Anonymity: A secret history of English Literature, By John Mullan

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Literary journalists come and go, but perhaps there are still a few readers who remember Felix Benjamin. Young Felix had quite a career at the gentlemanly end of the late 1990s reviewing circuit. He wrote for the Literary Review; he was seen in The Oldie. The "contributors' notes" columns of these organs offered scraps of personal information: his authorship of a never to be published first novel entitled Offal; his editorship of the internet literary magazine Cybertext. He received invitations to literary parties, though he never went. Then, inexplicably, as the decade ended, his name ceased to appear, and a gay, insouciant voice fell silent.

Well, "Felix Benjamin" was me, the Christian names of my elder sons put together to make a plausible sounding nom de guerre. Like several of the aliases that turn up in John Mullan's lively history of anonymous – strictly speaking "pseudonymous" – writing, he was born out of practical necessity. I had reviewed a novel for a magazine which was printing a review of one of my books on an adjoining page. Later on his uses grew more varied. At a cash-strapped time in one's life, he was a good way of making extra money by reviewing the same book twice. He was also a vehicle for the kind of opinions that writers sometimes feel nervous of signing their names to. Poor Felix! I enjoyed his company and missed him when he was gone.

If all this sounds like the slyest of professional deceits, then there have been worse subterfuges than the brief, opinionated flight of Felix Benjamin. Sir Walter Scott, one of John Mullan's early exemplars, took 13 years to own up to the Waverley novels, whose putative author was apostraphised as "the Great Unknown". Although Scott enjoyed talking in a tangential way about the books, or rather the plays that were made out of them, his identity was kept from his publishers and from several members of his immediate family. He once sat impassive at the breakfast table while his teenage daughter developed a theory that the novels were written by his friend James Ballantyne. Only in 1827, when his publishing firm went bankrupt and he needed to sell his way back to solvency, was the cat finally let out of the bag.

Much of Anonymity: A secret history of English literature is devoted to what might be called the psychology of literary concealment. Many a 16th- and 17th-century pamphleteer left his name off the title page out of sheer terror at the likely consequences; there has always been a quiet handful of other-worldly types (Mullan instances "Lewis Carroll" and the "pained self-effacement" of the poet Thomas Gray) stricken by their modesty; but, as he notes, "only rarely is final concealment the aim." Swift's anonymity is a kind of self-promotion – it encouraged original readers of his satires of Augustan politics to discover who he was – but it was also a creative resource: Gulliver's Travels could not have been written in quite the same way if the Dean of St Patrick's had been instantly revealed as its author.

It was the same with the 18th- and 19th-century bluestockings who signed themselves "A Lady". Fanny Burney's attitude to her best-selling debut Evelina (1778) was a curious and psychologically revealing mixture of reticence and playfulness. Though keen not to be unmasked, she enjoyed prodding her friend Miss Humphries into a recitation of its merits. Jane Austen took the same pleasure in the spontaneous praise of those not in on the joke, and was amused rather than devastated by the niece who, while accompanying her to a circulating library, threw aside a copy of Sense and Sensibility with the comment "Oh this must be rubbish I am sure from the title." At the same time this "invisibility" was an essential part of Austen's view of the practice of writing, all of a piece with her nephew's account of her discreetly at work in the family drawing room, hastily concealing the slips of paper as the creaking door advertised a new visitor.

Mullan is especially illuminating on the case of the Rev Toby Forward, an Anglican vicar who in 1987 was outed as "Rahila Khan", supposedly the young Asian author of a short story collection Down the Road, Worlds Away. Virago, Forward's unsuspecting publishers, diagnosed a malicious hoax, but Mullan stresses the "earnestness" of his approach: "It is tempting to say that they are just the stories about race and class that a liberal Anglican vicar would write." The vicar defended himself on the grounds that changing sex, race and culture was "liberating". He also pointed out that, of the various short stories submitted by "Rahila" to Radio 4, the producer had accepted only the ones about Asian teenagers: like Virago, she had an agenda to satisfy in which literary merit sometimes came off second best.

Mullan has a terrific time investigating the world of Victorian literary journalism, whose back-stairs feuding and savage guerrilla warfare make today's practices look tame by comparison. Until at least the late 1840s, literature in England was barely respectable. Thackeray, for example, may very well have adopted some of his multitudinous pseudonyms as a "creative resource", but he was also, as a gentleman, deeply compromised by having to write at all. Even after Vanity Fair made him a celebrity, he was still angling for a government sinecure that would enable him to give up the trade altogether.

While quite a lot of Anonymity falls into the category of high-grade scholarly amusement, its message is deadly serious. As Mullan points out in his final paragraph, the fuss invariably made about aliases establishes a truth that most literary theorising tries to deny: the importance of the author to the way in which books bring off their effects. Felix Benjamin would have doffed his cap.