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