What’s in a name?

In three weeks time my second daughter will get married and I think of Elizabeth Bennet’s mother’s words in Pride and Prejudice, when her third daughter, Lizzie, gets an offer of marriage from Mr Darcy.

“Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.”

I find I am no longer as fussed about the idea of marriage as I once might have been. Still marriage matters.

It matters too that my daughter has elected to keep her name after she marries. I tried that myself for a time, to keep my maiden name. It worked until the babies came along.

I’m glad now to have my husband’s name in so far as it also offers a level of anonymity away from my family of origin. I can write about my childhood without the burden of association to the names of my siblings.

Losing my name I have lost that connection.

Still there are days when I long to go back to my maiden name.

For all its patriarchal overtones, my maiden name is an amalgam of my mother’s and my father’s name after all – my mother’s first name and my father’s second. It is also the name I was born into, the name I held closest to me when as a small child and I played with around with notions of of place and identity.

How I loved as a seven year old to track the essential aspects of where I lived:

Miss Elisabeth Schooneveldt

2 Wentworth Avenue

Canterbury, East 7

Melbourne Victoria Australia

The Pacific Ocean

The world

The universe.

My world was ever expanding like the mirrors on my mother’s dressing room table that folded in on one another and when you tucked yourself in between you could see yourself from behind and from the front, forever diminishing, shot after shot into infinity.


And somehow my name pinned me to the spot.

And this new name I have now, not so new when I consider I took it on fully when my first daughter was born over thirty four years ago and I have adopted it and recognise it as my name.

But it is not me, nor ever shall be.

I was once in a writing class with the late Doris Leadbetter and when it came time to introduce myself, she stopped at my name and said half jokingly, now Elisabeth Hanscombe, that’s a good name for a novelist.

I took heart from this though no novel of mine has yet transpired nor is likely to. Memoir maybe and essays and book chapters and even short stories but novels, not under that name.

Maybe one day if I ever live long enough to revert to form to go back to being that small girl in the red brick house near the corner of Canterbury Road and Wentworth Avenue I might find myself able to slip more fully into the world of imagination and find the place from which all novels begin.

But for now I have to settle with my own half fictionalised, half factual story, all in the name of my husband’s father and his father’s father before him.

It’s not a bad name though. It’s just not mine.

17 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. Ha, I wrote my name and address as a kid in the same manner in a book which I saw a couple of years ago, also concluding with The Universe.

    1. You, me and Jim, Andrew all wrote our names out like this. now there’s clear;y a pattern from this smh;l sample. And I’ll bet there are many others like us. All part of that gigantic universe. Thanks, Andrew.

  2. I did the same, Lis, wrote out my address as fully as possible. I wonder why we do that. It can only make us feel more insignificant than we already are. I used to add a “Jnr” to my name and I kept it going into my late teens. For a while I inserted a “J.” even though I have no middle name. My daughter and I were talking about names when we met for lunch on Thursday. Had she been a boy she would’ve been called James. My father was James. His was John. It was the only male name her mother and I could agree on. She, however, has no intention of carrying on the tradition and I wasn’t moved one way or another on learning that. As a kid I was “our Jimmy”. Later, when it seemed like some confusion might arise, people started calling us “auld Jimmy” and “young Jimmy” which I quite liked if I’m being honest.

    My daughter is currently known as Mrs F. despite the fact she’s living with Mr I. At work, before she married, she was Miss M. but at school Miss D. since when my first wife remarried she insisted my daughter use her new husband’s surname. That always bothered me and it was meant to. As soon as she left her mum’s house she reverted to the name on her birth certificate. The problem now is, if she has a baby what will it be called? She’s still technically married to Mr F. but she wouldn’t want a baby by Mr I. to have F.’s surname. I’m not sure how it works.

    Online my wife’s known as Carrie Berry. Berry is not her maiden name but the name of her first husband. In the real world she uses my surname but I can’t say it bothers me that people know her as Carrie Berry. It has a nice ring to it.

    I like the idea of a child being able to choose his or her own name when they reach whatever their particular culture decides is adulthood. I knew a boy who was called Dawson who changed his name to Joe when he was an adult; Joe, coincidentally, was his father’s name.

    1. When ever I wrote out my name in such detail as a kid, Jim, rather than make me feel insignificant, it had the opposite effect. It made me feel important. It made me feel as if I had a place in the broad scheme of things. It made me feel I belonged.
      My father had all these initials after his name. He was a chartered accountant and I longed for the day when I could have letters behind my name, too. As if they signified something of great import. The more letters the better. These days I see it all as a bit of a wank and I couldn’t be bothered, though I do enjoy being able to cite my PhD from time to time. That one feels well earned. The others of my qualifications maybe less so.
      I reckon we still haven’t mastered the best way to approach the naming of people. I think it’s easier of course to follow the generations through the names but we need more. The old patriarchal line is breaking down. As for people choosing their own names when they’re old enough to decide, that could be tricky too. It’s time to find a new form of nomenclature. Thanks, Jim

  3. I think our names are both beautiful!. Mine: (German) Schönhals – beautiful throat, yours Schoonevelt (Dutch) – beautiful world. I like my maiden name – not so fond of either of my married names – have thought of changing my name to Kathryn Elliot, but I think I’m too old to make a change.

