What’s in a name?

An English female friend is getting married next summer to an Italian man and when they came round for dinner recently we were discussing the significance of changing your name after marriage. She’s keen to take his name as she’d like to have the same surname as the children they’re planning on having. He, however, has been brought up by a mother who kept her own surname: the tradition in Italy is for the woman to keep her ‘maiden’ name.

This particular friend’s parents are together, but not married, and she and her brother took their mother’s surname. I have other friends whose parents aren’t married (or weren’t when they were born) and they opted for double-barrel – but it seems the father’s name is usually the most commonly used (it often comes second and so the first half of the barrel is dropped for ease and efficiency).

I decided to change my name after marriage for the following reasons:

1. I liked his surname

2. I like changing my name (this wasn’t my first name change)

3. If we have children – it would be convenient to have the same name

But most importantly: for a writer a memorable name is useful. Some people argue against this but they’re wrong. My pre-marriage surname, Davies, is one of the top five most common surnames in the country. ‘Ridout’ – my new surname – is less common. I can’t find any other ‘Annie Ridouts’ on the internet (who are still alive). And when pitching to editors – who might ask you to phone/ email again in a week’s time – a memorable name does matter.

Also, sharing a surname is romantic. When, in school, we fancied boys and would scrawl our first names with their surnames onto the school desks – that was probably less about early onset abidance of the patriarchal institute of marriage – and more about liking the idea of being a unit with that person. That is how sharing Rich’s surname feels to me.

When Jeanette Winterson interviewed the author A M Homes for the Observer recently (see here), she asked why Homes uses her initials for her pen name. Homes answered, bluntly, that if she had a man’s name (Jonathan) it would be fine, but flaunting her actual name: Amy, would deter potential readers. J K Rowling uses initials, as does E L James. And for the former, at least, it probably does make a difference to the amount of male readers they have.

It seems ludicrous that women still have to write under male (or what are widely interpreted as male) pen names – harking back to the Bronte sisters who, in the early 1800s, disguised their writing under male pseudonyms to gain readers (and respect).

But names do matter. Our name is our label – it’s how we’re identified and remembered. That’s why bands put real consideration into the band’s name – it’s not just the music the counts: it’s the whole package. A book’s content is more important than the title – but a memorable, interesting, intriguing or provocative title will lure readers. Likewise with films. The title of an art work can play a crucial role in the way we perceive that particular piece.

And so although it’s the person, not the name, that matters – if changing your first name or surname suits you: do it. If it doesn’t, don’t. All the name-change-haters should keep their ‘feminist’ arguments in perspective. Feminism, like a name change, is about choice. If changing my name again would further my writing career, I’d do it. Perhaps the initialed pen name concept will eventually be adopted by all authors – resulting in a unisex literary canon where gender is of no significance. THAT is what feminism should aim for: THAT is the future.

by A L Ridout

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