Friday, February 8, 2013

Little Women - A Sibling Study

Two-volume Roberts Brothers printing, from the early 1870s via Wikipedia

On my Facebook page, I recently asked fellow NameFreaks what they thought would be the name of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy's little sister. I'm talking Little Women, of course, and the suggestions were fantastic. It made me want to look into the sisters' names a little more.

If we are going to look at the novel's characters, we should first take a glimpse at the one who named them. Louisa May Alcott was born in Pennsylvania in 1832 to Amos Bronson and Abigail May Alcott. In 1838, her family moved to Massachusetts, which is also the setting for her most famous novel. In fact, Little Women is said to have been based on Alcott's childhood. Louisa was the second of four sisters: Anna Bronson, Louisa May, Elizabeth Sewall and Abigail May.

For the four girls of Little Women, the nicknames go together so perfectly that when put together it is actually an alternate title to the book. But when you look at their full names, the youngest definitely stands out. It's short, doesn't have a nickname, and as you will see below, probably wasn't as popular as the other three at the time the book was written. I had a similar observation about a TV family, the Crawfords from Downton Abbey.

Little Women was published in 1868, but unfortunately, the earliest we can look at name rankings is 1880:

Margaret #6
Josephine #50
Elizabeth #4
Amy #108

Margaret and Elizabeth were (and Elizabeth still is) consistently on top. Josephine is a bit lower, but still a strong classic name. Amy sits outside the Top 100. Even Amelia, a name for which Amy can be a nickname, was ranked #96 in 1880. Amy's numbers get lower after 1880, so maybe the name was ranked higher in the 1860s.

Since the sisters in the book were modeled after the real-life sisters, let's compare:

Anna/Margaret - Anna was a very popular name in the late 1800s (#2 from 1880 until 1900). Maybe she chose Margaret because she heard it as much as she heard Anna. The fictional oldest daughter shared her mother's name, while the real youngest daughter shared hers.

Louisa/Josephine - Louisa was ranked #130 in 1880 and wasn't even the least popular name of her sisters (Abigail was #492, but also shared the name with her mother). I don't see a connection between Louisa and Josephine. Maybe she just liked it, or wanted a name with a boyish nickname to go with the tomboy character.

Elizabeth/Elizabeth - Louisa's sister died in 1858 and it is said to have been a pretty emotional event for the family. The character of Beth's death had a similar impact on the March family. I could make a guess that Louisa wanted to keep the honor of her sister's name in the book. The family called the real Elizabeth "Lizzie", however, I have seen in a journal entry written by Louisa in which she refers to her as "Beth".

Abigail/Amy - The youngest, Abigail, was called Abba and Abby as a child, but decided to be May once she reached her twenties (the 1860s). As some of you may already know or now realize, Amy is an anagram of May. So, that's where the odd one out came from.

I really have no idea if Alcott, or any author, is this analytical when choosing their character names, especially when the characters are so personal. But it's still fun to analyze. ;)

How have these names performed since the novel? Margaret has made a gradual and incomprehensible fall since reaching #3 in the early 1900s. Josephine had its lowest numbers in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s before it started to rise again. As already discussed, Elizabeth is the only one of these names that stayed consistently at the top, never ranking below #26 as it did in the 1940s. Amy also reached its depths in the 1940s, but climbed to its peak in the 1970s, even reaching #2 for a few years. Amy is now on the decline.

So, would these make good sister names today? Here are their 2011 ranks:

Margaret #187
Josephine #182
Elizabeth #11
Amy #143

Would you have guessed Margaret to be the lowest ranked of the four? Elizabeth may be considered "too popular" for this bunch, and Josephine is the only one on the rise. But I think no matter what the ranks are, the first three names go very well together.

As for a little sister to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, the following were suggested by NameFreaks:

Katherine (Kit, Kitty, Kate)
Nancy (Nan)
Emmaline
Charlotte (Lettie)
Helen (Nell, Nellie)
Fantasia

My personal pick would be Harriet (Hattie).

Do you have any other suggestions? And please share any other tidbits of name information you may have about Miss Alcott, her sisters or Little Women. I'm always wanting to know more. :)

The information above was retrieved from www.louisamayalcott.org and Wikipedia.

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4 comments:

  1. Fascinating look at the real and fictional siblings, and the reason behind the name choices.

    L.M. Alcott's grandfather was named Joseph - perhaps she named Josephine after him? I remember once Jo was looking at a painting of Laurie's grandfather, and said that he wasn't as handsome as HER grandfather.

    Anna was named after her grandmother, so it probably seemed like a family pattern she could relate to.

    (Odd that she named the servant Hannah!)

    I probably wouldn't pick a feminine form of a male name like Charlotte for the sister's name, as Josephine must remain unique, and there is already a Kitty in the story.

    I'd pick Florence "Flossy", with the name chosen by Italy-loving Amy; it was #14 in 1880.

    Second pick, simple Rose (#30) - LM Alcott seems to written quite a few stories about Roses.

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    1. thank you for the great info! i think she would use Josephine to honor her grandfather. makes me wonder if she had a Margaret in her life.

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  3. I would suggest:

    Anthea (NN Annie or Tea)
    Caroline (NN Lina)
    Cordelia (NN Delia)
    Susannah (NN Sunny)
    Sarah (NN Sally)

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