An important part of every writer’s task is to use proper names judiciously. Shakespeare’s names – Ophelia, Prospero, Caliban, Portia, Bottom, Titania, Malvolio – summon character and plot, and also seem to light up regions of the human psyche, so that we can say, knowing what we mean and without other words to express it, ‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’. And what poem makes greater use of a name than the one from which I have just quoted? ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’: all the existential hesitation of the protagonist is foreshadowed in the title, which illustrates the deep-down impossibility of anyone called J. Alfred Prufrock uttering a plausible love song. Christopher Ricks shows this with characteristic élan in T. S. Eliot and Prejudice: ‘“I’m in love.” “Who’s the lucky man?” “J. Alfred Prufrock” – impossible.’
Shakespeare’s genius is revealed not only in his choice of names, but in his ability to take the names prescribed by his sources, and make them become the characters who wear them: Antony and Cleopatra, for example, both so swelled with erotic recklessness by Shakespeare that it is not surprising that Dryden called his version of the story All for Love, and allowed the names to creep in later. With what fine sense of drama does the poet display the dying Antony through his name, while Cleopatra is eclipsed by a title:
Not Caesar’s valour hath o’erthrown Antony,
But Antony’s hath triumph’d on itself.
So it should be, that none but Antony
Should conquer Antony, but woe ‘tis so!
I am dying, Egypt, dying …
When treating of erotic love Shakespeare makes play with the very act of naming, reminding us that the arbitrariness of names stems from the attempt to record what is not arbitrary at all but unique and therefore inexpressible. Juliet, having learned that Romeo bears the hated name of Montague, attempts to separate him in thought from his name:
What’s in a name? That which we call a Rose,
By any other word would smell as sweete,
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retaine that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doffe thy name,
And for thy name which is no part of thee,
Take all my selfe.
As the tragedy shows, it is precisely this that Romeo cannot do. To doff his name is to doff his destiny as the child of his parents and the heir to their burden of revenge. As the two lovers are entangled in the web of disaster, their names gather the resonance of their passion, and that which they at first strive to doff is at last engraved in marble on their common tomb. Thus, before the end of the scene Juliet is already saying:
Bondage is hoarse, and may not speake aloud,
Else would I teare the Cave where Echo lies,
And make her airie tongue more hoarse than myne,
With repetition of my Romeo.
Romeo’s rejection of the claims of Rosaline is expressed in his forgetting her name, and when Romeo later rages against his name –
O tell me, friar, tell me
In what vile part of this Anatomie
Doth my name lodge? Tell me that I may sack
The hateful mansion
– his words show the futility of his effort to excise this thing, which is the focal point of Juliet’s passion. ‘In the name,’ wrote Hegel, ‘the individual as pure individual is “weighed”, not only in “his” consciousness, but in the consciousness of all.’ (Phenomenology of Spirit)
Shakespeare’s plays are works of philosophy – philosophy not argued but shown. Other writers, less concerned with the finer points of metaphysics, have nevertheless busied themselves with the impossible task of presenting an individual essence in a name. Dickens is a master of this, so too is Henry James. In Dickens the effect is mostly comic: in James it is often turned to tragic purpose, as when American innocence, encapsulated in a bright-eyed, honest name like Milly Theale or Daisy Miller, is turned inwards and destroyed by old-world moral artifice. A writer’s heraldic talent may be revealed in plain syllables – Tom Jones, Moll Flanders – or in a label that invites social and linguistic diagnosis: Rougon-Macquart, Buddenbrooks or Proust’s tantalizing Charlus, revealed after many hundreds of pages to be only the least and most obscure of the Baron’s titles. A name acquired by marriage is particularly significant, since it resounds with the choice that introduced it. Flaubert begins his great novel in the first person plural, placing Charles Bovary both inside the mind and outside the story, observed like a curious insect under the microscope, so that his surname fills with honest clumsiness and well-meant social failure. And then suddenly the writer withdraws, the ‘we’ evaporates, and this yoke is clamped around the neck of Emma.
