BY GEORGE! She wrote

The Nineteenth Century was a time when many women authors hid behind a male pen-name, or else the androgyny of their initials. It was the century of the two Georges, i.e. George Sand and George Eliot, two women who had been christened Aurore and Mary Ann.

In a way, these writers were the literary version of “passing” women of the day, who swapped their voluminous skirts for the male drag of trousers and shirts, passing for men. Women had been doing this in real life, probably long before Shakespeare’s “fair Rosalind” also donned breeches. This tradition is continued with the bacha posh of today’s Afghanistan.

The first woman writer, still published today, was Enheduanna {c2285-2250 BCE}, daughter of Sargon of Akkad and priestess of Nanna, the ancient Sumerian moon god. Her work includes several hymns to the goddess Inanna, some poetry and a little about her own life, and the power struggles which saw her exiled for a time and then restored to her position (Mark 2014).

In English Literature, Virginia Woolf was correct that women writers had always been a minority. However in past centuries, for those who were successfully published it was usually under their own names: such as Aphra Behn {1640-89}, Fanny Burney {1752-1840} and the fantastic early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft {1759-97}.

So what happened in the Nineteenth Century? Jane Austen originally published her novels anonymously, and many other writers used male pseudonyms. A lot of ink has been spilled to answer this question, from amateur bloggers to senior academics in Literature. It was a time when a young aspiring authoress named Charlotte Bronte sent an volume of her poems to Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate. His “advice” to her in an 1837 letter was: ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it even as an accomplishment and a recreation’ (Southey 1837).

We will now look at the two Georges, and other authoresses who skirted the issue of their true genders, by writing under male pseudonyms.



A famous “passing” woman and one of the most fascinating characters of the Nineteenth Century was the cross-dressing, bisexual French author Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin (1804-76), better known by her non de plume George Sand. She wrote many novels, political essays and an autobiography; but today is better known for her private life and affairs with Alfred de Musset, Frederic Chopin and the actress Marie Dorval.

Her revolutionary life began a decade after the French Revolution, daughter of minor nobleman Maurice Dupin and a lower-class grisette Sophie-Victoire Delaborde. When she was born it was said: ‘She will be lucky, for she was born among the roses and to the sound of music’ {Orr}.   After her father’s death, Aurore was raised by her grandmother at Nohant, the family estate. When she was 18, she was married to Casimir Dudevant.

The Dudevants would have two children over the next few years, but Aurore was always made for greater roles than provincial wife. Perhaps she would have split with her husband even if she hadn’t read an abusive letter that was supposed to be posthumous, a little prematurely, and even if he hadn’t cheated on her with the maid. After settling an income on herself, Aurore left him to seek her fortune as a writer in Paris, where she did it tough at first. ‘She was living in a garret, with little to eat, and sometimes without a fire in winter’ (Orr).

The first of her writing was for Le Figaro. Aurore’s first novel was in collaboration with early lover Jules Sandeau, who had been her “other man”. It was named Rose et Blanche, with the author listed as J Sand. The second novel was Indiana in 1832, in her own write, under the name George Sand. She would never be known as anything else, from then on.

She had a fondness for menswear, in a century when women wearing trousers were considered practically transvestites. ‘It was an idiosyncrasy born out of necessity: the theatre was expensive. Wearing men’s attire assured George admittance without harassment into the cheapest seats at theatres and concerts; alternatively, as an unescorted woman, she would lay herself open to verbal and physical abuse and moral criticism for being at the theatre in the first place. . .As her fame spread, what had at first been a means of disguising her sex became her chose, stylish “uniform”, defiantly reinforcing her new identity’ {Eduardo p119}.

Her most famous relationship was with Polish piano virtuoso and composer Frederic Chopin {1810-49}. At first he was a little overwhelmed by the strange older woman, but they would get together later. A holiday in Majorca did not turn out well for his health, but they would live together at Nohant for nine years. A lot of ink has been spilled about the relationship between these two intensely creative people.

They would break up acrimoniously in 1847. Then Chopin died two years later; perhaps of a broken heart, more likely from the tuberculosis he had suffered from for a long time. ‘According to some, he was the victim of a Messalina. According to others, it was only “Messalina” that had kept him alive so long’ (Orr).

