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Trollope plays with character names

February 4, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope. 1865.

I already wrote the main piece about Miss Mackenzie but I’d like to pay a tribute to Trollope’s sense of humour when it comes to character names. In Proust, names have a special place in the Narrator’s mind. He fantasizes about the Guermantes names, he explores etymology of places. It’s part of his imagination, his way to decipher the essence and the history of the Guermantes.

Nothing so romantic or intellectual in Trollope. I started to pay attention to characters names when I first encountered Mr Frigidy and Mr Startup at Mr Stumfold’s tea party. Remember, Mr Stumfold is the evangelist clergyman that Miss Mackenzie meets in Littlebath. Mr Frigidy and Mr Startup are his disciples. Can you imagine a funnier name than Frigidy for a Calvinist clergyman? The name in itself bears the image of a dark tooth-pick man dressed in black, with no sense of humour and who considers that dancing and playing cards are devilish.

He [Mr Frigidy] was a good young man, at peace with all the world—except Mr Startup. With Mr Startup the veracious chronicler does not dare to assert that Mr Frigidy was at peace.

And Mr Startup! I imagined him in the wilderness in the colonies trying to settle a Christian community among natives, certain to bring Truth to poor people living in sin.

Startup, though he was younger than Frigidy, could talk to seven ladies at once with ease, but Frigidy could not talk to one without much assistance from that lady herself.

I had a feeling of Thomson and Thompson (Dupont and Dupond for French readers) about these two ones, and their choice of names made me laugh.

Their names are connected to their profession. In the same spirit, Tom Mackenzie works in the oilcloth industry and thus his associate is conveniently named Mr Rubb, mid-way between rub and rubber. And doesn’t Mr Rubb thoroughly tell rubbish to Miss Mackenzie to get her money? Doesn’t he mentally rub her feelings to have her on his side?

On another tone, the attorney who’s in charge of the Mackenzies’ legal affairs is named Mr Slow and Trollope describes him as follow:

He was a stout, thickset man, very leisurely in all his motions, who walked slowly, talked slowly, read slowly, wrote slowly, and thought slowly; but who, nevertheless, had the reputation of doing a great deal of business, and doing it very well. He had a partner in the business, almost as old as himself, named Bideawhile; and they who knew them both used to speculate which of the two was the most leisurely. It was, however, generally felt that, though Mr Slow was the slowest in his speech, Mr Bideawhile was the longest in getting anything said.

According to Daniel Pool’s book, justice was rather slow in the Victorian era. Shall we see a little attack at the institution through the name of that lawyer? In any case, the description of the attorney’s office is appalling; I doubt anyone would have considered being a lawyer under these conditions.

In addition to the clergymen and the attorney, the doctor’s called Mr Slumpy, the haughty butler at the Tom Mackenzie’s is purposely named Grandairs. A rather stupid old lady with her oh-so-English reply I’m sure I don’t know’ answers the sweet name of Mrs Fuzzybell. The goodhearted but rather nosy and vulgar lodger in London is a Mrs Buggins. Unsurprisinggly, she gets on Miss Mackenzie’s nerves.

I’m sure I missed some and I didn’t catch all the innuendos. I wonder if there are footnotes in the French translation or if the names have been translated. It spiced my reading, enforcing the idea of the writer as a playful narrator. I want to hear more of Mr Trollope’s literary voice.

PS: For other Trollope readers, Lady Glencora Palliser makes an appearance in the end of the novel, like a guest star in a sitcom.

  1. February 4, 2012 at 2:40 am

    Oh wow! I didn’t know Lady Glencora was in this one! Definitely an added attraction 🙂 I love the way Trollope allows his characters to wander into other novels, a feature I’d love to see more of in literature.

    This use of names for minor characters is a very common one (and is not restricted to Trollope – I think Dickens is also guilty of this). It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does describe the characters perfectly. In ‘The Warden’, we are treated to extracts from the work of two writers Mr. Pessimist Anticant and Mr. Popular Sentiment (a thinly-veiled reference to Carlyle and Dickens!).


    • February 4, 2012 at 2:49 pm

      If you like recurring characters popping in and out, try Balzac. (if Guy hasn’t sold him to you yet) And of course, Zola and The Rougon-Macquart. I like that too.

      I have The Warden on the kindle. I haven’t read Dickens in the original and when I read him in French, I don’t think my English was good enough to notice something about the names.


  2. February 4, 2012 at 4:11 am

    Like Tony I missed Lady Glencora too. I just read about her in can You Forgive Her? which was fantastic btw. As for the names, wait till you get to the Barsetshire novels. Thinking Proudfoot here.


