Now that the Granny Chic revival has pushed Lillian and Amelia back into the Top 100, parents are seeking out ever more obscure antiques.
Thanks to Bridie Ann for suggesting Lavinia as our Baby Name of the Day.
Here’s an interesting fact about Lavinia: she ranked in the US Top 1000 until 1929, but peaked at #352 in 1880. 1880 was, of course, the first year for which data is available through the Social Security Administration. That means that Lavinia has been falling since the rankings were introduced.
Most Lavinias are in the past, and by the past, you have to go back to Ancient Rome to find the first. In the Aenid, Virgil explains that the original Lavinia is a princess all set to tie the knot. Then an oracle persuades her pop to look elsewhere for a son-in-law. Lavinia ends up marrying Aeneas. She’s not as well known as her hero husband, but Lavinium, an ancient port city, was named in her honor. Sci fi writer Ursula Le Guin moved the character to center stage for her 2008 novel Lavinia, a vivid retelling of ancient history through the princess’ point-of-view.
She’s a worthy namesake, as is Italian painter Lavinia Fontana. Fontana flourished from the late 1500s into the early 1600s, following in her father’s footsteps to become a professional painter – and a mother of eleven.
And yet, there’s something about Lavinia’s vibe that is slightly edgy – more akin to Lucretia than Louisa. Perhaps that’s because of the colorful, eccentric and even dangerous women who wore the name from the 1700s onward, including:
- 18th century actress Lavinia Fenton had a successful stage career before marrying a much older duke and living happily ever after;
- Princess Lavinia of Cumberland, on the other hand, was revealed as a fraud, despite her claims to be descended from the British royal family and appeals to Queen Victoria for financial support;
- In the early 1800s, John and Lavinia Fisher operated Six Mile Wayfarer House outside Charleston. After the guests kept on going missing, the couple was found guilty of murder. John begged for forgiveness, but Lavinia went to the gallows without an apology;
- The well born Lavinia Warren was descended from Mayflower passengers, but gained fame as a dwarf and circus performer along with her husband, General Tom Thumb.
The literary world owes a debt to another Lavinia, Emily Dickinson’s younger sister. After her sister’s death, Vinnie ignored Emily’s wishes that her writing be destroyed and ensured that her poetry was published. There are also several notable fictional Lavinias, including:
- In Shakespeare’s gory tragedy Titus Andronicus, Titus’ doomed daughter is named Lavinia;
- In HP Lovecraft’s tale “The Dunwich Horror,” Lavinia Whateley is mom to monstrous Wilbur;
- Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra transplants Greek myth to the American Civil War. Despite the title, the figure of Electra was renamed Lavinia. In 1947, Rosalind Russell received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as Lavinia in the film adaptation.
It’s easy to see that while we all recognize the name, many of her popular uses would’ve encourage parents to look elsewhere for a name. A handful of possibly related names, including Luvenia and Lavina, actually fared slightly better than the original.
Then there’s Downton Abbey and the ill-fated Lavinia Swire.
Could you use Lavinia today? In 2010, most of the negative associations are fading into the background, and with the popularity of choices like Olivia and Sophia, it is easy to imagine the name fitting right in. By the time your daughter discovers Shakespeare, Lovecraft and O’Neill, just hope she’s mature enough to embrace the literary associations.