Why Penelope Featherington in Netflix’s Bridgerton used a non de plum

When Fanny Burney published her first novel Evelyn in 1788, she did so in the strictest secrecy. She copied out the manuscript using a “feigned hand”, then sent it to a publisher under a male pseudonym, asking if he might buy a book “without ever seeing… the Author”. She was delighted when he wrote back to her addressing her as “Sir”. Yet when her father de ella discovered she was the author, Burney felt “afraid– & quite ashamed to be alone with him.”

A self-portrait of Charlotte Waring Atkinson – the great-great-great-grandmother of Kate Forsyth – from her 1848 sketchbook.Credit:Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

This stigma was the primary cause of the pseudonymous choice of epithets by women writers including Jane Austen (“A Lady”), George Eliot whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, and the three Bronte sisters who published as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell as “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice”.

In Australia, the first published children’s book was written anonymously by a woman. A Mother’s Offering to Her Children by a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales, published in 1841, it was written by my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Charlotte Waring Atkinson. Her identity of her was unknown to the public for almost a century and a half. As with Lady Whistledown, she chose to write anonymously both for freedom of expression and for the money she could earn. She had fled an abusive husband and fought through the courts to retain custody of her children from her. Her quill de ella was the only means of support she had for her family de ella.

Novelist Kate Forsyth.

Novelist Kate Forsyth. Credit:Janie Barrett

One of the most famous Australian women writers is Miles Franklin, who chose her masculine middle name instead of her Christian name, Stella, as her pseudonym when her first novel My Brilliant Career was published in 1901. She wanted to be thought of as “a bald-headed seer of the sterner sex.” However, Henry Lawson exposed her secret in his preface to him, reductively describing her as “just a little bush girl”.

Trying to escape this image, Franklin wrote under different pseudonyms including “An Old Bachelor”, “Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau”, and, finally, “Brent of Bin Bin”. She went to extraordinary lengths to protect her pseudonym, telling her publisher “Anonymity was necessary to facilitate the progress of my work” and that they must not indicate “whether the author is a be-shingled flapper under twenty or a be-whiskered squatter over fifty.”

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Miles Franklin’s disguises offered her the privacy she needed to write as she pleased. This need for concealment is expressed by another of Australia’s most famous women writers, Henry Handel Richardson, who wrote: “I must have a mask to hide behind”. Christened Ethel, she had chosen to publish her novels under a male pseudonym because “a book… has a better chance if written by a man than a woman. Hoary prejudice lingers, whatever one might say to the contrary.“

Richardson persisted in using a phallic mask even after her gender was revealed. In 1935, she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal under her married name, “Mrs. JG Robertson.” She refused the award, only accepting it once it was addressed to her chosen nomenclature of her.

Twenty years later, Gwen Harwood was living in Tasmania, raising her family, and trying to get her poems published. Finding that “lady poets” were less likely to have their poems accepted, she used several pseudonyms including WW Hagendoor (an anagram of her name de ella) and Walter Lehmann.

In August 1961, the Melbourne newspaper Truth ran the headline “GREAT POEM HOAX: HOUSEWIFE FOOLS THE EXPERTS WITH HER NAUGHTY SONNETS. The page three article began: “A Tasmanian poet-housewife has become the center of a literary storm because of two sonnets she sent to a magazine as a hoax. The sonnets concealed a message – and a rude word – in words from the first letter of each line. The poet is Mrs Gwen Harwood, of Hobart, wife of a University Tasmania lecturer.”

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Acrostically, the sonnets read F— ALL EDITORS and SO LONG BULLETIN. It caused a storm of controversy. A staff writer at The Bulletin wrote dismissively: “(she) apparently imagined the acrostic would remain her private secret forever. Such are the fantasies of lady poets.”

Writing anonymously empowered all these writers to speak up and express themselves freely in a society that exerts so much pressure on women to be polite and pleasing. It brought them creative freedom and financial independence and allowed them to challenge accepted feminine roles.

In the very first episode of Bridgerton, it was said: “Of all bitches dead or alive, a scribbling woman is the most canine. If that should be true, then this author would like to show you her teeth from her. My name is Lady Whistledown. You do not know me, and rest assured, you never shall.”

Or shall we? Gentle reader, all will soon be revealed…

Kate Forsyth is an award-winning author whose novels include The Crimson Thread, Bitter Greensand Beauty in Thorns.

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