What makes an author hide behind a nom de plume? The usual reasons for changing your name in non-literary walks of life are to avoid your creditors or the law, or simply because you feel blighted by the hand your parents dealt you: raw work pulled at the font, as PG Wodehouse accurately observes.
It was a belief widely held – and nurtured by the exclusively male tribe of publishers – that it was not seemly for a woman to take to the page. Or, in mediaeval England, to be heard at all, which is why the resourceful and very attention-seeking Margery Kempe made great play of the fact that she had dictated her autobiography to a male scribe. Oh, and that Jesus had told her to get it all written down, which you have to admit, is a rather splendid pre-emptive strike against potential critics. The Book of Margery Kempe seems to have been finished by 1450, but the first (and so far only) complete manuscript only came to light in 1934. Kempe was a remarkable woman of her own or indeed any time, and I suspect you are going to enjoy her tales of pilgrimage, chats with celebrities from Julian of Norwich to assorted bishops and archbishops, and a tour of the religious sites of Europe and the Holy Land. She is also, to my mind, the precursor of the great feminist icon, Violet Elizabeth Bott, with her ability to scream and scream until she is sick.
We do at least know Mrs Kempe’s name. In the seventeenth century, as religious sensibilities started to consign women to the private domestic sphere, it became increasingly difficult to get heard without either using a pseudonym or anonymity. Katherine Philips, the Welsh poet, translator of Corneille and leader of a literary circle, was undoubtedly as tough as old boots, but bowed to the conventions with a great deal of classical nick-naming for herself and her friends. She was ‘the matchless Orinda’, which, on the face of it, is a bit – well, simpery. She made great play of her virtue and devotion to her husband, and it is noticeable that despite all the coy shunning of publicity, Mrs Philips was very well known indeed as the perfect model of a female author. Not like that brazen Aphra Behn, you see, whose private life remained just that and who wrote to make money. Gosh, how infra dig. And for the stage at that. She also seems to have spied for the British Government to make money, by the way, and generally comes across as a woman who would have sold her grandmother to you at the right price. Behn wrote with wit and energy, and about sex and death. Obviously, she is a must-read. Start with Oroonoko, which is neither about South American rivers (although it is set in Surinam) nor Wombles, but is a high-octane tale of slavery, true love and barbarity: a sort of cross between Othello and Twelve Years a Slave.
The late eighteenth century produced a fine crop of women who were perfectly happy to see their names on the covers of their books, from Ann Radcliffe, whose Mysteries of Udolpho so stirred Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women stirred the Establishment as with a Magimix. Northanger Abbey itself, like all Jane Austen’s novels, appeared anonymously: the strap-line ‘by a lady’, which first appeared on Pride and Prejudice seems to suggest a genteel need to distance herself from the women who presented themselves as professional writers. After Austen, we enter a morass of Brontës, believing or being advised that readers will only come their way if they publish as the various dubiously-named Bell brothers, and Marian Evans, who led parallel lives as Miss Evans, the lover of George Henry Lewes, and George Eliot, the author of seven of the best novels of the nineteenth century (it’s the dry humour, which perhaps you weren’t expecting, that makes Middlemarch such a winner).
But it’s not just the girls: chaps, too, on signing the contract with a publisher, have taken the opportunity to re-invent themselves. Eric Blair became George Orwell and Hector Hugh Munro became Saki: Eric Mercer (none of them seem happy to be Eric, do they? Do you think that Eric, or Little by Little started the rot?) metamorphosed into the suave Dornford Yates, now hugely unfashionable but for most of the first half of the twentieth century one of the most-read authors around. Oxford seems to bring out the pseudonymous in a writer: Charles Dodgson’s alter ego was Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis published some poetry as Clive Hamilton, and J I M Stewart became Michael Innes when he felt like writing crime fiction. Michael Innes, incidentally, was the source of Robert Bruce Montgomery’s pen name, Edmund Crispin, for his highly enjoyable Oxford-set detective novels starring Professor Gervase Fen. But no, the Earl of Oxford did not write poems and plays and call himself William Shakespeare. Really he didn’t. Don’t be silly.
Some authors have developed different personas for different genres they wish to dabble in. So the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis, published crime fiction as Nicholas Blake (and jolly good they are too) and Barbara Vine is the darker, more disturbing hat that Ruth Rendell wears from time to time. Edith Pargeter, a fine historical novelist, took on a new lease of life as Ellis Peters, writing crime fiction and all twenty-something Brother Cadfael mysteries. What I notice, writing this, is how deliberately transparent most also-writing-as has become. Indeed, many front covers now proclaim the dual identities, presumably in the hope of generating maximum sales. I can see this is going to have consequences when Val McDermid starts writing picture books for the very small.
So, when you write the Great Novel of the Twenty-First Century, who will you say you are? Your own name? Terrific if it turns out to be as good as you thought it was, and friends and neighbours stop you in the street to kiss the hand that wrote the book and ask for your autograph: but what if the reviewers hate you, and your name blares out below the headline, ‘Is This the Worst Book Ever Written?’(now there’s a topic for a NorthernReader Walking Book Club session). You might have to move, or change your children’s name by deed poll, or pretend to be the nanny when you collect your children at the school gate. I begin to see the attraction of hiding behind a pseudonym. How about ‘The Northern Reader’?