The Pioneering Female Sci-Fi Writer Whose Identity Was Kept Secret for 50 Years

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Many women writers have chosen to hide or disguise their identities by adopting a pseudonym—consider J. K. Rowling (who has written as Robert Galbraith), George Eliot, or the Brontë sisters, for example. However, the true identities of these gender-bending writers often became known in their lifetimes, while the same cannot be said for the pioneering British science fiction author Katharine Burdekin and her alter ego, Murray Constantine.

Burdekin began her writing career in the early 1920s, publishing a couple of realist novels under her own name before beginning to write books with a distinctly science fiction theme. Her first in the genre, The Burning Ring in 1927, explored the theme of time travel. In those days, a woman writing science fiction was unusual, and Burdekin gained some notice as well as some famous fans such as the prominent lesbian writer Radclyffe Hall, who wrote to Burdekin in praise of her work.

As political turmoil in Europe grew in the years before World War II, the themes of Burdekin’s writing became darker and more political. In 1934 she began publishing under the pseudonym Murray Constantine. No one knows for sure why she adopted the male name, but it seems likely that the pseudonym allowed Burdekin greater freedom to create more overtly political works and explore gender with less scrutiny. Some scholars, such as Robert Crossley, have suggested that Burdekin may have been influenced by the fate of contemporary writer Naomi Mitchison, a Scottish feminist who spent years battling to get her radical work, We Have Been Warned, published. When that book was finally released in 1935, its open discussion of sexuality and gender politics horrified many, in part because it had been penned by—gasp—a woman.

Freed from the constraints of writing under her own identity, Burdekin began to explore dystopian futures and themes of gender fluidity. In 1937, her most acclaimed work, Swastika Night, was published. Considered one of the first dystopian novels ever written, the book imagined the continuation of Nazism in an alternate future where women were reduced to lesser beings, kept like cattle and used only for breeding. Such was the power of the nightmarish future imagined in the book that during World War II a special edition was published with a note from the publisher, saying that the author “has changed his [sic] mind about the Nazi power to make the world evil ... he further feels that Nazism is too bad to be permanent.” Swastika Night has since come to be seen as a significant work of literature, one whose dark imaginings of a fascist future presage George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published more than a decade later.

Burdekin ultimately published four novels as Murray Constantine, the last in 1940. Though she continued writing, she published nothing from that year on and remained obscure, known only for the novels she wrote as Katharine Burdekin early in her career. In 1955 she suffered an aneurysm and came close to death. She survived, but remained bed-ridden until her death in 1963.

In the 1980s the academic Daphne Patai [PDF], now of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, became interested in the work of Murray Constantine while researching utopian and dystopian novels. Patai was familiar with Burdekin’s earlier novels and began to note the similarity in style between Burdekin and Constantine. Patai contacted the original publishers of Swastika Night, Victor Gollancz, persistently questioning Constantine’s real identity. The publishers finally confirmed what Patai had suspected—Burdekin and Constantine were one and the same, a fact that had remained secret for some 50 years.

Patai knew that after Burdekin’s marriage had crumbled in 1922 the writer had gone on to form a life-long partnership with a woman. The scholar managed to contact Burdekin’s partner, who was happy to share her memories of the author as long as she remained anonymous. The pair began a correspondence that revealed much about how Burdekin had worked—at great speed, never spending longer than six weeks writing any one novel. Before starting a project, Burdekin would become withdrawn and stop eating, then enter a sort of frenzy, which her partner described as almost like automatic writing, whereby the words seemed to spill unbidden from Burdekin’s pen. After she had completed a book, Burdekin would fall into a depression.

In 1986, Patai visited Burdekin’s partner at the house they had shared in Suffolk. While there, Burdekin’s partner retrieved from the attic a trunk full of Burdekin’s unpublished writing. As Patai read through the material, she was excited to find a complete manuscript that seemed to have been written in the 1930s. The novel, The End of This Day’s Business, serves as a counterpoint to Swastika Night, presenting a world in which peace-loving women ruled while men have lost all sense of their power and history.

In 1985, after Patai had revealed Burdekin’s true identity, Swastika Night was reissued by the Feminist Press under her real name. In 1990, The End of This Day’s Business was published, introducing the world to a fascinating feminist utopia, although the author points out that a world that subjugates any group of its citizens can never be free. Writing years before the contemporary trend for dystopian sci-fi, Katharine Burdekin was a woman well ahead of her time. Today, she is remembered as a pioneer whose genre- and gender-bending anticipated contemporary movements, and whose dark imaginings still have the power to chill.