Writers are connoisseurs of names. They jot them down from noticeboards and newspapers, from small ads and telephone directories. And to each they try to affix an image or a story; the name in the phonebook is a glimpse through curtains of a private space as yet unentered by the narrator. But what about the writer’s own name? A nom de plume is a mask, like Stendhal, and it is chosen as a writer’s name, the name of that all-seeing eye on the edge of things, the consciousness that observes but is no part of the action. To live with such a name is not to gain a personality but to renounce it, to become the narrator of a supreme fiction, and so to fictionalize oneself. The nom de plume conceals the other name, the unchosen patronymic in which lives the real human essence – the Henri Beyle or Eric Blair who is not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be.
Even without the device of a nom de plume, there is room for the literary imagination. You can address your readers from the formal posture of a surname, or you can offer a glimpse of your intimate self, the self that is known to those who truly live with it. Suppose T. S. Eliot had written Tom Eliot on his title pages – like Thorn Gunn or Ted Hughes. Would his poetry still retain the hieratic, suffering detachment that is so important to its sense? Or suppose, conversely, that Ariel had been the work of one S. Plath. How then could we take seriously the knife-like accusations, the sense of intimacy as horrible as the hands of the Inca priest seizing the heart of a living victim?
Daddy, I have had to kill you …
Not, surely, the words of S. Plath, but a cry from the depths of Sylvia. Who is Sylvia, what is she, That all our swains commend/condemn her? The answer is there on the page.
Spelling, too, matters. Thorn Gunn is decidedly not Tom Gunn. The inaudible ‘h’ suggests a softness, a sensibility, to which only those who relish the written word are fully attuned. ‘H’ is for ‘homosexual’: it reveals to the eye, while hiding from the ear, the flesh beneath the biker’s jacket.
Initials used by a woman writer are like the George Eliot of our greatest philosophical novelist – a masculine disguise, calculated both to exploit and to challenge the supposed ascendancy of men. (I say ‘supposed’, but of course if enough people suppose that it is so, then it is so.) And if such a writer reveals in every line and every word that she is first of all a woman, and only by default and in unguarded moments a dispassionate narrator (dispassionate narrators being mostly of the masculine gender, if not of the male sex), the result is unsettling and even incongruous. It was a relief to discover that A. L. Kennedy is called Alison. If someone asked me who wrote So I am Glad, I would now without thinking say Alison Kennedy, the very same Alison Kennedy who wrote On Bullfighting. But no such writer appears in the library catalogues.
The use of initials is to some extent a matter of fashion. Maybe it is no accident that T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats and D. H. Lawrence were of the same period and the same cultural milieu, or that they all made such an impression on F. R. Leavis who, with his wife Q. D., felt called upon to judge them. But that is not the whole story. In an age of first names initials remain a useful tool: they suggest coolness and objectivity. Novelists who see through their characters, as A. N. Wilson does, are well advised to keep their first names to themselves; a poet like C. H. Sisson, for whom the human world is only a point of departure for the empty courtroom where God once sat in judgement, ought to be wary of letting us call him Charles. And, while on the subject of religious poetry, how wrong it would be to call Gerard Manley Hopkins G. M. – for here is a poet whose religion consists in letting his heart flow out, rather than in fastidiously withdrawing it.
But what about the names themselves – not first names only, but surnames too? For those addicted to words, the surnames of writers take on the sense of their writings. Wittgenstein, for me, has the sound of a frozen mountaineer, poised on the apex of an argument and remaining there, aloof, uncomforted and alone. Dickens – whose name is proverbial in English – has the sound of an old-fashioned haberdashery: an accumulation of oddments, some still useful, others left behind by fashion or piled in a heap of unvisited history, like the objects in Mrs Jellaby’s cupboard. Lawrence roars like a lion, and yawns like one too; while Melville is not the noise of Captain Ahab stomping his wooden peg on the deck above, but the melancholy sound of a quiet harbour, where the sheets smack in the breeze and a clerk sucks his pen at a counting desk above the quay.
As for the first names of writers, they matter in another way: for they are the private aspect of a name that has chosen to go public. Acquiring the right surname is hard; but at least people don’t blame you for it. Acquiring the right first name is easier, since your parents often give you a choice, and there are nicknames galore to replace them. But for this very reason you stand accused of your first name. It is your fault that you are Agatha, Gramophone or Quin.
