Wednesday 2 March 2011

A Book By Any Other Name...

Having recently chatted about William by E.H. Young, and Howards End by E.M. Forster, I've been thinking a bit about the naming of books. In both cases the focus laid at the feet of the man and the house (respectively) comes about mostly through the authors' decisions about titles. How easily could Young's novel have been called Lydia or The Nesbitts? Or something hazy like Decisions Once Made or Marry in Haste. You know the sort of thing. (Incidentally, the Oxford University library catalogue has eight books called Marry in Haste, dating from 1935 to 2000. What fun it would be to read them all, one after the other... Although four of them are Mills & Boon.)

As for Howards End - so many other titles would spring to mind first, if one were somehow to read an untitled edition. Helen and Margaret. The Lure of the Wilcoxes. Even, one might say, Sense and Sensibility. If any of these had been chosen, the significance of Howards End itself would have faded into the background.

This might seem a really facile point, but I find it fascinating how much these titles influence the way in which we read these novels - and how differently we would read them, had they more obvious titles. Why does Emma get her own title, where Mansfield Park claims the coveted spot there, and Persuasion's title is handed over to a noun? Would we read these differently as Delusion, Fanny Price, and, erm, whatever Anne Elliot's house is called. (Although apparently there is no evidence that Jane Austen chose the title Persuasion.)

Just something to think about when reading a novel - it isn't something that usually crosses my mind, until titles are as directed as those which inspired today's post. I know it's a horrible cliche to end a blog entry with 'question time', but... Can you think of any book with a title which pointed your view in one direction, or which would read very differently under another title?


  1. The Elliot's house is Kellynch I believe!

    I think you're entirely right - the title does lead us towards a certain reading. A famous example is Pride and Prejudice's original title - First Impressions. Would Darcy be so known for his haughtiness if the title didn't spell it out for us?

  2. Thanks for the laugh - I could just imagine you making sure you got through all Marry in Haste books, including those Mills & Boons, and as for Jane Austen's titles - well there I go again...

  3. Wait. It's cliche to end your post with a question? Say it isn't so! Oh, I'm so gauche.

    Seriously, this is interesting. Of course we all know titles are important to catch the prospective reader's interest and imagination, but I hadn't thought about how the title can influence your reading experience. I'll be paying more attention to that from here on out.

  4. Nice to have the art work back! The Marry in Haste project proposal had me lol.
    As for titles that might read differently with different titles...Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird...then there's Miss Hargreaves. ;)
    Actually, I can't say yet, but the first 1/4 of Charles Dickens' Hard Times is not at all the depressing, grim story line I was expecting. It's actually been "pickwickianly" funny. (I think I just made up a word.)
    Fun topic to think about.

  5. Ah, that should be "books" that would read differently... Clearly I'm up past my bedtime!

  6. I thought immediately of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. I think it must have been chosen in a spirit of irony!

  7. Slaughterhouse 5? Catch 22? I'm not sure how different titles would have changed my impression of them (very positive in both cases), but I suspect that if they had been given more obvious "war" related titles they might have been less intriguing.

    As regular readers of SIAB may guess I think I am not greatly infulenced by titles - probably that's completely untrue of course!

  8. This is absolutely fascinating; I have spent the last hour or so wondering about different titles; the right title does seem to make a difference - Rebecca for example, once you've read the book you know how chilling it is. But then there are great books where the title is just descriptive - Oliver Twist - for example.

  9. ramblingfancy: Some interesting trivia: The original title for The Good Soldier was The Saddest Story. More appropriate, no? The publishers, however, didn't want to publish a book with that title so soon after World War I started. The Good Soldier was a sarcastic suggestion of Ford's!

    What if Jane Eyre had a title more in line with all those lurid gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries? The Mystery at Thornfield Hall, perhaps. What about Wuthering Heights retitled, simply, Cathy?

  10. Oh this is too much fun! I've just spent some time standing in front of a bookcase wondering about the titles. Then I spied Diary of a Nobody and started to laugh. It's almost as if there was no thought put into that one but it's perfect. Very intriguing post!

  11. Several years ago I went to a wonderful study day hosted by Dom Nicholas at Alton Abbey about Jane Austen's Emma, where we discussed this very question. He made a compelling argument for giving it the title 'Perfection' which I think is just perfect in a wonderful ironic way that Miss Austen would have rather enjoyed.

    One thing that always baffles me about titles is when the same book is published under different names in different regions. Why is Hans Fallada's book known as 'Every Man Dies Alone' in America but 'Alone in Berlin' in the UK? Why is Joanne Harris' sequel to 'Chocolat' 'The Girl with No Shadow' in America and 'The Lollipop Shoes' over here? It's certainly intriguing.

  12. Well, I'm reading Vanity Fair right now, and I think the book might read differently if it was called Becky Sharp or Becky and Amelia. Thackeray is making a broad social commentary which makes the title Vanity Fair appropriate, and I wonder if I would recognize the commentary as much if it was called after the characters. I might be more focused on the character development then. Interesting question.

  13. Excellent food for thought, Simon, and others.

    To carry on with GWTW, I believe some of Ms. M's original titles were Tomorrow is Another Day (meh...) and Tote the Weary Load and (huh?) Baa Baa Black Sheep.

