Thursday, 27 October 2016
I'd always thought that Vanessa was one of those names that had been around for ever, perhaps with classical origins, maybe earlier - but no: today I learned that the name was invented by none other than Jonathan Swift. It was his nickname for Esther Vanhomrigh, the unfortunate woman who was the object his obsessive love for 17 years, until he abandoned her in favour of another Esther, Esther Johnson ('Stella'). Swift arrived at 'Vanessa' by conflating the Van from the first Esther's surname with 'Esse', a pet form of Esther.
The name caught on, and it was only a few decades after its first appearance in print (Swift's Cadenus and Vanessa) that Linnaeus used it in naming two butterflies - Vanessa atalanta (Red Admiral) and Vanessa cardui (Painted Lady).
Vanessa atalanta is the butterfly that haunts Nabokov's Pale Fire, associated both with John Shade's adored wife -
'Come and be worshipped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest,
My Admirable butterfly!'
- and with his impending death. At the end of the poem, Shade looks for his wife just before catching sight of the Red Admiral that will be among the last things he sees:
'Where are you? In the garden. I can see
Part of your shadow near the shagbark tree.
Somewhere horseshoes are being tossed. Click. Clunk.
(Leaning against its lamppost like a drunk.)
A dark Vanessa with a crimson band
Wheels in the low sun, settles on the sand
And shows its ink-blue wingtips flecked with white.'