Names have fatally affected my literary career. My mother was born and bred in the genteel suburbs of London, cherishing an ideal of gentlemanly conduct and social distinction that my father set out with considerable relish to destroy. She saw in me her great hope of rescue from the Lawrentian wildness of Jack Scruton, and of a return to the quiet tea-parties and box-lined gardens of Upper Norwood. She therefore decided that I should be called Vernon, after a distant cousin who looked sweet and poetic in photographs, but whose greatest merit was that he had emigrated to Canada before he could reveal how few real merits he had.
My father, who perhaps saw in this name a fitting revenge for my existence, acquiesced in his wife’s desire. However, a residual tenderness towards his son reminded him of the misery that would be faced by a boy with a cissy name, if he could not fight his way to another one. He therefore insisted also on Roger, after Sir Roger de Buslingthorpe, who lay in effigy in the church next to the farm where I was born. Furthermore it was mercifully agreed between my parents that, while I was to be called Vernon by all my relations, Roger would be the first name on my birth certificate and, as it were, the official title that I would one day win through my deeds.
I was a timid child, who keenly felt the double injury of red hair and a cissy name. The critical moment came aged ten, during last year at primary school. A large boy called Herman, whose misfortune was also contained in a name, and who therefore became the school bully by way of compelling us to respect him, kicked me as I sat down for morning assembly, launching into a diatribe against red hair with every word of which I fully concurred. I gave him to understand that, had it been possible to vote for the abolition of red hair, I would have been first to raise my hand. To my dismay, however, Herman was not satisfied with this general apology for my condition, and indicated that I must meet him in the playground during break, so that my head could be bashed in and the problem of red hair solved for good and all.
‘There’s no helping it,’ said my friend Brian (the only one in the playground who was more timid than I). ‘He’s after you. If not today then tomorrow. Best to get it over with.’ News of the impending fight spread rapidly through the school and at the appointed hour the spectators gathered into a ring. Brian pushed me forward and my antagonist strode out from the crowd with flaring nostrils, fists up and big lips parted in a sneer. I closed my eyes, shielded my face with my left hand, and stretched my right arm out to protect myself. Herman came forward at a run, with blood-curdling shrieks and flailing arms. I stood rooted to the spot, the sounds of Herman’s war-dance filling my ears, my outstretched fist trembling in the air before me. After what seemed like an age, there was a staggering blow to my knuckles. I opened my eyes to discover Herman recoiling backwards, lips split open and blood pouring over his chin. With a howl of dismay he pirouetted through the crowd, and fled to the headmaster’s office to report my crime.
It seemed unjust at the time that I should be caned and Herman comforted. But it added to a reputation that had already spread through the school as quickly as the newest cigarette card, and I resolved at once to exploit my eminence as the conqueror of Herman. I went from gang to gang in the playground, escorted by Brian (now promoted to first lieutenant), and informing my respectful listeners that henceforth I was not Vernon but Roger, that all uses of my former name, which had been no more than a disguise adopted for secret service reasons, would be as severely punished as remarks about red hair. Obedience was immediate and universal, and henceforth I was Roger to everyone, including my family, who were told that the choice was simple: either they ceased to call me Vernon, or I went to live with the gypsies.
Inside, however, just behind the egg-shell armour of Roger’s belligerence, Vernon peered out at the world. His name had been excised from the public record – even his initial was no longer used – and his perfunctory funeral had been announced and completed. But he remained, a quiet, timorous creature who still suffered from the fact of having red hair. Roger went to the local grammar school keen to prove his reality, and promptly made a reputation for himself as a rebel, with a talent for home-made bombs. But with the onset of puberty, and the discovery of books, Vernon saw his chance. He was not allowed to use his name, of course, since that would have undermined five years of patient labour. But he was allowed to whisper his literary ambitions, since Roger had fallen into the trap of sharing them. We looked around for precedents, and could find no Roger among the novelists and poets. Indeed the only Roger in the whole of literature seemed to be Sir Roger de Coverley, the ineffectual squire of Addison and Steele. Nor did we at first find any Vernons.
Then one day an anthology of modern verse came into our hands. There, right up among the gods, next to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, was someone called Vernon Scannell. We were not to know that this Vernon had begun life as a professional boxer, no doubt in an attempt to erase the stigma of his name. All that we understood was the irrebuttable proof that writers could be called Vernon. Even if he published under the name Roger Scruton, therefore, it was agreed that Vernon would be the real author of our words. Everything that I have written that has come from the heart rather than the head has been the work of someone officially dead aged ten.
