Visible Women

10 brilliant books you never realised were written by women

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Sarah Shaffi
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Visible Women is Stylist’s year-long initiative to raise the profiles of important women past and present, and to empower future generations to follow their lead. Here, we reveal 10 bestselling books that you may never have realised were written by women – because they had to adopt male names in order to find literary success…

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, if you’re a female author who thinks her gender might prevent her from finding success in a particular genre.

The 10 books below are all by women who felt they had to adopt male names, or gender neutral names, for various reasons - many of them because they felt publishers and readers of the genre they were writing in might be more receptive to their books if they presented themselves as men. And these aren’t just authors from the long-ago past, some of them are still writing now.

So grab these 10 books and celebrate the (in)visible women behind the names.

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

This is probably the most famous case in recent times of a female author writing under a male pen-name. After the success of the Harry Potter books and her first outing writing adult fiction (The Casual Vacancy), JK Rowling decided to tackle crime writing. The Cuckoo’s Calling was only out for a short time before Galbraith’s true identity was revealed - a friend of a solicitor at the firm representing Rowling let the cat out of the bag with a tweet. 

The Cuckoo’s Calling introduces former soldier-turned-private-investigator Cormoran Strike, and his plucky sidekick/PI-in-training Robin Ellacott as they investigate the apparent suicide of a famous model.

Naked in Death – JD Robb (Nora Roberts)

Nora Roberts is my go-to for romance writing with a bit of plot, suspense and mystery, but she also writes under the pseudonym JD Robb for her In Death series. 

The series is set in the future and each book is a self-contained procedural, focusing on the work of New York City Police and Security Department detective Eve Dallas. Naked in Death is the first in the series, which currently stands at almost 50 titles.

A Long Fatal Love Chase – AM Barnard (Louisa May Alcott)

Louisa May Alcott

Before Little Women, Louisa May Alcott wrote stories for young adults under the name AM Barnard. A Long Fatal Love Chase centres on Rosamond Vivian, a woman who lives with her bitter old grandfather. 

When she meets Phillip Tempest, the two fall in love, but Tempest is cruel and has a wife and son already. Upon finding out, Rosamond runs away, prompting Tempest to spend two years trying to find her. A Long Fatal Love Chase was written in 1866, but first published in 1995 - and it’s still every bit as gripping a read all these years later.

Middlemarch – George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)

Middlemarch is one of eight novels Evans - whose literary career included being a translator and an editor of the Westminster Review - wrote under the Eliot pen-name. 

Set in a fictional community in the 1800s, it follows the intersecting lives of a number of characters, including the passionate and penniless artist Will Ladislaw, and Dr Lydgate, who is married to the spendthrift beauty Rosamund. Eliot also wrote classics including The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda.

Mary Poppins – PL Travers (Pamela Lyndon Travers)

Everyone’s favourite magical nanny was created by Pamela Lyndon Travers, who chose to use gender-neutral initials rather than her real name for her books. There are six original books about Mary Poppins in total, all about the nanny’s adventures taking care of Jane and Michael.

Nightlife – Rob Thurman (Robyn Thurman)

Robyn Thurman’s pseudonym is not the most imaginative but her decision to write a fantasy series under a male name speaks volumes. The Cal Leandros series, starting with Nightlife, is about half-brothers Cal and Niko, on the run from Cal’s father – a monster with a dark lineage – in New York. One for fans of the TV show Supernatural.

Wuthering Heights – Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte)

All three Bronte sisters – Anne, Charlotte and Emily – wrote under male pseudonyms (Acton, Currer and Ellis respectively) and it was only after the deaths of Anne and Emily that their true identities were revealed. It’s difficult to pick just one book from the trio to recommend, but for me it has to be Emily’s only novel Wuthering Heights, the dark story of two people completely unsuited to each other.

City of Dark Magic – Magnus Flyte (Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey)

Magnus Flyte is the pseudonym for not just one, but two, female authors. Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey - a journalist and an actress respectively – decided to write under a male name because “we had both read a raft of articles talking about how men don’t buy books written by women”. 

Following music student Sarah Weston as strange things begin to happen to her in Prague, where she is working, Lynch and Howrey have also written a sequel – City of Lost Dreams – still under the name Magnus Flyte.

Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death – James Tiptree Jr (Alice Bradley Sheldon)

Alice Bradley Sheldon used the name James Tiptree Jr to distance herself from her previous writing, and also because she thought it might be easier to break into the world of sci-fi as a man. 

Her work proved a hit: she won the Nebula Award in 1973 for her short story Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death (which can be found in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever). Her true identity was revealed in 1976, but it didn’t affect her success - she won another Nebula in 1977. 

Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death is is about an intelligent spider-like creature, Moggadeet, who has decided that he will resist the instincts which lead his species through an exceptionally violent life-cycle.

Indiana – George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant)

French novelist and memoirist Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant, nee Dupin – who, let’s be honest, had an amazing real name – wrote under the pseudonym Jules Sand with Léonard-Sylvain-Julien Sandeau (also known as Jules Sandeau). She later adopted George Sand as a pen-name for her novels. 

Indiana is a protest against the social conventions binding a wife to her husband and a defence of a heroine who abandons an unhappy marriage, as Dudevant did, and finds love.

To find out more about the Stylist Visible Women initiative, click here.

Main image: Thought Catalog. Book jacket imagery supplied by authors. Additional images: Rex Features.


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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.