We all know that Mary Shelley is one of the mothers of the Science Fiction, but being a woman writer, poet and/or author was never an easy road to travail. Mary was lucky to get her work published under her own name. Other women authors took a different route to publication, and offered their work up under masculine nom de plumes. I have chosen to share a short observation of four of the finest, and why they chose to take on the mantle of masculinity.
George Sand, the alter ego of the Frenchwoman Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, was one of the original rebels who became just as famous for her celebrity as for her books and memoirs. She made her literary debut in corroboration the writer Jules Sandeau, when they published a few stories in collaboration, signing them ‘Jules Sand’. Her first published novel, Rose et Blanche (1831), was also written in collaboration with Sandeau. The very the next year she published a solo literary effort, Indiana, under the pen name, George Sand.
As George Sand, she underwent a transformation, becoming something of a scandal; which did nothing to harm the sales of her books, by the way. She began wearing men’s clothing in public, which she justified by claiming the clothes were far sturdier, more comfortable, and less expensive than the typical feminine outfits of her era (I believe her claims wholeheartedly). In addition to being comfortable, she favoured masculine clothing for its ability to gain her access to places generally not frequented by other women of her era. Sand also took to smoking cigars in public, at a time when fashionable women didn’t smoke. To top off all this, she had numerous affairs with other famous writers, painters, and musicians; her most famous being a ten year relationship with Frédéric François Chopin.
Sand was to write of Chopin, “I must say I was confused and amazed at the effect this little creature had on me … I have still not recovered from my astonishment, and if I were a proud person I should be feeling humiliated at having been carried away …”
George Sands was born in 1804 and died in 1876, so all of her writing output was during the Victorian era. She was -and still is – known well in far reaches of the world, and remembered for both her outrageous behaviour and her sublime writing. Her masculine nom de plume was well known to belong to a woman, and I believe she saw her George persona as a way of tossing aside the restrictions place upon Aurore, rather than trying to hide her identity as a woman author.
“And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.”
― George Eliot, from Middlemarch
This is very different to the strategy of another ‘George’, George Eliot. Mary Ann (also Marian, Mary Anne – she used alternative spellings as it suited her mood) Evans used a masculine pen name to ensure her works would be taken seriously by the literary community, as most female authors were stereotyped as only writing lighthearted romances.
However, she did live a somewhat unconventional life, though no where near as scandalous as George Sand’s escapades. Mary Ann Evans met the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes in 1851, and by 1854 they had fallen in love decided to live together, even though Lewes was still married to another woman, Agnes Jervis. Evans and Lewes considered themselves married, with Evans calling herself Marian Evans Lewes, and referring to Lewes as her husband, and they lived together for twenty years until Lewes died. Mary Anne remarried in 1880. Even though she legally married John Cross, society was shocked because she was twenty years younger than Mary Ann by marrying a man twenty years younger than herself, and again changing her name, this time to Mary Anne Cross. She died in that same year.
Her pen name strategy worked for her, because she was and is considered one of greatest English novelists of all time, thanks to novels like The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. Throughout her career, Eliot wrote a politically astute narratives, like a Victorian-era Harper Lee, presenting the cases of social outsiders and small-town persecution. She was (and is) well regarded for the sophistication of her character portraits. She was a popular author in Victorian times, and remains so to this day.
Most of us know the romantic history of three Brontë sisters, all with ambitions to be writers, and all three decided to use masculine pen names. In May 1846, Charlotte, Emily and Anne self-financed the publication of a joint collection of poems under their assumed names of Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell. The women then went on to solo careers as Victorian-era writers.
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.
– Charlotte Bronte
All three ended up famous, though poor Anne is somewhat overshadowed by her two sisters. Sadly, none of the sisters survived middle age, with Charlotte living the longest by achieving 38 years of age. The most scandalous thing they ever did was publish books under nom de plumes, but their legacy lives on. One can’t help but wonder what masterpieces might have been written if they had lived into their seventies.
As a writer, I have a pen name, Lynne Lumsden Green, but only as my own name is so common I needed something to make it unique. I haven’t any urge to take on a masculine nom de plume, but if I had to face the same attitudes as Sands, Eliot, and the Brontë sisters, I would probably be using Lyndon instead of Lynne. But gender stereotyping lingered on well past the Victorian era.
“It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”
— Robert Silverberg
Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the name James Tiptree Jr, was a Science Fiction writer who kept her gender identity a secret until her death in 1987. She often wrote about gender and sexuality in her work, so it is a shame that she felt only a masculine persona would gain publication and recognition. I dedicate this article to her memory.
As a Steampunk enthusiast and writer, I feel it is my duty to read books by Victorian writers, to get a feel for the era from people who lived in it. Four of these women are the backbone of English literature, along with Jane Austen, and George Sands is considered one the greatest writers of her time. They shook down the walls of the Literature with their talent.