Thursday, March 13, 2014

Nom de plume: writers' secret identities & alter egos

"James Tiptree, Jr."
If you've been around literature for a good while, many of the pseudonyms in Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms will be familiar to you (Georges Simenon, Mark Twain, Isak Dinesen, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, George Sand, the Brontës, et al.); however there's sure to be a nook or cranny of motivation and lore to explore in this colorful and thorough round-up of writers with alter egos. “Names are loaded, full of pitfalls and possibilities, and can prove obstacles to writing” Carmela Ciuraru posits. “A change of name, much like a change of scenery, provides a chance to begin again.” By quoting at length from letters and diaries, Ciuraru mostly lets the authors speak for themselves as to their motivations. Here is Charlotte Brontë:
“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.”
And as reported by Charlotte's friend and future biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, “her chief reason for maintaining an incognito is the fear that if she relinquished it, strength and courage would leave her, and she should ever after shrink from writing the plain truth.”
The Bronte sisters—Anne, Emily, and Charlotte—as painted by their brother, Branwell, in 1834. For most of the women in the book, it was the freedom to be judged on their own merits that prompted the deception. As Charlotte Bronte put it, she and her sisters “had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” All too true in her day and age, and for centuries after as well. Take the case of science fiction writer Alice Sheldon (below), who wrote under the pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr.  “I’m fond of a hundred people who no more know ‘me’ than the landscape of Antarctica” she once commented.
Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. (1915–1987). This NPR piece on Tiptree has an excerpt from a biography of her by Julie Phillips. (Love the touch of "Jr."!)
With more than 70 pseudonyms, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa might have gone a bit overboard. His motto: “To pretend is to know oneself.”
Poet Ted Hughes ("Victoria Lucas"/Sylvia Plath's husband) called the Brontes "the three weird sisters." Let's hope he meant it as a compliment. Plath was afraid that the raw truth in her novel The Bell Jar would unhinge her mother, so she meant it to be published under the nom de plume of Victoria Lucas.
Having previously published articles under the pen name of Dominique Aury, Anne Desclos wrote Histoire d'O (Story of O) in 1946 under the pen name Pauline Réage. It was a response to the Marquis de Sade's dictum that “women are incapable of writing an erotic novel,”  which her lover and employer Jean Paulhan encouraged her to disprove. The book was published in 1953 by Olympia Press (which later published Nabokov's Lolita). Its outrageous sexual content led the French government to ban it in 1955, charging her publisher and its anonymous author with obscenity. Réage's identity remained secret until 1994, when The New Yorker published an interview in which she admitted to writing it. Above, Aury in 1940. (Oh how I crave that dress!) “Once, at a dinner party, she was amused to hear a friend confidently announce that people who wrote books such as Histoire d'O were very sick.”
 The 19th-century French novelist George Sand was born Aurore Dupin in 1804. Here she is in writerly drag. Sand was not the only author to embrace the freedom granted by dressing in male attire on occasion, whether overtly or covertly. (Vita Sackville-West comes to mind.)
I thought this summation of the book by Amy Wallen in the Los Angeles Times was insightful:
In Ciuraru's disclosure of their psychologies, their family lives, their traumas and thrills, we get a little bit detective story, a little bit gossip and an argosy of insight into more than 16 reasons for wanting to publish under another name. One by one, Ciuraru's thoroughly researched coterie is presented. She builds up to the history of each author's books written with and without pseudonyms, then follows their lives after publication into the toils, tribulations and triumphs through their use of an alter ego… Ciuraru's prose is reminiscent of that of science writer Mary Roach, whose wit and solid research are used to give us the history of cadavers, the afterlife and sex. Ciuraru has a wry sense of humor that lightly steps in at just the right moments: " 'The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt,' Sylvia Plath once wrote, but when it did creep in, she pounded it like a Whac-a-Mole until her achieving self could surface once again.'"


  1. I wonder how many male writers take female nom de plumes. Any at all?

    1. What a great question ... I'll have to look into it. [Several minutes later] A big fat nothing from a quick google search. Did learn that Louisa May Alcott initially wrote as A. M. Barnard.