Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about pen names. An aspiring writer (friend of a friend) sought my advice on whether she needed one. She knew that most of my books had been published under a pen name. Indeed, I use it on this website. Understandably, she asked why.
I could only answer part of the question. I’m Sophie Weston on this website because, after fiftyish novels and 11 million+ copies sold, mostly by Harlequin Mills & Boon, that is how readers know me.
I went for Sophie Weston mainly at my mother’s suggestion. We’d seen the movie of Tom Jones and she thought that Sophie, played by Susanna York, looked as a romantic novelist ought to look. Still makes me smile when I remember that conversation.
My agent told me that I had to have a pen name. She implied very strongly that the publisher required it.
Was she right? I can’t say, because I didn’t ask. Certainly most Mills and Boon authors about whom I know anything, including many friends, did and do have pen names.
Romance Author pen names
The late great Mary Burchell, President of the Romantic Novelists’ Association from 1966, was Ida Cook in real life. All the RNA’s papers of the time that I have seen use her pen name. When she died (in harness) very suddenly, there was an outpouring of genuine affection for her in the Newsletter. And every single one called her Mary.
Alan Boon became a good friend and guided Mary Burchell’s career from her first. When he bought Wife to Christopher in 1935, Ida was a Civil Service typist. Possibly he was thinking of discretion in relation to her employers when he suggested a pen name. Fairly soon she left the Civil Service and started writing full time. Indeed, she became one of their best-sellers, writing four books a year under that name.
Prolific Author Pen Names
It was different for other authors, however. Several of them could write faster than Mills and Boon felt they would be able to sell under one name. For them the solution was a multiplicity of pen names. The South African Lillian Warren wrote mainly as Rosalind Brett or Kathryn Blair, both for Mills and Boon.
Six years after they published her first book she added a third pen name, Celine Conway. She continued to use all three for the rest of her publishing career.
But Ida Pollock, initially published by Mills and Boon as Susan Barrie, is probably the winner in the additional pen names stakes. Between 1952 and 2005 she also wrote as Jane Beaufort, Marguerite Bell, Rose Burghley, Anita Charles, Averil Ives, Pamela Kent, Barbara Rowan and Mary Whistler.
As she records in her memoir Starlight (2009), she was seriously hard up and needed to support the family.
So, when Alan Boon said Mills and Boon had reached saturation point, she took her books to other publishers as well, with his blessing.
A Slightly Dodgy Business?
Well, um, no, not exactly. The title page of her first book, Sense and Sensibility (1811), reads “By a Lady”. Her second book, Pride and Prejudice, is “By the Author of Sense and Sensibility” and so on, right up to Persuasion. She actually paid for the printing of that first book, so she wanted to be read. But put her name to it? No.
Did she feel it would be unbecoming? Too like trade? But her brother Henry was a banker. Unadylike then? Perhaps. Or might the satirical edge to her story reflect poorly on the rest of her family?
Or was it not her idea, at all, but, like my own, her publisher’s decision?
Poor Fanny Burney, who thought she had published Evelina (1778) anonymously, was outed by a poet called George Huddesford. It upset her enormously. Her closest sister Susanna knew and so did a trusted aunt or two. It’s clear, however, that she hoped to keep it secret from her father. Maybe she thought her novel’s satirical take on Society would undermine Dr Burney’s long awaited History of Music (Volume 1 1776).
And then, of course, there was poor Lady Caroline Lamb, whose Glenavon (1816) was a huge success because of the gossip it aroused. That title page simply ignores the author altogether.
But that novel was so clearly a roman à clef that the secret got out in no time and certainly increased sales. There were at least 3 editions in 1816 alone. It ruined her reputation. Mind you, she behaved so recklessly in pursuit of Byron, she probably didn’t care a fig for reputation by that time.
Gorge Eliot and the Gender Issue
But the full circumstances were a little more complicated than that. For one thing, she was always a bit of a name changer. She had long picked up a number of affectionate names from her friends and correspondents. For another, well, there was George Henry Lewes.
Lewes was a philosopher, an amateur scientist, a critic and a member of London literary society. He and his wife had an open marriage by mutual agreement.
