NANP: Matters Dickensian

Lyndsay Faye, today’s guest on Names: A New Perspective, is another author that I’ve been waiting to read for quite a while now. If not for Mount Arcstoberead, I could get to it right now! The premise of her novel The Gods of Gotham is quite intriguing: 1845 New York, newly formed NYPD, murders, the worst slums of the city. Very exciting stuff. Police procedural type fiction isn’t typically my kind of reading, but as with all such cases, she comes highly recommended from the blogosphere. Given such a… contemporary historical setting for the novel, Lyndsay’s approach to names is just as fascinating as from any writer of SFF fiction.

9780399158377BMatters Dickensian; Upon the Naming of Poets, Heroes, Fiends, and Fools

by Lyndsay Faye

            When one sets out to write a nineteenth century novel from the POV of a star police officer of New York City, setting his pen to paper in the interest of posterity, naming characters becomes a matter of rather large import.  I’d written one novel previous to The Gods of Gotham, a Doylean pastiche titled Dust and Shadow, and it isn’t a long walk to decide what to name Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  Or Jack the Ripper, for that matter.  The vast majority of the major players were historical figures, and those who weren’t might as well have been, considering their places of honor in the annals of crime literature and in my Sherlock-obsessed little heart.

            Then I decided to invent a yarn about the origins of the NYPD, and naming people grew considerably more complicated.

            Elizabeth Hope Gordon, in The Naming of Characters in the Works of Dickens, observes, “It is difficult to decide whether it is because the types presented are so clearly  distinguished, and the portraits so convincingly painted, that the mention of the name

of one of his characters raises a vivid mental image of that character, or whether much of the individuality has its source in the peculiar suitability of the name to the personality.”  I make every effort in my own fiction to produce this sense of bon mot when christening characters, and I confess myself quite pleased with a few of them, though I fear that explanations will demystify any glamour.

But what the hell.  Let’s roll.

            Timothy and Valentine Wilde: these brothers make much better sense taken as a pair than taken singly, so why not discuss them together?  First off, I wanted their misty origins to be Anglophile, and so chose a surname that wouldn’t be uncommon in any formerly British colony, imagining their great-grandparents fought on the American side of the Revolution.  They were born in these parts and are watching the landscape change and grow.  Second, and rather more obviously, both brothers possess an untamed quality, that adherence to an inner drumbeat that makes them their own men despite grave obligations—they are wild, in many respects, were born feral, and always will be unpredictable in their choices.

            As for given names, Valentine is both an ironic name for a character who appears at first unloving, a bald reference to the man’s omnivorous sex life, and just a dashing moniker all around.  Isn’t it unrepentant?  With a hint of danger?  Timothy is smaller but in no way weaker, younger but in some ways wiser, a diminutive person who is never timorous.  I always thought of their names as a pair of names, from the very first.

            Bird Daly: Bird is of Irish blood and American birth, and her horrific life as a child prostitute or kinchin-mab always threatened to hijack the wheel of this novel and send it speeding brakeless into a morass of unbearably dark musings.  But I imagined her rising on whatever updrafts she could find, and I hope both her name and her character reflect that quality of hope and resilience.

            Silkie Marsh: Silkie was a common name for a common girl, and I liked the texture of it, the evocation of smoothness and suppleness.  Marsh doesn’t mean much until you ponder just how many evil people and places sport names beginning with M (don’t ask me who came up with this rule, I haven’t a clue, but they’re everywhere—Mordor, Moriarty, Magneto, Malvolio, Maleficent, Murdock of the classic TV series MacGyver).  Anyway, you don’t know where you stand in a marsh, and you don’t know where you stand with her either.  She’s quicksand-deadly and just about as warm.

            George Washington Matsell: he’s real, but isn’t it a great name?

            Julius Carpenter: the vast majority of free black Northerners were either once slaves or descended from slaves, and Roman first names were very common among the greatly abused African American community.  Julius’s last name is Carpenter because his father Cassius, after having obtained freedom, took the name of his most marketable skill.  In this way, many black laborers continued a tradition carried out within the European guild system, taking names like Baker, Miller, Butcher, Fisher, or Plumber.

            Mercy Underhill: I think I’m actually at my most Dickensian or (more possibly) screamingly obvious with this one, though Mercy was a popular name at the time (I swear).  Mercy doles out mercy regularly to those considered unworthy of grace, she gets precious little consideration in return, and her name is a personification of a Christian virtue while many would argue…well, that’s a spoiler, but she’s not all that she seems.  Which is why she’s called Underhill, for the secrets beneath her façade.

            Gentle Jim: look for a great deal more of Gentle Jim in the sequel to The Gods of Gotham, titled Seven for a Secret, coming in August of 2013, in which his true name and the origins of his nickname will be dramatically revealed.

            See what I just did there?

            Jakob Piest: I love this one.  I wanted to show the cultural diversity of early Manhattan by including an honest to god New Amsterdam boy in the mix, a Dutchman with a keen eye and a long New World lineage.  According to multiple sources, I discovered that family names were not generally required in the Netherlands until 1811.



            Though not a direct result of the new imposition, a few of the names employed following this edict of Napoleon’s showed a great deal of natural charisma, including Piest, which is a form of the verb “to piss.”  That cracked me up, and Mr. Piest cracks me up too.  And here is where I leave you, awed by the intellectual rigor and painstaking resonance I invest in each and every one of my character names.

            Thanks for reading!


Lyndsay Faye on Twitter, Facebook, Web.

The next guest on Names: A New Perspective is author David Guymer on 17th December. You can find a full schedule in the link above.

Posted on December 14, 2012, in Debut Authors Guest Series, Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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