Unveiling the women behind the narratives

When browsing through a bookshop, skimming a bestsellers list, or scrolling through online reviews, you may have noticed the substantial presence of female-authored works. Women have been dominating the literary landscape for years. From Agatha Christie to Robin Hobb, and Jane Austen to Particia Lockwood, female authors outnumber men across a range of genres including Historical fiction, romance, and horror. This shift began around the turn of the century and could be seen as a corrective measure, counterbalancing the domination of male voices in the industry in the centuries before.  

Why did female authors publish under pseudonyms? 

Historically, women were expected to prioritise their domestic duties over professional endeavours and were discouraged from producing and publishing their writing. However, many women were unphased and instead published under pseudonyms to protect their true identity. For example, Louisa May Alcott, famous for writing and publishing Little Women under her own name, was discovered to have also been publishing under the name A. M. Barnard. Alcott used this pseudonym when she published more “unladylike” or unorthodox books, such as the psychological thriller Behind a Mask. The book is follows a failed actress, who assumes the role of governess, in attempt to manipulate a family and claim their fortune. Today, this book could be read as a radically feminist text that explores the potential of an ambitious woman, who rejects subservience to instead exploit the class system for her own gain. The impact of this text was not realised until Alcott’s identity was revealed in the 1940s.  

How female authors reclaimed their fame. 

Emily Brontë 

Women were able to write books under male pseudonyms, but this meant that they often did not receive credit for their work within their lifetimes. Wuthering Heights is the only book written by Emily Brontë, originally published in 1847 under the name Ellis Bell. Though this book is now considered to be one of the greatest English classics, it was incredibly controversial at the time due to its depiction of cruelty, domestic abuse, and critique of Victorian morals, religion, and the class system. Brontë’s pseudonym protected her from the backlash, but she never lived to see her book’s global success. Passing away only a year after Wuthering Heights’ publication, Bronte never saw her authentic name printed alongside her work. Since her death, Wuthering Heights has been discussed and dissected by thousands, from secondary school students to those studying for a PHD.  

Charlotte Brontë 

A publishing agent wrote a letter to Charlotte Brontë saying “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life and it ought not to be”. This may have been what inspired her to publish under a male pseudonym and encourage her sisters to do the same. Charlotte Brontë’s most famous book is Jane Eyre, initially written under the name Currer Bell as she did not want her work to be judged based on her gender. Brontë wanted people to see the quality of her writing, not her gender. Tragically, both of Charlotte’s sisters died within a year of another, meaning that Charlotte was the only Brontë sister to see their work receive credit. However, in the time after her sisters’ death, their books received criticisms so vile that Charlotte was glad that her sisters were not there to see it. Critics, who were questioning “Currer Bell’s” gender, wrote that Jane Eyre was a masterpiece if written by a man but “odious” if it had been written by a woman. In her anger, Charlotte sent a reply by letter saying “To you I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me, the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.” Her work and her legacy have gone on to inspire generations of women.  

J.K Rowling 

Even in the modern literary landscape, there are instances in which female authors have been advised to conceal their gender identity or present it ambiguously. J.K. Rowling is perhaps the most famous example. When Rowling published Harry Potter in 1997, she was concerned that her name may alienate young boys, so opted for initials, presenting herself in a more gender-neutral way. Years later, now a prominent literary name, J.K Rowling used the fictional male pen name Robert Galbraith, to publish her crime-fiction. Feeling pressured by the success of Harry Potter, Rowling wanted her new books to be received by a neutral audience, who didn’t pick it up simply because it had her name on it. Additionally, the crime-fiction genre is still perceived as a more masculine genre, and with her new book being vastly different from the Harry Potter series, J.K Rowling wanted to create a clear separation.  

S.A Chakraborty and V.E Scwabb 

Plenty other modern authors have opted to use their initials in place of their first name. S.A Chakraborty, the author of The Daevabad trilogy, began her career publishing under this name. After the success of her trilogy, she reclaimed her first name without concern for gender bias.  Chakraborty’s most recent book The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, has been published under the name Shannon instead.   

Another prominent author, who uses her first name and initials interchangeably, is V.E (or Victoria) Scwabb. Based on her assumption that adult men in the sci-fi and fantasy community would shy away from books written by women, Scwabb publishes all her adult novels under V.E Schwabb, while her teen books are published under Victoria Scwabb. Although female authors thrive in YA fiction, their adult Sci-Fi and fantasy books are often mislabelled as YA. Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden, and Erin Morganstern are all female authors that frequently face this issue. 

 

How will you tell your story? 

Whether you want to share your story, or keep it for yourself, empower yourself by putting your achievements to page. Take pride in your legacy and get in touch with us today.  

 

Written Caitlin Puddle, Swansea University Intern.