What’s in a name? Well, if you’re asking J.K. Rowling or Charlotte Bronte, a name can mean anonymity, creative freedom and a fresh start. Female authors have long used male or gender-neutral pseudonyms when releasing their work into the public sphere, and though it was typically used predominantly to escape female stereotyping, it is a practice that still continues today. There are many reasons an author, regardless of gender, may opt for a pseudonym, and in this issue’s Arts and Entertainment section we’ll be looking at five of the world’s most wonderful female authors, and why exactly they made the difficult choice of publishing under a name that was not their own.
Charlotte Bronte/Currer Bell
Perhaps the most well-known of all pseudonym-users, Charlotte Bronte is celebrated today for one of her many great novels, star of an eye-watering number of adaptations, Jane Eyre. Bronte, like her sisters Emily and Anne, opted for a male pseudonym, Currer Bell, in order to escape prejudices held against female writers at the time. And who can blame her? Told by scholar Robert Southey “literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” Bronte wasn’t exactly given much hope for the reception of her novel with her as its author. In The Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell, Bronte writes: “Averse to publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell… we did not like to declare ourselves women, because…we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their rewards, a flattery, which is not true praise.” The disheartening contrast in critical reviews of her novel before and after Currer Bell was revealed to be the female Charlotte Bronte unfortunately gives validation to her thoughts.
June Tarpé Mills/Tarpé Mills
Amidst the horrors of the war era of the 1940s, June Tarpé Mills became a shining example of the wonders of girl power. A talented cartoonist and passionate story teller, Mills began to draw and market her own cartoons, which included the likes of the fiery Miss Fury and Daredevil Barry Finn. Mills’ work, especially Miss Fury, was a smashing success for Marvel comics, and June Tarpé Mills became the first woman to ever create a female superhero. Despite this however, the cartoonist worried about how her work would be received if it became known it was created by a woman. So, she signed her comics using only her middle and last names: Tarpé Mills. Tarpé Mills’ true identity was eventually found out, but Miss Fury remained an adored comic book, featuring the courageous hero always clad in styles that were at the height of fashion in the 40s (but is there really any better way to fight crime than in a lace nightgown, with a cigarette in hand?)
It’s widely known now that J.K. Rowling chose to publish her first book that came after her phenomenal Harry Potter series under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Rowling stated her reasons as: “I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career with this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback.” This is all very fair, and while her decision to go by the pen-name Robert Galbraith did not seem to be motivated by gender, the author’s choice to go by just her first two initials and surname for Harry Potter, was. Rowling, whose full name is Joanne Kathleen Rowling, was told by her publishers that young boys would actively choose to not read books written by a woman. Thus the global brand of J.K. Rowling came to be.
This is just a small fraction of many female authors who have chosen to go by male or gender-neutral pseudonyms, and it’s clear from this list of brilliant writers (as well as the many who have been omitted including Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot, Anne Bronte/Acton Bell and Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin A.K.A George Sand, who was as fantastic as her name is long. Sand was notorious for not giving a fuck, wearing men’s clothing, her unladylike habit of smoking in public, and not-so-secret love affairs with like, Chopin, among others) that names and biological sex are boringly unimportant in the face of great art.