CLOSE
Amazon
Amazon

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

Amazon
Amazon

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
quiz
Begins and Ends: European Cities
iStock
iStock
nextArticle.image_alt|e
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios