When you're named after someone or something you spend much of your life asking why. Why Rita? Why Sequoia? Why Wayne Gretzky? Most people are named after a grandparent, a favou¬rite aunt, or, if you live in Edmonton, a hockey player. Your name might illuminate who you are, a historical moment, or what your parents wanted for you as they gazed lovingly into the tiny, squirmy wad of blankets you once were. Maybe your parents say, "You were named after my Great-Aunt Rita who studied art with Matisse, established a safe haven for feral cats in Regent's Park, and established an art school for underprivileged youth. We wanted to give you a name that conveyed her creative spirit, her compassion, and her com¬mitment to social justice around the world. " Or, maybe you are told, "I named you Sequoia so you would always be strong and deeply rooted to the earth. " Or maybe you are told, "We named you Wayne because you were born the day they sold Gretzky to LA; it's the least we could do for Wayne after all he gave us. " I am told, "You were named after the novel your father was teaching the day you were born. "
And now, twenty years later, I find myself at Canada's largest shopping mall trying to explain to someone how it was that I became Molly. I was completing the paperwork for my new summer job at Le Petit Chou Shoe Shop and mak¬ing small chat with Diana, the regional manager of the com¬pany that oversees four shoe stores in the Mall. Polishing my new name tag, Diana said, "Molly. That's a name you don't hear often. I was named after Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt. Are you named after a famous Molly?" I looked up from my paperwork and saw she was well-named with her perfect hair and statuesque posture. I suddenly felt very short and in need of a haircut. I had to confess, "I was named after Daniel Defoe's novel, Moll Flanders. It was written in 1722. " Without missing a beat, she said, "That is unfortunate, isn't it?" I had to agree. Perhaps I should have used this oppor¬tunity to say, "My name is Molly, but I go by Camilla. Or Lucinda. Or Isabella. " Then I might not have had this hid¬eous name tag in my hand with "Le Petit Chou Shoe Shop" sweeping elegantly across the top in a luxurious italic font, while "Molly, at your service" slumped in the middle in mun-dane Helvetica. After I signed the last piece of paper, Diana proclaimed, "You must be thrilled to be here, at the premier mall in the country. We think you should be delighted to be part of the Le Petit Chou family. " I noticed she left no room for disagreement, so I nodded and attempted to agree wholeheartedly.
Working at the Mall would be very different from being an English major, but I was feeling up for the challenge. I was no longer Molly, soon-to-be third-year English major. I was now Molly, full-time purveyor of fine footwear, at your service. As I made my way home on the bus, toting a large pink binder with Manual for the Purveyance of Fine Footwear emblazoned on the cover, I was thinking about how my life might have been different had I been named after a Roman goddess instead of a character in a novel neither of my par¬ents like very much. What I didn't tell Diana was the long story that led to me being named after Moll Flanders.
As the children of an English professor and an art histo¬rian, you might assume our names would have been chosen with a critical eye to symbolism. However, on the question of our names, there is a long answer and a short answer. I'm still working on the long answer, but the short answer is this. When my oldest sibling Tess was born, my father was a newly minted English professor, aglow and agog at the wonders of the British novel. The day she was born, he was preparing to teach Tess of the d'Urbervilles for his "The Tragic Vision of Thomas Hardy" graduate seminar, and he thought Tess would be a lovely name for his baby girl. My mother, apparently sedated, agreed. She later confessed that she had not finished the book or read my father's dissertation (as she claimed she had). When she did read the novel, she sobbed for our Tess's future: "We named our daughter after a murderess?" If there is an upside to Tess's name it is this: had she been born a week later, my father's class was reading The Return of the Native, and Tess would have been Eustacia Vye and thus condemned to roam the heath she loathes. As Tess, she merely has dramatically flawed relationships with men, even when they're really nice. The downside of Tess's name is that my parents remained committed to using my father's class schedules to name their subsequent children.
