What’s in a Name?

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I was once interviewing Kingsley Amis when he mused, apropos of nothing, ‘Quinn . . . a Manx name, isn’t it?’ I mumbled that I thought it was Irish myself, since that’s where my forebears came from. ‘Yes, from the Isle of Man,’ he continued, ‘derived from McGuinn.’ Was it? The curious thing is that thirty years later I still haven’t bothered to find out. It feels of no more consequence to me than taking my own fingerprint. Amis’s friend Anthony Powell, a connoisseur of pedigree, would have been able to identify the name’s origin and place it exactly in the social pecking order. Not high, I imagine.

But wait, what’s this?

The phrase ‘a Quinn’ had come to symbolize a whole class of society in my mind, just as Galsworthy uses the phrase ‘Forsytes’. London was full of Quinns, eating saddle of mutton at handsome mahogany tables; going up the steps of good clubs and stepping out of quiet, expensive cars.

It comes from a novel published in 1931, My Husband Simon, a tyro work by Mollie Panter-Downes, who would become famous for her brilliant novella One Fine Day and her London War Notes, a collection of dispatches for the New Yorker from the London Blitz. I’m not sure about her analogy between Quinns and the patrician-sounding Forsytes (Soames Quinn?) but still, the name mattered enough to Mollie to choose it.

What’s in a name? Something suggestive, if you’re a novelist. The previous year Agatha Christie had published a book of short stories revolving around The Mysterious Mr Quin, the single ‘n’ always seeming to my eye a misspelling. Over half a century later Paul Auster picked another mysterious Mr Quinn as the protagonist for the first nove

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I was once interviewing Kingsley Amis when he mused, apropos of nothing, ‘Quinn . . . a Manx name, isn’t it?’ I mumbled that I thought it was Irish myself, since that’s where my forebears came from. ‘Yes, from the Isle of Man,’ he continued, ‘derived from McGuinn.’ Was it? The curious thing is that thirty years later I still haven’t bothered to find out. It feels of no more consequence to me than taking my own fingerprint. Amis’s friend Anthony Powell, a connoisseur of pedigree, would have been able to identify the name’s origin and place it exactly in the social pecking order. Not high, I imagine.

But wait, what’s this?

The phrase ‘a Quinn’ had come to symbolize a whole class of society in my mind, just as Galsworthy uses the phrase ‘Forsytes’. London was full of Quinns, eating saddle of mutton at handsome mahogany tables; going up the steps of good clubs and stepping out of quiet, expensive cars.

It comes from a novel published in 1931, My Husband Simon, a tyro work by Mollie Panter-Downes, who would become famous for her brilliant novella One Fine Day and her London War Notes, a collection of dispatches for the New Yorker from the London Blitz. I’m not sure about her analogy between Quinns and the patrician-sounding Forsytes (Soames Quinn?) but still, the name mattered enough to Mollie to choose it.

What’s in a name? Something suggestive, if you’re a novelist. The previous year Agatha Christie had published a book of short stories revolving around The Mysterious Mr Quin, the single ‘n’ always seeming to my eye a misspelling. Over half a century later Paul Auster picked another mysterious Mr Quinn as the protagonist for the first novel of his postmodern New York Trilogy. This Quinn is a writer of mystery stories. One afternoon he has an assignation with a stranger in a park:

‘Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr Quinn. It flies off in so many directions at once.’

‘Yes, I’ve often noticed that myself.’

‘Most people don’t pay attention to such things. They think of words as stones, as great unmovable objects with no life, as monads that never change.’

‘Stones can change. They can be worn away by wind and water . . .’

There’s quite a lot more in this riddle-me-ree vein, but you get the point. The name crops up a fair bit in fiction, often attached to a soldier or a writer. Richard Ford in his 1981 novel The Ultimate Good Luck calls his Vietnam War veteran Harry Quinn. And in his quite bad thriller The Negotiator Frederick Forsyth gives his hero (also a ’Nam veteran, tasked with solving a kidnap crisis and thus averting World War Three or something) the single name Quinn.

William Kennedy entitled one of his novels of nineteenth-century New York Quinn’s Book, his hero Daniel Quinn being a journalist. In Amanda Craig’s nifty satire on literary London, A Vicious Circle (1996), the heroine is a fledgling book reviewer named Mary Quinn:

The first few times she saw the words Mary Quinn at the top of a review, she was mesmerized. It seemed she had never seen her name before. She fell in love with it, with the beautiful symmetry of the M and the curly tail of the Q.

Put like that it does sound rather appealing . . . An old friend of mine, Sebastian Faulks, described a Sergeant Quinn in his novel A Fool’s Alphabet as ‘a thin, melancholy man from somewhere in the north-west’. This fellow was supposed to be ‘an expert in body disposal’. Cheers!

Before this starts to sound like an essay in nominative narcissism let me revert to the theme, which is the business of naming. Personally I find that characters will only come alive once I’ve found their names. Sometimes it occurs to you immediately; sometimes the search goes on for weeks. And given it’s a name you’ll be looking at constantly for a couple of years you’d better make sure you like it. I recall a time when novelists would leaf through whole telephone directories in search of names. What do they do now that telephone directories have disappeared? My own preference is to wander about Abney Park Cemetery in north London and jot down names from the gravestones (unexpectedly soothing in these lockdown days). My last notebook entry reads: Greenland – Dredge – Dennington – Tewson – Kite – Brashier – Rodway – Remnant – Chipp – Seavol – Bidgood – Gwilt. Remnant! Where else would you end up but in a graveyard? I may not have use for any of them, but it reassures me to keep the list in reserve.

There’s also the option of copying from your betters. Dickens’s names are too comical and outlandish to adopt for oneself. George Eliot’s are somehow too lapidary. Trollope, on the other hand, is such a fantastic and profuse namer of characters that I have to stop myself nicking from him. The Palliser novels alone are a bountiful resource. Fothergill. Bonteen. Standish. Cantrip. Maule. Vavasor. Du Boung. Collingwood. Effingham. Evidently the temptation has been overpowering, because every one of those names has appeared in a book or story by me. Has there ever been a journalist in fiction better named than Quintus Slide? Or a rakish gossip-about-town better than Dolly Longstaffe?

When George Gissing wrote New Grub Street (1891), about a vulnerable failing novelist called Edwin Reardon, he would little have suspected that more than a century later his namesake would reappear in a radio comedy – Ed Reardon’s Week – about a failing freelance dogsbody living in Berkhamsted with a cat named Elgar. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Either way, it has become impossible to see the name Reardon without being reminded of a certain male neediness. Gissing’s mordant sense of irony is also detectable in the character of a near-destitute surgeon, who appears in a single brief scene to diagnose a man’s oncoming blindness from cataracts. The luckless surgeon’s name: Victor Duke.

One of the best novels I read last year was Andrew Miller’s atmospheric Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, about a British army officer on the run following the disastrous retreat at Corunna in 1809, when atrocities were visited upon the Spanish natives. I was halfway through the book before I realized that Miller had drawn his characters’ names – Lacroix, Calley, Medina – from reports on the massacre of villagers by American soldiers at My Lai during the Vietnam War. The novel, which also explores seafaring, utopian living, firearms, Regency music and nascent eye surgery, is altogether gripping; with that extra layer of historical resonance it became heartbreaking, too. Names can do that.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Anthony Quinn 2021


About the contributor

Anthony Quinn’s latest novel, London, Burning, features yet another character’s surname borrowed from Anthony Trollope

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