An Author by any other Name by Joy Margetts


In the strange nothingness between Christmas and New Year, I watched a lot of films. One of those was Colette (2018). It tells the story of Sidonie -Gabrielle Colette, the prolific French novelist of the early 20th century. I admit I found some of the film made me both blush and cringe, and if you are of a delicate constitution when it comes to hedonism being played out on the screen in explicit detail, you have been warned. But it was worth watching for the way it unpacked Colette’s relationship with her first husband, Henri Gautier- Villars. How he ‘forced’ her to write her semi-autobiographical stories and how he ‘stole’ the credit for the four Claudine novels published between 1900 and 1903, with his own pen name ‘Willy’ as the author. Many years later, when she had successfully proved the books were her own work, she was quoted as saying that she would never have become a writer without Willy. He in turn claimed that the books would not have been nearly so successful if published under an unknown woman’s name. He was sadly probably right.

In the 18th and 19th centuries writing fiction was considered a most unladylike activity – frivolous and distracting from their ‘higher calling’, whatever that might have been. We probably all know that the Brontes, unusually well educated women for their time, published their novels under the ambiguous, but definitely more male sounding pseudonyms of Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell. In a later explanation, Charlotte explained why they had chosen to do so,

‘we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’

Charlotte Bronte
I’d like to suggest it was probably more than a ‘vague impression’, and that Charlotte was being diplomatic! She had sent some of her early poems to the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, in 1837, for comment, and received this response:

‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation’.

We know of many other women forced to use a nom de plume to be taken seriously in the publishing world in times past. But what about now?

I don’t believe, thankfully, that there are the same prejudices around against women writers now. At least not in the genre I write in. But perhaps you might have come across them? I was glad to be able to use my real name on my books without a second thought.

I do know of writers however who have chosen to use pen names. Sometimes it is because there is already another author out there with the same name, sometimes it is because their own name is hard to pronounce or spell. Or it might be something a publisher or agent has advised - some authors names better suit some genres perhaps?

A dear author friend of mine had to choose to publish under another name for a quite different reason. She had based her story on infidelity within a marriage, that she only knew about because she was in a position of trust. Although names and details were of course changed, she did not want to chance that the people who inspired her book would be exposed. She chose to stay anonymous. Because of this she has been extremely limited in how she can market her own work. It has led her to question whether she ever should have published the book at all.

I want to write a novel based on my own family history, which is definitely epic. For the sake of accuracy and authenticity, that may require me to expose long hidden family secrets. I have wondered about this. I will change names of course, but will I also have to change my own name? Might I be wiser to use a pseudonym? But then, my family at least will still know it is me…

I wonder, have you chosen to use another name on your works? What was your reason for doing so? Have you ever felt pressurised to do so, or felt the victim of prejudice? And does it really matter anyway, as long as the credit and the royalties go to the right person?


Ruth Leigh said…
Fascinating stuff, Joy, and right up my 18th and 19th century strazza. I'd forgotten all about Southey and his ridiculous reply to Bronte. Tchah! And how wonderful that we can write under our own names if we choose. I may have to print out that Southey quote and pin it up in the Palace!
Griselda Heppel said…
I think there is still some prejudice out there. Far more men than is decent, for instance, won’t read books by female authors, especially non-fiction. Hence the great English Civil War historian Dame Cicely Wedgwood published under her initials C V Wedgwood, knowing perfectly well that she wouldn’t be taken seriously unless it looked as if she was male. Even in fiction, traditionally more an area where women are ‘allowed’ to excel, lots of female writers choose to leave their sex ambiguous by not using their first names e g D K Broster and more recently, J K Rowling.
As for the awkwardness of using real live family/friend history for a story... yes! If you use a pen name, at least the world won’t know who the originals are, but they and their close friends will. In a family situation that could make serious repercussions but this is the judgement authors have to make... isn’t that why we are supposed to have a sliver of ice at our hearts? Some people love finding themselves depicted in a novel: Nancy Mitford drew outrageously on her eccentric family for her wonderful The Pursuit of Love and everyone involved seemed to enjoy it (oh, possibly not Diana Mosley, as I think her husband was recreated as a figure of fun and derision in one of the characters).
Peter Leyland said…
Wow, I read that C.V. Wedgewood book when studying the civil war at school!

As for women writers taking men's names, there is always George Eliot, author of my very favourite novel. I read recently that there was a movement to change him/her back to her original name. She herself at the time was quite happy with it as it was, and I think the idea was squashed.
As for pen names, I chose to publish under a pen name. For example, if your surname begins with a W, you are always at the end of alphabetical lists - and of library/bookshop shelves. The browsing reader will have found a book before they reach the end of the bottom shelf, and are squatting on the floor! Of course, that doesn't apply if they're looking for YOUR book(s), or if the books are displayed on tables but... Anyhow, it is an absolute nuisance in today's world, where social media etc gets your name out but then which name do you use in a group of friends - real or pen? It's a minefield. I'd always advise against. But then,I don't have the problem of putting family or friends into a novel, and although some men have read mine, they tend to be books which appeal more to women.
Joy Margetts said…
Thanks for your comments! George Elliott is also one of my favourites, Peter. I can't promise to be as good as a Mitford, or have as fascinating a family Griselda! Ruth, you do really need to have that quote up in your writing palace, just to prove it wrong, daily! And I'd never thought about the surnames near the end of the alphabet issue, Claire!.
Reb MacRath said…
I believe the pendulum has swung the other way with more and more women editors and agents. I sold my first book under the pen name Kelley Wilde, carefully spelling the first name to give the possible impression that I was female. In those days before email and the Web, I declined to give my phone number, claiming I was terribly shy, etc. I met my non-New York female agent only after the book had sold. She was clearly stunned when a strapping male got off the bus. And her representation of me thereafter began to slack off.
Jenny Sanders said…
So interesting (and so sorry, Reb; that's awful!) I wondered whether to use a pen name for my forthcoming children's book because it's such a different genre from Spiritual Feasting which is meaty non-fiction with a healthy wodge of teaching, but have decided to stick with who I am and not apologise for it. I also thought it would get complicated on social media having different accounts for different names – what a hassle that would be. I've also wondered about the percentage of men reading books by women. Spiritual Feasting, though written by a woman (me, obviously), is not aimed exclusively at women by any means. That's one of the reasons I was glad when a couple of churches chose to use it in their small groups and give it wider exposure. Bit of a dilemma though. Thanks for making me think yet again, Joy!

I use a pen-name (quite a silly one, in fact) because until relatively recently I had a day job which I didn't want to get mixed up with my writing. I've only published 2 things under my real name, both in different genres from the main ones I write in. Once I got started publishing on Amazon I realised I didn't want to hide the fact that I wrote from friends and colleagues, however, so in a way it has been pointless doing it!

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