The Moniker of the Rose

A relatively short blog this week. When it’s published, I’ll be in Venice – and by complete coincidence (naturally!) we’re staying next to the great Venetian dockyard, the Arsenale, and the naval museum. Does this mean that a future Quinton story might be set in Venice? I couldn’t possibly comment…but hopefully next week’s post will contain some of my impressions of La Serenissima. 

Meanwhile, I’ve just finished reading Merivel, Rose Tremain’s excellent sequel to Restoration, and quite close to the end, she extricates herself beautifully from one of those awkward little problems that authors sometimes create for themselves. Having created in the first book a fictional character named John Pearse, the hero’s best friend, Tremain must have approached the final illness of King Charles II with the mounting realisation that she’d need to include one particular real historical character, the King’s surgeon in ordinary…one James Pearse. She digs herself out of this hole with the dexterity one would expect of such an accomplished author, but it does illustrate the minefield that the choice of  names can present for a writer of fiction. I learned that lesson not long after Gentleman Captain was first published, when I received a slightly puzzled email from the mother of an eight year old in Manchester named, yes, Matthew Quinton. Fortunately his life is probably less likely to be affected by this coincidence than the impact that their fictional alter-egos will have had on the real-life James Bonds and Harry Potters, although one does sometimes wonder about those who coincidentally bear the names chosen by authors for their most evil and psychotic villains. Somewhere out there, for instance, must be some real Jim Moriartys and far more Patrick Batemans…

Indeed, this whole area of the choice of names for fictional characters is a potential minefield, especially as one goes further and further back in history. The undeniable fact is that the ‘name pool’ was much smaller in the Middle Ages, and even in the Early Modern period, so an author craving ‘authenticity’ is likely to run up against the hard truth that to be really true to the time, one would have to have several characters called John or Thomas, Elizabeth or Mary, with all the confusion that can potentially cause. Hilary Mantel, the well deserved winner of a second Booker Prize, must have encountered this problem countless times when writing Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies – too many Thomases, too many Annes and Catherines – but again gets round it ingeniously. My particular favourite is Thomas Wriothesley; rather than having Thomas Cromwell call him Thomas, potentially leading to echoes of Monty Python’s ‘Bruce’ sketch, she has Cromwell bestow on him the nickname ‘Call-Me’, from ‘Call Me Risley’, thus also having a neat dig at some of the more absurd pronunciation/spelling dysfunctions prevalent among the British aristocracy. (Cue more Monty Python, namely the ‘Luxury Yacht’ sketch – and if anyone, particularly anyone under the age of about 40, thinks I’ve gone stark staring mad this week, google ‘Monty Python’ and the name of the sketch to see what I’m talking about.)

In practice, this problem impacts on the names I’ve used in the Quinton series. In the Stuart period, there were inevitably a lot of Charleses and Jameses, named in honour of the kings, and despite the potential for confusion (because he would have to interact a great deal with his namesake, Charles II), I knew that the elder brother of Matthew, as the heir to an earldom born in the late 1620s, would almost certainly have been named Charles. But otherwise, I’ve tried to vary characters’ Christian names as much as possible, drawing on my two main sources for names – gravestones and thirty years’ worth of student mark books. At least the Puritans provide much-needed variety – hence the real Praisegod Barebone and my invented character in Gentleman Captain, Godsgift Judge. I recently tweeted a few favourites from some local gravestones – the splendid Original Jackson (did he have a sister called Plagiarism, or a brother called Unique?), the simply astonishing Nimrod Folbigg (now that should be the name of a Bond villain) and the hilarious but intriguing Gotobed East; just what set of circumstances led to a child being inflicted with that, and just how tough a time of it would he have had growing up, even in the eighteenth century? Just to prove I’m not making these up, I’ve included photos of the memorials to the last two gentlemen, in the churchyard of Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire, and in Ely Cathedral respectively.

Finally, though, I have a feeling that I might be about to run up against my own version of the Rose Tremain moment. I’m working on an idea for a novel based on a real character whose life story provides a very unusual take on one of the most intriguing periods in British history. I want to use his real name and the few known facts about his life as the basis for the plot. Unfortunately, his real name is Matthew, too…


  1. Grant says:

    Thanks for your kind words about The Eagle Clawed Wolfe in your last post. As I believe I’ve mentioned before I dug into the Arsenale for my MA dissertation and look forward to your perspective and will no doubt bore you at length inrply. My favourite hidden secret of Venice is that, according to Jan Morris, the markings on one of the lion gate guards at the Arsenale gate, plundered from Constantinople, are runes suggesting that they were put there by one of Harald Hardrada’s men when he was serving in the Vangarian guard. It is too good a story not to be true.


  2. Love it, David! I have been collecting my own names, mostly last names, to use in my writing. Whole schools of fish – Pike, Salmon, Bass, Guppy, etc. Flocks of Swans, Nightingales, Larks, Peacocks, and Ducks. Silence and Loud, Chesewright, Lamb, Custard, and Rabbitt are a few more.

    In the Bess of Hardwick book, there are legions of Annes, Marys, Janes, Elizabeths, and Catherines. Bess had a younger half-sister also named Elizabeth, who I’ve called Eliza, and a daughter Elizabeth, who is Bessie. Elizabeth Brooke became Lizzie. Bess had both an older sister and a younger half-sister named Jane. The older one doesn’t appear much, but I’ve made the younger one Jenny to distinguish her from Jane Grey, who is a major character. Catherine I’ve mostly saved for Catherine Parr. So there is Cat Howard, Kate Grey, and Kitty Cavendish. Oy.


  3. Nicholas Blake says:

    “Does this mean that a future Quinton story might be set in Venice?” It would mean you could write the whole trip off against tax as ‘research’…


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