But behind the outrage was a more general weariness at the myths such a project upholds: that historically, women have struggled to get books published, that they could only achieve success by hiding behind a masculine name, and that revealing their ‘real’ names brings them gloriously into the light.
There are cases where this may be true – at different times, in different countries, and for women of different races, and different class backgrounds, sexism has absolutely contributed to a struggle to be heard. Even the most successful female author of this century, JK Rowling, adopted a gender-neutral name to ensure Harry Potter appealed to boy readers, before taking on the pseudonym Robert Galbraith in order to anonymously write crime fiction. But even that single contemporary example cracks open how thorny this issue is: Rowling’s choices were not just about sexism, but also about a desire for anonymity, and the crafting of a new identity.
And that is almost always the case – it’s rarely so simple as just the bad sexism keeping a good woman down. Perversely, assuming it is so actually perpetuates vague, muddled notions that, historically, only a few women ever managed to break through, and did so by pretending to be men – think George Eliot, the Brontës.
Our education system is partly to blame: the traditional canon, created by men, has tended to focus on men since the novel’s inception in the 18th Century. “Actually, you have a load of women writers being incredibly important in the rise of the novel,” points out Dr Sam Hirst, an associate lecturer and host of free online Romancing the Gothic classes. “By reproducing these narratives – that women couldn’t publish unless they had a male pseudonym – you are completely erasing the existence of all of these other women. You’re reinforcing this incredibly patriarchal and misogynist view of the canon.”
Women published anonymously, pseudonymously and under their own names in the 18th and 19th Centuries; being written ‘by a lady’ actually became a selling point, to the extent that male authors would adopt it. According to research by academic James Raven, almost a third of novels published in 1785, for instance, claimed to be ‘by a lady’. While such anonymity means it’s hard to know exactly how many writers were really men, it’s believed that some deliberately opted for ‘by a lady’ as a sales ploy: female authorship helped indicate that the subject matter would be suitable for feminine readers, and it was women who made up most of the novel-buying market.
‘Perpetuating lazy myths’
The ignoring of women’s success in this era is bound up with issues of genre. In the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, the Gothic novel was wildly popular, and also largely associated with women. Female writers dominated the industry, with Ann Radcliffe achieving a record-breaking advance with The Mysteries of Udolpho, reprinted multiple times. She was one of innumerable ‘scribbling women’ making money this way – see also Mary Robinson, Clara Reeve, Charlotte Dacre, Eliza Parsons, Charlotte Smith, and of course, Mary Shelley.