I knew by now it was an unlikely name for a baronet to have given his firstborn son in the year 1788, but surely it wasn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility… was it?
To find out, I went to the Baronets listing of ThePeerage.com. I figured if I could just find one real-life Regency-era baronet named Christopher, I’d take it as a green light.
And a little way into the B section of the alphabetically ordered listings, I found one! I was in the clear, right?
Well, not really. Because the baronetcy was created for this guy, perhaps in recognition of his distinguished military service. For all we know he was born in the merchant or working class, where naming requirements weren’t nearly so strict. In short, he wasn’t the proof I’d been looking for… and a search through the rest of the baronet listings failed to turn up any more Christophers. I mean not one.
And still I didn’t change my hero’s name. I’d spent more months than I care to admit with this manuscript, and this character, and dammit, his name was Christopher. That was who he was. He simply wouldn’t answer to George, or James, or anything else on that short list of names that late-Georgian-era gentry gave to their sons.
So Christopher he remained through submission to my eventual agent, through submission to publishing houses, through sale and website and editorial revisions.
I rationalized, privately: Surely if the name were so wrong, someone at my agency or publisher would have mentioned it by now… Does it really matter that much? – Lots of the best-selling historical romances aren’t all that accurate… And it would be boring if we all named our heroes Edward and Henry and William.
But here’s the thing. I am a writer who is going to make mistakes. I try to be scrupulous in my research and fact-checking, but there’s no getting around the fact that I come from an English-major background as opposed to having a degree in history or a lifelong passion for the world of Georgette Heyer. For all my efforts, almost certainly I will get some things wrong.
Did I really want to get this rather substantial thing wrong, on purpose, in my first published book?
By the time A Lady Awakened went into copy edits this past spring, I’d been away from the characters long enough that to change a name didn’t feel entirely unthinkable anymore. So back I went to the Big List o’Baronets, and there among the Johns and Arthurs I found…
Theophilus! Now here was a name I could work with. I could picture my hero’s father saddling him with something so grandiose, I could picture my hero growing up slightly mortified by it, and I could have him be “Theo” for short.
The word even had a lot of the same pleasing phonetic qualities as “Christopher.” It fit with the description I’d already written for the first time the heroine ventures to pronounce his given name:
The name floated out like milkweed-fluff blown from her palm, wayward and ephemeral.
So I bit the bullet and authorized a great big search-and-replace.
And, vowing not to go through this again, took care to name my next hero Will.
(The historically persnickety among us might wish to take issue with my heroine’s name as well, but this one I’m sticking by. Jane Austen herself had a friend named Martha, so we know it’s a plausible name for a respectable, if not aristocratic, lady of the era. And since my heroine’s father was a sober-minded, Bible-studying man not terribly concerned with what names were fashionable, I think it works.)
Writers: Do you struggle with these details? How do you deal with the very short list of viable names for Regency-era gentry and aristocracy? Readers: Does it make a difference to you? Or are names something you’ll overlook as long as the characters grab you?