However, in 1854 Lewes left his wife and Mary Ann Evans moved in with him. They considered themselves married — even went on a honeymoon to Germany – and lived together as man and wife until his death in 1878. But Lewes could never get a divorce. Knowingly accepting his wife’s relationship with another man, he was legally complicit in the adultery.
So when she came to choose a pen name in 1857, “George” carried deeply personal significance. When asked about it, she acknowledged that “George was Mr Lewes’s Christian name, and Eliot was a good mouth-filling, easily-pronounced word”.
However, there is no record of anyone ever calling her George – unlike our dear Mary Burchell.
Pen Name and Gender
For many years publishers have looked at authors’ names as part of the marketing package. Boys allegedly don’t read books about girls or by women. Hence J K Rowling’s use of initials. P D James followed the same principle, I understand, though I don’t know whether that was her initiative or the publisher’s.
And the Brontë sisters, of course, all started their publishing careers with male pen names
An editor once read one of the unpublished novels in my stash. It was set in the world of 1990s international banking, which I knew a bit about at the time. “You,” he said, “have managed to write a completely unsaleable story. Women won’t read about banking and men won’t read a book by a woman. A wandering Martian might go for it.”
But the story I know best about a gender reassigning pen name is Peter O’Donnell, author of the Modesty Blaise comic strip, novels and franchise.
In 1978 an historical adventure called Merlin’s Keep by Madeline Brent won the RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Her biographical detail claimed that the book was inspired by family stories of a great uncle who had served with Younghusband in Tibet. Ms Brent herself was unable to accept the award, which was picked up by her editor.
The secret was closely kept between author and publisher. Indeed, it looks as if the whole idea of writing a Gothic romantic novel came from the UK publisher, not the author. Rumour has it that the American publisher never knew Ms Brent’s identity. I’m pretty certain that the RNA didn’t know until I fell over it while putting together the 50th anniversary memoir.
Pen Name for Privacy
The other great Victorian Pen Name, of course, is Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of Alice in Wonderland. Dodgson, the son of an Anglican clergyman, was a talented mathematician. He won the Christ Church Mathematical Lectureship in 1855 and lived in College, teaching and nearly but not quite taking holy orders, for the next 26 years until his death.
He decided on a pen name in 1856 on the publication of a romantic poem Solitude. Dodgson submitted a list of 4 to his editor, Edmond Yates, who made the final choice.
As you would expect from an inveterate games player, Lewis Carroll is a word game – an inversion of his two Christian names, transcribed into Latin, Carolus Ludovicus, and then back again into English. Alice was published in 1865, reviving the nine year old pen name. His mathematical studies were published under his real name.
Reasons for a Pen Name Today
I’m not sure that a pen name has ever protected an author’s privacy for long – though Peter O’Donnell managed better than most. JK Rowling was outed as Robert Galbraith within the year, if I recall aright.
A fascinating article in the Smithsonian Magazine says that the identification was down to “forensic linguistics”. A computer programme perfected by Patrick Juola of Duquesne University identified her unmistakeable linguistic quirks for the Sunday Times.
After Tolkien and Martin, for instance, a multi protagonist epic fantasy would probably benefit from the initials R R in the mix.
And apparently Zane Grey was actually Pearl Zane Grey before dropping his first name. Presumably he thought Pearl didn’t have quite the right ring for a macho Wild West adventure.
Which leads me to my second point: changing genres.
Rosamund Pilcher began writing for Mills and Boon under the pen name Jane Fraser as whom she wrote 10 shorter romantic novels. She then switched to her own name and began to write on a wider landscape. Her breakthrough novel was the family saga The Shell Seekers set in Cornwall and covering a generation of time from World War 2 onwards.
Pilcher was very savvy to keep back her name until she was sure exactly what she wanted to write.
Eventually he realised that the comic strips were a world wide phenomenon and took Stan Lee as his legal name.
So my advice to anyone wondering about taking a pen name? Don’t use your own name until you’re sure you’ve found your writing home. And recognise when you’ve found it.