In 1859 George Eliot published her first novel. In the years that followed, Eliot rose to prominence with the novels Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. 161 years after Eliot’s publishing debut, a project has launched with the intention of recognising female authors who originally published under male pseudonyms. George Eliot or Mary Ann Evans is among the women who are set to be recognised.
The project is called ‘Reclaim her Name’. It seeks to reprint novels featuring authors’ real name. It marks 25 years of the Women’s prize for fiction and will be reprinting the works of 24 female authors, all of whom were originally published under male pseudonyms. But is this project liberating women writers or further compounding them to the values of others?
It is extraordinary to think that the best part of two centuries have passed before writers such as Evans (aka Eliot) will have books without a male pseudonym printed on the cover. It certainly marks how far public consensus and liberty has furthered over time. There are a number of reasons why women writers have used and continue to use pseudonyms. Evans cohabited but was not married to her partner: a reality that would have caused scandal in Victorian society (a time when a woman’s reputation and perceived purity was the currency). Perhaps Evans used a pseudonym to divert attention away from her private life. It is also speculated that Evans wanted to break free from the stereotypes held about women writers and thus invented a pen name in order to avoid being labelled.
Although this project promises to breathe fresh air into the Victorian suppression experienced by women such as Evans, I wonder if this is the best way forward in regard to greater acknowledgement and liberty. When Evans was publishing so were other women. Anonymity and male disguise was, to some extent, a choice for Evans in a world that did not afford her many choices. This choice is a fascinating part of the context. If her books are reprinted regardless of her wishes, are readers forcing 21st century ideals on her work? It is impossible to know.
I also wonder if republishing with only real names is a disservice to the suppression that writers such as Evans faced during life. The fact that many women faced prejudice and discrimination is an important part of history. Would it not be better to have both names present rather than erase a crucial and life-shaping part of these women’s’ lives?
Although this project is well-meaning and will hopefully ignite conversation and debate, saying a name will not heal the ills of the past. It is a past that should be acknowledged. Perhaps we should seek to better educate readers rather than further dictate the identity of these writers.
Do you think this project is promoting liberty or burying the past?