Today is International Women’s Day! You can watch events around the world unfolding here, learn more about the history of IWD, then tackle the inevitable debate about “international men’s day”! Our blog posts from previous IWD’s can be found here and here– this year, we’re looking at female authors who use male pseudonyms.
The 19th century
Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell- better known these days as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte
You can learn a bit about the lives of women in the 19th century here– suffice to say that “author” was not considered a respectable career choice. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte- unmarried sisters who had all left, or been sacked from, their jobs as governesses- submitted their novels and poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. As well as keeping their initials intact, their new male names allowed them to write about shocking subjects that critics could barely conceive of:
“How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery” – Graham’s Lady Magazine, on Wuthering Heights by “Ellis Bell”
The sisters were clearly amused by the scandal they caused when they chose to reveal themselves:
“As I sat between them at our quiet but now somewhat melancholy fireside, I studied the two ferocious authors. Ellis the “man of uncommon talents but dogged, brutal and morose,” sat leaning back in his easy chair (…) Acton was sewing”- Charlotte Bronte
…but some people maintained that a woman could not have a written a book about passionate love, unchecked rage and brutal abuse on her own:
“Strange patch-work it must seem to them, this chapter being penned by Mr., and that by Miss or Mrs. Bell; that character or scene being delineated by the husband—that other by the wife! The gentleman of course doing the rough work—the lady getting up the finer parts.”
Ten years later in 1856, an assistant editor called Mary Anne Evans published an article called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, which you can read here. In it, Evans complains about clichéd heroines who are intelligent and very well-educated, but only concerned with finding a reputable husband. The article was published anonymously, and when Evans published her first novel three years later, it was under a male pseudonym: George Eliot. Female authors were writing under their own names for most of Evans’ working life- she could not have made them the target of her criticism otherwise- but it was important to her to avoid any media scrutiny. Evans was in a long-term relationship with a married man, George Lewes. Although Lewes and his wife had an open marriage- Mrs Lewes had another partner, who fathered four of her seven children- polyamory was frowned upon, and affairs were only tolerated if all partners were discreet! When a man named Joseph Liggins pretended that he had written Adam Bede, “George Eliot” revealed herself. Her book remained very popular- Charles Dickens was a fan- but it would be almost twenty years before Evans was allowed back into society. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery in the section reserved for “irregulars”!
Mary Anne’s grave in Highgate Cemetery is carved with her pen name and her married name
What do Mary Poppins, Ponyboy, Hermione Granger and Christian Grey have in common? They were all created by female authors who use their first initials instead of their full names. Pamela Lyndon “P.L.” Travers published her first Mary Poppins novel in 1939; Susan Eloise “S.E.” Hinton wrote The Outsiders in 1967; the first Harry Potter book by Joanne “J.K.” Rowling (the “K” belongs to her grandmother, Kathleen!) came out in 1997; and Erika “E.L. James” Mitchell released 50 Shades of Grey online in 2009. Would “Joanne Rowling” have sold as many books as gender-neutral ‘J.K.’? Does “Susan Eloise” sound like an expert on gangs who drink, smoke weed and stab their rivals? One could equally argue that a story about a nanny- an exclusively female role in the era in which the Poppins books are set- may have been more successful with “Pamela” on the cover. 50 Shades… was marketed at women, so why was “Erika” hidden from the public? The Vida Count looks at how much publicity women receive in the form of reviews, and year on year, men get more than their fair share. Authors don’t just rely on reviews to boost book sales- they can also help authors secure award nominations, receive fellowships and teaching positions, and access grant money. It seems a female author might find herself with more money, more career prospects and more respect from her contemporaries if she shrinks her pen name down to just one letter.
