Coming up with names for your characters can be tricky, especially when you are writing historical fiction. After all, you wouldn’t want to give your nineteenth-century British heroine a name like Charlene (which is a twentieth-century name that is mainly used in North America and Australia), would you? But never fear: there are tools to help you!
A dictionary of first names is always a good investment. I have A Concise Dictionary of First Names by Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges from Oxford University Press, which I love because it gives you a short explanation and history for each name, e.g.
Frances: Feminine form of Francis. In the 16th century the two spellings were used indiscriminately for both sexes, the distinction in spelling not being established until the 17th century.
Short form: Fran
Pet form: Franny
These days, however, I mostly use another book to find names for my characters, namely an 1833 edition of Debrett’s Peerage, which is basically an index of all the peers of the United Kingdom. Apart from titles and names, the book also offers some information about the family history:
DUDLEY RYDER, Earl of HARROWBY, Viscount Sandon, co. Stafford, Lord Harrowby, of Harrowby, co. Lincoln, High Steward of Tiverton, D.C.L., F.A.S.; born 22 Dec. 1762; succeeded his father, Nathaniel, the late lord, 20 June 1803; created, 19 July 1809, Viscount Sandon and Earl of Harrowby; married, July 1795, Susan Levison-Gower, da. of Granville, 1st marquess of Stafford, K.G., (by Susan Stuart, da. of Alexander, 7th earl of Galloway), and has issue, – 1. SUSAN, b. 20 June 1796, m., June 1817, Hugh, viscount Ebrington, eldest son of the earl of Fortescue, and d. 30 July 1827; – 2. DUDLEY, viscount Sandon, b. 7 May 1797, M.P. for Liverpool; m. at Berne, 15 Sept. 1823, Frances, da. of John, 1st marquess of Bute, and has issue, 1. Frances, b. Sept 1824; 2. Dudley, b. 5 Jan. 1828 […]
As you can see in the image above, people would add handwritten notes with additional information, for example about births and deaths: the nineteenth-century owner of my copy of Debrett’s has added a “d” for died or dead in front of Susan Levison-Gower’s name. Thus, Debrett’s also has a way of confronting you with the harsher realities of life in the nineteenth-century: even in noble families many children didn’t survive past infancy; mothers died in childbed, young men were lost at sea.
What you also find is that fancy names were rather uncommon (at least among the upper classes). Men were given traditional English names such as William, John, George, Peter, Thomas, Henry, James, Charles, Robert, and sometimes Augustus or Nathaniel. A greater variation appeared to have existed when it came to women’s names: the most common of those were names like Mary, Maria, Emma, Caroline, Catherine, Anne, Sophia, Elizabeth, Susan(na), Jane, Charlotte, Henrietta, Louisa. But you can also find more exotic names such as Urania-Annabella (poor child) (in the Wallop family, Urania seems to have been a popular name as it pops up in several generations) or Meliora-Emily.
Moreover, I use Debrett’s for inspiration for last names and titles. Thus the entry I cited above inspired the name of a secondary character in my NaNoWriMo project: my heroine’s brother-in-law is called Nathaniel Ryder.