The name game: JK Rowling and a history of pseudonyms

Bob? Dominic Lipinski/PA

When it was revealed this weekend that JK Rowling was the author of a recent critically acclaimed but obscure crime novel - The Cuckoo’s Calling by one Robert Galbraith - it made perfect sense to many literary scholars. That one of the most famous and successful writers in the world wanted to create some privacy within which to present a new novel in an untried genre is quite understandable.

JK Rowling had struck gold with her Harry Potter series, and deservedly so. Her unique amalgamation of Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George McDonald and Arthurian legend, with a touch of Jane Eyre and The Hobbit, offers the kind of rich and deeply satisfying escapist literature that we have come to expect from the best British writers.

Also like some of the best British writers, Rowling has now experimented with another name. The precedent of writing under someone else’s name goes back almost as far as the literary canon.

She also joins a tradition of women writers publishing under men’s names. A writer of Rowling’s stature, of course, has no need to hide her gender, but the reasons for using a male nom de plume were not simple in the past, either.

In the name of the author

Among the most famous writers to publish under male pseudonyms are the Brontë sisters, who used the names Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. Charlotte Bronte’s nominis umbra created quite a frisson in the 1840s as avid Jane Eyre fans — never believing in Currer Bell’s existence — sought to discover “his” identity.

In 1855, Harriet Martineau recounted receiving a promotional copy of Bronte’s 1849 novel Shirley and an accompanying note from Currer Bell: “We examined the note to make out whether it was written by a man or a woman”. Martineau decided the handwriting did not offer much help. “The hand was a cramped and nervous one, which might belong to anybody who had written too much, or was in bad health, or had been badly taught,” she wrote.

But Martineau was almost certain that Currer Bell was a woman because “a certain passage in Jane Eyre about sewing on brass rings, could have been written only by a woman or an upholsterer”.

Gender-bending pseudonyms

Why did Charlotte write as Currer? Contrary to common assumptions, the Brontë sisters, as well as George Sand and George Eliot, along with other nineteenth-century women writers who adopted male pseudonyms, did not do so because they faced gender-based exclusion from the publishing industry.

Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin have argued that the use of masculine pseudonyms occurred rarely during Victoria’s reign, and that men were more likely to adopt feminine noms des plume than women were to use a masculine cover. For the most part, this pseudonymic cross-dressing occurred because the authors wished to avoid critics’ and readers’ presumptions. During the nineteenth-century, the assumption grew that “women writers” should write only on certain topics and only in certain ways. Charlotte Bronte recounted selecting the name Currer Bell due to her fear of being seen as a “typical” woman writer:

We did not like to declare ourselves women, because … we had a vague impression that authoresses were liable to be looked on with prejudice.

Hide and seek

It is here that the parallels with Rowling appear. Like her Victorian predecessors, the most famous writer in the world was attempting to escape expectations.

It may also be that the many shape-shifters, hidden personas, and masks so critical to the plots of her Harry Potter series reveal that Rowling is drawn particularly to themes of buried, unstable, and fluid identities.

The history of pseudonyms is a history of literary tricksters, and also of those who seek to unmask them. Currer Bell was revealed by a devoted fan via a series of letters. In the 21st century, the game doesn’t last as long. The truth of Robert Galbraith’s identity broke over Twitter after just three months, according to the The New York Times.

It seems as long as there are writers and artists who want to hide, there will always be readers who will not let them.