What do The Ting Tings and George Eliot have in common? That’s not her name

By Imogen Usherwood

George Eliot, Vernon Lee and John Oliver Hobbes. All infamous writers, and all with one thing in common – that’s not their name. But finally, the ‘Reclaim Her Name’ campaign is giving female authors the recognition they deserve.

When the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced the publication of twenty-five books to mark its quarter-century anniversary, readers might have expected some shiny new editions of each winning novel since 1996. Rather, the prize has published new covers of works from authors including George Eliot, Arnold Petri and John Oliver Hobbes. The twenty-five authors have one thing in common – they were women who wrote under male pseudonyms at some stage in their careers.

The ‘Reclaim Her Name’ campaign

The ‘Reclaim Her Name’ campaign marks one crucial change from usual publishing practices.

Each book features its author’s female name on the cover, with no reference to pen names anywhere. The collection, which is available for free as a series of eBooks, includes A Phantom Lover by Violet Paget (Vernon Lee), A Diplomat’s Diary by Julia Crueger (Julien Gordon), Iras: A Mystery by Henrietta Everett (Theo Douglas) and, of course, Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot).

The campaign touts this as the first time that these women’s real names have graced the front covers of these texts, in order “to honour their achievements and give them the credit they deserve”. For a prize whose aim is to “shine a light on powerful female voices”, the decision to acknowledge the women behind a series of male personas seems fitting. The Women’s Equality Party were “delighted” with this attempt to “smash the glass ceiling”, and Penguin Books also voiced its support on Twitter.

Male writers are not defined by their gender

Male writers have never been defined as a ‘male writer’ and boxed into this description as part of a series.

Indeed, there is no doubt that women feeling forced to write under male names was (and is) the consequence of a culture of misogyny, which today, sees lots of books with female authors relegated to the genre of ‘women’s fiction’ or, heaven forbid, ‘chick lit’.

Meanwhile, ‘men’s fiction’ remains a little-used term, because male authors are not usually defined by their gender.

However, many have voiced a concern that stripping these women of their literary personas actually undermines the standard-defying agency and autonomy that they exercised during their lifetimes.

There are multiple reasons why female authors changed their name

Mary Ann Evans chose to write her novels as George Eliot in order to escape the ‘romance’ stereotype surrounding female authors, but also because she wanted her fiction to be judged separately from her pre-existing portfolio of critical work. It was also to keep her personal life, in particular, her long-term relationship with a married man, private. Adulterous female author in need of keeping the affair under wraps? Just call yourself Brian and no one will suspect a thing.

Frances Christine Fisher Tiernan’s pen name, Christian Reid, carries with it a career spent negotiating the difficulty of writing under a pseudonym. Cashing checks addressed to a non-existent man, and making excuses as to why Mr Reid was unable to meet with publishers. The decision to work under a false name is never taken lightly and removing these women’s pseudonyms altogether could risk undermining the personal histories which prompted each decision.

This isn’t to say that we should let these women’s identities hide behind male personas forever – quite the opposite. ‘Reclaim Her Name’ is an admirable attempt to bring some incredible women from the last two centuries into the spotlight, but that doesn’t mean that every copy of Daniel Deronda should be ‘by Mary Ann Evans’ from now on.

The history of women’s pen names

The history of women’s pen names is varied and fascinating.

Jane Austen published first as ‘a lady’, then ‘the author of Sense & Sensibility’ and ‘the author of Pride & Prejudice &c. &c.’.

The few poems that Emily Dickinson had published during her lifetime were all released anonymously.

Perhaps most famously, the Brontë sisters published as the androgynous Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Charlotte Brontë wrote of the decision:

The ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality.

There is a hugely important context to reading books written by women with male pen names. As Brontë’s words illustrate, pseudonyms have been the reaction to a ‘prejudice’ against female authors, an expectation of their essential ‘femininity’. If we could pick up a copy of Jane Eyre by Currer Bell, we might be inclined to read more into the significance of gender; after all, this is a novel that features a heroine proclaiming her own romantic independence, a man dressing up as a gypsy, and a woman physically trapped in marriage.

Women’s pen names today

Today, women’s use of pen names hasn’t gone anywhere.

Not only did J. K. Rowling write a series of novels under the name Robert Galbraith in order to escape her literary identity as a children’s author, but ‘J. K. Rowling’ is itself a pen name. Joanne Rowling (no middle name) was encouraged by publishers to use two initials for the Harry Potter series, anticipating that boys wouldn’t want to read a novel written by a woman.

A similar example is the 2011 novel Viking Gold, an adventure book for children, by V. Campbell (real name Victoria). In the USA, author Nora Roberts has written nearly fifty novels about the New York Police and Security Department as J. D. Robb. This was after her publishers urged her to take a pseudonym so she could distinguish her crime writing from the romance novels she had written under her own name.

Indeed, women regularly use pen names to help sell their fiction by making it easier to recognise as a specific author’s work.

The infamous Rainbow Magic series – which nowadays amounts to dozens of books – is credited to Daisy Meadows, a suitably whimsical pseudonym for four different writers: Sue Bentley, Linda Chapman, Narinder Dhami, and Sue Mongredien. The children’s author Julia Golding, best known for The Diamond of Drury Lane, has published under two pseudonyms as well as her own name; she has written fantasy books as Joss Stirling, and two historical fiction series as Eve Edwards. None of these names are a secret, but certain names on the covers clearly help to build the ‘brand’ of different series of genres of books.

Women have been using pen names for centuries, and continue to do so today, for all sorts of reasons. It is not necessarily better or worse to publish women under their real names – instead it is important that neither identity is neglected.

It is about time that the world learns about John Oliver Hobbes being a woman named Pearl Richards, and how Monroe Wright was actually Alice Dunbar Nelson. I really admire the idea of ‘Reclaim Her Name’, provided it doesn’t signal the abandonment of pseudonyms in female literary history because, remember, that’s not her name.

Graphic courtesy of Isabel Armitage

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