No doubt the motive behind his rule is to avoid confusing the reader. But clarity is only one aspect to choosing a character’s name, and it would’ve been helpful if Dreyer had explored the significance of deploying same or similar-sounding names as a literary device, though he gestures to it by qualifying his criticism of the two Thomases with, “pointlessly, so far as I could discern.” The inference being that if there were a larger point, he might not object.
In comedy, for instance, the same-name device is commonplace, as in the delightful case of Thompson and Thomson, the bungling Scotland Yard detectives in the Adventures of Tintin comic series, alike in everything but the curl of their mustache. The contorted ways in which they introduce themselves, including, “This is Thompson, yes, with a P as in Philadelphia” and “This is Thomson, no without a P, as in Venezuela,” never fail to spark joy.
But it’s also a useful ploy to add dramatic tension. In Olive Kitteridge, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Elizabeth Strout (who, incidentally, is the only author whom Dreyer continues to copy edit), two couples gather around the Kitteridges’ dining table: the middle-aged Henry and Olive Kitteridge, and the newly married Henry and Denise Thibodeau. Olive’s bottled resentment—at being forced to play host, at her drudgery-filled life, at her husband’s infatuation with Denise—explodes when her Henry spills the ketchup while passing it to the other Henry. She snaps at her husband, but the damage her outburst inflicts is collateral.
“Leave it,” Olive commanded, standing up. “Just leave it alone, Henry. For God’s sake.” And Henry Thibodeau, perhaps at the sound of his own name being spoken sharply, sat back, looking stricken.
It’s as if the blood spatter of Olive’s bullet, aimed at her Henry, has landed on the other Henry’s face. Soon, this young Henry will die in a hunting accident, leaving Henry Kitteridge to comfort Denise, who will whimper, “Oh Henry, Henry,” so that he is painfully uncertain about “which Henry she meant.” The reader, too, is left wondering whether Denise is mourning the dead Henry, playing the older Henry, or flailing between the two. All that misdirection achieved simply by naming both men Henry.
But Dreyer’s complaint was that because the two Thomas B’s didn’t do anything to enrich Downton Abbey, why have similar names? To which, one can answer, Why not? The overlapping of names is an all-too-common occurrence in life. True, it can cause confusion (especially for the accounts department), but if fiction’s grand purpose is the mimesis of la condition humaine, shouldn’t writers be nudged to accommodate this inconvenient reality, rather than dodge it for fear of taxing the reader? If accounts can handle it, can’t we?
Yes, we can, declares the twice-Bookered Hilary Mantel, whose experience in managing dramatis personae bedeviled by the same name is hard to surpass. In her Tudor trilogy (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the forthcoming The Mirror and the Light), all the leading male characters apart from Henry VIII are named Thomas (it was the second-most-popular name in Tudor England). There is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless hero. Thomas Wolsey, the Catholic cardinal. Thomas More, the Catholic zealot. Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury. And Thomas Boleyn, the depraved father of Anne Boleyn, and the only one of these Thomases to survive the abattoir of the Tudor court. The naming nightmare, however, doesn’t end here. Of Henry’s six wives, three are some variation of Catherine and two are Anne, while his mistress, his daughter, and the Queen of Scots are all Mary.