In her notable work “A Room of One’s Own,” 20th century modernist writer Virginia Woolf discussed the relationship between women and writing, both as writers and characters. One particular quote from this work caught my attention: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The simplified version of this quote, as is commonly misattributed to her, is “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”
Woolf’s quote is significant as it exemplifies the historical convention of female writers publishing anonymously or under male pseudonyms, especially in the 19th century. It is common practice for authors to write under pen names as Samuel Clemens wrote under the guise of Mark Twain, Eric Arthur Blair as George Orwell, and Nora Roberts as J.D. Robb. It is worth noting that these cases were by choice. It should also be noted that some famous 19th century female authors such as Mary Shelley and Jane Austen published novels under their own names and received praise for their work. Many female authors, nevertheless, were forced to write under pseudonyms in order to be published at all.
Despite numerous obstacles, many of the female authors who wrote under male pen names went on to publish some of the most famous works of their time, usually about or featuring complex female characters. The best examples are the Bronte sisters and George Eliot.
Mary Ann Evans published most of her work under the guise of George Eliot to separate herself from the stereotype that female authors only write “light-hearted romances” and ensure her work was taken seriously. Her most famous novels revolved around the lives of the residents of small communities and the relationships between the characters and their community in such novels as “Silas Marner” and “The Mill on the Floss.” Eliot was praised for her depiction of rural society and her novel “Middlemarch” is often regarded as the greatest novel in the English language.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte wrote under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell at the start of their publishing careers in answer to criticism of notable poets of the time that literature was a man’s business and not an appropriate occupation for ladies. The three sisters published a book of poetry together in 1846 and each published their seminal novels “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “Agnes Grey,” respectively, to great acclaim the following year. Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre” about the life of Jane Eyre, a young, independent orphan turned governess, and her whirlwind romance with Edward Rochester became a bestseller.
Before American author Louisa May Alcott became famous for her novel “Little Women,” she published short stories in the Atlantic Monthly under the name A.M. Barnard because female authors were not taken as seriously as male authors. During that time she also became a voice for women’s suffrage, abolition, and civil rights and chose to publish her semi-autobiographical novel “Little Women” and its sequels under her own name. The character Jo March, a young, outspoken, independent “tomboy” who dreamed of literary success, was based on Alcott as a young woman.
Though it was much more expected in the Romantic and Victorian eras of the 19th century, the tradition continued into the 20th century with female authors taking on male or androgynous names such as with Harper Lee (born Nelle Harper Lee) and Ayn Rand (born Alisa Zinov’yevan Rosenbaum) and continues to this day.
The most current example is J.K. Rowling. Just after Joanne Rowling sold the rights to “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” to Bloomsbury, her publishers urged her to change her name because it was believed young boys would not read books by a female author. Even after massive success with the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling continues to write books under her pseudonym including “The Casual Vacancy.” She also added another male name to her list of aliases when she began the Cormoran Strike series under the name Robert Galbraith.
In honor of March being National Women’s History Month, I encourage you to make female authors and characters a little less anonymous. Read a book by a female author, a book featuring a strong or complex female character, or a book about a famous woman or group of women in history. Here are some recommendations:
For adults I’d recommend “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson, “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell, and “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy, among others.
For younger readers I’d recommend “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan, “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine, “The Mighty Miss Malone” by Christopher Paul Curtis, “Matilda” by Roald Dahl, “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman, the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and the Insurgent trilogy by Veronica Roth, among others.
Happy reading and Happy Women’s History Month!