Going back to the source

Standard

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
(Act II, Scene II, lines 43–44)

I can’t believe it passed so quickly, but December 9 marks the one-year anniversary of
re: read pages. I’ve had a great year with this blog and the books I’ve read and shared with you. The fact that I have 55 followers fills me with a giddy delight.

I thought that after a year together, I should share my name. My name is from a novel and not from the above quoted play, though Romeo and Juliet plays a role. My name is from Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart.

But before we get to that novel, let me introduce myself.

Hello, my name is Bryony.

Pardon, you say. Yes, Bryony.

I love my name. I never get bothered by mispronunciations or repeating it to people the first (or third) time we meet or spelling it out to everyone from government employees to Starbucks baristas.

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I can thank my mother for my name. She received Touch Not the Cat from her father. It was 1976, the year it was published, and she was already the mother of two boys with classic names. When she finished reading it, she knew if she ever had a girl that she wanted to name her Bryony. Two years later, she finally got her chance.

One of my favourite stories about my name happened on the day I was born.

My mother delivered me and the doctor announced that I was girl and asked what my name would be, to which my mother responded, “Bryony.” And he said, “It’s a girl you know.” Ha ha ha. Makes me laugh every time.

But getting back to the novel that gave me my name, Touch Not the Cat was a best seller and, while Stewart’s novels are known for a blending of mystery and romance, Touch Not the Cat also has an element of the supernatural. The novel follows Bryony Ashley as she deals with the hit-and-run death of her father and the resulting legal fallout surrounding her childhood home, Ashley Court, a crumbling estate with more sentimental value than actual worth.

Her father left a death bed warning of an unnamed danger that Bryony hopes to uncover with the help of her lover, a person with whom she has had a lifelong telepathic connection but is not sure of his identity. She suspects one of her second cousins – twins, James and Emory, who has inherited the Court as a result of a trust, or their brother Francis – as the telepathy runs through the Ashley line. But as she picks apart the meaning of her father’s last message she is no longer sure of whom to trust, even her lifelong companion.

The mystery of her father’s final words requires Bryony to delve into her family’s history, especially that of Wicked Nick, a relative from the early 1800s with a poor reputation that brought about his untimely death when he was shot by the brothers of his lover. Stewart includes scenes from Nick’s life at the end of each chapter and quotes from Romeo and Juliet at the beginning. It was Nick’s father, William, who was obsessed with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, and who had the key to understanding the mystery Bryony is trying to solve.

Some of the novel falls a little hard on the ears of modern readers. For example, getting past her deep love for someone she calls cousin, no matter the distance, but more importantly her seeming disinterest in how her life will unfold following the upheaval the loss of her father represents. She is unconcerned for herself, beyond identifying her lover, and is focused only on deciphering her father’s message, and not even the danger he refers to but the mystery of “William’s brook.”

Perhaps, besides moving the plot along, Bryony’s focus also reflects Stewart’s stated viewpoint on the actions of her characters. Stewart said she would “take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear….” With this in mind, it is easier to understand Bryony’s choices and rationales.

On a whole, Bryony is no pushover. She knows when to stand her ground and when to yield. She is observant, kind, and perseverant; a quality my mother appreciated when she read the book the first time.

As preparation for this post, I asked my mom for her thoughts on the novel and character from which I gained my name. She still likes (and recommends) Touch Not the Cat – she believes she has read it around six or seven times – and enjoys how the story of Bryony’s ancestors is brought forward into the present. While the character of Bryony didn’t influence her decision to choose it for me, my mom found the name to be romantic and full of an adventurous spirit. I like to think I am both of those things.

And, despite my experience of a lifetime of correcting people, my mom says she never had a problem pronouncing it correctly. Ever the teacher, she says she just followed “the phonetic rules.” For those who want to double check, Bryony is also in the dictionary as it is a poisonous climbing vine native to western Eurasia.

The story of my name is one that I’ve shared many, many times. And I love that I have a copy of the book that bears my name on my bookshelves. This past spring, in May, Mary Stewart died at the age of 97. She wrote 20 novels as well as three children’s books and a book of poetry. To celebrate the gift of her writing, the source of my name, and one year of re: read pages, I am giving away a copy of Touch Not the Cat. Just leave your favourite character name in the comments below and I will do a random draw to select a winner.

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