The Jane Austen Name Report
The name Austin is a mix of Texas twang and Austin Powers swing. A tiny spelling shift to Austen produces something else entirely: a literary homage.
It's fitting that Jane Austen's surname, rather than her given name Jane, is the usual path to honoring her work. The characters she created, particularly the men, are remembered primarily by their surnames. In part, this reflects the manners of the time. One can hardly imagine calling out "Hiya, George!" to Mr. Knightley, the proper gentleman of Emma. But it also reflects the baby-name world that Austen inhabited and passed on to her characters.
Thanks to the Austen devotees at "The Republic of Pemberley," I was able to tally up the 146 characters in Jane Austen novels who have both first and last names. Here are their first names in Wordle form, with the font size representing frequency of occurrence:
If you saw that name cloud out of context, I can't imagine you would have guessed its source. It's recognizably English, but nothing about it specifically screams "Jane Austen!" Yet it's a faithful representation, not only of Austen's work but of the setting of her own life.
16% of men in Jane Austen novels are named John. Her top 10 men's names account for 72% of her male population. In real-life England in the year 1810, those numbers were 19% and 85%. Given the need to keep characters distinct in the narrative, that's a remarkably realistic namescape. (The numbers would be even closer if you converted nicknames to full names.)
That doesn't mean that Austen's character names are a pure historical abstract. Her women's names are a bit more diverse than reality; "only" 52% of Austen women have a top-10 name. Even among the men, you'll see leanings that may reflect name trends among Austen's circle of acquaintance, or simply her own tastes. William, the 2nd most common name in Regency England, is seldom heard in her books, while men named Charles are legion.
Then there are the little quirks which bring a naming worldview to life. For instance, nine men in Austen bear the title Captain, and two of those have a first name. Both are called Frederick. They are the only Fredericks in her books.
Overall, though, the names in Austen world are resolutely normal, which in her age meant repetitive. In six novels, we meet 20 characters named John or Mary. As a result, character names play little role in defining the characters. Even the more diverse surnames provide few clues. "Mr. Bingley," "Mr. Wickham." Which one is wealthier? Which one is the cad?
This even playing field of names is a huge contrast with most modern literature, and with the modern world itself. Remember how 85% of men in Austen's England had a top-10 name? In England today, the top 10 names account for only 15% of boys. In the United States, it's 8%.
Imagine a world where you couldn't draw any conclusions about a person from his name. A world where a titled lady and a chambermaid were likely to share the same name. Where one boy in every five could be called John, and nobody was traumatized by having to share. You don't have to imagine: it's all in the pages of six novels that transcend time.