10 January, 2020

During the years as new literary talents have emerged, some authors have chosen to try and maintain a degree of anonymity, not least of all, female writers. While making strides into the literary world, in the 19th century the work of women was commonly seen as immature in comparison to their male counterparts. One of the techniques employed by women at this time was the use of a pen name or nom de plume, often using initials or masculine names, to help conceal their sex, encouraging their work to be taken more seriously and without any preconceived bias.

Here we consider some of the most eminent female writers in literary history who have been published under a pseudonym.

The Brontë Sisters

Today considered among the greatest novelists of our time, literary sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë – like many of their female contemporaries – first published their works under male pseudonyms, donning Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Given reactions to their writing at the time – including Emily’s Wuthering Heights being described as ‘brutal’ and ‘wicked’ – their adoption of male aliases isn’t surprising. Charlotte Brontë herself stated that “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.”

Louisa May Alcott

While Louisa May Alcott was willing to break 19th century convention for her most notable work — Little Women, writing under her own, female, name. The American author was more conservative when it came to her gothic thrillers, acquiring the more ambiguous name, A.M. Barnard. Although there is no definitive answer as to why Alcott chose to take on this persona, it is likely that it allowed her to explore more sensationalised themes that would not be socially accepted as ‘being by a woman’ of that time. The truth behind her pseudonym was uncovered in the 1940s when a rare book dealer and librarian discovered some characteristic notes on a A.M. Barnard manuscript.

Mary Ann Evans

Mary Ann Evans is probably one of those authors who is more recognisable by her pen name of ‘George Eliot’, yes, the hand behind the 900-page literary classic that is Middlemarch. Despite her success as a critic under her true name, for her first branch out into fiction Mary Ann felt a male counterpart would serve her best. Evans is believed to have taken on the masculine alias as a means to circumvent female stereotypes of the time. It has also been speculated that she may have wanted to dissociate her private life from her fiction work.

Karen Blixen

Acclaimed Danish writer Karen Blixen – author of Out of Africa, a memoir detailing her time living in Kenya – used a number of pen names throughout her career. Blixen’s most well-known male nom de plume was Isak Dinesen, which she adopted for the American publication of her 1934 collection of short stories Seven Gothic Tales and later used on her famous memoir. While it isn’t known why she used this moniker, Blixen did use another pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel, to publish The Angelic Avengers, as she considered this less serious than her other works.

J.K. Rowling

Easily one of the biggest writers of the 21st century, J.K. Rowling is a name synonymous with modern literature. Born Joanne Rowling, the woman behind the Harry Potter series was advised by her publishers to use her initials as a preference to her full name. The reason for this, that the young male demographic of the Harry Potter books would be less inclined to read a novel by a female author. Given the widespread appeal and success of the Potter books among nearly all readers, one can’t help but think that this justification proved to be an error.

The Harry Potter series, however, wasn’t to be Rowling’s last venture into the world of the alias, after her Potter-related success, the author hoped to broaden her literary career further, reincarnating herself as Robert Galbraith.

With Galbraith, Rowling wanted to cut a path into the crime-mystery genre, a field previously untouched by her writing. Her use of a pseudonym was admirable for the profession of a writer, she chose to avoid the fanfare and wanted honest feedback to hone her work — caring more about the quality of the writing than any potential financial gain that her name could command. Her actions were also understandable for another reason, by choosing to use her own name, Rowling would have been subjecting herself to huge expectations, greater scrutiny and, if poorly received, a possible tarnish on the reputation and legacy she had already built herself.

Ultimately her efforts proved in vain as Galbraith’s true identity was eventually revealed shortly after publication, one supposes that in the literary world a secret attached to J.K. Rowling is one too hard to keep. Nonetheless, since the first publication in 2013, Rowling/Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series of novels has achieved great success both critically and financially, though not yet commercially achieving the heights of her earlier work.