Anonymity, by John Mullan

Fiction's secret history
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The Independent Culture

In the 20th century, anonymity fell into disuse, John Mullan concludes in his "secret history of English literature". Yet in the last third of the 18th century, more than two thirds of novels were published anonymously; in the first third of the 19th, just under half.

These statistics show just how different modern authors are from their ancestors. At the end of the 19th century, Thomas Fisher Unwin set up the "Pseudonym Library" of books for rail travellers, a ploy to attract writers (as a new publisher, he could not afford big names). Yeats contributed as "Ganconagh"; one reviewer thought him a woman.

Aged 19, Edward Garnett was a reader for the series. He recognised the work of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, who wanted to publish Almayer's Folly under the name Kamudi. The book was too long for the format and appeared out of series under another pseudonym, Joseph Conrad.

Already, there is a confusion here. By a sleight of hand and history we pass from anonymity to pseudonymity. Mullan's book links the two, yet they have been practised with different motives and effects, especially within critical culture. They share an intention at once to disclose and withhold , to make public while preserving privacy. Some writers change name but not identity. They slough off a problematic surname or adorn themselves. Ford Madox Heuffer becomes Ford Madox Ford at around the time of the First World War; Daniel Foe becomes De Foe; the Rev Patrick Brunty becomes Brontë; his three daughters become "Bells".

At times of strife, authors perfect their incognitos; otherwise they might be, and were, hung, drawn and quartered. Printers and publishers too were at dreadful risk. Such facts are a part of the history of censorship and hardly secret. What Mullan reveals of the last three centuries, his "secret history", is inseparable from the rise of the novel, and critical and business cultures surrounding it.

His book does not follow chronology. It proposes eight not entirely convincing categories. What is the distinction between "Mischief" and "Mockery and devilry"? There are repetitions, and much is familiar. Swift, the Brontës, George Eliot, Orwell: we know their stories.

Can we tease out anonymity from pseudonymity? Mullan has some excellent comments on the effects of anonymity on style. In "A Modest Proposal", he comments on the deliberate tonelessness of Swift's prose, which heightens the irony. For Charlotte Brontë, anonymity provided a crucial freedom. She was a woman, a provincial, a Yorkshirewoman: each identity invited preconceptions. "I wished critics would judge me as an author not as a woman."

Defoe argued that anonymous authorship should be made an offence. If so, he would not have 'scaped whipping himself. Yet, in principle, he believed authors should be held responsible. The chapter that best engages with issues of anonymity addresses book reviewing.

There are two types of anonymity, mischievous and responsible. A few editors, notably Charles Wentworth Dilke at the Athenaeum and Bruce Richmond at the Times Literary Supplement, "made an ethic of self-effacement", resisting puffery, mischief-making and factionalism. Such a magisterial style marked the critical writing of major contributors, TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf among them. Anonymous criticism made Eliot "write in a temperate and impartial way".

Dilke and Richmond are, in Mullan's view, exceptional. He remembers how an anonymous Mary Shelley puffed her father's work; how Scott penned a review of his own work for the Quarterly Review. The Woolfs were not above anonymously puffing Hogarth Press titles. No wonder Coleridge despised anonymous reviews because they "concealed the network of alliances, hidden from him, that prescribed ruling tastes".

Writers did suffer. Hazlitt lost the confidence of his publishers after a malicious review in Blackwood's. It was Blackwood's which spoke anonymously of the "calm, settled, imperturbable driveling idiocy" of Keats, a review Shelley thought occasioned his death.

Pseudonyms are another matter. Of George Eliot, Mullan declares: "A pen name would establish a sense of authorship, of the special qualities of a certain imagination," without attracting intrusive attention. Early readers of Scenes of Clerical Life assumed the writer to be a clergyman. Modern readers "hear the voice of a woman, a free-thinker, a religious sceptic". Which hears more clearly? When Eliot wrote Adam Bede, she said, "I wish the book to be judged quite apart from its authorship."

Those ample 19th-century freedoms of concealment and defraction helped to dignify the work rather than the writer. They are no longer available.

In 1987 Rahila Khan's Down the Road, Worlds Away was accepted for publication. The editors of Virago Upstarts were affronted to learn that "Rahila" was an Anglican clergyman. He gave a credible account of the value of writing from an assumed identity. Pseudonyms "released me from the obligation of being what I seem". The publishers wanted testimony, fictionalised autobiography. Political and commercial imperatives had colluded in making an age-old strategy for creative freedom culpable.

Where did those enabling freedoms go? Early in the 1930s, the Toulouse poet Jean du Chas established the Concentriste school, a late branch of symbolism. Samuel Beckett lectured on du Chas in Dublin, a lecture collected in Disjecta. Du Chas resembles Max Beerbohm's Enoch Soames. When Ethel Malley sent the papers of her modernist brother Ern to Australian editors, she too was active in du Chas territory. Du Chas was Beckett's invention.

The uses of anonymity and pseudonymity need to be celebrated and redeployed. Mullan's book, concentrating almost exclusively on British writers, is a reminder and might become a catalyst for invention and rediscovery.

Michael Schmidt's 'The Story of Poetry' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson