English: Lavinia Fenton, later Duchess of Bolt...
Lavinia Fenton as Polly Peachum in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. The mean girl who was so awful to Sara Crewe in the Shirley Temple version of The Little Princess was named Lavinia. I was introduced to the name through this movie, and I sadly can’t break the impression that character left on me as a young child.

    So it’s a no go for me, as much as I want to like it.

    1. I’m right there with you! Lavinia is the mean girl in A Little Princess and not something I would even consider using for my own child.
      It is still one of my favourite films ever, and I make sure I see it on regular intervals still 🙂
      It’s lovely ^^

  2. I really like Lavinia. My only dislike for the name was the nickname Vinnie, which sounds to masculine for me. I really like the idea of Liv or Lana as a nickname, which makes me like it more. I really like the old fashioned “granny” names like this one. I was excited to see this as the Name of the Day!

  3. I squealed when I saw Lavinia as a name of the day! The first fictional character I think of is Lavinia Lyte from Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. That was when I first discovered the name. I just love the way it rolls of my tongue when I say it. I would use Liv or Vivi as a nickname.

  4. Lavinia is the name of a horrible, cruel girl in A Little Princess. That automatically disqualifies it for me.

  5. Love, love, love Lavinia!! It’s classic and unexpected. I like the nickname Vinnie and Lav. Thank you, Bridie Ann, for suggesting one of my favorites!!

  6. There is also Lovie as a nn. I went to grammar school with a Lavinia and she went by Lovie.

    I honestly quite like Lavinia. Don’t know if I’d actually use it, but I just find this name so regal, charming and pretty.

  7. I don’t really see why Lavinia wouldn’t work. I’m not a fan of Vinnie, but Liv, Nia, Lia, Lana, and a number of other nns work well with the name (big plus in my book). Personally, I like the also-mentioned Louisa a bit more, but Lavinia is very nice!