Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature

Defoe, Pope, Eliot, Bronte: Duncan Wu on the literary lights with a weakness for pseudonyms.

January 17, 2008

"I have as little luck in the art of rhyming as the art of f*****g." Who can blame Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, when publishing her denunciation of Jonathan Swift, for keeping her name off its title page?

Hers is just one example of authorial reticence in John Mullan's startling Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature - although, as he demonstrates, satirists have not always concealed their identity out of embarrassment. Rochester "asserted himself through anonymity"; for Oldham, "anonymity was the necessary false modesty of a young writer in need of patronage"; while Defoe was an "addict of anonymity" who used it to write pseudonymous rejoinders to his own work, playing "dizzying games of self-answering". Mullan is a shrewd observer of the stratagems devised by women writing as men, men writing as women, political pamphleteers, reviewers and confessional writers.

The very idea of surveying the canon in this sideways manner is a clever thing to do, allowing us unexpected insights into the author's mind. Take, for instance, Charles Dodgson, who insisted "most earnestly and urgently" on retaining the disguise of "Lewis Carroll" even when asked by the editor of Halkett and Laing's A Dictionary of the Anonymous or Pseudonymous Literature of Great Britain whether she could reveal it. Fearful of exposure, he replied: "I use a name, not my own, for writing under, for the sole object of avoiding personal publicity: that I may be able to come and go, unnoticed, to all public places." And how strange that this early enthusiast of the fledgling pastime of photography lived in terror that someone might see his image - except, of course, the "little friends" with whom he corresponded.

Charlotte Bronte policed her concealment behind "Currer Bell" with equal determination, refusing to tell her best friend, Ellen Nussey, that she was the author of Jane Eyre. "Humbug!" she responded when Nussey ventured the suggestion. "Whoever has said it - if anyone has, which I doubt - is no friend of mine!" She even denied to Thackeray (whom she admired) that she was "the person called Currer Bell".

Recluses are in the minority. According to Mullan, many authors thought anonymity a way, paradoxically, of attracting attention: "Swift's anonymity was a kind of self-promotion - an incitement to his first readers to discover his genius." This is borne out by A Tale of a Tub which, although published without his name, was claimed by Swift at every opportunity.

Similarly, Alexander Pope's great art was in "reclaiming" the works he had issued anonymously. Marian Evans changed her name five or six times before openly avowing herself to be George Eliot: "Her pseudonym became her name, her disguise a kind of proclamation." So much so, in fact, that it helped counter disapproval of her private life.

Cross-dressing authors provide some of the weirder stories in this book. Fiona Macleod was a successful novelist and poet who won adulatory reviews and proposals of marriage from admiring readers. The problem was that she was a man - William Sharp - who kept up the pretence until his death, when he claimed that "in an intimate sense" his invention of her was no deception. This is consistent with Defoe and Richardson, both of whom wrote as women out of what Mullan calls "creative necessity".

Or take Rahila Khan, whose Down the Road, Worlds Away, was published in the Virago Upstarts series in 1987. But Khan wasn't the Asian woman she purported to be; she was an Anglican vicar from Brighton called Toby Forward. Irritated by the imposture, Virago pulped as many copies as it could, turning the volume into a collectors' item. Forward insisted "Rahila Khan was me", arguing that the assumed identity gave him insights into another culture.

Mullan admits that the stories he presents, fascinating though they are, are disparate. "There is no possible grand narrative of the changing conventions of anonymous and pseudonymous publication because, at any given time, there are different reasons for it. The same author will sometimes publish anonymously, and sometimes not." Instead, his objective is to recreate the thought processes of those who dissociated themselves from what they had written, and the "special voltage" it gave their work. I doubt whether that's sufficient to sustain a volume of more than 300 pages.

This is an umbrella book - one in which a range of things are gathered in one place because of what they have in common. But they don't add up, and by page 200 Mullan's catalogue of case studies begins to seem meaningless. It doesn't help that he's happier in some periods than others - fine when discussing Swift and George Eliot, but accident-prone in the Romantic age: there was no such thing as a "John Bull magazine" in July 1824, and Joseph Johnson would have had great difficulty publishing Shelley's Oedipus Tyrannus in 1820, as he had been dead for more than a decade. Moreover, Mullan's analysis of the furore that followed publication of Hazlitt's Liber Amoris in 1823 fails adequately to comprehend its ideological motivation: that, by discrediting Hazlitt, Tory critics deprived liberals of their most eloquent spokesman.

Anonymity is an intriguing book that doesn't quite work - which is a shame, because there's nothing wrong with the conceit: it is a survey of the canon, and surveys do not have to mean anything. The problem is length and, to some extent, pitch: judicious pruning throughout would probably have saved it.

Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature

By John Mullan
Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571195145
Published 17 January 2008

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