    Playing around with JA's titles a little more.... If we take P&P or S&S as our model we have
    Romance and Reality
    Passion and Prudery
    Interference and Indifference.

  14. Place names as titles....

    I'm reading South Riding right now, and I think it's a perfect title. It's about the clash of people and politics and passion within the municipality.

    Middlemarch, not so much. I believe the subtitle is A Study of Provincial Life. Yaaaawn.

    Villette? A bit vague. Before reading it, I assumed Villette was the protagonist. Would it have worked as well with Brussels for a title?

    Blandings Castle and Elsewhere. Covers a lot of territory. But of course, just the word "Blandings" is enough to make us snatch up the book and read it cover to cover.

    (funny how the spellcheck on this computer doesn't recognise the word Blandings. Clearly sub-standard.)

  15. Conversely, have good books been blighted by bad titles? I was recommended the work of Barbara Trapido, and the only book of hers in the library was 'Frankie and Stankie', which sounded awful. I did read it though, and it is a very good book about growing up in South Africa during the years of apartite. Frankie and Stankie were apparently South African entertainers of that period, but this referance will be lost on all but South Africans. I wonder how much better known this book would be with a different title?

  16. I've spent days discussing the title of my sister's novel with her. For her it will always be "Korakas" which is the name of the male protagonist in the book.However a title like that gives no indication of what is inside the book so we brainstormed ideas. Hot favourites were Breaking Waves, Broken Waves, Don't Break the Waves etc but most of those titles had been taken. For a while the book bore the title "A Fugue State" and we had great justification for the title .
    But Korakas wouldn't lie down and he's back where he belongs, casting his shadow over the whole book.

    You can read extracts from the book

    and here

  17. What a great topic. You're right, the titles of books can direct the way we read them. I love the idea of reading a book without a title, and I love how you've thought up alternate ideas. I'm a bit perturbed sometimes by books whose titles don't relate very well to the action of the book; it makes both title and book harder to keep track of in my head somehow. I'm not doing very well right now at coming up with an example, but that may prove my point.

  18. Argh, I just spent 20 minutes writing a reply to everyone, and it has disappeared... I will try again. Thanks everyone for your great examples, keep them coming!

    Rachel - oh, Kellynch, you're right! First Impressions would be a great title, but you're right, it would leave judgement much more open...

    motheretc - do you know, for a moment or two I considered getting all the books and reading them... until I realised how monumentally pointless that would be (!)

    Laura - haha, don't worry, I do it all the time - we can be gauche together! (I love it when people say 'Say it isn't so' - I don't think I can pull it off...)

    Susan - thanks :) I stole the joke from The Simpsons for my piccie... Hard Times is a good eg. The copy I read had a list in the back of the variant titles Dickens considered... can't remember any of them.

    Donna - I haven't read that, but I had a feeling it might be ironic! Dan has fascinating info about it, between our comments somewhere :)

    Peter - there must be quite a few books which have been forgotten because they had awful titles... maybe influencing you even before you get to read the book ;)

    Verity - oo, Rebecca is a brilliant choice (and a brilliant book) - completely influences the angle of the novel.

    Dan - thanks so much for that info! And, of all the wonderful examples, I think Jane Eyre as The Mystery of Thornfield Hall is my favourite! Mrs. Radcliffe doffs her cap in approval.

    Darlene - so glad you enjoyed it! Diary of a Nobody is a great title, isn't it?

    Old English Rose - oh, I do like Perfection as a title for Emma. Sounds like a great day. As for titles changing across countries, I can't imagine why it's done! The whim of publishers...

    Virginia - great example. Taking the title from The Pilgrim's Progress would also have made it even more scandalous than Becky does on her own (so I believe; shockingly I've not read it!)

    Susan D - oh, what wonderful variant Jane Austen titles! I love them! It's immediately obvious which ones you mean too. As for place name titles, I can't think of any at the mo, good or bad... And like you, I thought Villette was a character until I read the book.

    Michelle - Trapido does have a bad case of Rubbish-Titlitus, doesn't she? Frankie and Stankie is pretty dreadful - and I have no idea why her first novel is called Brother of the More Famous Jack - it seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the book.

    Ruth - thanks fo that Ruth! It must be difficult to think of one's novel by another title once one has named it...

    Julia - I know exactly what you mean - although I can't think of any examples either.. actually, that dreadful Kevin book by Lionel Shriver. We Need to Talk? We Have to Speak? I don't know.

  19. A silly comment from me: There is a very pretension building development near our house called Amaranth. When I drive past I always think "Yes, and the common plant name of Pigfeed" is more appropriate"
    Erika W.

  20. The title of a book is something which is making me eat brownies for breakfast.

    I agonised for months over the title of my first novel - it had to incorporate so many things and somehow invite people to read the contents hidden behind those chosen words. Now I'm writing book two and I've realised that I have a bigger problem - the trilogy will have to be called something. I've upped my brownie intake.

    Without the title 'The Corner's Lunch' I don't think I'd ever have chosen to read Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries. Each title of each book in the series manages to say 'this new one is a goodun' because the Merry Misogynist makes you snap the brand new spine to find out what the hell the old rascal is up to.


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