Actually, a great deal. As Proctor cries in The Crucible, he cannot sign a lie to save his life because: ‘It is my name’ - what he means is, it’s me. My own name, Katharine, has always required a degree of patient explanation. No, it’s spelt K A T H A... My father was sent back to the registrar after the name had been entered wrongly in the book - he’d spelt it Katherine. This sort of family story of course attaches even more significance to the name, and I bet everyone feels just as protective and ambivalent about their name. And having a name like Katharine allows me separate identities, I can be Katharine or Kate (and when I was a student, Kathy but never Katie) depending on who I’m with and how I’m feeling.
Now Jane Austen didn’t call her heroine Millicent instead of Emma, and in Sense and Sensibility obviously sense belongs to Elinor and less sense to Marianne. And you couldn’t imagine the Byronic hero of Jane Eyre being called Cecil Rochester. The naming of characters is nearly as tricky as naming a child, and I for one can’t write a character until I’ve fixed on a name. In The Crimson Rooms, Evelyn seemed of the period (1920s), but also a little ambivalent because it can be either male or female. And so can Meredith, the name of the mystery woman who turns up on Evelyn’s doorstep. Both these women shed conventional female roles and become engaged, one way or another in a man’s world. Their names fit - but I never worked this out consciously.
And in my current novel about the French Revolution, the heroine has two names. She’s christened Thomasina (she and her two sisters have names with masculine roots because their father longed for a son), but to her sisters she’s affectionately known Asa. This gives her a degree of flexibility. She can be Asa to some, Thomasina to others. And with Asa, as with other characters in the book, her true identity is a vital theme.