During the late eighteenth century we were told that women read novels, men have more important things to do; and at that time there emerged the first golden age of women authors writing for a predominantly female audience. A genre, later classified as the Female Gothic, arose characterised by a central female lead, often involved in a search for identity, often enduring mental and physical trial on the way, and more often encountering real or imagined supernatural terrors. Records of library subscriptions and memberships show that, although a higher than may be expected proportion of readers were male; overall the readership was predominantly female.

 A quick skim through Montague Summer’s Gothic Bibliography is sufficient to show that overwhelmingly the Gothic authors of the period 1790-1820 were female. There are notable examples, Walpole, Lewis and Maturin have endured, however we must conclude that it wasn’t a drawback to advertise the fact that the author was female. Although in many books the author was anonymous or identified as being “A Lady” or “The Authoress of xxx”, a large number of title pages proudly bore the name of a female author.

 So were all these named authors actually women, or was there an advantage to male writers to work under a female nom de plume. This is certainly the case today, where we are aware that in popular fiction there are still certain expectations and that women will assume male names and men female names to gain acceptance in a specific gender dominated genre.

 So, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised if similar cases arose in the past. We are all aware of the often quoted cases of women assuming male names, either to avoid notoriety, or to gain some respectability for their work. The Brontes are an often quoted example and there are many more. However, a recent book has suggested that this could and did work the other way and that men may have adopted female noms de plume even back then.

 Mrs Carver, a name which has always been assumed to be false, is recorded in Summer’s Gothic Bibliography as having written four novels between 1797 and 1800.

  • The Horrors of Oakendale Abbey (1797)
  • Elizabeth (1797)
  • The Legacy (1798)
  • The Old Woman (1800).

 Of these Oakendale Abbey is the most remembered and is in print today. It tells the story of Laura, a foundling refugee from revolutionary France, her attempted seduction at the hands of Lord Oakendale and her explorations of the haunted Cumberland abbey of the title which leads her to stumble upon a den of resurrection men and body snatchers, it is unusually graphic in its depiction of death and decay, even by the standards of the day.

 Don Shelton’s recent research has suggested that Mrs Carver was actually Sir Anthony Carlisle FRS, FRCS an eminent surgeon of the early nineteenth century. He bases this on the apparently detailed knowledge of the methods of body snatchers of the day, something about which a surgeon would be well informed, and on many links between names and places in the novel and associations with Carlisle. Although the evidence is wholly circumstantial, and we are not left with the smoking gun of papers in a Carlisle collection, it is substantial. There is no reason to disbelieve it.

 I haven’t read either Elizabeth or The Legacy yet; however The Old Woman is much less horrific than Oakendale and maybe more a traditional female Gothic novel than Oakendale. It is a wholly epistolary novel, following the convention of a heroine seeking identity, and concerning forced marriages, abductions, affairs and surprising coincidences. It does however feature an episode in which a drowned body is pulled from the sea. Shelton draws on this as further evidence of Carver’s identity, suggesting that a surgeon would have the experience to describe in detail the effects on a body of several days’ immersion in the sea. The argument here is probably more tenuous; however we have no reason to believe that if Carlisle wrote the first of Mrs Carver’s books then he didn’t continue to write under that name.

Carver’s books were published by Minerva, who were notorious for the low payments given to authors for their works. Typically an author might expect £5 to £10 for the rights to a novel. Carlisle was about 30 years old when Oakendale was written, so we might assume that he wasn’t writing for the money.

 Although the link here is far from proved, I’m sure there must be  examples of men adopting female identities as writers during the period, and this research opens up a whole new game of spot the imposter.

D SHELTON (2009) Sir Anthony Carlisle and Mrs Carver. Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture 1780-1840. 19 (Winter 2009)