In Victorian times, women were expected to be demure, decorative and quietly invisible in the male-dominated world of scholarship and writing. Ladies were considered too delicate to participate fully in society for fear they would come down with a case of vapours and faint prettily away, only to be saved by a strong and capable man.
Consequently, women writers of the era took to using male pseudonyms when publishing their books, partly to be taken seriously by the reading public and partly to conceal their true identities from a disapproving society.
Writers have used literary pen names throughout history. Samuel Clemens famously wrote under the name Mark Twain and the creator of Alice in Wonderland, Charles Dodgson, is better known as Lewis Carroll. More recently, Stephen King tried his hand at being Richard Bachman and the late Iain Banks wrote science fiction under the name Iain M. Banks.
The reasons for using a pseudonym vary. A writer may use a pen name when writing in a different genre or to protect his or her reputation. In Victorian times, however, a male pseudonym could be a female writer's passport to literary success.
Mary Ann Evans was one such writer. Using the pen name, George Eliot, she published an essay for the Westminster Review deriding her fellow female writers for their trite romantic fiction called 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.' Evans herself was no silly lady novelist. She wrote with great success, publishing seven novels, including classics such as Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. There were other reasons for her adoption of the pseudonym - at the time Evans was conducting an affair with a married man, the philosopher and critic George Lewes, which would have scandalised Victorian society should it become public.
However, Eliot's first novel, Adam Bede, was such a success that she unmasked herself as the female writer of the book. It was a gamble, since her private life was then exposed, but the straitlaced Victorians seemed to forgive her and she continued writing with great success.
Meanwhile, up in Yorkshire, three daughters of a local clergyman were conspiring to get their names in print. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte, along with their increasingly dissolute brother Branwell, had spent their childhoods writing elaborate imaginative stories, which they illustrated with their own artwork. As adults, the three sisters, expected to support their brother in his art career, became governesses with varying degrees of success, before finding themselves back at home supporting their father and alcoholic brother.
Charlotte, upon coming across a notebook of poems written by Emily, schemed about literary careers for the three and together they published a volume of their collective poems under the unlikely masculine names of Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell.
Unfortunately, the book did not sell, but Charlotte was not to be dissuaded. She began writing a novel and urged her sisters to do the same. The Bronte sisters' miserable experience as governesses at last paid off with the publication of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey. Meanwhile, Emily shocked Victorian sensibilities with her strange and violent novel, Wuthering Heights.
With success came the inevitable unmasking of these strangely named men to proper English ladies. Charlotte, in particular, basked in the fame writing brought her while Emily shunned it. Together the Bronte sisters published seven novels, the most famous of these being Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant at Wildfell Hall. Sadly, all three sisters died young, Emily and Anne of tuberculosis and Charlotte of a fever, probably typhoid, at the age of 38.
Today, people know George Eliot and the Bronte sisters as great English novelists whose works are still widely read and studied. It seems strange that these talented women would need to pose as men in order to have their works read and appreciated. But at the time, it was considered shocking and unladylike for women to write anything other than the silly romances derided by George Eliot or earnest religious works or poetry. Today, people know better, or so it would seem. Even J.K. Rowling, the most successful woman writer in modern history, used her initials to avoid being judged by her gender.