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Monday, 30 June 2014

Historical Fiction - the problem of too many Elizabeths

My latest novel in progress features a cast of real historical characters most of which have the real name 'Elizabeth.' My main character is not called Elizabeth, but her mother is, and her sister. Her aunts on her mother's and father's side are also called Elizabeth, as is her employer for whom she works as a lady's companion.
The Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary :: Edmund Blair Leighton - History painting ôîòî
The Charity of St Elizabeth Of Hungary
Edmund Blair Leighton 
This is a real problem for historical novelists who are stuck with a cast of characters who all have the same name. I have taken the obvious way out which is to call them all by variants - so we have Aunt Beth, Aunt Eliza, Liddy, and yes, you've guessed it, Elisabeth (but spelled with an 's'.) Oh, and 'Mama' (who is also an Elizabeth, but I try to avoid using her actual name!)

Here are a few more common abbreviations that were used in the 17th and 18th centuries: Bess, Bessie, Beth, Betsy, Betty, Elisa, Eliza, Ella, Ellie, Elsa, Elsie, Elyse, Libby, Liddy, Lydia, Lilian, Lilibet, Lilibeth, Lillia, Lillian, Lisa, Lise, Lizbeth, Lizette, Lizzie, Lizzy, Tetty.

I imagine the general population had exactly the same trouble in knowing who was who, and that's why all the diminutives sprang up. But to add to 'Elizabeth mania', and not content with the English version, the pesky name crept into English at this time as these exotic variants as well:
Isabella (Spanish), Lise (Danish), Isabelle (French), Lisa (Dutch), Liliana, (Hungarian), Elísabet (Icelandic), Eilish, (Irish), Elisabetta,  Liana, (Italian), Belinha, (Portuguese), Elspet, Elspeth, Ishbel, Isobel, Lileas, Lilias, Lillias (Scottish) and Bethan or Bethany (Welsh).

Originally Elizabeth was the Greek form of the Hebrew name 'Elisheva' meaning 'my God is my oath'. The name appears in the Bible in two variants, but Elizabeth as a name was originally far more common in Eastern Europe where the twelfth century saint, Elizabeth of Hungary, made it fashionable. She was a wealthy princess, daughter of King Andrew II, who used her riches to help the poor. One day during Mass she placed her crown on the altar as a sign of renunciation and to symbolise her humility and poverty. In 1228, she renounced her position and the world entirely, and took vows as a Franciscan penitent.

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I
In medieval England the name was occasionally used in honour of the saint, though the Spanish version, Isabel, was much more common, until of course England went to war with Spain. Then of course English parents preferred the version used by our own Queen Elizabeth I. The centuries following Elizabeth's reign led to a great flowering of Elizabeths, as parents wanted to bestow upon their girl children the health, wealth and wisdom of the deceased monarch. For centuries afterwards, during the Civil Wars and upheavals of the 17th century, Elizabeth's era was looked back upon as a Golden Age, and girls were named after her in the hope of her long life and good fortune - hence my problem!


  1. Hi Deborah,
    I found your blog somehow? LOL! I'm SO glad I did! I LOVE your blog post about there being too too too many Elizabeth's in history and it's SO confusing! (Not only that, but my daughter's name is Elizabeth, too! LOL!!!) I LOVE reading about this type of historical fiction, but I am SO confused about ALL the Elizabeth's! I can't wait for your book to kind of set them straight!
    I AM going to send my daughter here to read about her name! I think she'll find this amusing! ALL the different names for Elizabeth! The one that most surprised me was Lillian! She has an Aunt Lillian on her father's side!
    What will the name of 'this' book be? I am very interested in finding out! I am interested in reading ALL of your books! Even though fiction, I find a lot of truth in them as well! Thanks to all of YOUR hard work, such as the Elizabeths'!
    I am just starting to really get into this historical time frame, and have ordered some easy books to try to help me figure out who is who! At least I hope the books I ordered help me out!
    Thank you!
    laurieisreading at g mail dot com - which is the best way to contact me! Thanks!!!

  2. Wow. Dude. Have we got the 19ish blogs for you, girl. Enjoy'm immensely.

  3. I had no idea that the name Elizabeth was so popular even before Queen Elizabeth Tudor. I can see the problem for you as a novelist. It's a difficult challenge even with your fix, since so many names still begin with E. And, BTW, I, too, am an Elizabeth. There still seems to be a plethora of Elizabeths running around.