This question is prompted by a passage from an Agatha Christie novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (first published in 1928 and not one of her best I’m afraid).
At one point in the story the main female character, Katherine Grey, is living as a companion with a rather dictatorial elderly lady, Miss Viner. There is also a servant called Helen in the house. However Miss Viner insists on referring to the servant as Ellen. The following exchange then takes place:
I recall seeing similar references to the inappropriateness of women servants’ names in other Christie novels too. So what is the issue? Why is Helen not an appropriate name for a servant? Why is Ellen any better? Why would it make any difference?
I was just reading about names and class structure in England, but damned if I can remember where. It focused on an earlier time (18th and 19th centuries), but I think it still applies to the 1920s, especially for an older character.
Basically, as names gained popularity with the lower classes, they fell out of popularity with the upper classes. If a servant had a named that seemed too grand for their position, their employer would call them something else. It was part of the belief that the lower orders must be kept in their place. None of this social climbing nonsense – born in the gutter, stay in the gutter.
The example used in what I was reading was Betty as a pet name for Elizabeth. Prior the the late 18th century, it was apparently fairly common for women in the upper classes to have Betty as a nickname, but as the lower classes used it more, it became common, and so not appropriate for high society.
I don’t know that you’ll be able to pinpoint an exact reason why Helen is less acceptable than Ellen, other than the latter is associated with the lower classes.
Yes, but Ellen is just an alternate spelling of the same name.
“I can sound my h’s as well as anyone”…
One of the characteristics of some accents is doing funny things with H’s (see My Fair Lady or my Jamaican landlady saying “'af yu seen my heggs?”). In the Ellen/Helen case, the no-h spelling might have been consistant with a confused-h’s accent; also, it’s the more-evolved (less-classical) spelling, so “more common.”
The same trends continues today, as outlined in the book Freakonimics. Based on the popular baby names chosen by the wealthy today, the book goes on to predict what baby names will achieve mass popularity in the future.
Christie in her Autobiography refers to this practice as being quite common in her Victorian childhood. A maid who had a name considered “inappropriate” for household use—Violet, say—would be firmly told “While you are in my service, you will be called Jane” or something of the sort.
This was apparently done before Christie’s time as well, as illustrated in Dickens’s Dombey and Son where the eponymous protagonist hires a wet-nurse for his motherless infant son. In this case, the re-named servant is astute enough to make the relinquishing of her own proper name a bargaining point in terms of salary:
Nancy Mitford talks about the class distinction in names as well. She has a character ask why all the fashionable French women have the name of English parlormaids.
Helen doesnt seem so snooty of a name to my 21st century american ears, but maybe it was. I do remember bits in books of servents wanting to jazz up their names out of vanity, but Ellen to Helen? Maybe so.
Another Agatha Christie fan here, by the way. There were a couple of late bad ones, but wow, what a lot of good ones!
I recall an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs, on PBS, in which the lady of the house tells a new maid that her name(it sounds sort of French) is inappropriate for a servant. She then proceeds to tell the girl she will be called, well, I can’t remember the name, but it was something bland, like Jane.
Except, as Nava points out, Ellen is just an alternate spelling for Helen, which also appears sometimes as Hellen. It, like Eleanor, Nora and Nell, all come from the same name – Helen. There’s nothing inherent to the name, other than the fact that Ellen was associated with the lower classes, that makes it more suitable for a maid. The classical ties that Helen has might be part of it, but it can’t be contributed completely to a pretty girl in Ancient Greece.
Hah, I came in here just to post about that! It was the very first episode (which we recently watched courtesy of Netflix). The names were Clemence (guessing on the spelling, pronounced “Clem-ONCE” to rhyme with “fonts”) and Sarah.
I’m amazed and intrigued by all this. You’d never get away with such blatant class warfare and Putting the Lower Orders in their Place actions in today’s America, but you could probably do subtler things.
Not Directly Related, but interesting – In Victorian England (I learn from my copy of The Annotated Alice) it was common to call one’s maidservant “Mary Ann”, regardless of what her name actually was. In Heinlein’s “Tramp Royale”, he claims that the British passengers on his ships werre indifferent to the names of the shipboard servants and workers, calling them by the same name and never bothering to find out what their real names were. In South Africa, he said, black servants were uniformly called “Sixpence”. He gives a very definite impression that the British were purposely indifferent to servants’ names.
I think that **Miss Purl **and PastAllReason have it right. Think about the current trend of giving kids unisex traditional surnames (McKenzie, Tyler, Madison) as first names. Thirty years ago, that probably seemed very classy in an old-school, WASPy way. (I know lots of rich, middle-aged Southern ladies with names like that.) But now it’s considered a bit declasse by many, since those names have become so popular.
Something similar happens with male/female names. If enough girls are given what used to be a ‘boy’s name’ it becomes unisex…and often then becomes a ‘girl’s name.’ How many male Robins or Ashleys or Merediths do you know?
I’ve heard stories from elderly black ladies of being “called out of their names” when working as cleaning ladies. My mind boggles at the sheer ballsiness of changing someone’s name for unsuitability. I’m sure I read it in a book as well, but can’t remember which one right now.