Not that the relation between Roger and Vernon has been an antagonistic one. Labouring under shared disadvantages, and joined inseparably by fate, they have had to get on. Vernon, they knew, was an impossible name, like St Evremond or J. Alfred Prufrock. They knew too that no writer could make a convincing show of Roger, and despite these facts they were determined to be a writer.
To those difficulties must be added the even more crushing disadvantage of their surname. There are surnames designed for a literary career: Wordsworth, for example, Metastasio or Hölderlin. But most writers have to make do with the same accidental surnames as the rest of us. These, roughly speaking, are of two kinds: names that denote a trade; and names that denote a place. The first can generally be relied upon, since the natural flow of human life has made them smooth with use and versatile. Smith, Baker, Thatcher, Porter: all such names trip off the tongue, their menial meaning forgotten, eagerly presenting themselves for more interesting work. Place names are more tricky. If too well known – like Liverpool, Somerset or Shrewsbury – they sound like aristocratic titles. If too rustic – like Lobthorpe, Ordsall or Dowdeswell – they suggest characters out of Thomas Hardy, or the nom de plume of someone who would like to have been Hardy but lacks his talent.
Many French place names owe their magical and euphonious character to the fact that they are the linguistic relics of Latin saints. Thus the steady flow of piety and dialect has turned Sanctus Sidonius into Saint-Saëns, itself the ideal name for a conservative composer. From the earthy St Gengoux to the seraphic St Exupéry, whose remains now lie in ocean’s depths, these names express the archaeological reality of a nation rooted in a place, a faith and a tongue.
Our place names are equally historic, but fatally distorted by their heathen roots. One such name is Scruton – Scrofa’s Tun – named from a Viking chieftain whose distinguishing feature was not red hair but dandruff. The sound can be rectified by no efforts of elocution. In whatever tone of voice Scruton sounds mean and censorious. Scourge, Scrooge, Scrotum and Scrutiny all tumble like black scarabs from the mouth that utters it. I am convinced that the hostile reception encountered by even my most forgiving works has been due, not to the conservative voice that speaks through them (which is Vernon’s voice, not Roger’s), but to the scraping steel of this scalpel-like surname. I was not surprised to find Sue Townsend using it for her nasty headmaster in the Adrian Mole stories. And I am sure that its subliminal effect is one cause of the enormous surprise that people feel, on meeting me, to discover that I am approximately human.
Maybe I should have adopted a nom de plume like Stendhal, or even let it be known that Scruton is a nom de plume, the deliberately forbidding mask adopted by a mild-mannered humanist who regrets the words that truth compels from him. For good or ill, however, I stuck with my family name, took comfort from the fact that others had learned to live with it – the photographer Roger Scruton, for example – and reminded myself that it had the merit, like Dracula, Heliogabalus and Rasputin, of being unforgettable.
This problematic surname, which I could by then neither discard nor amend, was much on my mind during the eighties, when my writings were routinely greeted with anger or ridicule. One summer day I stepped from an aeroplane in Adelaide, where I was due to give a lecture to a small gathering of local conservatives. I was depressed by the reception of my latest book, Sexual Desire, and depressed too that I had had to fly all the way to Australia to find an audience. It was quite clear to me that I had made a mistake in pursuing Vernon’s literary ambition, while choosing Roger’s method of advancing it.
The first thing I saw on emerging into the Arrivals Hall was a placard on which SCRUTON had been written in bold gothic letters. I had to fight the urge to apologize for this name, which had begun to sound in my ears like the growls of a bogeyman. To my surprise, however, a middle-aged man emerged from behind the placard and apologized for nobbling me. He wore blue plastic sandals, khaki shorts and a hideous orange shirt, above the open collar of which his leathery neck stretched and gobbled impatiently. On top was a large Anglo-Saxon head, precariously balanced, in which the pink-veined blueish eyes stared fixedly like headlights.
‘Mr Scruton,’ he cried as he shook my hand. ‘Welcome to Adelaide. I just had to come to meet you. I am a Scruton aficionado, a Scruton fanatic. I collect everything to do with Scruton – everything!’
Taken aback, I stuttered out my gratitude. Maybe Scruton wasn’t such a hideous name after all. Maybe it was the kind of name a writer could justify, a name with a genuine appeal for a narrow range of discriminating readers. Maybe Scruton would earn its place in the cannon along with other names beginning in ‘Sc’, for example … well, for example, Scannell. I shook the proffered hand warmly and asked him which of my books he enjoyed.