When my brother was on the way, my mother was con¬vinced she was having another girl, and she thought that Catherine would be a lovely name. My father, feeling per¬haps a bit guilty about the whole Tess thing, succumbed to my mother's lobbying, and scheduled Wuthering Heights ("Love and Thwarted Lust in Victorian Fiction") around the due date. But Catherine was not to be; their second child was a boy. After emerging from sedation, my mother agreed to name her new baby after another flawed fictional character and they welcomed son Heathcliff. By the time I showed up, my mother had given up trying to stack the syllabus. Part way through his "Eponymy and Eponymity in the British Novel," I was born and named after Daniel Defoe's novel Moll Flanders. A class earlier, I would have been Clarissa and two classes later, Belinda. As my mother told me, "Your father first argued for Moll, but I got him to agree to Molly. " I nodded gratefully, though noted that on every birthday card, note, or memo my ever-tenacious father spells my name Moll(y). I'm convinced that when he says my name out loud or even thinks it, he adds the y in parentheses.
In naming us after literary characters, my father, a ris¬ing scholarly star, started a bit of a trend in the English department. During Christmas parties at the Faculty Club, graduate students laughed--some with irony, some with compassion, some with derision--at miniature versions of their professors named Tess, Heathcliff, Molly, Prufrock, Pellinore, Isolde, Gawain, Grendel, and the twins Leonard and Virginia. By the time wee Chiasmus Widgett-Jones was born, people realized the trend had gone too far. Besides, newer faculty were rebelling against the old guard on all fronts. The next generation of departmental children had solid Old Testament names. In recent years, the children's tables at the department parties seemed less like living Norton Anthologies and more like Amish barn raisings.
It wasn't until I had to read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Wuthering Heights for a class last semester that I gave much thought to our own names. Neither of my siblings has read their eponymous novels, and so I feel a certain degree of superiority, as if I hold a key to their inner worlds denied to them. I finally understand why Tess broke up with the per¬fectly acceptable Mark Forster: she was fated by her place in the syllabus to have disastrous relationships with men. I also look at my brother, an aspiring agronomist, with new-found insight. He was named after a brooding loner who wanders the moors in the rain and bangs his head on trees: of course he spends his days scouring prairie ditches for elusive and rare fescue. Whether or not my parents had considered the implications of their children's namesakes, these novels seem to have played a deterministic role in the shaping of their lives. As the third child, am I the one to prove or disprove my theory? I therefore approach my first reading of Moll Flanders with extreme trepidation.
Even though Moll Flanders is one of those novels every English major should read, I have gleaned enough facts from the back-cover blurb to make me fear it might reveal some¬thing horrible about my fate. Here's what I know: Moll led a life of "continu'd Variety . .. she was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. " I may be even more doomed than Tess.
After handing in my final papers last week, I realized I had a whole summer ahead of me and decided I should use this time constructively to finally read Moll Flanders. I stared at it all last night, but couldn't bring myself to read more than the first paragraph and the back cover. Instead, I rewrote its back-cover blurb: "After several romantically melancholic years in Paris where the stunningly stylish Moll Flanders dated eighteenth-century equivalents of Jeremy Irons, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman, Moll moved to London where she became a cautiously respected artist, fashionably mis¬understood novelist, and discreetly sought-after milliner. After a life-altering disagreement with her eighteenth-cen-tury Alan Rickman equivalent (who, while riding in a pic¬turesque landscape in the rain, suffers a tragic fall from a very attractive dapple-grey horse, and utters 'Moll. Forgive me,' as his final words. The only one to hear his long-over¬due apology was the dapple grey who promptly disregarded these words as inconsequential), Moll set out to make it on her own, possessing only her rapier-like wit and acute sense of style. In due time, she became an Augustan-era It Girl and found almost-true love with an eighteenth-century Noel Gallagher, and then truer love with a John Cusack equiva¬lent. " I wrote twelve more versions of the blurb, all of them involving Alan Rickman, John Cusack, rain in a picturesque landscape, and an attractive horse of varying colours. Some included members of Oasis.
No matter how many times I rewrote the back-cover blurb, I had to come to terms with the fact that this Moll does not live in London, or Paris, nor does she perambu¬late within a picturesque landscape sodden with melancholic rain. Rather, this Moll lives in Edmonton where the men who love her are imaginary, fictional, or weird, the landscape is flat and snowy eight months of the year, and millinery is confined to the knitting of toques. Maybe instead of reading Moll Flanders this summer, I should write my own fortunes and misfortunes. And so, dear reader, I ask you, as Moll asks her dear reader on the first page, to "give me leave to speak of myself, under that Name till I dare own who I have been, as well as who I am. "