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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

What's in a name?

Shakespeare’s ardent fans are called Bardolators, not Willcolytes. Dickens admirers are Dickensians, not Chuck-a-holics. Devotees of Joyce celebrate Bloomsday, not Jamesday.

Alone* among literary fan clubs, we Austen addicts derive our moniker from our beloved author’s first name. Dissertation-writers may call her “Austen,” but the common folk tend to think of her as “Jane Austen,” and we Janeites, as often as not, just call her plain “Jane.”

Does it matter? Well, maybe: Research published last week suggests that when prominent people are referred to by last name alone – think Einstein, Cervantes, Mozart – they are judged as more famous, accomplished, and deserving of honors than those referred to by both first and last names. And whatever the field – academia, science, politics, literature -- female practitioners are more likely to be identified by both names. (The work is summarized for popular consumption here and here.)

The researchers, a Cornell University psychology professor and graduate student, speculate about the reason for this peculiar bias – perhaps practitioners in high-status fields are assumed to be male, thereby requiring that non-males be singled out for notice? – and they wonder about its impact on women’s career status. “This gender bias may contribute to the gender gap in perceived eminence as well as in actual recognition and may partially explain the persistent state of women’s underrepresentation in high-status fields,” they write.

What about when the single name by which we refer to a professional is the first, not the last? In other words, what about “Jane”?

On this point, I’m already on record: As readers of Among the Janeites may recall, I am mildly allergic to the practice of referring to Our Author as “Jane.” I realize that many Janeites feel close to the creator of the stories that so enthrall us, almost as if she were a dear friend. Some of us may even nurture a private fantasy that -- had history, geography, and fate but cooperated -- we would have been her closest confidante, on a first-name basis as a matter of course.

Coming up as I did amid 1980s-vintage feminist literary scholarship, however, I hear in all these familiar “Janes” a distinct, albeit unintentional, note of trivializing condescension. The male literary greats get respectful last-name treatment; why shouldn’t Austen take her place on the pantheon alongside Geoffrey, Gustave, Leo, and the rest of the boys? It’s not as if we’re at risk of confusing Jane Austen with some other famous writer named Austen, as we might argue in giving first-and-last-name treatment to the Eliots (George and T.S.) or the Brontës (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne).

Sometimes, of course, first-name-only usage denotes super-stardom: Even the stodgy New York Times doesn’t refer to Madonna and Cher as “Ms. Ciccone” and “Ms. Bono” (or would that be “Ms. Allman”?) But outside of the pop-music universe, calling a stranger by first name alone is . . . problematic, I would argue. We call children and pets by first names. We speak of professionals more professionally.

When it comes to Jane Austen, however, my squeamishness goes beyond feminist principle. I just can’t believe she would have liked having all these strangers bandy her first name about willy-nilly. In Austen’s novels, it’s disagreeable people like Mrs. Elton and Isabella Thorpe who presume such familiarity on short acquaintance; Darcy doesn’t call Elizabeth by her first name until they’re engaged, for crying out loud.

So until the woman herself gives me permission to call her “Jane” – perhaps in one of those heart-to-heart talks that we would definitely have had if I’d been born in southern England in 1780, as I totally could have been – I’m sticking with “Austen.”

* I have no scientific proof of our singularity in this regard, but I can’t think of a counterexample offhand. Feel free to prove me wrong.


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