Elizabeth: The Woman Behind the Name

A week or so ago, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and prize sponsor Baileys launched the Reclaim Her Name campaign to mark the 25th anniversary of the award.  As part of the campaign, twenty-five works, written by women but initially published under male pseudonyms, were re-released under the writer’s real names.

One of the works in the set is Middlemarch, by Mary Ann Evans, who adopted the pen name of George Eliot in the mid-19th century, in order to ensure her works were taken seriously.  Evans is quoted as having said she was

“resolute in preserving my incognito, having observed that a nom de plume secures all the advantages without the disagreeables of reputation”

Her partner George Lewes added that

“the object of anonymity was to get the book judged on its own merits, and not prejudged as the work of a woman, or of a particular woman”.

The books in the Reclaim Her Name collection are available to download as ebooks for free (in case you are looking for something to add to your reading list).

According to the Guardian article discussing the collection, the promotion was intended celebrate some amazing women of the past who have never quite had their due as women.

Of course there were a few glitches with the collection, including one book with the silhouette of the wrong abolitionist on the cover.  Oops. The error was quickly corrected and an apology extended.  As is to be expected, there have been those who are less than thrilled with the collection as a whole and who disagree about whether the authors featured used male pseudonyms because they felt it was the only way they could be taken seriously or because they just chose to.

From my perspective, a collection that increases the visibility of a group of books and makes them available to a potential new readership, is a good thing, regardless of the initial intentions of the authors.

I also feel like I want to go and re-read Middlemarch.  Perhaps I’ll lay down until the feeling passes; it is quite a lengthy tome, after all.

All this got me thinking about other female writers who have used male pseudonyms or “gender ambiguous” pen names.

  • Literary sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë first published their works under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.  Charlotte was apparently told by England’s poet laureate Robert Southey that ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life.’  Sigh.
  • Louisa May Alcott used the ambiguous nom de plume A.M. Barnard to write sensational Gothic thrillers.
  • Before the release of her first novel, grand-master of science fiction, Alice Mary Norton legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton after her publishers advised that a male-sounding name would increase her marketability with science-fiction and fantasy’s male readership.
  • Joanne Rowling’s ambiguous initials, J. K., were intentional because her publisher thought the target young male audience might be put off by a book written by a woman.  “They could have called me Enid Snodgrass,” Rowling told The Telegraph in an interview. “I just wanted it [the book] published.”
  • Using a gender ambiguous pen name–J. D. Robb–for her “In Death” crime thriller series was an intentional choice by best-selling author Nora Roberts, as a way break free from her prior work and to fit into to the male-dominated mystery and suspense genre.

So, all this brings me to my question of the day:  Do your expectations about a book differ, depending on whether the author name seems to be male or female?

Follow-up question for those writing in genres like fantasy or paranormal:  Have you ever considered using a male pseudonym?

3 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The Woman Behind the Name

  1. I’ll have to check out the article and the list, and yay to the name reclaimers. We might have trouble remembering that George Elliot is Mary Ann Evans, but every exposure helps put her name forward. As for those female writers who “just choose” to use a man’s name on their work—well, there’s always a reason, and it has to do with the patriarchy. I myself wrote a couple of suspense novels under a pseudonym with initials rather than a first name, precisely because I thought readers would expect a strong romance plot from a female name. (Well, and because those books are a lot different from my lighter work, and I wanted the differentiation.) And in fact, readers might expect strong romance plots/subplots from female writers. However, I’m in the process of redoing those covers with my own name, because I’m not discoverable if I don’t. And that other person whose name is on those covers doesn’t exist.

    • The patriarchy strikes again!

      I can’t say I was terribly surprised to see how many of the female authors that published under ambiguous or or male pen names did so because they thought they’d get more respect/acceptance that way. There was a survey of the NYT best seller lists a number of years back that showed what a high percentage of the books reviewed and on the lists were by male authors (or authors that appeared to be male), despite the fact that many books by female writers vastly outsold the writers on the list. I wish I could find a more current survey to see if that has changed any.

      Good for you and redoing your covers.

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