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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