For women writers in the Victorian era, the male pseudonym became a visor that separated the authorial voice from the self-effacing feminine self.
An eloquent anxiety shaped the 19 century. The tectonic changes in the political ideologies of the previous century, wrought by the American war for independence in 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, influenced an era that stirred a potent female literary tradition. It was an age that prompted Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, to proclaim optimistically, in 1859: “There can be no question that the present epoch is initiating an empire of the higher reason, of arts, affections, aspirations; and for that epoch the genius of woman has been reserved.”
The genius of woman, however, sometimes donned the clever disguise of a male pen name, in an age rife with contradictions that ripened literature even as it attempted to thwart the women who produced it. While thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, in her 1792 essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, fervently argued for radical changes in the education of women that would sharpen intellect and toughen character, other “liberals” had established an oppressive canon of femininity, from which it was risky to veer. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s didactic treatise of the previous century, Émile, declared that, “the whole education of women ought to be relative to men.” Women were meant to be instructed in their duties, from the time of infancy — to please, be useful to and make themselves loved by, men.
The French philosopher’s rigorous definition of a nurturing, angelic woman with docile traits and an unsullied character was celebrated by writers through a vocabulary laced with religious or chivalric terminology. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have observed in “Literature of the Nineteenth Century” (The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women), that the ideal woman as perceived and described by both British and American writers was “delicate, frail, ethereal.”
For women writers in the Victorian era who dared defy acceptable tenets of femininity, the male pseudonym became a visor that separated the authorial voice from the pure, self-effacing feminine self. Writers like Charlotte and Emily Brontë as well as Marian Evans published their work under male pseudonyms, (Currer and Ellis Bell, and George Eliot, respectively), in a symptomatic reaction to a century eager for their literary brilliance, but unable to grant them authority over the moral and social creed their literature attempted to cull out of ambiguities.
Charlotte Brontë, author of what was to become a stupendous bestseller Jane Eyre, found a way out of the impoverishment the Brontë sisters wallowed in, when she discovered her sister Emily’s verse about the inhabitants of her fantasy kingdom Gondal. She decided to send the poems to a publisher, along with some more of her own and her sister Anne’s. However, she bestowed upon the three writers androgynous noms de plume — Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. She explained, “What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible?”
A beneficial invisibility, or a discomfort with their feminine selves as writers because writing was considered a male undertaking, was a predominant anxiety with these authors, whom ironically, their readers perceived as women right at the outset of their careers. Catherine A. Judd, in her essay, “Male pseudonyms and female authority in Victorian England” (Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British Publishing and Reading Practices), argues, “Jane Eyre, for example, was seen as a revolutionary book in terms of the history of the British novel, precisely because it articulated the passions and desire of a specifically feminine experience.” The book, even for contemporary readers, resounds with what Virginia Woolf described as “the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Brontë.”
The frothy, sentimental concoctions that lady writers were supposed to produce meant that those who went against the grain must necessarily masquerade as androgynous. Charlotte Brontë, who admired her sister Emily’s verse, for it had, “a peculiar music — wild, melancholy and elevating,” was acutely conscious that these were not the characteristics of a feminine writer. In a letter to her publisher, she wrote of her sister’s poems, “I know no woman that ever lived who wrote such poetry before.”
George Eliot, who was also known by a variety of feminine names — Mary Anne, Marian Evans, “Clematis” (mental beauty), “Deutera” (meaning second), Mrs. Lewes and “Our Lady” — adopted a masculine name as a tribute to the man who encouraged her literary talent and later became her lover. But the name George Eliot also inextricably linked her courageous writing to an ingenuity reserved for men. It disassociated her from the type of storytelling that she attacked with savage wit, in her essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, published in 1856: “The heroine is usually a heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond.”
The acquirement of a male nom de plume was also a tradition borrowed from French novelist George Sand, (Aurore Dupin Dudevant). Sand, who clamoured for the restoration of civil rights of women and the reformation of marriage laws, also distanced herself from bourgeois feminist clubs ostensibly championing the cause of women. In 1848, she rejected a candidacy to the National Assembly, in a terse letter to the editors of La Réforme and La Vraie République: “…I cannot condone being taken without my consent as the standard-bearer of a female circle with which I have never had the slightest relation either pleasant or unpleasant.”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of her intricate feminism, her abhorrence of the bondage marriage entailed, and the pretensions of middle-class education in To George Sand, A Recognition: True genius, but true women! Dost deny/The woman’s nature with a manly scorn/And break away the gauds and armlets worn/By weaker women in captivity?
True genius then, for the 19th century lady writer, was still not an inherently feminine virtue. Their masculine pseudonyms allowed a swifter dissemination of their literature, and provided them a steadfast readership, in a marketplace prone to dismissing their work as yet another silly novel by a lady novelist.