In my former life (must think of a better opener, but it’s true!), I was intrigued by the numbers of our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors who changed their names. I wrote a piece about people who had changed their names to inherit a fortune: this included the wonderfully euphonious brothers Bootle and Wilbraham – surely a children’s cartoon film waiting to happen?
Another striking feature of the practice of naming was the number of times when a child was given the name of a predeceased older sibling: this happened to Edward Jenner, pioneer of vaccination, to name but one, as it were. And women who changed their name on marriage, and again if they were widowed and remarried, also sometimes created misunderstandings. Mary Somerville, scientist, was told by the Marquis de Laplace that he knew three women who he felt really understood his pioneering work – ‘These are yourself, Mrs Somerville, Caroline Herschel and a Mrs Greig of whom I know nothing.’ In fact, he only knew two such women, as Mrs Somerville had been Mrs Greig during her first marriage.
Then there are the émigrés who changed their names on arrival. Among the Huguenots who maintained their names – Gambier, de Wet, Romilly, Fournier – there were many others who anglicised themselves: du Moulin to Miller, or Charpentier to Carpenter. In a later wave of immigration, the Russian Jewish ancestors of a friend of mine were given the name of their village (or what the British customs officer thought was the name of their village) simply because it was easier to spell than their polysyllabic family name.
And in the academic world, of course, for many hundreds of years you had to have a Latin name to be taken seriously: Aquinas, Cartesius, Clusius, Columbus, Copernicus, Erasmus, Grotius, Linnaeus, Lipsius, Lobelius, Manutius, Mercator, Nostradamus, Ortelius, Paracelsus, Regiomontanus, Vesalius…
A variant on the changing name is the changing title. Until the recent Waterloo razzmatazz, I had not realised that the Lord Raglan whose death is often regarded as a pivot point in the Crimean War was Lord Fitzroy Somerset (1788–1855) who lost an arm at Waterloo. ‘You are aware how useful he has always been to me, and how much I shall feel the want of his assistance, and what a regard and affection I feel for him’, wrote Wellington to Fitzroy’s brother, the duke of Beaufort.
Wellington himself is another case in point: he was the third surviving son of the first earl of Mornington (original spelling of the family name: Wesley). His elder brother was Marquess Wellesley, later the second earl of Mornington, but better known by the former title, bestowed for his services in India, during which his rather duller younger brother first showed his potential as an army commander. But eventually the younger Arthur trumped the elder Richard with a dukedom; meanwhile two other brothers became barons (Maryborough and Cowley); one feels for the (merely) Revd Gerald Wellesley.
Meanwhile, Henry William Paget, born Henry William Bayly in 1768, was the eldest of twelve children of a clergyman, who by what the ODNB describes as ‘a tortuous line of descent’ became in 1770 the tenth Baron Paget and took the name; in 1784 he became ‘the first earl of Uxbridge of the second creation’. Young Henry did the usual: Westminster, Christ Church, Oxford, the Grand Tour, and an unopposed M.P., until he inherited the earldom in 1812.
But in parallel, he had raised his own regiment against France, and ascended the officer ranks during service in the Netherlands, the Peninsula and France, until, on 18 June, he had the famous exchange with Wellington on the subject of his recently departed leg. He subsequently acquired the first ever articulated wooden leg, and the marquisate of Angelsey. He died just before the outbreak of the Crimean War, but his son Lord George Paget was second in command to Lord Cardigan (of whom he had a very low opinion), and was one of the last to retreat from the ‘valley of death’ at Balaklava.
Seventeenth-century poets gave (usually) classical names to their muses/mistresses. Edmund Waller’s Sacharissa was Dorothy Sidney, later Spencer and Smythe: she rejected his marriage proposal. (But, on the other hand, was Herrick’s Anthea a real person?) Eighteenth-century Bluestockings gave themselves pseudonyms: Mrs Delany in sportive youth called herself Aspasia – which her nineteenth-century great-niece and editor hastily explained ‘was a favourite appellation of the period, where beauty and accomplishments were united, without reference to its being inapplicable from other circumstances’. Her friends, relatives and correspondents were Alcander, Maria, Valeria, Roberto, Sebastian, Tranio, Sappho…
Which of course brings us to pen-names. Benjamin Franklin was famous for the variety of his pseudonyms: Alice Addertongue, Antony Afterwit, Mrs Silence Dogood, and ‘Poor’ Richard Saunders, of Almanac fame. Later, both the brothers Bell and George Eliot famously chose to disguise their gender (George Eliot had to go public after one Joseph Liggins was claimed as the author of Scenes of Clerical Life). However, it has been pointed out that women such as Catharine Macaulay, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Burney/Madame d’Arblay, Mrs Taylor of Ongar, Ann Radcliffe, or Anna Seward (the Swan of Lichfield), didn’t feel the need of male pseudonyms. Something about personal privacy rather than concern about not being taken seriously?
Charles Dickens was ‘Boz’ in the short sketches and squibs which he produced before he became committed (with the success of The Pickwick Papers) to serial novels (and rapidly became a ‘brand’ exploited after his death by his son, Charles Dickens, Jnr); and his illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne, was ‘Phiz’. Thackeray was, for some purposes, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, and Oxford mathematics don Charles Dodgson was of course Lewis Carroll.
And that is before we even begin on the ever-lengthening list of actors, singers and ‘celebrities’ who decided (or had it decided for them by their agent/manager/studio) that the name bestowed at birth would have to go. Incidentally, Marion Mitchell Morrison started off as Marion Robert Morrison; his parents then borrowed ‘Robert’ for their next son and inserted ‘Mitchell’ instead. So becoming John Wayne was not the first but the second name change of his career.