Two of these three novels were written by female authors
J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, was published under the same name as her wildly popular Harry Potter series. While it was a commercial success- over half a million copies were sold in the UK alone- some critics were disturbed that a children’s author had chosen to write about drugs, rape and racism when “there’s no magic in this book to make it better, darling”; others accused her of using her fame and fanbase to spread a radical agenda. The 2013 release of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective story by debut novelist “Robert Galbraith”, didn’t make the mainstream news at all. Only 500 copies were sold- a third of its initial 1,500 copy print run- but it was received favourably by literary critics. A comment from a Twitter user- later found to be the wife of one of Rowling’s lawyers- sparked a detective hunt that ended when an editor at the Sunday Times got a confession from the publishers: as suspected, the “real” Robert Galbraith was J.K. Rowling. Rowling was reportedly angered by the press’ discovery, but sales of her novel increased by 4000%. She has gone on to write two more novels about ex-solider and private detective Cormoran Strike, and a BBC adaptation is planned for later this year. If Rowling hadn’t been discovered, it’s possible that “Galbraith” would have faded into obscurity. When her identity was made public, keen journalists with little time to read the book themselves deferred to the handful of oblivious reviewers who had judged “Galbraith” on his own merit. Nobody could accuse them of giving the book a good review because they feared the wrath of a famous children’s author! However, it was noted that The Cuckoo’s Calling was published by Mulholland, the same company that published The Casual Vacancy. “Galbraith”’s identity was never kept secret from them. Rowling’s reputation at Mulholland meant she could avoid the lengthy, humiliating process of sending a draft novel to multiple publishers, and having it rejected again and again. The Philosopher’s Stone was refused eight times before Bloomsbury bought it, so it could be argued that J.K. had already paid her dues as a struggling artist. She is also not the first novelist to have benefitted in this way. Lyman “L. Frank” Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published other children’s novels under multiple female pseudonyms, including “Edith Van Dyne”, “Laura Bancroft”, “Suzanne Metcalf” and “Schuyler Staunton”. The Oz series has mainly female protagonists, from Dorothy- the naïve girl from Kansas who accidentally drops her house on a Wicked Witch- to Princess Ozma, the rightful ruler of Oz. American parents saw nothing wrong with a man writing books about women- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remained at the top of the bestseller list for years- so it’s unlikely that Baum used pseudonyms to avoid sexist criticism. He may have been trying to avoid the backlash Rowling felt when she published The Casual Vacancy: “author of famous series writes a book about something else!!” Or he could have been trying to limit the number of books released under his own name- if the public believes that an author is writing “too quickly”, they may assume the books are lower quality, and each new title will be met with less of a fanfare. Horror novelist Stephen King adopted the pseudonym “Richard Bachman” for this reason.
“Harper Lee” and “Erin Hunter” are both pseudonyms
Male and female authors may have some similar doubts about publishing under their own name: their new books might be compared unfavourably to their old ones and readers might grow tired of them. But only female authors fear they won’t be taken seriously without a male pseudonym: critics might question their ‘right’ to write about difficult topics, their personal lives might be scrutinised, and they might be overlooked in favour of male authors. Is there an alternative? Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, dropped her first name “Nelle” to make her name sound more androgynous. If that sounds like too much of a compromise, you could try the trick used by Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Tui Sutherland, Gillian Philip, Inbali Iserles and Victoria Holmes- six women who write under the same name! You could console yourself with this list of male authors who adopted female pseudonyms to break into the romance genre- then ask yourself why they aren’t subject to endless scrutiny like female sci-fi and fantasy authors (Naomi Novik, Ann Leckie and NK Jemisin were targeted by hateful right-wing campaigners just last year). Or you could set about trying to change things:
- Contact the companies that are badly ranked in the Vida Count and ask them to change their ways!
- Take part in Bookriot’s Read Harder Challenge and read more books by women
- Attend events that celebrate female authors, like the City of Literature Weekend
- Tell us about your favourite female authors over on Twitter or Facebook
- Have a look at our display for International Women’s Day and take one of the pledges
You can find the following books in the Information Store:
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by “Acton Bell”, Jane Eyre by “Currer Bell” and Wuthering Heights by “Ellis Bell” BOOK ZONE- 823.8 BRO
Adam Bede by “George Eliot”- BOOK ZONE 823.8 ELI
To Kill a Mockingbird by “Harper” Lee- BOOK ZONE 823.91 LEE
adplayers (2017) To Kill a Mockingbird: Based on the Novel by Harper Lee – Adapted by Christopher Sergel Available at: https://flic.kr/p/RPy1WT (Accessed: 3 March 2017)
Clark, S (2010) Cover ~ The Lost Princess of Oz Available at: https://flic.kr/p/8BKmrJ (Accessed: 3 March 2017)
John (2009) Mary Poppins is in Town Available at: https://flic.kr/p/6XKxQw (Accessed: 3 March 2017)
Jones, D (2010) George Eliots’ Grave, Highgate Cemetery 28/10/2010 Available at: https://flic.kr/p/8RgraL (Accessed: 3 March 2017)
Nuwandalice (2014) The Brontes Available at: https://flic.kr/p/kYKxEJ (Accessed: 3 March 2017)
Pennington, M (2013) Erin Hunter a.k.a Victoria Holmes Warriors Signing 3.6.13_8 Available at: https://flic.kr/p/e1cFXF (Accessed: 3 March 2017)
Pettitt, M (2016) Latest Book, Robert Galbraith, Career Of Evil Available at: https://flic.kr/p/LesTxm (Accessed: 3 March 2017)