It's true that George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte used male pen names so that their work would be taken seriously (and so they could publish at all). But as I learned while researching my new book, "Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms," the motives behind this tradition are often more complicated and mysterious than you might imagine. I learned that pen names are not merely functional--they are often bound up in profound ways with a writer's creativity and identity, not to mention issues of guilt and shame. There are more than a few good reasons (and sometimes many at once) to adopt a nom de plume.
By the time William Sydney Porter was released from prison for bank fraud in 1901, he'd already been writing and publishing stories. He wanted to pursue his ambition further, but this required an act of reinvention. He felt that it was essential to shed his ignominious criminal identity and start anew. So William Porter became O. Henry, moved to New York City (epicenter of the publishing industry), and never looked back. He wrote hundreds of stories, and in the first decade of the 20th century, he was considered one of the most popular short-story writers in America. (Although his work has not held up today, after his death his books continued to sell millions of copies.) Although his identity was eventually revealed as William Porter, he was able to carry the secret of his imprisonment to his grave. It wasn't until a biography was published in 1916, six years after his death, that the full truth came out.
Sylvia Plath was the quintessential 1950s good girl, but secretly she harbored homicidal thoughts about her mother, Aurelia, with whom she was extremely close. When the poet wrote her highly autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar," in 1961, she feared her mother's reaction and knew that a nom de plume would be required. The story of the brilliant but troubled Esther Greenwood detailed Plath's own breakdowns and suicide attempts, and portrayed her needy, overbearing mother with savage precision. It was published to tepid reviews in the UK in January 1963. Twenty-eight days later--during one of the bleakest winters on record, after her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, had left her for another woman--Plath killed herself in her London flat as her children lay sleeping in another room.
Today, Fernando Pessoa is considered one of Portugal's towering literary figures, but he died in obscurity in 1935, leaving behind thousands of fragments of his writings. Pessoa harbored more than 70 different authorial identities and he insisted they were separate from him. "I subsist as a kind of medium of myself," he said, "but I'm less real than the others, less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all." His "heteronyms," as he called them, wrote poems, plays, essays, stories, and more. (Even at the age of six, Pessoa wrote letters to himself from someone called "the Chevalier of Pas.") One of his heteronyms claimed to be the greatest poet in the world. Others included a bisexual naval engineer who smoked opium, a French poet, an astrologer, a hunchback dying of tuberculosis, and a suicidal baron. Ironically, Pessoa's surname means "person" in Portuguese.
Patricia Highsmith is most famous for her "Talented Mister Ripley" novels, but what many people don't know is that in 1952, she wrote a novel called "The Price of Salt." Published under the name "Carol Morgan," it was not her usual material. Highsmith--who was almost pathologically secretive, even in her personal life--felt that she could not publish a novel that depicted fulfilling lesbian love under her own name. (The story was an idealized romantic portrait, not dark and sinister like her other fiction.) For one thing, Highsmith worried about what her 84-year-old grandmother would think; and for another, she hated labels and didn't want to ruin her reputation by being marked as a "lesbian writer." It wasn't until the 1990 UK edition that Highsmith wrote an afterword to the book, admitting her authorship. (Even though many people had long suspected she had written it, she never admitted it until then.) She died five years later.
She was having an affair with a married man and wanted to keep him. In 1954, a French woman named Anne Desclos (who had changed her name to Dominique Aury) wrote "Histoire d'O" ("Story of O") a narrative of one woman's descent into sadomasochism as an attempt to please her lover. At first, she had not intended to publish this intimate book--but in the end, Aury, a distinguished member of Parisian literary society, adopted the pseudonym Pauline Reage and released the book to the public. Exploring themes of pleasure and power, it was shocking and scandalous, and also exceedingly well written. (The novel has never been out of print.) "For a long time I've lived two parallel lives," Aury/Reage later explained. "I have meticulously kept those two lives quite separate, so separate in fact that the invisible wall between them seems to me normal and natural."
Eric Blair may have claimed to have come from a family that he called "lower-upper-middle-class," but his posh pedigree was undeniable: he had attended Eton, and once admitted, "I was forbidden to play with the plumber's children; they were `common' and I was told to keep away from them." That he wanted to become a famous writer was embarrassing enough; and that he wanted to explore the lives of the lowest stratum of society was even worse. Blair did not wish to bring attention to his genteel family--and even more importantly, he needed credibility to write about the injustices of poverty. (It wouldn't do if he were perceived as "slumming it" to write his books.) So Blair settled on the pseudonym "George Orwell" after mulling over options such as "H. Lewis Allways" and "P.S. Burton." After submitting the manuscript of his first book, "Down and Out in Paris and London," he wrote to his publisher that "if the book has any kind of success I can always use the same pseudonym again."
Born in Paris in 1804, Aurore Dupin would grow up to become one of the greatest rebels in literary history. By the age of 19, she was married (unhappily) and pregnant with her first child, but knew that a conventional life was not for her. (She was also determined to become a writer.) She had affairs with both men and women, and the young Parisian writer Jules Sandeau would provide part of her nom de plume: George Sand. Not only did Sand violate decorum with her bold proclamations--once suggesting that monogamy was unnatural and abnormal--but she smoked cigars and walked the streets of Paris in an ankle-length military coat, a cravat, a waistcoat, and men's boots (sometimes wearing a hat and tie as well). "My clothing made me fearless," she said. Nothing made her happier than when strangers would call her "monsieur." Today she is remembered more for her transgressive lifestyle than for her books, but she nonetheless inspired countless women. "What a brave man she was," Turgenev once said of her, "and what a good woman."
Mark Twain was a brilliant self-marketer, fastidiously sustaining his image as America's most beloved writer. The celebrity in the white suit was charming, popular, witty, and jovial, and a raconteur without peer. Then there was Samuel Clemens: a man who lived with profound feelings of guilt, shame, insecurity, and self-loathing. He suffered bouts of depression and often had suicidal impulses. Clemens blamed himself for, among other things, the death of his brother (he had convinced his brother to work on a steamboat that later exploded, and never forgave himself.) He outlived two of his daughters and his wife. By the time he died in 1910, Clemens found his avuncular alter ego harder to keep up, and Twain's writings took on an increasingly dyspeptic edge. He was broke, lonely, and paranoid in his final years. "I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead," he once wrote.
Lewis Carroll was the author of the 1865 masterpiece "Alice in Wonderland," but Charles Dodgson, a shy, stammering, half-deaf mathematician didn't want anything to do with him. "I use the name `Lewis Carroll' to avoid all personal publicity," he explained. Whenever he received "fan mail" for Lewis Carroll, he would mark the unopened envelopes "Return to sender." To those who wished to speak of Dodgson as a bestselling author, he begged for privacy, and not "breaking through a disguise which it is my most earnest wish to maintain." Some pseudonymous authors have used reticence as a clever means of creating even more publicity and excitement about their books--but Lewis Carroll was not one of them. Fame mortified him. Even in planning for his own death, he was remarkably modest, insisting that the funeral avoid "all things which are merely done for show" and "no expensive monument. I should prefer a small plain head-stone."