Perhaps the best epitaph for Madame George Sand was Russian writer Ivan Turgenev’s comment: ‘what a brave man she was, and what a good woman’ {Armitage}.


Another woman who authorship was considered scandalous, at first, was the great Charlotte Bronte. Not surprisingly after the “advice” she had received from Southey, she and her sisters originally became the Bell brothers, writing a collection their poems in 1846 under the androgynous Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (Cody), the initials correspond with Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte .

Charlotte Bronte herself stated that ‘we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice’ {Armitage 2016}.

Their first novels were published was in 1847 (Cody), ten years after the Poet Laureate’s letter.


Another woman writer who used an initial male pen-name was Elizabeth Gaskell {1810-65}, who published her three of her early short stories in Howitt’s Journal under the punny name Cotton Mather Mills (Foster, p30), appropriate for her industrial Manchester location. However, once her fame was established, she was never known as anything by Mrs Gaskell. As we shall see, a respectable Unitarian minister’s wife, had more reason to use her own name than other authors.

She would do a lot for women writers, not just with her own novels, but with her official biography of Charlotte Bronte, one female author controversially writing about another. ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography paved the way for Charlotte’s genius to be perceived as a commonplace’ (Weber, p33).

After Charlotte’s died in 1855; her friend Ellen Nussey, her widower Arthur Nicholls and her father Reverend Patrick Bronte, appealed to Gaskell to write her biography (Weber, p39). ‘Constructing Charlotte as a representative character sho could stand both for ideal gender and artistic excellence not only solidified Bronte’s literary celebrity but also reinforced Gaskell’s claims to fame, since she will be forever connected to Bronte studies and lore’ (Weber, p36).

Both these women can be considered as pioneers for women who write.


Another male pseudonym of that time was the Australian author Henry Handel Richardson (1870-1946), who was born in Melbourne as Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson. She was the daughter of respected doctor Walter Richardson and his wife Mary Bailey, who later worked as a postmistress. Her father would die in 1879 of ‘grand paralysis of the insane’ or late-term syphilis {Green, p} Her mother struggled to put her daughter through the Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne, from 1883 onwards {HHR Society}.

In 1888 the Richardsons moved to Leipzig, Germany {HHR Society}. From 1889, Ethel and her sister Lilian studied at the Royal Conservatorium, here she learned the piano {Green, p1}. She met John George Robertson, a Scottish student of German Literature at Leipzig University {HHR Society}. They were married on 30 December 1895 {}. In 1903, he became a Professor at the University of London, where the Robertsons then moved. Ethel’s writing career began during this period, with her husband giving his beloved “Henry” his full support. ‘No man could have done more than Robertson to ensure that she was free to devote herself to her writing, not only in a material, but in any other sense’ {Green, p2}.

Henry Handel Richardson’s first novel was Maurice Guest in 1908. ‘Ethel’s use of a pen-name, adopted for mixed motives, probably militated against recognition when feminist literary history began’ {Green, p2}. It certainly makes her novel The Getting of Wisdom (1910), set in a girls’ school, more interesting when you know that Richardson was writing about her own education.

Here most famous novel was the epic trilogy The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, based on her father’s life in pioneering Australia. ‘The horrifying circumstances of Walter’s illness and death, the permanent sense of insecurity this inflicted on Ethel, marked her personality and her work’ {Green p1}. She wrote out this childhood trauma. In 1912, the expatriate returned for the only time to Australia, to research her Richard Mahony series {HHR Society}. She spent the rest of her life in Britain and Germany, which made things tense for the Richardson sisters after war broke out in 1914.

‘Henry Handel Richardson’s place in Australian literature is important and secure’ {Green, p2}.


So now we come to that little Victorian girl named Mary Ann Evans {1819-80}, born in the same year as that great queen.


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Eduardo, L. (2005) Mistresses. London: Michael O’Mara Books Ltd.
Blount, P. (1979). George Sand and the Victorian World. University of Georgia Press: Athens.
Hughes, K. (1998). George Eliot: The Last Victorian. Fourth Estate Ltd: London.


One thought on “BY GEORGE! She wrote

  1. Overall your Blog has fabulous encyclopaedic information which must have helped you and your readers to get a vivid sense of what the 19th Century was all about. Well done! But for next semester we must get the eP structure sorted out for you so that it is easier to find the various key items.

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