Women Who Wrote Under Male Pen Names

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Andrew Mulvania

Georges Sand (1876-1884) by Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon)Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 Meet the women of their word – and their pen

If, as in the frequently misattributed adage by Marie Shear, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” then the pen name has been one way that female authors have tried to level the playing field and get their voice heard… or rather, read. There are plenty of women who have paved their way through literature under the guise of male pen names and here are 5 worth reading about.

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dudevant Nee Dupin
Pen Name: George Sand

This trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking, divorcee born in 1804 was one of the first women writers to explore and exploit the possibilities of the male pseudonym. After finding marriage to her nobleman-husband, Baron Casimir Dudevant, too confining, Sand embarked on an independent life of writing, taking many lovers. One of her most famous suitors was the young Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin. Upon meeting Sand for the first time, Chopin asked fellow composer and friend Franz Liszt, whether Sand “was in fact a woman”. Perhaps most famous for her later novels of French country life (La mare au diable, Francois le Champi, and La Petitte Fadette), Flaubert so admired her work he once remarked to the Russian novelist Turgenev, “At her funeral I cried like an ass.”

George Sand, by Nadar, 1876-1884 (From the collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Mary Ann Evans
Pen Name: George Eliot

Another famous 19th-century “George” (pronounced with an English rather than a French accent), Eliot became one of the most important English novelists of her era next to Charles Dickens. In fact, Dickens himself (who suspected Eliot of being a woman when her first book appeared) once wrote, in an 1858 letter to the novelist, “The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humor and the pathos of those stories [in her Scenes of Clerical Life] I have never seen the like of.” Her novel Middlemarch is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written in English. Like the other George (“Sand”), Eliot had at least one scandalous love affair, in this case to the married George Lewes, with whom she lived for 24 years and from whom she got the first part of her nom de plume.

LIFE Photo Collection

1870 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece, Edith Emma Cooper
Pen Name: Michael Field

Widely known and accepted in 19th-century British literary circles for their poetic and dramatic writing, which often focused on female same-sex desire, these women (writing together as one man) actually had a romantic relationship for nearly forty years, dying within nine months of one another (both from cancer), despite a sixteen-year age difference between them. The most prominent Victorian male writers of the time, such as Robert Browning, Walter Pater, George Meredith and others, praised the work of Michael Field and they lived their lives in what constituted an open secret that mostly went unremarked upon. Their poetry collections Long Ago and Sight and Song represent the intricacies of the kind of relationship they knew intimately.

The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry (1782) by Angelica KauffmannOriginal Source: KENWOOD

The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Poetry, by Angelica Kauffman, 1782 (From the collection of English Heritage)

Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch
Pen Name: Magnus Flyte

A more recent pair of women writing as one man are the dynamic duo known as Magnus Flyte, the pseudonym for Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. The two women met at a writers’ retreat, and decided to pool their resources and write mystery novels about a musicologist--under the mantle of a man. Writing tag-team or relay-style, they began their collaboration by showing one another what they had written without discussing plot or narrative arc and then simply picking up where the other woman left off and writing from instinct. Thus, was born City of Dark Magic and its sequel, City of Lost Dreams. Of writing under a pen name, Howrey has reported in a New York Times interview, “We always wanted a single author name, and we had both read a raft of articles talking about how men don’t buy books written by women.” But clearly some men are buying these books as well, since they’re bestsellers.

Nora Roberts
Pen Name: J.D. Robb

J.D. Robb is the pseudonym for one of the most prolific romance and crime novelists of our time, Nora Roberts (she’s written over 200 novels). The unusual thing about Roberts―or Robb―is that, when she’s writing romance, she’s Nora Roberts, but when she’s writing futuristic suspense novels, she becomes Robb. Her publisher had come to feel that Roberts somehow wasn’t writing absolutely as much as she humanly could, so her agent suggested she adopt a pen name and begin writing an entirely different kind of novel: thus, the In Death series was born. As Roberts put it in an interview, describing what her agent had said about her use of a pseudonym, “She said, Nora, there's Pepsi, there's Diet Pepsi and there's caffeine-free Pepsi. And that's when my light bulb went off and then, oh, let me rethink.” Roberts is the authorial equivalent of those three different kinds of Pepsi (well, in this case, just two, but still…).

Futurist Composition (1914) by Joseph StellaAmon Carter Museum of American Art

Futurist Composition, by Joseph Stella, 1914 (From the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of Art)

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