I’ve been thinking a lot about character names lately and admiring other writer’s choices and inventions. For example, in Mark’s novel, Harry, Revised, the main character is named Harry Rent, and it’s such a good name — simple, but suggestive of grief (i.e., the rending that follows a death, which fits as Harry’s a widower) as well as of the provisional, semi-permanent state (i.e., renting, not owning) that sets off Harry’s “revision” process.
Then there’s the less subtle, still marvelous class of character names: Uriah Heep, Augustus Gloop, Undine Sprague (possibly my favorite ever), Fevvers, Stephen Dedalus, the fragile Glass family, and so on.
So, I was amused to come across this letter today in The Notebooks of Henry James. It was written in response to a reader of The Liar with a personal interest in James’s use of “Capadose” for a character name:
34 De Vere Gardens, W.
13 Oct. 1896.
My dear Sir,
You may be very sure that if I had ever had the pleasure of meeting a person of your striking name I wouldn’t have used the name, especially for the purpose of the tale you allude to.
It was exactly because I had no personal or private associations with it that I felt free to do so. But I am afraid that (in answer to your amiable inquiry) it is late in the day for me to tell you how I came by it.
The Liar was written (originally published in The Century Magazine) 10 years ago–and I simply don’t remember.
Fiction-mongers collect proper names, surnames, &c.–make notes and lists of any odd or unusual, as handsome or ugly ones they see or hear–in newspapers (columns of births, deaths, marriages, &c.) or in directories and signs of shops or elsewhere; fishing out of these memoranda in time of need the one that strikes them as good for a particular case.
“Capadose” must be in one of my old note-books. I have a dim recollection of having found it originally in the first column of The Times, where I find almost all the names I store up for my puppets. It was picturesque and rare and so I took possession of it. I wish–if you care at all–that I had applied it to a more exemplary individual! But my romancing Colonel was a charming man, in spite of his little weakness.
I congratulate you on your bearing a name that is at once particularly individualizing and not ungraceful (as so many rare names are).
I am, my dear Sir,
Yours very truly
I also like how you could set this letter to “This Is Just To Say“: I have named a character with your surname … Forgive me, it was too tempting: so picturesque, so rare.” (Commas, &c. added to make it suitably Jamesian.)