From the Bronte Sisters to J.K. Rowling
July 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
Literary history is strewn with writers who used pseudonyms.
JK Rowling would have understood Charlotte Brontë’s argument that female authors ‘are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’
In 1850 Charlotte Brontë finally outed the brilliant but obscure brother authors Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and neatly analysed why centuries of authors have chosen to shelter behind entirely invented names or ambiguous double initials.
The brothers Bell were her and her extraordinary sisters, Emily and Anne. The shy sisters were, she wrote, “averse to personal publicity”. But as George Eliot, born Mary Anne Evans, and the newly revealed as multi nom-de-plumed JK Rowling would entirely have understood, there was more to it: “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”.
Any reader, and indeed the publishers to whom the sisters sent the manuscripts, would have assumed that Currer, Ellis and Acton were men, but Brontë claimed that the first names had been chosen with “a sort of conscientious scruple” as not “positively masculine”. The sisters’ own surname, which would become one of the most famous in the history of English literature, had already been gentrified by their clergyman father from his Irish birth name, Patrick Prunty.
Some authors use versions of their own names, often a middle name and a mother or grandmother’s surname, but some are entirely invented: the American Samuel Langhorne Clemens, creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, took the pilot’s two-fathoms measure from the Mississippi river boats he worked on, and became Mark Twain. A century later Eric Blair took the name of a river he loved and became George Orwell but, after offering his publishers a choice of names, could have been either Kenneth Miles or H Lewis Allways.
Jane Austen first published modestly as “A Lady”, but double initials are a common camouflage. PD James, creator of policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh, was born Phyllis Dorothy. Anthony Clifford Grayling writes as AC Grayling, and has said that his pen name – before he was well known – stopped readers from making instant assumptions about him. The Booker prizewinning novelist and critic AS Byatt was originally Antonia Susan Drabble. She acquired the Byatt by marriage, and her nom de plume also conceals that she is the sister of the equally well known novelist Margaret Drabble – famously the sisters do not get on.
Writers of erotica have often adopted a veil. Erika Mitchell, married name Erika Leonard, wrote the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and became a publishing phenomenon as EL James. The real identity of Belle de Jour, author of the Diary of a Call Girl series, was claimed to be unknown even to her agent until she came out herself, learning that her identity was about to be leaked, as the British scientist Brooke Magnanti. Anonymity had been no fun, she said; “I couldn’t even go to my own book launch party.”
Many authors write under two or more names. Baroness Rendell of Babergh is both the crime writer Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine: both authors have separate sets of passionate admirers. William Makepeace Thackeray was also a whole shelf of other authors, including Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Arthur Pendennis and the Fat Contributor. The Booker prizewinning Irish writer John Banville is also the crime writer Benjamin Black, and regards one as an artist, the other as a craftsman – but says they sometimes overlap: “Sometimes, in the middle of the afternoon if I’m feeling a little bit sleepy, Black will sort of lean in over Banville’s shoulder and start writing.”
However, Nicci French is one name but two authors: the husband and wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, “one writer, two minds”, as their website describes them. Many have been nudged into name changes by agents or publishers: Alison Potter wrote recently in the Guardian that she was sternly informed by a publisher: “It’s your name. It’s just not right. We need to change it. Your first name and your surname, I’m afraid.” She is now the thriller writer Ali Knight.