Creative Naming, 19th-Century Style
Many women change their surnames when they get married. In the past, I've discussed the idea of changing your first name while you're at it. But can you imagine a man insisting that his new bride change her first name, just to sound good with his surname?
That is the tale of one Lidian Emerson. The second wife of the great writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lidian was intellectually inclined and an ardent abolitionist. Her marriage to Ralph was, by all accounts, a long and content one. (Tales abound that Henry Thoreau was in love with her as well, but we don't traffic in centuries-old gossip around here.)
Mrs. Emerson was christened not Lidian, but Lydia Jackson. Mr. Emerson decided his wife should be known as Lidian upon their marriage in 1835. The reason is unclear. Here are some explanations I've found -- all presented as simple statements of fact:
"Emerson asked Lydia Jackson to become Lydian Emerson, wishing a less common name."
"Emerson changed her name to prevent the final 'a' from turning into "er" through local pronunciation"
"Lidian (as he spelled it) had both musical and classical echoes."
"The first name was changed from 'Lydia' to 'Lidian,' at Emerson's request, to avoid the hiatus between 'Lydia' and the new surname."
This last explanation, from a 1915 biography of Emerson, has the ring of truth to me. The specific choice of Lidian doubtless reflects the ancient Lydian language and Lydian musical mode. But the decision to change the name to begin with? Well, consider that Emerson never objected to his first wife's equally prosaic name of Ellen. My guess is that Lydia just didn't sound good with his last name.
In theory, this is a concern we should all be able to relate to. Every parent choosing baby names thinks carefully about how the first and last name sound together. Plenty of women today also take the first/last match into consideration when they decide whether to change their names at marriage. But to change your grown wife's name to match your surname? Even back in 1835, it was extraordinary. Check out Mrs. Emerson's embarrassed tone in a letter to Thomas Carlyle, six years into her marriage:
"Will you pardon my signing the unheard-of name by which my husband has presumed to re-baptise me? He will have me known by no other—and believes it valid even to Civil Law."
Then consider that the Emersons' children received unremarkable family names: Waldo, Ellen, Edith and Edward. In that context, the invention of Lidian is even more curious. Grand explanations like "flight of romantic fancy" or "chauvinistic power play" don't seem to fit the rest of the facts. So given my profession, I'm going with the name-first reasoning. It just sounded better that way.