Naming my own children was a stressful endeavor. I sought to find names connected to their ethnic background, while avoiding names that were too obscure, too common, too difficult to pronounce, or too girly. While I remain happy with my choices, I know that I succeeded in meeting only some of these objectives, and we shall see how my children feel about their names as they mature into adults.
I hope my daughters’ relatively uncommon names will not subject them to discrimination in situations where all that is known about their ethnic background or gender comes from the name, such as on a job application or on a book cover. For example, research shows us the impact of ethnic names on the ability to find employment, finding that job applicants with Muslim names are at a disadvantage compared to applicants with westernized names. Discrimination remains a sad fact about our society.
A person facing these types of structural barriers can attempt the relatively arduous process of changing their name legally or could take other steps to mitigate the effects of their “problematic” birth name: use of initials, heightened prominence of a middle name, or a pseudonym.
For writers who may encounter similar sexist and racist conditions in the publishing world, use of a pen name is common. I touched on this subject in an earlier post, On Revealing Everything Except Who You Are, and my recent reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre raised this issue again.
I read Jane Eyre for the first time in high school, practically eons ago, when I was more focused on the story and the characters than on the circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication. This time, the preface to the third edition caught my eye. In it, the author, writing under the pen name “Currer Bell” attempts to correct the public’s conflation of Charlotte with her sisters, Emily and Anne, who wrote under the pen names Ellis and Acton, respectively.
The use of these masculine pen names added to the mystery surrounding these authors. Charlotte published Jane Eyre in 1847 under two layers of pseudonymity: a fictitious woman’s autobiography edited by a fictitious man. Many readers assumed the fictitious editor, Currer Bell, was actually the author. As a reviewer for the Harbinger wrote in 1848: “we think we see ‘a beard under the muffler.’ Jane Eyre, rare and excellent as she may be, is not to our mind a genuine woman.”
After the untimely deaths of Emily and Anne, Charlotte “felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil,” and so she explained the motive behind the pen names in a note to the 1850 edition of Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Charlotte wrote:
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under 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 the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking is not what is called ‘feminine’… we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice…
The reactions the Brontës’ books received reinforced this “vague impression” of bias against female authors, as many contemporaneous reviewers praised the novel by distinguishing it from supposedly “feminine” writing. While there were certainly a handful of successful female authors at the time, the degree of sexism female authors faced makes me wonder whether Jane Eyre would be the classic it is today if not for the mystery surrounding the fictitious editor/author and “his” purported autobiography.
Unfortunately, female authors continue to face bias in the publishing industry that marginalizes their work. For example, though women are heavier consumers of books than men, books written by male authors receive more reviews in prestigious publications. Female-authored books are labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” while similarly-themed work written by men is called “literary fiction.”
Maybe a masculine pseudonym — one that is truly kept a secret — would help these authors, but then again, readers expect to know more about authors today than in the past, and more information is publicly available about individuals. It’s thus much harder to bury an identity now than it was in the 19th Century.