From time to time, you and I have paused to notice the arbitrary way in which first names are distributed among authors. Some – AS Byatt, PG Wodehouse (whose penetrating observation provides this week’s title) – are pared down to initials, while others exhibit discontent with a single first name and supply us with a super-abundance. Apart from schadenfreude, what do we gain from such sharing or lose by the reticence of the initials-only brigade?
In Wodehouse’s case, you can sort of see why he might have chosen a degree of obfuscation over his given names. Life can be tough, but I imagine it can be particularly so if you have to make your way through it armed only with the names Pelham Grenville. Whatever his parent were thinking as they cooed at the shawl-wrapped little bundle, it clearly did not include calling ‘Pel-ham!!!’ across the playground. The fact that they quickly took to calling him Plum suggests a hint of second-thoughtism. Perhaps, secure in the steadfast bastions of being called Eleanor and Henry, they had hoped for a little bit of dash when they named their son. Learn from this, gentle reader: should you ever be in the position of lumbering someone with a name for life, think it through. Try it aloud. Write down the initials and look at them long and thoughtfully. Remember that your tiny infant has your genes and is likely to resemble an All-England fullback, in size if not in talent, and reconsider naming her Petal.
The name ‘Antonia’ passes all these tests, and it is likely, therefore, that Antonia Byatt chose to use her initials in order to avoid the lazy categorisation by critics and readers as a female writer (I’m trying to remember who it was I heard the other day refer to a ‘poetess’ so that I can recapture the irritation bordering on fully-fledged fury that I savoured too briefly at the time). In her case, it was the necessity to decide on a surname by which she and her books would be known until the end of time that proved a bit dodgy: Mrs Byatt when she began publishing, but not, as things have turned out, for much of her writing life. Unless you are Victoria Coren Mitchell or a rather over-tattooed and much-married ‘television personality’ (I’m not sure that I know what that means but it is the description used all over the internet so it must be true), becoming known by a completely different surname half-way through your career can be quite tricky. Which brings us to one of my pet hates: the insistence of editors, anthologisers, teachers and readers on re-branding the eminent Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yes, I know she married Robert Browning, and yes, I know she published her subsequent work as Mrs Browning, but to
annex her previous work is an act of subjugation that I can’t help but think that she, a ruthlessly intelligent woman who achieved a marriage of true minds and great creative equality, would have loathed. Never mind: read her most famous poem, the sonnet ‘How do I love thee’ and hear her sparkling energy. To do this you will have to read it aloud for yourself, letting the passion, the intellectual dexterity and the sheer competitiveness shine through. Forget the way you have so often heard it read aloud by people who should know better but persist in using The Poetry Voice. You know – the ‘I have had my spine surgically removed and am now investing every word I say with an awful faint melancholy’ voice which is the curse that haunts great poetry.
How about middle names? Will they enhance my standing as an author, making me sound distinguished and, well, writerly? No, would be my short answer. My slightly longer answer is that middle names have tended to be foisted on the writer rather than freely advertised by him or her. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, for example. Fabulous playwright, terrific politician, in many ways a joy to have in your social circle. Did any of his friends, his colleagues or his public find it impossible to call him to mind unless you added the all-important ‘Brinsley’? And, come to that, why just Brinsley, when he was also blessed with ‘Butler’ in his list of given names? No, I strongly suspect that he introduced himself as Richard Sheridan and that it was as Richard Sheridan that he was known. ‘Brinsley’ is in itself not too ghastly – although you cannot really imagine anyone, with the possible exception of the Wodehouses, plumping on it as an ideal name for a new baby (although it would be a very good dog-name) – thus bucking the tendency of the middle names of writers to be pretty grim. The prize for Writer Saddled With The Worst Middle Name goes unhesitatingly to Gerard Hopkins, as he thought of himself when he didn’t think of himself as Father Gerard (he was a Jesuit priest). Gerard’s father was called Manley. Poor little bugger, parents of Manley Hopkin’s childhood friends must have thought, and cautioned their own offspring to be extra-kind and to be grateful for having been named Thomas or Edward. It staggers belief that despite the vicissitudes his baptismal name must have exposed him to, Manley Hopkins stood at the font with his child in his arms and commanded the priest to name this child Gerard Manley (if your first name is Manley, of course, I can only apologise for my crassly judgmental attitude: apologise, and sympathise). Sensibly, young Gerard spent his life tucking his middle name into deserved obscurity. It was in every sense redundant: how many other poets can you think of with the pretty distinctive name Gerard and the capacity for astonishing sprung rhythm and authentic poetic greatness? It was his friend, the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, who included ‘Manley’ in the writer’s name when he edited the poems. Bridges, a nice man if, to our eyes now, an undistinguished poet, may have been genuinely blind to the awfulness of Manley as a middle name. His own – which he had the good sense not to use – was Seymour. Yup. Robert Seymour Bridges and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two men, united not just in being able to hear words more acutely than most people, but in having parents with tin ears and the imaginative capacity of a tin of beans.