Anonymity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am

Anonymity

by John Mullan

Faber & Faber, HK$ 297

For much of its composition John Locke's Two Treatises on Government, perhaps the most influential work on civil society ever published, is said to have had a rather less attractive working title - Tractatus De Morbo Gallico, or A Study of Syphilis. Titling his revolutionary essay against tyranny this way probably held double meaning for Locke: venereal disease and absolutism, in the social mores of Stuart England, were both considered uniquely French afflictions. He was, however, utterly humourless about disavowing his influential work, consenting to its publication as the treatises anonymously and refusing publicly to acknowledge his writing it.

Such subterfuge may seem strange today, where an author with a famous name is as valuable to any publisher as one with a story but, as John Mullan reminds us in this excellent new volume, anonymous publication was the norm in English letters for more than two centuries.

Addressing a gap in the existing literature, Anonymity chronicles the history of anonymous and pseudonymous authorship from its origins in the 16th century to today, examining authors' motivations in eight chapters on topics such as Mischief and Modesty. The work lends clarity to the anonymous pasts of authors such as Defoe, Swift and Tennyson and brings due attention to important figures in the secret history of literary anonymity previously known to specialist scholars only.

Motives for publishing incognito are as varied as the authors themselves. Lord Byron published the first cantos of Don Juan anonymously for strictly 'family' reasons, fearing his licentious satire might be used against him in a custody battle with his estranged wife.

Many nameless writers were women presenting themselves as men, such as Marian Evans (George Eliot) and Charlotte Bronte (Currer Bell).

Whether these names were consciously chosen to comport with social prejudices is unknown (Bronte's identity was an open secret for much of her career). It may be that for female authors male pseudonyms were simply an inventive means of preserving their privacy, not a means of avoiding discrimination, as is widely presumed.

There was even an accepted pseudonym for female authors: 'A Lady', used most famously by Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility. The anonymous novel prompted widespread speculation about the true author, with a literary acquaintance of Austen's brother reportedly saying, 'The book is much too clever to have been written by a woman.' However 'Anon' often concealed corruption as much as identity. In his most revealing chapter, Mullan explains how the tradition of anonymous book reviewing (standard in the 17th to 19th centuries and continuing at the Times Literary Supplement until 1974) often prompted bile, bias and cronyism.

Freed from the burden of a byline, writers wrote reviews to settle old scores and savage rivals. According to Shelley, it was a particularly scathing anonymous critique of the poem Endymion that caused the ruptured blood vessel that would eventually kill John Keats.

Authors also solicited favourable reviews from acquaintances, a practice virtually unknown to the public. A particularly egregious example comes from Mary Shelley, writing anonymously in praise of the novel Cloudesley by William Godwin, calling it 'the highest species of perfection his department of art affords'. Unbeknown to readers was the fact that Godwin was Shelley's father.

Mullan has produced a much-needed original study into the area of literary anonymity. This is not the sort of criticism that brings new insight to genius; its brilliance instead lies in the artful synthesis of meticulous research, complemented by clever sideways glances and just the right amount of trivia. The result is a compelling historical exploration of an important and neglected literary phenomenon.