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Why are great women writers still adopting male pseudonyms?

Posted by
Francesca Brown
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It’s been 200 years since George Eliot’s birth, so why are female authors still choosing to publish their work under male names? 

There are some interesting things you may or may not know about Nuneaton-born writer, George Eliot. In 2015, her landmark book, Middlemarch (1872), topped a BBC poll of the 100 greatest British novels and it’s been cited as one of the finest works ever written by such diverse writers as Virginia Woolf and Martin Amis. 

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But as well as her literary prowess, Eliot was also steeped in scandal. First she was ostracised by polite society for living openly with a married man, George Lewes. And then, after his death, her reputation took a further tumble when she married a man 20 years her junior only for him to attempt suicide on their honeymoon balcony in Venice.

To put it succinctly, the woman born Mary Ann or Marian Evans in 1819 is one of Britain’s greatest writers, having also written the stone-cold classics Adam Bede (1859), The Mill On The Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861) to name just a few. Yet Eliot remains something of an enigma.

In part, it’s thanks to her image as a slightly dour Victorian writer (her novels fell out of favour in the early 20th century only to be reappraised in the 1950s), but also, and more importantly, because of her male pen name. But just why did she feel the need to write under this false identity?

George Eliot's personal life was steeped in scandal.

“She was frightened her work would not be read properly because it was by a woman but also because it was by her, a scandalous woman,” explains Kathy O’Shaughnessy, author of the new novel, In Love With George Eliot.

“It fascinates me that her pseudonym has stuck and I think it’s down to the fact that she perpetuated it. Even though she was celebrated in her lifetime, she still had this secret that she and George [Lewes] weren’t actually married; had she called herself Marian Lewes she’d have been calling attention to it.” 

It’s telling that Eliot was living in an era so restrictive that her male pen name proved more appealing than mentioning the surname of the man she lived in sin with for 24 years. She did, in fact, only change her name by deed poll to Marian Lewes after George’s death in order to legally access their money.

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Guess who?

By adopting a pseudonym as a writer, Eliot was also rigidly sticking to convention. Decades before, in 1811, Jane Austen published Sense And Sensibility using the tagline ‘By a Lady’, with all her works appearing anonymously during her lifetime.

Meanwhile, in the 1840s, the Brontë sisters all wrote their early works under the names of fictional brothers – Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) appeared under the name Ellis Bell and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847) was attributed to Currer Bell, with youngest sister Anne writing The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (1848) as Acton Bell. 

All of Jane Austen's novels were published anonymously in her lifetime.

“It was all about wanting to be taken seriously and not dismissed as ‘girl novelists’,” explains Professor Kathryn Hughes and author of Eliot: The Last Victorian. “The Brontës adopted [male] names because they were clergy daughters and they didn’t want to put themselves out on the market as ‘a public woman’ because at that time it was akin to being a prostitute.”

She continues, “Jane Austen using ‘By a Lady’ is more playful but her novels also conformed to how books by a woman are supposed to end – with a marriage and the world put to rights. Eliot was writing books about real people in the Midlands; in Adam Bede, her heroine is a young girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock and possibly strangles the baby. This is strong, shocking stuff so again Eliot was worried that people would mix up her realist writing with her private life.”     

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O’Shaughnessy says, “Writing is an act of courage so I do wonder if writing under a pseudonym gave Eliot a sense of liberation. I can really see that writers might get such freedom from not doing it under their own name.”

George Sand (1804-1876) and Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), who published as AM Barnard, are among the many other female writers who adopted male or gender-neutral pen names in the middle of the 19th century. “It was only in the 1860s that things really started to change thanks to the growing emancipation in women’s employment and education,” explains Hughes.

“Women such as Mary Braddon, who wrote Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), began to publish under their own names and the rise of ‘sensation fiction’ (which was full of ghosts and spurned lovers) led to a new middlebrow market. Ironically, during this change, there was also a sense that being an authoress was more acceptable because it required a woman to stay at home.” 

Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell.

Breaking out

In the 20th century, female authors from Edith Wharton to Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath to Zora Neale Hurston and Carson McCullers were able to embrace their own names.

However, despite there being no restrictions on them exposing their real identities, some authors such as PL Travers and PD James continued to tread the gender-neutral path. In fact, it’s become an increasingly popular route for female authors to follow, even in the last 25 years.

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The author Sharon Bolton, whose eighth novel The Split is out in April, saw her first book appear under the name SJ Bolton in 2008: “It was my publisher’s suggestion for two reasons: they argued that while my books would appeal to men, they wouldn’t buy thriller books written by women – interestingly in Europe they love a nasty book written by a woman and it was only in the UK and US that I was called ‘SJ’. They also said it would give me more authority.” 

It’s an approach that has seen Erika James becoming EL James to give the 50 Shades trilogy much-needed gravitas; Nora Roberts writing sci-fi as JD Robb; crime writer SJ Parris hiding the identity of journalist Stephanie Merritt; and Amy Homes publishing The End Of Alice as AM Homes.

Most famously of all, Joanne Rowling was encouraged by her publisher Bloomsbury to adopt the ‘JK’ in 1997 so Harry Potter would appeal to boys as well as girls. “It was the publisher’s idea, they could have called me Enid Snodgrass,” she later joked. “I just wanted it published.”

Rowling was encouraged by her publisher to adopt 'JK' to appeal to boys as well as girls.

Rowling adopted a pseudonym for a different reason in 2013, when she secretly published her Cormoran Strike novels as Robert Galbraith, so they would be judged on their own merit. She described the move as “genuinely liberating” (the game was only up after Rowling’s lawyer revealed the author’s true identity to his wife’s friend who promptly spilled the beans to the Sunday papers). 

It can be hard to stand out. “I was getting lost in a crowd thanks to all the initials so my publisher suggested I move back to ‘Sharon’,” says Bolton. “I ‘came out’ as a woman between hardback and paperback of my fifth book, Like This, For Ever. I got a lot of coverage – it was my first time in The Sunday Times’ top 10.” 

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Interestingly, gender-neutral names work both ways. Thanks to the success of ‘domestic noir’ thrillers by female writers such as Gillian Flynn, Lianne Moriarty and Paula Hawkins, male writers have taken to adopting a gender- nonspecific veil to appeal to a large female audience. AJ Finn, JP Delaney and SJ Watson are all men writing in the genre, with Watson saying how flattered he is when readers think his female protagonists are written by a woman.

Unconscious bias

Despite the positive moves in women writers’ direction, statistics do underline a gender writing gap. In 2015, US writer Catherine Nichols sent out her manuscript to 50 agents and only received two responses. She then sent the same manuscript out as ‘George’ to 50 different agents and received 17 responses. 

“I was acting on a hunch,” explains Nichols, who has since been signed up for a different book. “I went to an all-girls school and I’ve often wondered if we do get treated differently. Some of the feedback to ‘George’ was so thoughtful and smart on the structure and how the characters interacted with one another whereas when I was submitting as a woman I’d receive much more surface responses such as ‘beautiful writing but I’m going to pass’.”

Thanks to the success of female writers like Gillian Flynn, many male writers have also adopted gender neutral names.

It’s not just about getting published. According to US feminist organisation Vida, books written by women are on average priced at 45% less than those by men. Vida also publishes a yearly inventory called ‘The Count’ that charts the number of women, men and non-binary people who have books reviewed or write reviews themselves in notable literary magazines.

In 2017 they found that The New York Review Of Books featured 677 men but only 242 women, while the London Review Of Books was even worse with just 151 women on their pages compared to 527 men. Fairly shocking figures when women are responsible for buying two-thirds of the books sold in Britain.  

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At least one survey indicates that we actually gravitate towards books written by our own gender. A 2014 survey by book review website Goodreads found that male authors accounted for 90% of the 50 titles most read by men on the site but the stats for women were exactly the same – of the 50 books most read by women, 45 were of female authorship and only five written by men (though that did include JK Rowling as Robert Galbraith).

It may be that we all suffer an element of unconscious bias as readers. But the greatest thing we can do going forward is to take a writer by their words rather than their name. 

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Francesca Brown

Francesca Brown is books editor for Stylist magazine and Stylist Loves; she also compiles the Style List on a weekly basis. She is a self-confessed HBO abuser and has a wide selection of grey sweatshirts. Honestly, you just can’t have enough. @franabouttown

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