previous next

LI. why women authors write under the names of men.

The dapper clerk, Mr. Chuckster, in the “Old Curiosity shop,” is quite dissatisfied when Kit Nubbles is proved innocent of theft; and remarks that although the boy did not happen to take that particular five-pound note, he is no doubt always up to something or other of that kind. It is in this way that critics of a certain type contrive to console themselves, when a woman has done a good thing in literature, by pointing out the number of good things she has not yet done. To be sure, Miss Mary N. Murfree, when she was universally supposed to bear the name of Charles Egbert Craddock, was thought to have achieved creditable work; but this discovery only gives these critics opportunity to point out that had she tried various other things she might have failed in them. Can anybody positively say, for instance, that she would have written a good essay on Quaternions, or developed any especially searching views on the Wages Fund? If not, her success does no more credit to woman, in the opinion [260] of these critics, than Kit's not happening to take that particular five-pound note did to his honesty. “Just wait a while,” they say, “and you will see some woman fail in something, never fear.” One critic goes so far as to say that all “high creative work” still remains out of the reach of woman. “Romola” does not seem to such a critic to be high creative work, probably; that phrase should be reserved for men — for little Twiggs, perhaps, with his fine realistic study, “The Trippings of Tom Popinjay.”

What a flood of light all this throws on the reasons why such very able women write under masculine names! George Sand, Currer Bell, George Eliot, are but the type of many others. They wrote in that way not because they wished to be men, but because they wished for an unbiassed judgment as artists; and in each case they got it. When it came, and in the form of triumphant success, all women were benefited by it, and were so much nearer to a time when no such experiment of disguise would be needed. The mere fact that women take men's names in writing, while no man takes a woman's, shows that an advantage is gained by the process. Meantime, each particular success is called exceptional, and instead of rejoicing in it in a manly way, the critic of the other sex is very apt to exult in what it does not prove rather than in what [261] it proves. It is as if we were watching a Chinese woman trying to walk in spite of her bandaged feet. “True, she has just walked into the north-cast corner of the room; but, mind you, she will never get into the south-east corner-she cannot do it; and even if she does, there is all the rest of the room” The more rational inference would seem to be that if one point of the compass was not too much for her, it would only be a question of time when she would reach all the rest.

When Mrs. Somerville wrote her “Mechanism of the Heavens,” critics of this description admitted that she had proved, indeed, that women could master astronomy after a fashion, but probably chemistry would be beyond them. When Rosa Bonheur painted cattle it was remarked that probably she could not have painted men as well if she had tried. Then came Elizabeth Thompson in England, and painted men fighting-actual battle-pieces-and the critics turned round and wondered if she could delineate men at rest. No matter what a clever woman does, the stupidest man has always discernment enough to think of something that she has not done; and if, step by step, women held their own in every conceivable department except in writing treatises on whist or backgammon, then it would suddenly be discovered that whist and backgammon were the inaccessible climax of human intellect, and [262] that in that sacred region no woman need apply. After all, with due respect to the great masculine intellect, does not all this seem a little silly?

Why not simply reason about woman's intellect as we should about every other case of gradual development? For some reason or other, mere physical size had priority on this planet-first the reptile one hundred feet long, then the man six feet long. This great change made, it seems credible that even the w6man, who is only five feet long, may not be wholly crushed by her smallness, but may have her place in the universe. As, by the modern theory, man is gradually developed out of utter ignorance, so is she, but, for some reason or other, more slowly. It is but yesterday that her brain was regarded with contempt; but yesterday that it was held worth educating. How should she develop confidence in it all at once? We know nothing of the laws that occasionally bring out genius in men — that create a Shakespeare, for instance-and in her case we know still less. We only know that slowly, at long intervals, and in spite of all the obvious disadvantages of physical weakness, social discouragement, and insufficient education, she is beginning to do, here and there, what may fairly be regarded as first-class intellectual work.

Until within a century but one single instance of this success was recorded — that of Sappho, in lyric [263] poetry. Within the last century other instances have followed-Rachel in dramatic art, Rosa Bonheur in animal painting, George Sand and George Eliot in prose fiction. These cases are unquestionable. Other women have at least reached a secondary place in other spheres — as Mrs. Somerville in science, Harriet Martineau in political economy, Elizabeth Barrett Browning in poetry. The inference would seem natural that it is simply a case of slower development — a thing not at all discouraging in a world where evolution reigns, and the last comer generally wins. Meanwhile, as there is no profession — not even the stage — in which a woman is not still a little handicapped, it is natural that she should disguise her work as man's work; and that Miss Murfree should find complete shelter under the very misleading name of Charles Egbert Craddock.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: