What’s In A Name? Austen’s Unknown Characters and What JAFF Authors Call Them, Part 1, by Christine Combe

What’s In A Name? Austen’s Unknown Characters and What JAFF Authors Call Them, Part 1, by Christine Combe

Jane Austen is celebrated as one of the greatest authors of all time — I don’t know anyone who would question that sentiment. But did you know that even iconic authors can make mistakes?

Okay, maybe not actual mistakes, but choices that are considered mistakes by readers — like Colonel Brandon marrying the “wrong” Dashwood sister, as there are many who believe he and Elinor were better suited to one another. There’s also the fact that some of her most beloved (and most ridiculed) characters are nameless — that is, they were never given first names (Christian names, as they were known then) by their creator. Why? Who knows. Maybe Jane didn’t think that they needed one. Maybe she thought they just weren’t central enough to the story to warrant one. In any case, there are quite a few main and supporting characters who didn’t get first names, leaving Austenesque authors like myself to have to choose one for them (if their inclusion in our variations requires it or just because we feel like it). Precisely because Jane did not name them herself, we can pretty much call them anything we want to, though it is most sensible to choose something that is Georgian/Regency era appropriate (I wouldn’t ever call a character from this period Dylan, for instance, unless it was an OC, and I would likely spell it Dillon and say it was his mother’s maiden name).

I’m going to cover several select characters across Austen’s six main novels who were not given first names by her, and discuss what myself and other Austenesque writers have chosen to call them. Let’s get started!

Pride and Prejudice

Colonel Fitzwilliam

(Left: Anthony Calf, 1995 mini-series. Right: Tom Ward, 1995 Chamberlayne, CF in Death Comes to Pemberley.)

Most common JAFF name: Richard
My choice: Theodore

I could not tell you how the trend started — not where or with whom — but is has become an almost universal standard to give Colonel Fitzwilliam the first name “Richard”. So often has the name been used that readers of Austen variations have pretty much accepted that this is his first name as if Jane had given it to him herself, and they tend to get rather peeved if he is called anything else (one of my reviewers said “it should always be Richard”). One of my fellow authors once said to me that she chose to call him Richard across all her works because “that’s just not a hill I want to die on” — that is, she didn’t want to give nitpicky readers one more thing to complain about (and let’s be honest, every genre has their lot of hardcore nitpickers, even JAFF).

Why did I choose “Theodore”? There are two very simple reasons for my choice: One, I’m the type of person who will do a thing differently, if possible, when it seems like everyone else is doing it the same way. I decided that because Austen never actually gave the colonel a first name, I would give him one myself, as he was to feature as a supporting character in my What Might Have Been series at least twice, and would get his own story eventually. I decided that I didn’t want to use the same name as “everyone else”, so I looked up commonly used names from the era (I advise every Regency author to do this when naming characters). I like the name Theodore, and when I saw it on more than one name list, I had a sudden image in my head of his mother calling him Teddy, and the poor colonel getting aggravated at being referred to by a childhood nickname in front of guests. So Theodore he became.

Another reason I chose not to call him Richard is because in my research into the characters of P&P, I came across multiple references to Jane Austen herself not being fond of the name. It was said that this likely stemmed from a dispute between Austen and publisher Richard Crosby, to whom she sold the manuscript for Northanger Abbey (under the title Susan; in those days, a writer had to pay out of pocket to have a book published, and negotiate royalties with the publisher) in 1803. Publication was even advertised in a brochure. Austen wrote to Crosby’s company in 1809, six years later, to inquire as to the status of the manuscript, pressing for it’s publication as agreed upon in the original sale. She stated that she assumed it had “by some carelessness to have been lost” and offered to send him another copy. She then asked for a quick response to her letter, and stated that if she received none, she would then “feel myself at liberty to secure the publication of my work, by applying elsewhere”. Just two days after sending her letter, she received a reply in which Crosby bluntly (and arrogantly) stated that while they had received the manuscript and paid for it, there had not been a date for publication stipulated, nor were they bound by its purchase to do so. He then threatened to “take proceedings to stop the sale” should she try and publish it elsewhere, and said she could have it back for the price they paid for it. It was a further six years — and four novels published — before Austen was able, through her brother Henry, to get the manuscript back from Crosby, who then casually told the publisher only after he had purchased the rights back that its author was the same person who had written the successful Pride and Prejudice. Austen then revised the manuscript which would posthumously be published as Northanger Abbey, and not only referenced the delay in a note titled “Advertisement by the Authoress”, but further mocked Crosby himself in a remarkably subtle way by writing that Catherine Morland’s father was “…a very respectable man, though his name was Richard”.

Thus — to make a long story short — I figured there was justification in my choosing not to give Colonel Fitzwilliam the first name Richard. If Jane herself didn’t care for the name, why would she give it to one of her most endearing supporting characters? Why would anyone? Coincidentally, however, there is a Richard Fitzwilliam in my work: the colonel’s father. Not because he’s a bad guy (at least, I’ve yet to picture him thus), but because I thought I could still use it somewhere — I just didn’t want to use it for the colonel.

Also of note: Colonel Fitzwilliam’s father’s title is not given in the original novel — we only know that he is an earl (born the eldest son or is the eldest surviving son) and that he is brother to Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the late Lady Anne Darcy. The title most JAFF authors use is “Earl of Matlock”, which I believe derives from it’s use in the 1995 mini-series, though I could certainly be in error (Collins clearly refers to the colonel as “the younger son of the Earl of Matlock”; interestingly, the earl is called “Lord Denney” by Lady Catherine in the 1980 series). I chose to make his title “Earl of Disley”. Why? In part because Matlock is what every other author uses, but more so as an homage to Lyme Park, the exterior of which was used to represent Pemberley in the 1995 series. The estate is located in Disley, Cheshire.

For the sake of my own consistency, I plan to use both Theodore and Disley in all my P&P variations. The colonel’s father will also always have the name Richard.


Mr. and Mrs. Bennet

(Left: Mary Boland and Edmund Gwenn, 1940 film. Center: Alison Steadman and Benjamin Withrow, 1995 mini-series. Right: Brenda Blethyn and Donald Sutherland, 2005 film.)
Most common JAFF names: Thomas and Fanny
My choice: Thomas and Jane

Like Colonel Fitzwilliam, there’s no telling why Jane never shared Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s first names in her novel — we don’t even know if she ever gave them first names. Perhaps it is because it was not common practice in those days for a couple to refer to each other by their fist names, even if they were married. Typically, they would address one another as others did, such as “Mr. Bennet” and “Mrs. Bennet”, or in the case of titled persons, “Lord Disley” and “Lady Disley” — though married couples did sometimes address the other with affectionate terminology such as “my dear” and “my love”.

In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the most commonly used first names are Thomas and Fanny. Not entirely certain why or how Thomas was chosen, but Fanny probably derives from its use by Mr. Gardiner in the 1995 mini-series (if there is an earlier use, I do not know of it). Now, while Thomas was a popular name in the mid- to late-1700s, when the gentleman would have been born, there are certainly many other names Mr. Bennet could have had (the mini-series Lost in Austen gave him the first name “Claude”). I actually have no problem with the name Thomas, though I had thought to give Mr. B a name of my own choosing. But to be perfectly honest, I could not settle on any other name, so Thomas he continues to be.

As for Mrs. Bennet… Her given name would not have been Fanny. “Fanny” was a nickname given to girls/women whose given name was Frances, though she may well have been called Fanny by her parents, siblings, husband, and any close friends if Frances was indeed her name. And it certainly could have been, as it was a popular name for girls in that time. However, with my propensity for not following the crowd, I wanted to give Mrs. B another name. I decided to do as Jane herself did with a couple of her other characters: Elizabeth Elliot and Fanny Price were named after their mothers (Elizabeth Stevenson Elliot and Frances Ward Price), which was as common a practice in those days as was giving a firstborn son the mother’s maiden name for a Christian name. Thus, because the Bennets’ firstborn was named Jane, I gave Mrs. Bennet the first name Jane.

So far, I have no intention to give either of them another name in future books, but that could change with my Muse’s mood.


Mrs. Gardiner

(Left: Barbara Shelley, 1980 mini-series. Center: Joanna David, 1995 mini-series. Right: Penelope Wilton, 2005 movie.)
Most common JAFF name: Madeleine
My choice: Madelene/Marjorie

In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Gardiner — Jane and Elizabeth Bennet’s most beloved aunt — signs a letter to Elizabeth “M. Gardiner”. There are at least half a dozen (or more) names she could have had: Mary, Margaret, Marianne, Maria, Martha… The fact is, “Madeleine” (or as I spelled it, Madelene; derived from Greek and French origin as a variation of “Magdalene”) was not a name common back then, and the Jane Austen Wiki even says “this is unlikely for the era”.

Still, for whatever reason, it’s a pretty popular name for authors to give Mrs. Gardiner. Like other characters, I had fully intended to choose something no one else was using (but still era appropriate, of course!) — but as in the case of Mr. Bennet, I just could not find a name that suited. So I went ahead and used the popular JAFF name for my second book and just spelled it differently. For my third book, I did at last go wide and chose the name Marjorie after seeing it on several name lists. Whatever I may choose to call her in the future, I will certainly always use a name that starts with M.
Well, there you have it, my dear friends! Part 1 in a series about unnamed characters and what writers choose to call them. In Part 2, I’ll cover characters from Persuasion.

