Authors’ pseudonyms: from Agatha Christie to JK Rowling

pseudonyms give authors the freedom to become as malleable as their characters

We don’t normally choose our own name. It is given to us at birth and we have no say in the matter. These names can hang heavy in our mouths if we don’t think they suit us and most of us, at one point or another, have entertained the thought of what it would be like to have a different name.

Authors, therefore, are the envy of us all. Not only do they name character after character many of them adopt new names themselves. Choosing a psuedonym involves thought: it is a chance to choose a name with an innate cleverness and deliver a cryptic clue for the reader to decipher. Perhaps authors are drawn to names that compensate for something lacking in their real name.

When P. L. Travers wrote Mary Poppins, she did not use her birth name, Helen Lyndon Goff. Instead, she chose ‘Pamela Lyndon Travers’, taking the ‘Travers’ part from her father’s first name, Travers Robert Goff, possibly as a tribute to him as he died when she was a young girl.

For her debut novel The Return of the Soldier in 1918, Rebecca West opted for the name of a character in a play by Henrik Ibsen. In Ibsen’s ‘Rosmersholm’, Rebecca West is a freethinking and passionate rebel who ultimately drives a woman to suicide. Perhaps hoping to arm herself with an equally fearless persona, West wrote many books under her new name and had a long and successful career as a novelist and journalist.

George Eliot might have chosen her pseudonym from similarly fictional origins. Born Mary Ann Evans, a glossary of theories surround her choice of penname. The ‘George’ may be stemmed from George Lewes, the married man with whom she was in a relationship. She could have paired it with the surname of the protagonist in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot. Alternatively, she may have taken a liking to the surname Jane Eyre adopted while she was in exile, Jane Elliott.

Eliot explained the reasoning behind using a pseudonym: ‘a nom de plume secures all the advantages without the disagreeables of reputation.’ She used the influence of the assumed male voice in her journalistic work to highlight key concerns regarding the position of women in the world. Topics such as sexism, the repression of female desire, and the difficulty of women’s writing being taken seriously filled her columns in newspapers and magazines such as The Westminster Review, where she became assistant editor.

Embracing the logistics of creating a new name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson went through a linguistic process before deciding on Lewis Carroll. He thought he needed a pseudonym to separate his factual writings from his works of fiction. A lecturer of mathematics at Oxford, he first signed his stories ‘BB’ before being persuaded by his editor to change it. Then he offered his editor a choice of pennames: Edgar Cuthwellis, a name formed from the letters in his name; Edgar U.C. Westhill; Louis Carroll, created by translating his name into Latin and back, or Lewis Carroll. His first suggestion ‘Dares’, inspired by his birthplace Daresbury in Cheshire, was swiftly rejected by his editor.

An illustration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (credit: wikicommons)

Charlotte Brontë could have been influenced by the people around her for her pseudonym. She wrote under the name ‘Currer Bell’, a guise perhaps inspired by Mary Richardson Currer, the neighbour of the family that she was a governess for in north Yorkshire. Arthur Bell Nichols, Charlotte’s father’s curate may have provided her with the idea of her new surname.

George Orwell’s name is thought to have come from a natural feature on his landscape. Eric Blair became George Orwell after the River Orwell in Suffolk where he lived when he was young. Mark Twain picked his pen name from similarly watery roots. While Samuel Langhorne Clemens, he worked on riverboats on the Mississippi River where he met a riverboat captain who went by the name of ‘Mark Twain’. A ‘mark twain’ was a term used to signal a depth of at least 12 feet, safe enough for a steamboat to make its passage. The name’s appeal, he explained, lay in its obscurity: ‘to nine hundred and ninety-nine persons out of a thousand it had no meaning, and also because it was short.’

Established authors are not immune from wanting to start their reputations afresh. When J.K. Rowling turned her hand to crime fiction she wrote under the name of Robert Galbraith and described it as a ‘liberating experience.’ Even after her true identity had been revealed she maintained the nom de plume stating, on Robert Galbraith’s website, ‘J.K. Rowling continues to write The Cormoran Strike series under the name of Robert Galbraith to maintain the distinction from her other writing.’

Agatha Christie wrote six ‘bitter-sweet stories about love’ under the name Mary Westmacott. According to her granddaughter it ‘freed her from the expectations of her mystery fans.’ The books examined the depths of human psychology that had fascinated her previously. Christie’s publishers were concerned about the ‘change of direction’ in her writing. But, in the same year as her first Westmacott book was released, she also wrote her first Miss Marple novel.

Several authors use pseudonyms to their own advantage. Who would be better placed to write a foreword to your new novel than yourself, only under your other, more famous name? Stephen King wrote several books as Richard Bachman (after a favourite rock band) and, blazoned across the cover of the book ‘Blaze’ by Bachman is a foreword by King. What’s more, when one of Richard Bachman’s books was used as the basis for a film, Stephen King made sure that his name was not on the credits. King clearly enjoyed this playful relationship with his alter-ego. After Bachman was revealed to be King, he dedicated his next book (about a pseudonym going against a writer) to ‘the deceased Richard Bachman.’

It seems that authors’ creativity is not restricted to their work and happily overflows into their names too. What’s in a name? A lot more than we think.


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