Nineteenth-century Britain was a time of great progress and reform, in British society due to industrialization and social upheaval. One of the most controversial debates were about the position of women in society. Aspects such as a wife’s right to own property, a mother’s right to custody of her children and ownership of her body, or right to vote, saw the birth of the movement for women’s rights, and the first suffragettes at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This was also the era of the professional woman writer, a time in which more women were writing professionally and demanded a place alongside men in the literary world.
The Bronte Sisters
One of the strategies these early women writers turned to was the use of male pseudonyms.
These have been referred to by 20th century feminist literary scholars such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar as ‘metaphorical trousers’ or male pseudonyms in the 19th century, in order to be taken seriously as authors.
I wrote a post called Madwoman in the Attic in two parts with more information on the topic.
Here are a few of the most famous women who used male pseudonyms. The most well-known are probably the three Bronte sisters.
Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, is one of the most celebrated female novelists in all literary history. Charlotte Bronte originally published Jane Eyre and all her works under the name Currer Bell. This name represented the male identity necessary to succeed during the time in which Bronte was actively writing. Jane Eyre is regarded as one of the most influential works of literature in history and is now published under Charlotte Bronte’s true name.
Anne Bronte (1820 – 1849) wrote Agnes Grey, in 1847. Her second novel was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the story of a woman leaving her abusive spouse, was published the following year. She published her novels with the pseudonym Acton Bell.
Charlotte’s sister, Emily Bronte, published her only known novel, Wuthering Heights, under the male pen name Ellis Bell. The three sisters chose to write under masculine pseudonyms to deter any bias on the basis of their gender. Emily Bronte’s health was poor throughout most of her life, and she died at 30 in the year 1848. In 1950, Charlotte Bronte edited Emily’s novel and re-published it under Emily’s true name. Today, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are considered two of the most important English novels in history.
Mary Anne Evans, pen name George Eliot
Mary Ann Evans: More widely known by her male pen name George Eliot, Evans was a prominent author and journalist during the Victorian Era. Evans is said to have published under a male pseudonym in order to distance herself from the female romance novelists of the time and to ensure that her works were taken seriously. After her first novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859 and reviewed positively by critics, Evans revealed her female identity to the world.
On other occasions, women wrote under their married names, to endow them with greater respectability. Here are some examples.
Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant (née Margaret Oliphant Wilson) (4 April 1828 – 25 June 1897), was a Scottish novelist and historical writer, who usually wrote as Mrs. Oliphant. Her fictional works encompass “domestic realism, the historical novel and tales of the supernatural
Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, née Stevenson (29 September 1810 — 12 November 1865), often referred to simply as Mrs Gaskell, was an English novelist and short story writer during the Victorian era. Her novels offer a detailed portrait of the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, and are of interest to social historians as well as lovers of literature. Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte, published in 1857, was the first biography of that author.
Mrs. Henry Wood
Ellen Wood (17 January 1814 – 10 February 1887), was an English novelist, better known as Mrs. Henry Wood. She is perhaps remembered most for her 1861 novel East Lynne, but many of her books became international best-sellers, being widely received in the United States and surpassing Charles Dickens’ fame in Australia.
Mary Augusta Ward née Arnold; (11 June 1851 – 24 March 1920), was a British novelist who wrote under her married name as Mrs Humphry Ward.
There is plenty of proof as to why women had to use male pseudonyms or their husbands or brother’s names. I suggest those who are interested in the topic read my post Madwoman in the Attic Part II, for a more detailed account and bibliography.
I’m just going to include one eloquent example in this post. A letter the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey (1774-1843) wrote to Charlotte Bronte in 1836 in reply to her petition for advice on being a writer.
“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity”.
Robert Southey was an English poet of the Romantic school, and one of the so-called “Lake Poets”. He was Poet Laureate for 30 years from 1813 to his death in 1843. Although his fame has long been eclipsed by that of his contemporaries and friends William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Nevertheless, women authors achieved remarkable literary success in a profession clearly dominated by men. Many of them were able to successfully pursue their literary ambitions in spite of the patriarchal oppression they were subject to, and they passed the test of time with flying colours!
Fortunately, society, including men and women have come a long way since the 19th century, and nowadays, at least in the English-speaking/writing/reading literary market, as I perceive the situation, women and men write and publish with equal opportunities.
Nevertheless, as all social progress, it’s an ongoing struggle and unfortunately, there are many places in the world where women are still struggling to be heard.
Do men and women writer have equal opportunities as readers and writers where you live?