A Response to Baileys’ #reclaimhername: The Challenges of Literary Recovery

In early August, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and their corporate sponsor Baileys (yes, Baileys of Irish cream liqueur fame) launched the Reclaim Her Name project, “25 books previously published under male pen names, with the real female authors’ names finally printed on the covers, to honour their achievements and give them the credit they deserve.” These books were made available for free download, with the organizers announcing plans to donate complete print sets of the books to libraries. More than 3,000 writers were considered for inclusion. The series featured George Eliot’s Middlemarch (now identified as the work of Mary Ann Evans), Vernon Lee’s A Phantom Lover (with the name of Violet Paget on the cover), and Michael Field’s Attila, my Attila! (Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley). The works of a number of writers of color, including Ann Petry, Edith Maude Eaton, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, were also highlighted.

Despite its rhetoric of finality, however, the Reclaim Her Name project has resulted in far more questions than answers for those of us at Legacy. As Lois Brown puts it, “What does it mean to think about reclaiming? Who is reclaiming, what is being reclaimed exactly, and for whom is this reclaiming being done?” We agreed that a more public discussion was in order. On Friday, August 28th, Legacy, along with the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) sponsored a panel of scholars to talk abou the series and the politics of recovery. Panelists included Lois Brown (Arizona State University); Mary Chapman (University of British Columbia); Brigitte Fielder (University of Wisconsin); Grace Lavery (University of California Berkeley); Christine “Xine” Yao (University College London) and Sandra Zagarell (Oberlin College). Jennifer Putzi (William & Mary), co-editor of Legacy, moderated.

Given the success of the forum, we asked each of the panelists to write up their comments for this more public venue. You’ll find these thoughtful and provocative pieces here on the Legacy website. We’ll also be posting responses from other scholars as we receive them. If you’re interested in having your response–to the panel, to these comments, to the larger issues discussed here–posted, please contact Jennifer Putzi at putzi.legacy@gmail.com.

Faced with criticism from publications like the Guardian and the Smithsonian Magazine as well as an array of scholars, Baileys has seemingly curtailed the Reclaim Her Name project. If you go to the web page today, you’ll find a brief description of the project, a superficial discussion of pseudonymity, and a vague commitment to donating the series of books to select libraries. There is no list of the books in the series, or the names of the authors included. There is no way to download the texts. There are no images of brightly covered book covers. The series is shown only from the side, with spines out, as if appearing on a shelf. This is, after all, what Baileys intended to create–an object, not a book, in all of its glorious complexity. Authorship itself is similarly stripped of its wonderful complexity, rendered a simple case of “real” or “fake,” “male” or “female.” Baileys is able to drop this project because, let’s face it, they’re in the business of alcohol, not literary recovery. We at Legacy and SSAWW are more than ready to take on that challenge–to continue taking it on, really, as our panelists point out.

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