By Ashly Moore Sheldon • November 22, 2019
Writer Mary Ann Evans was born two hundred years ago today. Haven’t heard of her? Well, you probably know her as George Eliot, author of the seminal Middlemarch. There is a long history of famous women writers who assumed male pseudonyms in order to break into the literary world. When Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility in 1811, she boldly identified herself as "A Lady." Yet this arguably diminished her success at the time, and many later women authors were unable to use their real names for publication.
Obviously progress has been made, but there are still signs of lingering prejudice against women writers, particularly in certain genres, such as crime or science fiction. When asked why she and coauthor Christina Lynch chose to use the pen name Magnus Flyte for their 2012 City of Dark Magic, Meg Howrey responded, "We had both read a raft of articles talking about how men don't buy books written by women." Here's a timeline of some of the great women who initially published their works using male nom de plumes.
Using the pen name George Sand, Dupin was one of 19th century France's most prolific and popular authors. A pioneering feminist, her first published novel Indiana tells the story of a noblewoman who breaks free from a loveless marriage and sets off in search of love. Dupin, herself, stirred controversy by wearing men's clothing, smoking in public, and having many love affairs.
When 20-year-old Charlotte Brontë sent a collection of her poetry to England's Poet Laureate Robert Southey, she received a response, which read, in part: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life." Luckily, she and her famous sisters ignored this edict and simply published using the pseudonyms Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily), and Acton (Anne) Bell. The great Wuthering Heights was initially published in 1847 by Ellis Bell. Jane Eyre came out the same year by Currer Bell.
While Alcott eventually published Little Women and other similarly themed books under her real name, she had previously published several sensational gothic thrillers using the name A. M. Barnard. It is believed that adopting a gender-neutral pen name allowed her to explore darker subject matter that was deemed inappropriate to women at the time. It seems that this tactic may still be in use by contemporary authors, like J. K. Rowling and E. L. James.
The prolific Paget published a wide variety of writing focusing on music, travel, and art. Using the pen name Vernon Lee, she also published several books of supernatural fiction, including 1890's Hauntings: Fantastic Stories. Her work is heavily imbued with feminist and liberal ideals.
An acclaimed Danish author, Blixen is known to have used many male nom de plumes, though she is most well known as Isak Dinesen. Her memoir Out of Africa chronicles her time living in Kenya and was made into a hit 1985 film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Other notable reads by the author include Babette's Feast and Seven Gothic Tales.
Already a successful graphic artist, painter, and art critic, Sheldon decided to use the name James Tiptree Jr. to publish her popular science-fiction novels including Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. She explained: "A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation."
While there have definitely been some improvements over the last two hundred years, there's still evidence that many women writers feel more comfortable using male or gender-neutral pseudonyms and also that male writers are more likely to be published and reviewed. It's been interesting to reflect on the lingering issue. Do you have thoughts to share? Authors we've missed? Let us know in the comments! And follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for daily book suggestions, book news, and more.