Writing under assumed names is likely as old as writing itself, though the reasons for doing so have varied wildly. In the ancient world it was fairly common for writers to assume the names of a respected figure as a rhetorical device to enhance, rather than disguise, their authorship. The best known example of this is Pseudo-Dionysius, whose adoption of the name of Dionysius the Areopagite — one of the converts of St Paul — gave his writings near-Apostolic authority for medieval scholars.
Looking at writing throughout the European medieval and renaissance periods it’s obvious that ideas of intellectual property and attribution have changed greatly since then. Unattributed texts were common, as were vague attributions. Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publications in the English Language: 1475–1640 lists around 4000 works, which is a lot of writing in a single vernacular to catalogue from a 165 year period during which literacy rate across the general population were generally low, conversation and debate were still generally prized over tracts and essays in the intellectual life, and many things were still written in Latin.
As writing expanded and developed in the Renaissance, so too did understanding of authorship, and the use of deliberate pseudonyms (as opposed to simple anonymity or vague attribution) increased, particularly appended to political or satirical works, or those predicted to cause offense. To take a lesser-known but fascinating example, the 16th century French noblewoman Marguerite de Briet published her works under the name Hélisenne de Crenne. Hélisenne produced fiery letters denouncing the misogyny of her times, translated Virgil, and wrote a novel –presented in part as an autobiography — that was a sort of Romeo and Juliet story framed with chivalric imagery, with cameo appearances from Mercury and Hades, amongst other classical figures. Marguerite’s use of the pseudonym was so successful that her identity was not uncovered until an enterprising 20th century scholar set about to discover it.
The modern era was undoubtedly when pseudonyms came into their own. Many of the most famous pseudonymous writers of the time were women. The first to spring to mind are often the Brontë sisters: Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who published under the pen names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, respectively. Their use of male pseudonyms has led to the common assumption that women were not able to publish under their own names in the nineteenth century, or that an attempt to do so would result in public shame. This is not entirely born out by the treatment of other female novelists of the era.
Jane Austen, who wrote in the early 19th century chose to publish anonymously as ‘A Lady,’ but there was no attempt to conceal her sex, nor any serious effort to hide her specific identity. Jane Austen’s authorship was fairly well known during her lifetime, and had she not died prematurely at the age of 44, she would have witnessed her books becoming very popular under her own name.
This is not to say that there were no difficulties for female writers in the 19th century. There were social constraints on how women could, with propriety, participate in public life. The way in which the work of female authors was viewed was behind the Brontës’ decision to use male pseudonyms, wishing to be judged simply for their novels, not their femininity. Emily died in 1848, barely a year after the publication of Wuthering Heights, and Anne followed her the following May, six months after publishing The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Neither of them saw their identities made public, but Charlotte’s authorship was known by 1849, two years after the publication of Jane Eyre. Her subsequent novels were published under her own name.
Women were not the only writers to use pen names. The French writer, Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his favourite nom de plume, Stendhal, likened pseudonyms to masks at a masquerade ball, each one allowing him to try on a new persona. Friends remarked that he never signed his own name, even inventing new pen names for personal correspondence.
This device of a pseudonym as a mask reached a whole new level in the work of Søren Kierkegaard, who not only took on different personas through his various pseudonyms, but put them in conversation with each other and used the interactions to develop his thought and build layers of irony. The way in which he did this just goes to show how strongly connected to the personality of the author to his or her writing has become. Indeed, an author’s name is often treated as shorthand for a personality that determines what he or she writes.
This led to a new pseudonym trend in the 20th century: established authors adopting secondary pen names to develop or do something different as writers. It is common practice for authors who write in more than one genre to publish their different lines under different names. The assumption seems to be that readers would be confused if a futuristic sci-fi author turned his hand to historical fiction, or shocked if a romance novelist brought out a hard-boiled murder mystery. A writer’s name is his or her brand.
This was already the way of thinking when Agatha Christie was writing. Her publisher refused to publish her series of psychologically-exploratory novels under the Christie name as they were nothing like her usual mysteries, so she chose the pen name of Mary Westmacott. The books sold well, and it was years before the connection was discovered.
Some recent authors have been truly prolific in creating new pen names. Dean Koontz has used at least ten, both to publish in different genres and to bring out his work faster than his publishers would otherwise allow. Likewise, You may not have heard of the writer Eleanor Hibbert, but you may have read her work under the names of Victoria Holt, Jean Plaidy, Phillipa Carr, or at least five others.
The most famous recent example of an established writer taking on a new pseudonym is JK Rowling’s adoption of the name Robert Galbraith to write crime/mystery novels for adults. She has spoken of how freeing it was to have the invisibility cloak of the Galbraith moniker, which points to perhaps the most pressing reason many authors use a nom de plume: privacy. The price of success as an author is celebrity and scrutiny, and many authors would much prefer the fate of Pseudo-Dionysius or Hélisenne de Crenne: that their legacy be in their writing, and their personality remain their own.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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