Why the Brontës decided on pseudonymity.

The rationale of pseudonymity.

Before publishers were approached with the poems, the Brontë sisters decided to conceal their identities with noms des plumes. Charlotte, in the preface, offers the following as an explanation:

…Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at the 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; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality and, for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.[1]

Charlotte’s ‘vague impression’ that female writers may be discriminated against is not the main reason for their adaptation of androgynous names. It is predominantly to justify the masculine nature of their writing. To give themselves a licence to be true to their natural sense of expression.

Contrary to what one might presume of the concept of veiling as an almost repressive form of concealment, suggestive of religious ritualistic covering demanded of women, Charlotte’s use of ‘veiled’ is more inclined to follow a practice initiated by her father. In her biography of Charlotte Brontë[2], Gaskell recounts an episode where the Rev Brontë gave each of his children a mask and proceeded to ask them questions. In the following extract from a letter to Mrs Gaskell, Patrick Brontë outlines his modus operandi and reasons for it:

…When my children were very young, when as far as I can remember, the oldest was about ten years of age and the youngest four – thinking that they knew more, than I had yet discover’d, in order to make them speak with less timidity, I deem’d that if they were put under a sort of cover, I might gain my end – and happen[en]g to have a mask in the house, I told them all to stand, and speak boldly from under cover of the mask…

30th July 1855[3]

Speaking ‘…boldly…’ when in disguise was a device that Charlotte used in her fiction, suggesting that she associated this device with a freedom of expression and a pathway to truth.  In Jane Eyre Rochester seeks to discover Jane’s feelings for him while disguised as a gypsy, a ruse that also allows him to say plainly that which he dare not say as her master. Speaking somewhat enigmatically, he insinuates that he holds the key to Jane’s happiness if she in turn loves him:

…Chance has meted you a measure of happiness: that I know. I knew it before I came here this evening. She has laid it carefully on one side for you. I saw her do it. It depends on yourself to stretch out your hand, and take it up: but whether you will do so, is the problem I study…[4]


Similarly in Villette the spectral figure of the nun turns out to be the very real, disguised Alfred, le Comte de Hamal as he secretively visited and courted Ginevra Fanshawe. In a letter to Lucy Snowe, Ginevra reveals their secret:

…Do you begin to comprehend by this time that M. le Comte de Hamal was the nun of the attic, and that he came to see your humble servant?…But for the nun’s black gown and white veil, he would have been caught again and again by you and that tiger-Jesuit, M. Paul…[5]

In a similar fashion the concealment of identity behind pseudonyms, ironically, would allow the girls to be truer to their real selves.

No doubt, as stated clearly by Charlotte in the above extract from the 1850 preface, the gender issue was also a matter for concern: anticipating prejudice based on their gender and deciding that their writing was more masculine than feminine, their choice of pseudonyms would be ‘…positively masculine…’.

Charlotte’s reference to the male nature of their writing reminds us of the Brontë Juvenilia, the Angrian tales, supposedly inspired by a box of twelve wooden toy soldiers; the fact that they were made of wood is revealed in the ligneous names of some of the characters such as General Leaf, Captain Tree, Corporal Branch and so forth. These tales followed the adventures of Byronic heroes through wars and voyages of discovery. There is a decidedly masculine tone to the tales which is no great mystery when we consider how writers usually begin their career; writing about what they know. When children write, their compositions are seldom original but tend to imitate the styles and subjects of what they have read. The Brontë children’s inspiration was contained in the magazines coming into the house and the novels of the great male writers of their day. With few female literary sources and an undeveloped individual style the masculinity evident in the style and plots of the Juvenilia is inevitable.

In her most recent publication on the Juvenilia, Christine Alexander views the male voices of Charlotte’s early writing as reflective of the repressive state of the nineteenth-century woman and child, as opposed to a stylised plagiarism of literary models available to Charlotte:

…the narrative ‘I’ is splintered into multiple male voices, affirming the powerlessness not only of youth but of femaleness…[6]

Alexander is correct in her observations regarding the oppression of childhood and femaleness in the nineteenth century, however whether or not this generalisation is applicable to Charlotte Brontë’s adaptation of male personas is questionable; perhaps the use of male names, rather than a repression of femininity, is opportunistic and strategic and more suggestive of the business acumen of Charlotte Brontë than a fear of recriminations based on her femaleness. Charlotte’s fictional females, particularly the protagonistic ones, seldom succumb to female powerlessness and this, as conveyed in her letters, is because their creator knew little of that world of gender discrimination that existed beyond the moors of Haworth.

Having decided on the concept of pseudonyms, the next step for the sisters would have been choosing their new names. There is a lot of speculation about the origin of Bell as a surname and Acton, Ellis and Currer as Christian names, that is worth exploring further.


[1]  Taken from the preface to the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey as reproduced in The Norton Critical Edition of Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, third edition, edited by William M. Sale, J.R. and Richard J. Dunn (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), p 315.

[2] Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857; London: Penguin Books, 1997).

[3] Juliet Barker, The Brontës:  A Life in Letters (New York: The Overlook Press, 2002), p. 3.

[4] Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: George Routledge and Sons limited), p. 203.

[5] Charlotte Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 1979), pp 573-574.

[6] Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster (editors), The Child Writers from Austen to Woolf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 154.


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