The naming of names

Regency couple planning trip
Emil Brack ‘Planning the Grand Tour’ (Wikipedia Commons) — a vision of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green before their trip to the Canaries?

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is set in the early 1830s, the period between the novels of Jane Austen and those of Dickens and the Brontës. The names of her principal and supporting characters haven’t yet reached the baroque proportions that they were later to, but already we have inklings of character-full epithets amongst the more genteel Austenesque names like Willoughby (from Sense and Sensibility) and Green (from Emma). What are we to make of Mrs Shubunkin, its Japanese origin lurking behind a name straight from the pages of a Dickens’ novel? Or Mr Grimshaw, surely grim by nature as well as by name? Mrs Brisket who takes her name from a cut of meat? And of course Letitia Slighcarp, who is both sly and apt to carp at her poor charges?

The avid reader can have fun with the remaining names, with their lively mix of Biblical forenames, funny-sounding old English terms and inappropriate or incongruous sobriquets. A few of the personages reappear in the sequels — most touchingly in the last title of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws — but for the moment we may rejoice in the feeling that here is created a whole world of individuals identified by name, many with significant parts to play and identifiable characters to match.

The Green family

Sir Willoughby Green (born circa 1780?). Owner of Willoughby Chase and, according to Josiah Grimshaw, “the richest man in five counties,” with no near neighbours. Willoughby was in origin a placename, found in several locales in eastern England, adopted as the surname of the fickle John Willoughby in Austen’s novel but who was commonly referred to simply as Willoughby.
Lady Sophia (‘Sophy’) Green. Sir Willoughby’s wife, whose delicate health required a sojourn abroad at the beginning of this tale on board the sailing ship Thessaly, named from the region in Greece from which Jason and the Argonauts sailed. Lady Sophia’s forename (the name means ‘wisdom’) is shared with Sophy Battersea who appears in the sequel to this novel.
Bonnie Green (born circa 1820?) Only child of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green; described as harum-scarum by Sir Willoughby, she is slight with dark black hair and blue eyes. ‘Bonnie’ means attractive and cheerful, possibly from the French ‘bonne’ meaning good.
Miss Jane Green (born circa 1752?) Sir Willoughby’s aged and frail sister living in Park Lane, London, overlooking Green Park near the court of St James; attic lodgings are sparse but provided with gas for cooking and furnished with Sheraton and Hepplewhite furniture. She will set up and teach in a dame school.
Sylvia Green (born circa 1820?) Fair-haired, blue-eyed ‘delicate’ orphan whose parents died of a fever when she was an infant. Lives with her Aunt Jane until taken into care of Sir Willoughby late 1832: in 1855 (when Sylvia is 35) her Aunt Jane would be 103. Her name suggests her fey character: derived from the Latin for wood or forest, ‘silvan’ references the woodland nymphs of classical myth, the dryads.

Willoughby Chase

Letitia Slighcarp. Tall and thin forbidding spinster, said to be Bonnie’s fourth cousin once removed; taken on as Bonnie and Sylvia’s governess. Belies her name Letitia , which means joy or gladness, especially when combined with sly-carp.
Mrs Shubunkin. Housekeeper. Takes her name from the Japanese goldfish bred in 1892, the term meaning ‘brocade’, rather unprepossessing for her position in the household.
Pattern. Maid who helps Bonnie and Sylvia. Perhaps influenced by pattens, a type of clog or wooden overshoe to wear in muddy conditions, Pattern is able to walk around Slighcarp’s suspicions.
James. Footman, helps the girls in conjunction with Pattern. Perhaps an indication of his parents’ royalist leanings, he may have been named after the then Prince of Wales, now King James III.
Doctor Morne. Elderly physician living 5 miles beyond estate boundaries, fee 5 guineas. Though his name recalls the Irish Mountains of Mourne, it may simply reflect his serious, maybe mournful nature.
Josiah Grimshaw. Former clerk with Abednego Gripe, dismissed for forgery; Miss Slighcarp’s associate. Grim by name, grim by nature, his surname may, by echoing the Brothers Grimm, remind us of the fairytale nature of this fantasy; the -shaw suffix, while sounding like a dialect word for thicket, reflects the old Irish word ‘sídach’ or Scots ‘sidheach’, pronounced ‘shaw’, which means ‘fairy-like’ or … ‘wolf’.
Groach. Gamekeeper. Perhaps influenced by the Breton word groac’h which means a fairy or ogress who inhabits water.
Marl. Steward; Porson. Former Steward.
John. Groom; Prout. Undergroom who saves Bonnie’s pony Feathers from being sold, and donkey Caroline.
Solly. Coachman.
Timon. Reinstated April 1833 along with John and Solly.
Simon (born 12th April 1818). Goose boy, fourteen years old, asked to live in cave in park one autumn ‘four to five years’ before (1827 or 1828); friends with Bonnie and Sylvia. Wears goatskins like Robinson Crusoe or Ben Gunn but has more in common with Peter Pan or the goose boy Conrad in the Grimm fairytale ‘The Goose Girl’.