    • February 4, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      I remember her from your review and she’s abundantly mentioned by Pool.

      Proudfoot? Funny. Who is he? A butler? A mountain hiker?


      • February 7, 2012 at 7:12 pm

        Made a mistake. It’s Proudie. He’s a Bishop. I know I got Proudfoot from somewhere…


        • February 7, 2012 at 11:16 pm

          Proudie for a bishop. Funny. I liked how Trollope slapped the Stumfoldians in the face in Miss Mackenzie. I have a thing for writers who point out the vanity and contempt of those who feel superior enough to impose strict moral rules to others and to think they know the Truth.


          • February 8, 2012 at 4:26 am

            Well you probably understand why Trollope is one of my all-time favourites


  3. February 4, 2012 at 4:55 am

    Henry James hated the names. He is a lot like Trollope in some ways – both are good with money, for example – but it drove him crazy the way Trollope kept pointing out that he was writing and we were reading fiction. James argued for the pureness of the illusion; Trollope prefers to show us how he does his tricks.


    • February 4, 2012 at 7:06 am

      …which would make Trollope the Penn and Teller of the Victorian world 😉


    • February 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm

      I don’t know how to explain what I have in mind and I’m aware that I don’t have enough hindsight on Trollope after one book.

      I’m not sure that Trollope’s way of writing is to remind us it is fiction. He’s not like Martin Amis for example, who plays with the reader on purpose and I think his goal is to remind us he’s writing fiction and he’s pulling the strings of the puppet-characters he draws. It’s very clear in Dead Babies.

      I imagine Trollope (and Hardy too) more like a folk storyteller, you know a written version of the old man telling a story by the fire. And at the same time, he’s very sharp on society analysis.

      I agree that James is also very sharp on society analysis. (What Maisie Knew is amazing for that) Both know how to neatly nail the shortcomings of their world. James is absent, you don’t see him painting the picture he writes. With the long sentences full of details, he writes like a camera films a scene. You don’t consciously acknowledge all the details but you get the environment, the action and the psychology.I can’t explain why but when I think of James, I see paintings by Renoir.


      • February 7, 2012 at 7:14 pm

        Trollope talks directly to the reader in Can You Forgive Her? and some people (readers/writers) see that as a sacrosanct barrier. Trollope argues for the reasons behind the heroine’s behaviour and also tells us when a character is about to disappear permanently from the pages. This may seem intrusive to some people. I loved it. Just a matter of taste I suppose.


        • February 7, 2012 at 11:17 pm

          I like it too. I feel like a child again when adults read me stories.


          • February 8, 2012 at 4:27 am

            When I began Can You Forgive Her? I asked myself why I hadn’t returned to Trollope sooner.


  4. February 4, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Now that is something I hate the use of this type of names.
    After seeing Tom’s comment I must say, no wonder I love Henry James.


    • February 4, 2012 at 2:29 pm

      I love Henry James and Trollope. Just like I enjoy Canaletto and Caillebotte.

      For me it’s like any writing technique: the writer who uses the technique is more important than the technique in itself. Here, I thought it was funny, well done and consistent with the tone of the book. Trollope is a storyteller, he speaks directly to the reader, he’s apparent.


  5. February 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    We can enjoy a lot of different writing, it’s just that for me Henry James comes close to perfection which, I think, is a rare thing.
    I’m in no position to judge Trollope since I haven’t read him and it is highly unlikeyl I will any day soon. First Thomas Hardy. Then Dickens and a longer Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. I’m a novice of 19th Century English literature with the exception of the Brontës.


    • February 4, 2012 at 5:33 pm

      I’m a novice too except for the Brontës. Most of what I’ve read is “reviewed” here. (PS: Les bloggeurs français ont l’air d’utilise le verbe “chroniquer” pour leurs “billets”. C’est pas mal non plus)


  6. Liam Kelly
    January 24, 2020 at 10:27 am

    The names, when used for minor characters, can actually serve an important purpose. For example, Mr Nearthewind and Mr Closer Still’s characters and methods need not be described in laborious detail as the names say nearly all that is needed for their part in the story. Slow and Bideawhile are exactly the same. They are infinitely silly, probably more so than Dickens minor characters ever are, but they are a tool to avoid interrupting the flow of storytelling.

    Dr Fillgrave is my favourite. Sounds quite natural until the penny drops.


    • January 25, 2020 at 5:55 pm

      Thanks for your comment and welcome to Book Around the Corner.

      I had a lot of fun with the names. Since I’m not a native English speaker, I certainly missed other references and jokes.


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