Women’s prize sponsor Baileys has apologised for putting an illustration of the wrong black abolitionist on the cover of a book in a series republishing female authors who wrote under male pseudonyms – a project that has received mixed reactions since it launched earlier this week.
The Reclaim Her Name campaign, announced on Wednesday, sees 25 titles being republished as free ebooks to celebrate 25 years of the Women’s prize for fiction, with print editions donated to selected libraries around the UK. More than 3,000 pseudonymous writers were considered by a team of researchers commissioned by Baileys. Selected authors included Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name George Eliot, and Fatemeh Farahani, who published poems in 19th-century Iran as Shahein Farahani.
Another in the series is The Life of Martin R Delany by Frances Rollin Whipper, who was the first African American to publish a biography in 1868, under the pseudonym Frank A Rollin. However, Baileys’ cover for the republished title showed the distinctive silhouette of social reformer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass instead of Delany, a journalist and fellow abolitionist.
A Baileys spokesperson said the book cover was replaced online with a corrected version as soon as the company became aware of the mistake, which was attributed to “human error” at the marketing agency VMLY&R.
“We are very sorry … We should also have spotted this in our reviews. We have since withdrawn and replaced the front cover and are conducting a full investigation to understand exactly how this happened. We will also be putting further measures in place to ensure it can never happen again,” reads an apology printed on the Baileys website.
Another author in the series is Edith Maude Eaton, a Chinese-English writer who wrote about racial discrimination and her heritage under her Chinese name Sui Sin Far. Only one scholar – Mary Chapman, professor of English at the University of British Columbia – has speculated that Eaton may have written a single story under the male pseudonym Mahlon T Wing. But now it has been printed under Eaton’s name.
Chapman, the author of Becoming Sui Sin Far, said she was contacted by VMLY&R to help them make contact with Eaton’s executor this week, but did not know what work had been selected until afterwards.
“I think they wanted range, and they didn’t have many writers of Asian background so she probably satisfied that criterion. She wrote a travelogue under a male pseudonym that would have been a better fit. We don’t know she wrote this story,” she said.
She called the whole project “sloppy”, adding that it had been announced as 25 novels but included short stories and a biography. “They could have done a better job. They had great goals. It is beautiful – you’d be thrilled to have those books on your shelf. But the minute you look at the thinking behind it, you just groan.”
Some readers on social media have also criticised the call to reinstate the name Eaton, rather than her Chinese name. Chapman said that Eaton used both names during her life: “She accepted that, so I don’t think it is erasure to call her Eaton – but by not writing about her Chinese heritage with nuance, like in this project, it takes away the value of her having asserted her ancestry, which at the time was very important because Chinese people were treated very badly in North America.”
Baileys’ spokesperson said: “From our research, we learned that Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far used many pen names in her work. In the development of this collection, we were in contact with a member of Edith Maude Eaton’s/Sui Sin Far’s family regarding the inclusion of her book. If the family member would like us to, we can amend her name.”
Some readers have debated the inclusion of particular authors for whom a male pseudonym was not solely a way of navigating sexist snobbery or avoiding persecution. A Baileys spokesperson said: “From the research we did, we learned that many female authors have published their work under male or gender-neutral pen names for a wide variety of reasons, something we acknowledged in our press release. We learned that, for some, such a move was a creative choice or an experiment in anonymity. However, for many of the female writers we came across, using a male pseudonym was seen as the only option if they hoped to be taken seriously in a male-dominated genre, reach a wider audience, or even be published at all.”
“I’m sceptical of this,” Grace Lavery, an English professor at UC Berkeley, wrote on Twitter. “C19 authors were not forced to use masculine pseudonyms; literary writing has always been a practice of imaginative self-fashioning. However well-intentioned, this project undermines the towering literary work of George Eliot, Vernon Lee and others.”
Lee, a 19th-century author included the series, often referred to herself as Vernon Lee in correspondence and conversation, and scholars believe the adoption of a male name and dress allowed her to express her sexuality and gender, as well as establish a separate professional persona.
“We need to recognise the names authors chose for themselves, out of respect,” Chapman said. “Maybe in rare cases, the patriarchal publishing industry oppressed them so much that they had no other option but to hide their entire career behind another name. But for George Sand and Lee, they chose those names. Out of respect, we should honour that.”
“There is so much potential here,” she added. “But using an ad agency for a project like this is not what I would have expected from the Women’s prize. They have squandered an opportunity.”