Mrs Gertrude Brisket. Proprietor of Brisket’s Charity School. Brisket is a cut of meat.
Diana Brisket. 15-year-old daughter of Mrs Brisket.
Mrs Moleskin. Charity School cook.
Mr Friendshipp. Blastburn school inspector.
Lucy (No 6); Alice (?); Julia (?); Emma (No 18). Girls at Brisket’s Charity School.


Abednego Gripe. Attorney, Lincoln’s Inn Fields; the Greens’ family lawyer. Abednego is also the (assumed?) name of Dido Twite’s father in the sequel; his surname echoes the second half of Slighcarp.
Marmot. Clerk in Gripe’s chambers. A marmot is a furry Alpine rodent.
Dr Gabriel Field. Physician and Chirugeon of Park Lane, London; amateur painter. The good doctor is like an administering angel, hence his forename.
Sam Cardigan. Officer of Bow Street Constabulary.
Spock. Another Bow Street officer.

In addition there are one or two unnamed individuals, such as the anonymous station-master of Willoughby Chase train station, and the landlord of the Snake & Ladder Inn; and I shouldn’t omit the kindly blacksmith Mr Wilderness at the village in Herondale where Sylvia recuperates.

13 thoughts on “The naming of names

    1. Clearly a satisfied customer! So pleased I’ve found a convert in you, Simon — Joan Aiken’s fiction often slips under the radar because she’s regarded often as ‘just’ a children’s author when it often has a richness that stands repeated visits.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Each one deserves an essay…take Marmot, (‘a clerk’ ) for instance –

    “All marmots closely resemble each other with a few differences in colour, coat and size.”

    Mr. Grimshaw, the villain, is confronted by the Bow Street Runners in the Lawyer Gripe’s office:

    “Cardigan looked thunderously disbelieving and was about to burst out with his suspicions of Mr Gripe, when the little clerk who had let the party in, and who had been standing in the doorway with eyes like saucers, piped up:
    ‘Please, sir, I saw him.’
    Mr Grimshaw darted a furious look at this speaker.
    ‘Who are you?’ said Cardigan.
    ‘Please sir, Marmot, a clerk. Yesterday while Mr Gripe was out having dinner, th-that gentleman as is tied up there came and asked me to give him the address of Miss Jane Green, sister to Sir Willoughby.’
    ‘And you gave it him?’
    ‘Yes, sir. He said he wished to take her some dividends.’
    ‘Dividends, indeed!’ growled Dr Field. ‘Wanted to murder her more probably.’

    Little Marmot has one scene, but will always be remembered for his moment of glory, and his name!

    The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (The Wolves Chronicles series) (pp. 197-198). Random House. Kindle Edition.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right, Lizza, about each name deserving more than the mere notice I’ve given in this post. Not only do marmots have that undistinguished coat (indeed clerks used to be similarly accoutred) but they have that distinctive squeak which I can Marmot having when he pipes up with his comment.

      One can similarly expound on the others, such as Wilderness: the ‘wilderness’ feature in formal gardens which was wild only by name exactly matches the smith who is generosity and gentleness personified, in contrast to the savage treatment the girls got from governess and charity school owner. And so it is over and over again with succeeding episodes in the sequence; I suspect I shall be going to town on them!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Mr Wilderness is a wonderful name! And Briskets, Gripes, Friendshipps and Moleskins – makes me want to read the books more and more. Nice post, thanks Chris


    1. Thank you, Laurie, names are a bit of an obsession with me — I suppose choice of names reflects a lot on the intentions of the author as much as it does on the personal taste parents with what they opt for with their own newborns!


    1. Do you think she may have dissemble and hidden her desperate straits from him? After all, a Park Lane address I’m certain was just as prestigious then as it is now. But yes, I do agree that Sir Willoughby seems to have been incurious about the life of his considerably older sister. Maybe Aiken had Austen prototypes in mind in which it was assumed that spinsters would have had some income, however meagre, generated from some Green family legacy. Methinks I shall have to look at the text again.


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