Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 24 2020 01:00PM

Did Jane Austen want the world to know her name? It’s a complicated question.


In January 1796, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, the twenty-year-old Austen joked, “I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter, for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument” (letter #2 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


But fifteen years later, when she finally became a published author, Austen chose anonymity over fame: The 1811 title page of Sense and Sensibility describes the novel as “By A Lady,” and her next three books were ascribed only to “the author of” the earlier novels.


During her lifetime, Austen seems to have been somewhat vexed by her brother Henry’s inability to keep the secret of her authorship, and only after her death, when her last two books were published along with Henry’s “Biographical Notice,” was her authorship publicly acknowledged.


On her deathbed in Winchester, however, Austen dictated a curious poem that features St. Swithin, the city cathedral’s patron saint, rising from the dead to chastise insufficiently deferential townsfolk: “When once we are buried you think we are gone,” he tells them. “But behold me immortal!”


Was this a throwaway line, or Austen’s last, defiant assertion of her own literary greatness? It’s impossible to be sure. Maybe she herself was ambivalent, torn between the safety of anonymity and the natural human desire to claim credit for her work. All we know is that when she had the choice, she chose to remain in the shadows.


These reflections occurred to me recently as I followed the kerfuffle over a well-intentioned but slipshod effort at literary feminism: the ReclaimHerName project, designed to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, a prestigious UK literary award given annually to a novel by a female author.


Under the #ReclaimHerName hashtag, the prize’s sponsor, the Baileys liqueur company, is reissuing twenty-five books by female authors who used male pseudonyms, with new covers proclaiming the writer’s original, female name. Most of the books are long forgotten, or at least semi-obscure, with the notable exception of Middlemarch by one Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot.* The books can be downloaded for free, and box sets of hard copies will be donated to libraries.


The project’s sponsors have worthy motives: to promote the work of women, including women of color, and ensure that literary history is rewritten to include them. “If their identities are hidden, it’s as if women didn’t write any of these books, that the past is an unbroken line of beards and every now and again, you get one woman,” British novelist Kate Mosse, who founded the Women’s Literary Prize, told the Guardian newspaper.


Unfortunately, as plenty of commentators have already pointed out (for instance, here and here), the project implicitly buys into a highly contentious claim: that throughout history, all female authors wanted their names known and adopted male pseudonyms only when forced to do so by patriarchal oppression.


In fact, many female authors published under their own names in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain and America – Jane Austen knew works by such disparate authors as Charlotte Smith, Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, Mary Brunton, and Ann Radcliffe, to name just a few -- and like Austen herself, those who didn’t had their own reasons for choosing anonymity or pseudonym. Perhaps they valued their privacy; perhaps they feared their work would stir up controversy; perhaps they found adopting new personas liberating; perhaps they identified with a different gender. Even today, it’s common for romance writers, most of whom are female, to choose pen names; many see the pseudonyms as part of the fun.


Of course, a choice like this is inevitably inflected by cultural norms, some of them oppressive: Female authors who chose privacy may have done so out of a (conscious or unconscious) conviction that women ought not to assert themselves, that female voices were somehow illegitimate, that a woman who spoke up was immodest or was putting herself at risk. But do such problematic social pressures explain the decision-making of every female writer who chose a male pseudonym? Unlikely.


In other words, the subject is too complex and context-dependent for a single hashtag. What seems certain is that for twenty-first-century researchers to swoop in and restore the “real” names of writers who chose to publish pseudonymously smacks of condescension, as if those poor dears condemned to living in the less enlightened past couldn’t possibly have made clear-eyed choices of their own.




* Curiously, four of these twenty-five writers chose George as their male pseudonym. Only two other names – Michael and Frank – got used even twice. Apparently, there’s something about George. . .


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