Authors have long used pseudonyms for a variety of reasons, with some of the most prominent being to maintain privacy or to avoid criticism and bias. Although you may be familiar with the real names and stories of many modern authors who write under a pen name, you might not know much about the iconic authors who used one over the last few centuries.
Today, we recognize Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë under their real names, but when they first began writing in the 1800s, they chose male pseudonyms. Their first works appeared in 1846: a book of poems written under their assumed names, Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The following year, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, arguably the most famous of the sisters’ novels, was published, for which she once again used “Currer Bell” in place of her real name. Emily and Anne used their pseudonyms for their own respective novels—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey—as well; Anne’s later novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was also first published as “Acton Bell.”
In 1850, after both Emily and Anne had died and their novels were set to be republished, Charlotte wrote a “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell” to preface the new editions, revealing their identities once and for all and explaining that their choices had been based on a wish for privacy as well as a shrewd awareness of the general bias against female authors:
“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.”
Unlike the Brontë sisters, who are now remembered under their real names, George Eliot is still the name popularly associated with the works of Mary Ann Evans. Best known for her masterpiece, Middlemarch, Evans had the same motives as the Brontës for using a pseudonym (maintaining her privacy and avoiding bias for writing as a female); however, unlike them, she chose a deliberately male name.
In a letter to her editor—who still did not know the identity of his contributor—at Blackwood’s Magazine in late 1857, Evans wrote, “a nom de plume secures all the advantages without the disagreeable of reputation” and signed the letter, for the first time, “George Eliot.” According to Gordon Sherman Haight’s biography George Eliot: A Biography, she later explained to her husband and biographer John W. Cross how she chose her name: “George was Mr. Lewes’s [her longtime romantic partner] Christian name, and Eliot was a good, mouth-filling, easily-pronounced word.”
However, her anonymity only lasted a short while. After Adam Bede was published to rousing success in 1859, speculation over the author’s identity was so strong that fakes sprang up claiming to be George Eliot. Evans—now Marian Evans Lewes, although she and Lewes were not actually married—acknowledged authorship soon after.
No, the famed author of detective novels didn’t publish her iconic novels under a false name. But she did use a pseudonym to publish in another genre! In fact, she wrote a total of six novels under the pen name “Mary Westmacott,” none of which fit into her usual detective and thriller genre. Charles Osborne’s The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie features Christie’s own explanation as to why she created the Westmacott persona:
“What I wanted to do now was write something other than a detective story… [Giant’s Bread] was well reviewed and sold reasonably for what was thought to be a ‘first novel.’ I used the name of Mary Westmacott, and nobody knew that it was written by me. I managed to keep that fact a secret for fifteen years.”
Her Westmacott novels were not only noted for being more autobiographical than her mystery novels, but also for revealing her true mastery of the craft of writing. Like other highly specific genres, mystery fiction requires a specific set of plot devices, structures, and characters, but in her Westmacott novels, Christie had greater freedom to craft stories outside of these “requirements.”
The iconic contemporary author doesn’t actually put her birth name on her works. She was born Chloe Wofford, and, according to an interview with New York Magazine, separates “Chloe” and “Toni” as two distinct identities. The name Toni Morrison, she explained, came from her saint’s name, Anthony, and the surname of her first husband.
“It sounds like some teenager—what is that? But Chloe—that’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books… [Toni Morrison does] the legacy and all of that… I still can’t get to the Toni Morrison place yet.”
Another iconic name, another pseudonym. The Chilean Nobel Prize winner, poet, diplomat, and politician Pablo Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto. As he explained in 1971 to The Paris Review, his father did not approve of his interest in writing from a very young age, and that played a big part in his wish to change his name.
A popular rumor spread that Neruda chose his name partially as a tribute to Jan Neruda, a Czech poet who was active in the nineteenth century. “I’d read a short story of his. I’ve never read his poetry… the whole matter is so far back in my memory that I don’t recall,” he told The Paris Review. Ultimately, he said, the matter of the name change was rooted in his family life.
“I don’t remember [how I chose my name]. I was only thirteen or fourteen years old. I remember that it bothered my father very much that I wanted to write. With the best of intentions, he thought that writing would bring destruction to the family and myself and, especially, that it would lead me to a life of complete uselessness. He had domestic reasons for thinking so, reasons which did not weigh heavily on me. It was one of the first defensive measures that I adopted—changing my name.”