MY WHOLE LIFE I’VE BEEN TORMENTED BY A WOMAN CALLED HENRIETTA

The name’s Jemima. Jemima Lewis. Professionally, at least. But Henrietta Lewis on my birth certificate. Henrietta’s my first name, you see, but I’ve always been called Jemima, which is my second name. On my passport I’m Henrietta Dimbleby: I took my husband’s surname when we married, because I wanted to have the same surname as our future children. Can you believe I thought it would make life simpler?

Mathematically-speaking, once you throw in all my first, middle and surnames, I could go by 32 possible combinations of nomenclature. Thirty two! No wonder my paperwork’s a mess. I’m like a spy, or a master criminal – except that having such a multitude of aliases has only ever been a botheration.

I sympathise, therefore, with the women of Japan, who are campaigning for the right to keep their maiden names. Japan is the only country in the world where married couples are required, by law, to have the same surname. Although theoretically they can choose which name to take, in 95 per cent of cases it’s the wife who changes her identity.

“Newlywed women have to waste so much time changing their names on banking accounts, credit cards, passports and all other official documents,” points out Machiko Osawa, a specialist in labour economics at Japan Women’s University. “It sows confusion and subordinates them to men.”

I can testify to all this – although in my case, the patriarchy is not entirely to blame. My mother started it, by giving me a first name that she never intended to be my primary name. Whenever I ask her why she did this (which is often, and crossly), she just smiles and pats my hand and says: “We thought that if you turned out to be a very tall lesbian, Henrietta might suit you better.”

The hours I have lost, over the course of half a century, dealing with the consequences of this mysterious logic! Every application form, every visit to the doctor, every plane ticket, pay slip or bank transfer requires a stuttering, apologetic life history.

I once spent two days running between different bank branches with a lever-arch file of official documentation, trying to persuade them to release Henrietta Lewis’s life savings so that Jemima Dimbleby could pay the deposit on a house.

“Push, Henrietta, push!” bawled the midwives, as I gave birth to each of my babies. “It’s actually Jemima,” I found myself gasping – and then having to explain the perverse ordering of my names between contractions. It’s awkward with friends, too. When they discover my first name is Henrietta, they look at me sideways, like I’ve been lying to them all this time. “So that’s your real name?” they say, and I say no, it’s just my first name, I’ve always been called Jemima. But I can tell they think I changed my name by deed poll.

The strange thing is, I could have got rid of Henrietta for good when I took my husband’s surname. I was doing all the paperwork anyway, and it would have been sensible to tidy up one end of the appellation chain, even while making the other end messier.

But the idea felt like a betrayal. Henrietta has been there all my life: a phantom, an irritation, a parental aberration – and in the end, a part of me.

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2024-02-21T16:46:43Z dg43tfdfdgfd