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July 20, 2021 7:17 PM

Enjoyed the post. Because some of the names like Richard have become so common in JAFF, I find myself a little confused when another name is used at least at the beginning of the story but certainly don’t mind when other names are used.

July 19, 2021 11:19 AM

A delightful posting! I look forward to the continuations.

When I first started reading JAFF and came across Col Fitzwilliam as Richard, i equated it with Richard Lionheart, and fancied that the men under his command referred to him as Lionheart because of his strength and bravery. In less romantic moments, I tend to think of the name Richard as rather weak — altho’ admittedly I don’t know many Richards and those that I do know were not weak characters. I do like the names Theodore and Edward for him. End of Col Fitzwilliam ? ramble. (Can you tell that he’s my favourite character in P&P?)

I am certain that Lost in Austen’s naming Mr Bennet “Claude” was intended to be comical rather than accurate. I tend to think of him as Nathaniel. Fanny was my paternal grandmother’s given name so I never really thought about it. Mr and Mrs Gardiner never inspired me to consider their first names so Edward and Madeline are fine. While I understand the custom of giving a mother’s or grandmother’s pre-marriage name to a first-born (hey, I’ve been living in the Southlands for sixteen years, and love the movie Shag that has the main female character named Carson), I cannot imagine any mother willing to burden her child with Fitzwilliam as a first name! And then burden their daughter with Georgiana. Well, that’s just my opinion, FWIW. I did enjoy reading this post.

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 12:49 PM
Reply to  JanisB

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I have four Richards in my family (though one died in infancy and this child’s father died in the early 2000s) that I am aware of. One I have never met except through Facebook, and the last is a cousin of whom I am not particularly fond. That may well be one of the reasons, subconsciously at any rate, as to why I don’t use that name — I have already known too many of them, lol. And like I said, I just wanted to be different.

Fanny as a given name I am sure came into fashion as nicknames as given names became more normal. Mr, and Mrs. Gardiner’s names I like to have at hand for my stories just in case I might feel inclined to use them. We already know his, but never knew hers. And calling Mr. Bennet “Claude” was definitely meant to be funny, because it seems so out of place! lol

Robin G.
Robin G.
July 17, 2021 3:24 PM

Once I “got over myself” about the names authors used, I have not minded which names authors chose for the characters who Jane did not choose to name. Happily, it was relatively early in my JAFF journey as a reader. I have also come to enjoy when an author continues the various naming conventions throughout her/his different novels. Although it isn’t a name, I find it interesting how many writers put Caroline Bingley in orange. As far as I can tell, it is based on a costumer’s decision for Anna Chancellor in the 1995 version. Thank you for the post, and I am looking for to the next one.

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 12:52 PM
Reply to  Robin G.

Glad to know you “got over it” quickly and won’t judge me harshly if you should read my books! lol. I do try my best to stick with traditions I know or can prove were around back then, and yes! Caroline in orange is becoming as common a trope as is calling the colonel Richard — guess we can blame that on the 1995 series too. But it works so well!

July 17, 2021 2:14 PM

I adore the name Theodore! Fabulous post!

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 12:54 PM
Reply to  carylkane

Thanks, I adore it too! I imagine his parents call him Theodore (though his mother will call him Teddy to tease or annoy him to get her way), and his brother and closest friends often call him Theo.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
July 16, 2021 8:59 PM

You may need to give a list of characters at first of your book so we will know what name you are using or even a paragraph from above with the names you are using. It takes me a minute or two to get accustomed to the different names but I will not throw stones. You can breathe a sigh of relief now. LOL! I have a relative named Richard so it was always fun to see their name in print. I don’t believe we have a Theodore; however, I can get used to it. Blessings on all your hard work. This was a very interesting post.

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 12:56 PM
Reply to  J. W. Garrett

I actually did add a character list at the beginning of Choice and Consequence, because I had brought some of the characters from the first book in for cameos. And thank you so much for the kind thoughts.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
July 16, 2021 8:36 PM

Cool post! I love the names you picked out!

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 12:56 PM
Reply to  cindie snyder

Thank you! I am glad you like the choices I made. 🙂

Shana Jefferis
Shana Jefferis
July 16, 2021 3:47 PM

As a newer author, I feel vindicated to hear stories about other authors also finding some readers to be nit picky. What a relief! I thought it was just me.


Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 1:00 PM
Reply to  Shana Jefferis

I almost hesitated to say it, because I didn’t want to offend anyone. But if we’re being totally open and honest (but polite as well!), then yes, readers can be excessively nitpicky. And about the strangest things, sometimes! What really gets me, though, is when they INSIST that this or that is true, when all you have to to is read the original novel to find out it is not. Such as the colonel’s first name or his father’s title in P&P. Or, as one reader said, that “it should always be”. I tell you, I shake my head when I see these kinds of comments.

