The first five names are the actual names of authors better known as George Sand, George Orwell, James Tiptree Jr., Henry Green, and George Eliot. Claire Morgan and Victoria Lucas are the names under which Patricia Highsmith and Sylvia Plath published novels drawn from their own lives. And Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell are the nom de plumes for Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. These are among the many authors whose stories Carmela Ciuraru tells in Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.
Ciuraru’s history is actually a series of 16 short biographical essays about authors who employed pseudonyms. Besides the authors mentioned above, the book also includes chapters about Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson, Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens, O. Henry/William Syndey Porter, Fernando Pessoa and his many heteronyms, Isak Dineson/Karen Blixen, Émile Ajar/Romain Gary, Georges Simenon and his many pseudonyms, and Pauline Reagé/Dominique Aury/Anne Desclos. It’s an impressive range of authors. How often can you find a book that connects 19th-century American humorist, a 20th-century dsytopian author and journalist, a 20th-century Danish memoirist, and a 20th-century French author of erotic fiction? The only quality that links them all is the fact that they wrote at least some of the time under names that were not their own.
The authors’ reasons for using pseudonyms vary widely, but some themes recur. Some, like the Brontës, feared that their work would not be taken seriously if they were known to be women. Others, like Aury and Highsmith, were wary of the potential scandal that would ensue if their true names were attached to their work. For Mark Twain, it was “an exercise in playfulness”; and for the prolific Georges Simenon, it was a way to divide his diverse body of work into brands and to avoid looking like a pulp fiction factory. Romain Gary’s use of a pseudonym was partly a prank and partly a way to give his career a fresh start.
One common themes that emerges in many of these stories is the idea of inhabiting multiple identities. For some authors, the pseudonym is not just a false name, but a second self. As such, when pseudonyms are revealed, some authors never recover their equilibrium because a part of their actual self has been taken away. Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction under the name James Tiptree Jr, is a particularly sad case. She had risen to notable heights within her then male-dominated genre, and her identity was not revealed until the late 1970s, after she had been writing for almost 10 years. Despite the acceptance of her true identity within the science fiction world, the loss of the pseudonym that she hid behind left her feeling deprived and unable to write. She did eventually get back to writing, but, Ciuraru states that “she never achieved Tiptree’s magic or even came close.” In 1987, she acted on a suicide pact that she had made with her husband years earlier and shot him and then herself.
The variety of authors covered in this book make it ideally suited for an eclectic reader like me. I’ve never read complete biographies of any of them, but I’m quite familiar with some of their work. Others were almost entirely unknown to me. Ciuraru provides enough material to avoid boring readers who already know the basics about an author, but she doesn’t seem to assume more than a vague knowledge of any of them.
My only complaint about the short biographies is that I often found the time lines within them to be extremely muddy. Ciuraru doesn’t keep to a strict chronological order, which would be fine if she were more careful with transitions. As it is, I had to backtrack and reread more than should be necessary for short biographical sketches such as these.
On the whole, however, I found this to be an engaging and entertaining read. I didn’t feel that any of the chapters were a waste of my time, and I’m interested in learning even more about the life and work of several of these fascinating people.