Sunday, January 26, 2014

“I do not respect an inconsistent critic.”

The renewed discussion of pseudonymity in my blog circles has again sparked my interest in the history of pseudonyms. Searching for writing on the subject, I quickly came across Carmela Ciuraru’s 2011 Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. It’s not exactly what I was looking for – a history of pseudonym use by a variety of people writing publicly about politically charged subjects.* It focuses on a selection of 19th- and 20th-century literary authors who wrote under pseudonyms.

So far, I’ve only read the first chapter, about Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë writing under the ‘nyms Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell. I enjoyed it quite a lot. One bit stood out: Ciuraru describes the positive critical and public reception of Jane Eyre, and continues
There came an inevitable backlash – among other things, the novel was said to be coarse and immoral – but those reviews were drowned out by the praise. (Some critics wanted it both ways: The Economist declared the novel a triumph if written by a man, ‘odious’ if written by a woman.)
The same book!

Ciuraru includes some great quotes from Anne and Charlotte Brontë challenging this pernicious double standard, including Charlotte’s letter to the critic George Lewes, who insisted on evaluating her work based on her gender (“I wish all reviewers believed ‘Currer Bell’ to be a man. They would be more just to him”), stating that she would rather recede into obscurity than have to write always seeing her work through the lens of her perceived role and character as a woman. I also found online, from the introduction to the third edition of the Norton Jane Eyre, this response from Charlotte to the reviewer at the Economist and others of similar mind:
To such critics I would say – ‘to you I am neither Man nor Woman – I come to you as an Author only – it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me – the sole ground on which I accept your judgment’.
The sisters were perpetually fearful of being “outed” and left without the protection and freedom (social, psychological, and creative) afforded by their pseudonyms. If it weren’t for the pseudonymous Bell brothers, their voices would probably be lost to literature.

* As Ciuraru briefly describes (without references, unfortunately), the use of pseudonyms has spanned the centuries. Judging from Marcus Daniel’s Scandal & Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy, pseudonyms were widely used in the Revolutionary era in the US, and many appear in Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age.

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