HP Original Writers: Female Writers Who Used Male Aliases

  • Posted: January 14, 2023

female writers with male aliases

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, by writer George Eliot and published in 1874, is considered one of the greatest novels in English literature. In the same century, in France, a writer called George Sand was also making waves as a literary giant, a writer who the French hold in the same esteem as Victor Hugo and Voltaire.

The interesting thing about both Georges is that they were both women who published under male aliases.

George Eliot was actually Mary Ann Evans, who wrote for a newspaper under her own name, but adopted a male identity when she started writing fiction in order for her work to be taken seriously. She even distanced herself from female authors of the time by writing an essay called Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, criticizing female writers and their novels.

George Sand was the Frenchwoman Amantine Dupin. A truly prolific writer, she wrote about love and class disparity and critiqued the norms of society.

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Why Female Writers Used Male Aliases at All?

Both women used male pseudonyms because of the role of women at the time. A woman seen as intellectual or engaging in intellectual activity was frowned upon and exposed to a great degree of criticism. In the 18th and 19th centuries, women were wives and mothers only, as part of bourgeois society, and responsible for the domestic world. Many did not have access to formal education, let alone dare to have any ambition for a career outside the home. A woman who wanted to become a writer of novels would either publish anonymously or use a male pseudonym.

Jane Austen’s first novel was anonymous – the cover of Pride and Prejudice stating only, "A novel. In three parts. Written by a lady." But even this anonymous signing became more difficult in the 19th century, with women feeling their only recourse was to publish under a male alias. British sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (Emily wrote The Hill of Howling Winds, and Charlotte the novel Jane Eyre), published their books as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. And this practice went on until the beginning of the 20th century, even when the female writers were highly intellectual and from wealthy and well-connected families. George Sand, in France, had famous writer friends like Gustave Flaubert (writer of Madame Bovary) and Honoré de Balzac (writer of The Human Comedy), who knew her true identity, but still, the charade had to be kept up in the wider literary world.

Publishing under a pseudonym also afforded these female writers a greater sense of freedom in the way they wrote and the subjects they could write about. Often, if a woman wrote a novel, it was assumed to be autobiographical, so if there was any sexual content in the novels or topics deemed inappropriate for a lady of society, the female writer would be judged harshly. The pseudonym was a protection.

Yet, this phenomenon has not been totally vanished from literary life. As recently as the 20th century, the Franco-British writer, Violet Paget, published her writing - books on music and travel, tales of the supernatural, art criticism and essays on liberalism - under the pseudonym Vernon Lee. This was possibly also to avoid comment on her homosexuality.

And in the 90s, British writer J.K. Rowling did not reveal her first name, Joanne, at the bid of her publisher. Later, in interviews, she said her editor had told her the ambiguous use of initials would mean her books would be more likely read by boys. She also used a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, to avoid expectations when she published books in a new genre, but after the truth came out, a first signed edition of her first Cormoran Strike novel fetched a princely sum at auction.

George Eliot, or rather, Mary Ann Evans, faced the opposite in the 1860s. After her identity as a woman was revealed following the publication of her first novel, she started receiving negative reviews after initially positive ones.

Women in Writing Industry Today

Today, surveys by the American organization VIDA - Women in Literary Arts - reveal that novels written by women are still less often reviewed by critics in literary magazines than those by men, and essays penned by women are published less frequently in specialist publications. It’s only a fairly modern phenomenon that there is “literature for women" and "literature for men", too, with publishers segmenting them in the market, and it deemed that books containing a love story are minor literature, or for "women only".

A Brazilian project for the company HP, and an advertising agency, plans to publish the novels of George Sands and George Eliot under their real names. "We wanted to reprint history, which, for various reasons, did not treat these authors well," says Keka Morelle, the creative director of the Original Writers project. The project has created new covers, allowing readers to discover the true identity of the books’ authors. According to Marcelo Rosa, content producer of the project, this plan also includes translating these novels so they can be published in Portuguese – at present they are in their original languages.

An American researcher, Sue Lanser, professor of English, Comparative Literature and Studies on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Brandeis University in the USA, says the plan has merit but also considers something interesting, that perhaps "Not all of these women just wanted to protect themselves by the pseudonym. Some were trying to inhabit other identities. Maybe Mary Ann Evans or Violet Paget actually felt like George Eliot or Vernon Lee when they wrote," she says. She suggests that using both names to accompany a book may be important to celebrate their history in all its truth. "Even if some of them were trying to hide,” she says, “we also need to show our past, we can't change it. You can't change history and turn it into something we'd like it to be. I think showing both names is also a way to honor the trajectory of these women."