Many female writers have adopted male nom de plumes, or otherwise gender-ambiguous pseudonyms, for a number of reasons: to publish without prejudice in male-dominated circles; to experiment with the freedom of anonymity; or to encourage male readership. Below we have profiled 12 female authors, from Louisa May Alcott to J.K. Rowling, who have written under male pseudonyms and discussed their pertinent reasons for doing so.
The Brontë Sisters
Today considered among the greatest novelists of our time, literary sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë – like many of their female contemporaries – first published their works under the male pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Given reactions to their writings – including Emily’s Wuthering Heights being described as ‘brutal’ and ‘wicked – their adoption of male aliases isn’t surprising. Charlotte Bronte herself stated that ‘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.’
Louisa May Alcott
While Louisa May Alcott’s best known work, Little Women, was published under her own name, the American writer frequently used the ambiguous nom de plume A.M. Barnard to write sensational gothic thrillers with subject matter deemed ‘unladylike’ for a late 19th century female writer. Alcott’s works written under A.M. Barnard included A Long Fatal Love Chase, a dark love story written two years prior to Little Women, and the novella Behind a Mask, with themes of social class and manipulation. Her secret male pseudonym was discovered by rare book dealer Madeleine B. Stern and librarian Leona Rostenberg in the 1940s.
Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin
Born in Paris in 1804, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin is better known as George Sand – one of 19th century France’s most prolific writers. She was a weaver of tales of love and social class that critiqued the social norms of the society in which she lived. A trail-blazing early feminist, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev once said of Sand, ‘what a brave man she was, and what a good woman’. Dupin was also known for stirring controversy in Parisian social circles for her then audacious wearing of men’s clothing, smoking in public and frequent love affairs.
Mary Ann Evans
Mary Ann Evans, born in Warwickshire in 1819 the daughter of an estate manager, was a clever child with a voracious appetite for reading. She had her first major foray into writing when she was hired as assistant editor at the radical journal Westminster Review. She adopted her better known male pseudonym George Eliot when George Henry Lewes – the English philosopher and critic with whom she was romantically involved – encouraged her to take up writing fiction. Evans believed that a male alias would discourage female stereotyping. Characterised by her politically astute writings, Evans’ best known works include Adam Bede and Middlemarch.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, author Vernon Lee, born Violet Paget in 1856 in France to British parents, was a prolific writer with a varied body of work ranging from writings on travel and music to supernatural fiction and critiques of art. An intellectual and seasoned traveler, Page spent most of her life in Europe. Her writings – which include the 1890 collection of supernatural tales Hauntings: Fantastic Stories – are noted for their feminist and liberal elements.
Acclaimed Danish writer Karen Blixen – the author of Out of Africa, a memoir detailing her time living in Kenya – used a number of pen names throughout her career. Blixen’s most well-known male nom de plume was Isak Dinesen, which she adopted for the American publication of her 1934 collection of short stories Seven Gothic Tales. While it isn’t known why she used the moniker, Blixen did use another pseudonym, Pierre Andrézel, to publish The Angelic Avengers as she considered it less serious than her other works.
Though she had already published a number of works in the 1920s under her own name – including her debut Anna Colquhoun and The Rebel Passion, her first Utopian novel and what she considered her first mature work – British science fiction writer Katharine Burdekin later wrote several works under the pen name Murray Constantine. Indeed, her most well-known novel Swastika Night (1939), a Dystopian imagining of a fascist future with a distinctly feminist stance, was published as Constantine. The true identity of Constantine was discovered by professor and author Daphne Patai in the 1980s.
Alice Bradley Sheldon
Better known as science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr., Alice Bradley Sheldon already had a career as a graphic artist, painter and art critic. Upon her return to science fiction she took on her male pen name. Bradley Sheldon later stated in an interview with Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine that ‘a male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.’ Tiptree/Sheldon is the author of award-winning works including the novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In.
June Tarpé Mills
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1912, June Tarpé Mills was a talented artist who, after studying at the prestigious art school The Pratt Institute, worked as a fashion illustrator. In the late 1930s she began contributing to the growing popularity of comics, creating characters such as Daredevil Barry Finn and The Purple Zombie, signing her works with the gender-ambiguous Tarpé Mills. In 1941, she created Miss Fury –the first female comic book superhero created by a female writer – and today is hailed as one of the best pioneering female cartoonists of her time.
We all know J.K. Rowling as the woman behind the über-successful Harry Potter series, but her ambiguous initials were originally intentional. Her publisher, Barry Cunningham, thought Harry Potter’s target young male audience might be put off by a book written by a woman. Furthermore, Rowling published her 2013 crime mystery The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, which attracted some criticism when its true author was revealed. Rowling defended her choice, saying, ‘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.’
Indiana-based American urban fantasy and science fiction writer Robyn Thurman – the mind behind the New York Times Best Selling novels, the Cal Leandros series – didn’t reveal herself as a female author until the release of her third book. Though Robyn’s family and friends have called her ‘Rob’ for short all her life, the author felt that as the main protagonists of her books are predominantly male, having a female writer’s name on the cover may put off potential readers.
Christina Lynch & Meg Howrey
Magnus Flyte, the author of the hugely successful 2012 Prague-set thriller The City of Dark Magic, is a self-described ‘author, flaneur, satirist, adventurer, pisco sour connoisseur’ – but ‘Magnus Flyte’ is really writing duo Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey, two authors who met at a writing retreat and conjured up their alias and his world. In an interview with Civilian Reader, Howrey stated the duo initially adopted a male pseudonym to appeal to both genders, ‘but then our identities were made public from the beginning, so we didn’t get a chance to see if ‘Magnus Flyte’ would fool anyone. No matter, we love him anyway’.
By Helen Armitage