Regina Jeffers
July 16, 2021 1:00 PM

From the time of my first JAFF novel back in 2008, Colonel Fitzwilliam is “Edward.” That was my father’s name, and so it became the colonel’s for very personal reasons. As I typically use the same name for the servants, (Darcy’s butler, his footmen, valet, and Elizabeth’s maid) etc., in my stories, so my faithful readers know the relationships ahead of time, I prefer consistency, and so he has been “Edward” for 13 years. Mr. Bennet is Thomas. Mrs. Bennet is usually Fanny or Frances. Back when the good colonel became “Edward,” in my tales, Mrs. Gardiner became “Madeline.” Again, for me, it was a family name. My family member was so named because the name is Greek for “high tower.” You see, my Aunt Madeline’s grandfather was Greek. “Madeleine” is the French form of “Magdalene,” as in Mary Magdalene of the New Testament.I am not certain we could eliminate the name “Madeline.” Names are often in use for many years before they show up as being popular for a particular time period. The fact “Madeline” could be construed as “Biblical” would shove it up higher on the list than one might suspect. Even if others object, Mrs. Gardiner will remain “Madeline” in my stories. I have a tendency to be a bit stubborn in that manner. Order plays to my sensibilities (except in cleaning my house). LOL!

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 1:17 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

Order plays to my sensibilities too…and also except for cleaning my house, lol!

Stubbornness is definitely one reason why I decided to be different in the first place, giving Fitzwilliam a name other than Richard — I stubbornly refused to follow the crowd, as it were. I like that you chose names that mean something to you — in fact, I applaud any author who puts a personal touch on their work. In the case of Madeline (or Madeleine, more particularly), however, I believe it was not popular in England because of it’s French origins, which is why it is believed to be unlikely for Jane Austen to imagine that name for Mrs. Gardiner.

And yay to consistency! As I said above, I am pretty certain to use the same names in my books as well. I think, once you start a trend, or start to follow one, it serves well to do the same thing every time. So the colonel will always be Theodore, his father Richard (hey, I still used it!), his father’s title the Earl of Disley, Mr. Bennet shall be Thomas, Mrs. B will be Jane… And you know, it’s a good idea to use the same name for the servants too, now you mention it. Thanks for that idea!

July 16, 2021 12:06 PM

I use Edward for the Colonel, Thomas for Mr Bennet, and (like you) Jane for Mrs Bennet – because Jane is very likely to have been named after her (and Elizabeth after Mr Bennet’s mother); and we must not forget that in Jane Austen’s own family, her sister Cassandra was named for their mother. It was a very common practice. As for Mrs Gardener, Madeleine is really very unlikely. I haven’t had the chance to use her name, but I’d probably go for something more realistic, such as Margaret – a name that’s been around in the UK since the middle ages.

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 1:28 PM

With Madeleine (or any variation of spelling) being so unlikely, it makes one wonder how in the world that trend got started. I do like the practice of calling a child after the mother’s maiden name (if it makes sense as a first name), or naming a first daughter after a mother. Though in my present WIP, there is a firstborn daughter named after her paternal grandmother rather her own mother. And I did consider Margaret for Mrs. Gardiner in my WIP as well, but chose Marjorie instead. So outside of my What Might Have Been Series, I’ll probably keep Marjorie.

July 16, 2021 9:38 AM

I am most familiar with Richard, Thomas, Fanny and Madeleine and am very happy with those names. I admit it does drag me out of the story with different names but I can cope 🙂
I would certainly not dream of criticising an author’s choice when Jane herself didn’t give a name. I have no ability to write myself and I get immense pleasure from stories about Darcy and Elizabeth, so many thanks for contributing to these.

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 1:32 PM
Reply to  Glynis

I have never myself had an issue with the colonel having a different name in various books. I mean, once I know this is Darcy’s cousin the colonel, I’m good. I’m glad you aren’t one who would criticize the author’s right to choose their own name for an unnamed character, because to me, to insist a thing is true just because you’ve read it very often when the original novel would easily prove otherwise is really rather silly. Let the new author’s creativity do as it will. And I am very glad you will enjoy my contributions!

July 16, 2021 9:12 AM

Interesting. And “to each their own”. I do prefer Richard for the Colonel but I am not an author.

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 1:35 PM
Reply to  sheilalmajczan

To each their own indeed — I’m certainly not suggesting that readers not have a preference. I’m only saying that I think it is wrong to detract from an author’s work simply because they choose to make a different selection or to insist something “should” be just because it is what they prefer.

Sam H.
Sam H.
July 16, 2021 7:33 AM

This was awesome!

Christine Combe
Christine Combe
July 19, 2021 1:35 PM
Reply to  Sam H.

Thank you! I’m glad you liked it.

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