What’s in a pen name?

Writers have been publishing under pen names for centuries, whether to offer some protection from what they wrote, to actually get published in difficult times or perhaps they just wanted a cooler sounding name than their real one. Like Batman, these authors don a mask of media obscurity and publisher fabrication and the gravelly voice of a different genre and style to find freedom in their writing.

So, recently it was revealed that a crime thriller, The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith was actually written by immensely loved, Harry Potter Queen, JK Rowling. It is easy to see why someone of her status and popularity would want to publish without ‘hype or expectation’; since The Casual Vacancy received a real grilling by the media before it was even released.

I have read The Cuckoo’s Calling and find it to be fantastic – a gritty, compulsive, readable crime drama – and I think I would have still loved it if I had been unaware of the true author. (You can read my blog post on it here.) So I thought i’d take a look at some of the other famous authors and their masks. Some might surprise you!

The Bell Brothers/Bronte Sisters: in the 1800s there were very few female authors, so the Bronte sisters, Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tennant of Wildfell Hall) published under male pseudonyms of the ‘Bell Brothers’, Ellis, Currer and Acton, in order to be published. Similarly, Jane Austen remained ‘Anonymous’ or ‘A Lady’ for many years in order to publish her novels.

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Lewis Carroll/Charles Ludwig Dodgson: Alice in Wonderland was written by Charles Ludwig Dodgson, a scholar and mathematician who went to great lengths to distance his professional life as a scholar and his fictional writing. He even sent out letters claiming to not be Lewis Carroll! If that isn’t dedication to the pen name I don’t know what is.

Mary Westmacott/Agatha Christie – Mary Westmacott was a romance novelist in the 20th Century and also the pen name of famous Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. While she penned over 70 novels and short stories of murder and intrigue, under the psyudonym Westmacott, Agatha Christie was able to fulfill her wish to publish in a different genre when she had only been known for her mysteries.

George Orwell/Eric Blair – It’s uncertain as to why Eric Blair adopted the pen name of George Orwell in 1933. Maybe because Orwell sounded cooler than Blair, because he loved old England or because he wanted to seperate himself from his rich family to live as a bohemian writer in Paris. But for whatever reason, Orwell is a cool name, ‘Orwellian’ is now in the Oxford dictionary and he has left a legacy of novels that are the corner stone of the dystopia genre.

 Caroline Keene/Various – The Nancy Drew Series, along with Trixie Belden and The Hardy Boys, were written by a team of ghostwriters who all published under the name of Caroline Keen. While not being a pen name in the traditional sense, it at least solves the mystery of how Nancy had around 70 cases in the first incarnation, and over 150 in others!

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