Thanks to International Women’s Day on Mar. 8, March was women’s month. Our Bookworm Readers Association — we were searching for a catchy acronym and the initials of this fitted to a T — decided to celebrate the eventful month by getting into books by women, a category so broad that we hit on the idea of looking at novels written by women who assumed male pen names.
Not many of us have heard of the author Mary Ann Evans (1819 —1880) even though she wrote one of the most highly regarded novels in history. Her work, Middlemarch, was cited by Virginia Wolfe as one of the few English novels for grown ups.
She took on the male name George Eliot when she wrote her first published work, an essay titled Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, and kept it because she believed the public would take her work more seriously if they thought she was a male. After her fifth novel — Adam Bede in 1859 — she was praised by critics and came clean. She confessed her gender and remained a prestigious name in literature.
Middlemarch, like a lot of the novels of the time, was first serialised in newspapers and is made up of eight books that represent each serialisation. Though it has a plot that twists and turns and convolutes, it covers a huge swathe of English history, and is full of memorable characters that you have to try and get to grips with. Most readers end up agreeing with Martin Amis and Julian Barnes that it is a masterpiece
Another writer who pushed accepted norms was Amatine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who made a stir in mid-19th century France by wearing men’s clothing and smoking in public — activities not permitted to females.
She endured a short, forced, arranged marriage before living with an actress and throughout her life was labeled with epithets such as nymphomaniac, man-eater, lesbian and hermaphrodite. She was also called frigid.
She is now regarded as up there with the great male writers of the second wave of French Romantic novelists such as Victor Hugo and de Balzac — her output of novels was prodigious.
She took on the name George Sand when she published her first novel, Indiana, and kept it from then on in public and private life. She made a huge stir with her novel Lelia, which advocated the same standard of morality for men and women, and suggested that both prostitutes and married women were slaves to man’s desires. She went on to shock the church and upright society by questioning monogamy, infidelity and monastic celibacy.
It’s still a powerful read.
Stella Miles Franklin
Later in the century, on the underside of the globe, a country Australian girl called Stella Miles Franklin was so sure that publishers wouldn’t look at the work of female writers, that she dropped the name Stella and under the pen name Miles Franklin had huge success in 1901 with her first novel, My Brilliant Career. In the 1960s it was made into a movie.
Stella’s book caused a stir among ‘proper’ Australian society because the heroine, Sybella, decided not to marry the dashing rich and handsome hero, instead deciding to pursue her dream of writing and having ‘a beautiful career’. You can imagine the tightly corseted matrons tut tutting and banning their talented daughters from touching the novel.
Stella only wrote two books under her manly name of Miles, but had others published under a variety of male names because she didn’t want to compromise Miles’ reputation.
Other women who have intentionally passed themselves off as male writers at some time or another by taking on a pseudonym include Nora Roberts (JD Robb), Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), the Bronte sisters (Ellis and Currer Bell) and Louisa May Alcott (A M Barnard). Another who dropped her feminine first name was Nellie Harper Lee while J K Rowling of Harry Potter fame thought that boys would never buy her books if the name Joanna was on the cover.
Some female writers have been saddled with male sounding names by their parents. One of these is one of our favourite modern female writers, Lionel Shriver of We Need To Talk About Kevin notoriety. Notorious because it questions modern constructs about the feelings mothers should have towards their children, and the precept that children are never born evil.
For more information on Bookworm go to bookwormhanoi.com. Besides their original store on Chau Long, Bookworm have a second, smaller shop in Nghi Tam Village in the West Lake area. Located behind the Sheraton and in the same alley as VilaTom Coffee, it can be found at Lane 1/28 Au Co, Lang Nghi Tam, Tay Ho