Robert Browning – The First Rapper

Robert Browning

After watching the old movie – “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” – I wanted more of Robert Browning, the exuberant Victorian who loved and saved Elizabeth from a dreary spinsterly life with her overbearing father.  Famous for writing The Pied Piper of Hamlin, Browning celebrated his bicentenary in May – although few noticed. His birthday falls on May 7th, but the celebration at Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner is scheduled for December – but then so many other important events have overtaken Britain this year (including Charles Dickens).

His poetry could be obscure; in the movie Browning cannot satisfy Elizabeth’s plea to explain his meaning in “Sordello.”  Only Browning and God knew his meaning when he wrote it and now only God knew.  His dramatic monologues  and long narratives (My Last Duchess) are credited as the precursors of Sylvia Plath and Robert Frost – and possibly Eminem in music.

Yet, he may be best remembered for his love for Elizabeth, their years together in Italy, and the poetry they inspired in each other.

How do I love thee, let me count the ways…Elizabeth Barrett Browning  - from “Sonnets from the Portuguese”

Grow old along with me! the best is yet to be…Robert Browning – from “Rabbi Ben Ezra”

Clasped Hands of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning by Harriet Goodhue Hosmer

What’s In A Name? “Nom de Plume” Reveals All

Hiding a real identity sounds seductive and a little criminal, but writers have been using pseudonyms to mask their real names for a while.  Carmela Ciuraru focuses on a small group of famous writers and the reasons behind their deceit – some we already know about, but in each case, Ciuraru gives us more information than we may know, and feeds our hunger to know the person behind the name.

Why do writers use another name? In the case of the  Brontë sisters, it may have been the hope of better reviews, in a time when women were relegated to nonliterary pursuits. For Charlotte, aka Currer Bell, it worked – not so much for her sisters, Emily and Anne.

Trapped in an arranged marriage, George Sand (whose real name was Aurore) escaped to Paris.  With mentors like Balzac, Zola, Dumas, and Flaubert, she found the courage to write and publish – but under a man’s name. Her real life was bohemian for the times, living with her lover for six months and then returning to her country home to care for her child the other half of the year.  She flaunted her rebelliousness – smoking cigars, wearing sturdy boots; her disguise went beyond using another name.

Through sixteen chapters, Ciuraru explores the lives and writings of those we knew by another name, sometimes another life – from George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, and O’Henry to Pauline Réage - and more.  Her style can be academic at times, but through her careful research, the information becomes biographical.  You may not want to read about all the authors, but it is possible to pick and choose, since each chapter is a story itself and each author is clearly identified in the chapter title.

As one who has used a pseudonym, I found myself immersed in the stories of the writers.  For most, their reasons for hiding behind another name were understandable; eventually, readers discovered the real name anyway.  But, for a time, they were able to stay secluded in their own worlds – without criticism or exposure – and keeping a piece of themselves to themselves – hard to do when you write.

“Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.”                        Virginia Woolf

Carmela Ciuraru wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review about pseudonyms that could be an introduction to her book – and she used her own name.

Read Ciuraru’s New York Times Article:  The Rise and Fall of Pseudonyms