    1. Well if ever there was a name that sounded like a novelist’s, Kathryn Eliot is it, Kass. And to think Emmjay’s two children each have one of these beautiful names. As beautiful as our maiden names. By the way, my maiden name translates into beautiful or clean field, and is reflected in other languages in names such as Fairfield and Beauchamps. Your name sounds as though it might have a similar meaning, not that I can speak German. That’s just a hunch. Thanks, Kass

  4. Elisabeth, I came to your blog via your comment on Gerard Oosterman’s post about the passing of Bob Ellis.

    When I read your story mentioning your husband’s knife sharpening, it transported me back to my salad days when, as an impecunious student, I bought my Dad a small but perfect piece of Arkansas stone in a gold embossed wooden box. He used it to sharpen his wood carving chisels.

    And it pleases me to reflect that it isn’t often that one can give a ‘best of best’ gift.

    Thank you for the piece and for your wonderful photographs.

    1. Thanks, Emmjay. It’s lovely to see you here. I’ve seen your name – online and all as it may be – around the traps and read some of your musings. My husband has several such Arkansas stones, in various colours. They all offer different levels of precision I’m told. Those best gifts stay with you. I’m not sure I’ve even been lucky enough to give them, but I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of one or two in my time.

  5. Not many people realise that there is no rule or statute (under Australian Law at least) that says a child must have a name associated with their family. A parent may name a child anything they like i.e. Mary Jones and Peter Brown may name their children Aspen Colarado, Angelfish Port Wine or Sally Hooper. Their children, in turn, may choose to change their names at anytime. As long as all the names are registered and the legal chain of identity is intact, all is fine.
    So, as far as ‘ownership’ of a person goes, this is only something we have all made up in our heads.
    But I do agree, it is a whole lot easier for all involved if there is a common name.

  6. I didn’t realise people think we’re obliged by law to name our children within our family name system, but as you say, it’d help keep tabs on genealogy, Karen But maybe not with individual autonomy. Thanks.

  7. Elisabeth, I think most people assume family surnames are a legal formality. Personally, I find it most confusing and lacking imagination when children were ‘named after’ a parent. Amusingly, I once knew a family of 5 daughters who were ALL named ‘Margaret’ after their mother!

    1. Five daughters all named Margaret. Wow. In my case all my four daughters have the name Elisabeth as their second name. It was my husband’s idea, and touching too given I gave up my madden name for his. I’m not sure how my daughters feel about this now but as a child I enjoyed the fact that all my siblings, bar the oldest, sport the name Maria – boys included – as our third name. All in honour of the blessed Virgin.

  8. I am the first of 4 known generations of women NOT to carry the family second name. I later found out my mother had been adopted so maybe it is right that she was the last
    person to carry it.

  9. That’s amazing, Karen. As for my husband’s family name, he’s traced it back several generations beginning with a woman way back in the seventeen hundreds I think who seems to have been a single mother, at least she passed her name onto her son, Jonas Hanscombe and from then on it degenerated to the patriarchal line of today with a few folks beginning to fight it.

  10. The day after my husband asked me to marry him, I remember driving from Hobart to Launceston and bursting into tears at the thought of changing my name—I felt as if I’d lose my identity if I lost my name. I still wanted to be the same person I’d always been, and changing my name would have felt as if I was giving that up. This was only 22 1/2 years ago, and it certainly wasn’t unusual to keep your maiden name by then anyway. My husband isn’t the type to worry about that sort of thing either. So I kept it and I’m glad I did. It was brought home to me especially when my father died, and I’m proud to still bear his name.
    Before we married, I told my future mother-in-law that I was going to keep my name, and she said, ‘How strange …’ I ignored her malcontent with my decision. I don’t think my grandmother liked it either, as she always addressed her letters to me with my husband’s surname, even though she knew I’d kept my maiden name—I suspect it was a little act of passive-aggression!
    There was a bit of consternation when I had our firstborn as it was hospital policy for the baby and mother to have the same surname—in case of fire or other emergency, apparently, so they could easily link the mother and the child. Therefore, our daughter had my surname in the hospital, even though she really had her father’s surname.
    At times, I’ve felt a bit of pressure to change my name, and I know it’s just a name, but I felt as if it would have been giving up who I was and who I’d always been, and I simply couldn’t do that.

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