‘See here,’ he said, ignoring me, ‘I brought you the Scruton catalogue. I’ve got another copy. This one’s yours.’
He reached into a grubby satchel that swung from his left arm, took out a large green folio and thrust it towards me with a comradely smile. On the woven paper cover was written:
The Scruton Estate
Northallerton and Bedale
and close to
Inside, it announced that by order of the Executors of Mrs M. E. J. A. Coore, deceased, the Scruton Estate, comprising Scruton Hall, five farms, innumerable cottages, smallholdings, woodland, and 1,111 acres – in short, the whole village of Scruton – was to be auctioned in 38 lots at the Golden Lion Hotel, Northallerton, on Wednesday 15 July 1953. There was a photograph of the magnificent Queen Anne Hall, and an emotionless Pevsner-like description of its state-rooms and corridors, patrolled only by ghosts, some of them perhaps my ancestors, and one, Mrs Coore, the bearer of four inscrutable initials. Each cottage and farm and field was described in the same archaeological tone: it was as though the Germans had won the war, and a dutiful officer were sending an inventory to his distant commander-in-chief. To an Englishman attuned to recent history it was a funeral oration, a lament in auctioneer’s jargon for our destroyed spiritual home.
We stood in the searing light of the Arrivals Hall, my official hosts now striding towards me with relieved and eager gestures. I turned the pages of the auctioneer’s text while my companion gave a running commentary. He had many photographs of the village as it was, of the cottages and farms, of people who had lived there. He had collected memorabilia: maps, church guidebooks, local histories. The hall had been bought by an American and taken brick by brick to Virginia. But my companion had rescued some of it – two bricks and a door handle. Yes, he had been there, before the village had been torn down, purchased some bits and pieces from one of the cottages. Nothing amazing, only a few mugs and plates and an old picture. Also the bricks left lying where the Hall had stood. He had letters written to his own great-great-grandfather from the people back home, describing life in the village. Yes, he could claim a distant connection. In so far as he came from anywhere – and the point of Australia is that you come from nowhere – he was a Scrutonian.
‘But of course,’ he added, ‘that’s not what makes you an addict. As you know.’
I didn’t know.
‘You mean that it was a kind of symbol of the old country – England as it was – until the modern world caught up with it?’
‘Naaa!’ he said. ‘Villages like that are two a penny. It’s the name – your name.’
The official welcome party now surrounded me, and it turned out that my companion was a part of it. As we left the airport he walked with us in silence, sometimes smiling at me, as though to remind me of a shared and secret passion.
Returning to England I decided to investigate my right to the Scruton name. I discovered that my grandfather was described on his birth certificate as Lowe, which was his mother’s unmarried name. She had called her illegitimate child Scruton for reasons that she never imparted, being permanently drunk by the time anyone thought to inquire of her. I made up a story that would connect me to that precious document in which an English village – my village – was offered for sale. My grandfather, I put it out, had been conceived in Scruton when my great-grandmother had been in service there. She had drifted to Manchester, pregnant and rejected, in search of support.
This story gave me the kudos of bastardy, the glamour of poverty and a wonderfully succinct family tree. And I discovered another curious fact. The journalist George Gale, who as a young man had looked just like me, with the same crowning disability of bright red hair, revealed that the squires of Scruton Hall, before Mrs M. E. J. A. Coore acquired the right to it, were the Gales, his ancestors: good-for-nothing drunks and womanizers, whose features were replicated all over the Yorkshire dales.
Often, when appalled by the sound of Scruton and tempted by Lowe, I pick up the green auctioneer’s catalogue and turn the pages. And there I read the name Scruton, attached not to a person but to a house, a village and a farm, to cottages and fields and woodlands, to those ancient demesnes where Scrofa shook out his dandruff, and where his descendants ploughed the fields. Scruton becomes united in my imagination to the real, historical England; it seems right then to call myself Scruton, and to be repossessed by my name.
And suppose that I am really Lowe, or rather, to resurrect what I assume to be the original spelling, Löwe. What better nom de plume for a writer of German-Jewish ancestry, whose theme is England, than the name of an old Yorkshire village that has now been razed to the ground?