“In the nineteenth century, the curious phenomenon of pseudonymity reached its height,” Carmela Ciuraru writes, “and as early as the mid-sixteenth century, it was customary for a work to be published without any author’s name.” She says that there was a “decline of pseudonyms in the twentieth century,” but of the authors whom she discusses in “Nom de Plume,” from the Bronte sisters to Pauline Reage, more than half published their work — and hid behind their pseudonyms — in that same century. This suggests that in literature, as in show business and pop music, manufactured names are still to be reckoned with.
“Nom de Plume” is an interesting book, but by its very nature an odd one. After laying the groundwork in her thoughtful introduction, Ciuraru is left with not a great deal more to say about the pseudonyms her subjects adopted. There is little documentation about these choices and in some instances no testimony from the authors themselves. So there’s not much she can do except write thumbnail biographies of her 18 subjects. Fortunately Ciuraru, a freelance literary journalist, writes well and has a fully functioning sense of humor, so “Nom de Plume” is a pleasure to read, even if it’s much ado about not very much.
“What’s in a name?” Ciuraru asks, and replies: “Everything. Nothing. Some writers find that crafting prose under the name they were born with is too restrictive. It can seem oddly false, or perhaps not grand enough to accompany their literary peregrinations. A name carries so much baggage; it can seem tired and dull. Too ethnic. Too stultifying. Too old. Too young. In such instances, an author may be unable to proceed if he is, say, Samuel Clemens, but feels capable of achieving impressive feats if he is Mark Twain.” Her study of pseudonyms, Ciuraru writes, suggests several themes, among them “the complex psychological machinery of authorial identity; the perils of literary fame; the struggles of the artist within a society generally hostile to such a vocation; courage and faith; and the nature of creativity itself.”
True enough, and there is evidence of all these in the mini-biographies she writes. It seems to me, though, that her dominant theme involves the pressures and difficulties faced by women as they sought to work as writers in a culture dominated by men and to discuss subjects generally regarded as unsuitable for women. Thus we have the most famous 19th-century examples: Anne, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, who wrote as, respectively, Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell; Aurore Dupin, who wrote as George Sand; and Marian Evans, who wrote as George Eliot. We have the personal testimony of Charlotte Bronte about the choices she and her sisters made, published in posthumous editions of two of the sisters’ novels:
“Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of 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 that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise.”
There was more to it than that, though, as Charlotte put it in a letter to her future biographerElizabeth Gaskell, saying that “her chief reason for maintaining an incognito is the fear that if she relinquished it, strength and courage would leave her, and she should ever after shrink from writing the plain truth.” There is of course a double meaning here: The pseudonym provided a shield for her as a woman, but also as a writer seeking to express deep and possibly troubling truths. Much the same seems to have motivated Dupin to present herself to the public as George Sand — little read today, she was hugely popular in France during the 19th century — as well as Evans to become George Eliot.
Also known at various points in her life as Mary Anne and Mary Ann, Evans “often felt that she’d been given the mind of a man but not his opportunities.” That is a sentiment that most of today’s female writers would emphatically reject — “mind of a man” indeed! — but she also “felt that her controversial subject matter — depicting the lives of clergymen in her own native county of Warwickshire, and invoking autobiographical ideas about religion, faith, and unrequited love — demanded secrecy.” The same was true in the next century of Dominique Aury (who already had changed her public name from Anne Desclos), after her lover insisted that she publish as a novel the long, deeply erotic love letter she had written to him. She agreed to publish “Story of O” only “on the condition that her authorship remain hidden, known only to a select few.” The name she chose was Pauline Reage, and the book first appeared in 1954.
It is interesting that, unlike the Brontes, Dupin or Evans, Aury chose a woman’s name as her pseudonym. It was generally known (or assumed) that the author was a woman, and Aury felt no need to hide behind a man’s name, but she was understandably reluctant to be identified as the author of O’s story of “debasement, torment, humiliation, violence, and bondage.” Whether one considers the book pornography or art — or, as I do, a combination of both — its publishing history places it in a long line of sexually candid works whose authors chose anonymity.
It’s also true that using a pseudonym can be a form of self-defense. “Most of these authors had endured childhoods with domineering, neglectful, or cruel parents,” Ciuraru writes. “They suffered profound trauma early on, such as the death of a parent (in the case of [Isak] Dinesen’s father, by hanging himself) or of one or more siblings. Mark Twain outlived his spouse and all but one of his children; Georges Simenon’s daughter killed herself. For these troubled authors whose lives seemed to bring impediments without surcease, an alter ego served as a kind of buffer, protecting them (at least up to a point) from the painful aspects of their lives.” This point has been made, with variations, by most of Mark Twain’s biographers, all of them strongly (and justifiably) influenced by Justin Kaplan’s pathfinding “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain” (1966).
Ciuraru thinks that the use of pseudonyms has declined “with the rise of television and film.” Perhaps she is right: “As people gained more access to the lives of others, it became harder to maintain privacy — and perhaps less desirable. In today’s culture, no information seems too personal to be shared (or appropriated).” Yes, but even as the use of literary noms de plume has declined, fictions masquerading as fact have been on the rise, and have caused at least as much gossip and scandal as did the questions Who really is George Eliot? Who really is Pauline Reage? Truth and fiction, reality and fantasy remain slippery matters, albeit in different forms.
NOM DE PLUME
A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms
By Carmela Ciuraru
Harper. 343 pp. $24.99