John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (2007)

In case you were wondering, no, it was not by oversight that I didn’t bother to mention, when writing last week about Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, the recent brouhaha about the violation of Ferrante’s privacy by a journalist who published the legal name of the writer, despite her express wishes. Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn about what her friends and family call her when she’s off duty as a writer. In fact, I’ve already forgotten Ferrante’s other name, and I can’t say I miss knowing it. But I have to admit that thinking about all that is probably what led me to pick up this popularizing account of anonymity (and its twin, pseudonymity) in English literature since the invention of the printing press. John Mullan would probably call me a spoilsport. According to him, getting readers to play the game of name-the-author has always been part of the point of anonymous publication — “penetrating the secret was part of the pleasure of reading this book,” observes Mullan of Gulliver’s Travels, which on publication in 1726 was ascribed to the authorship of, indeed, Lemuel Gulliver, not Jonathan Swift, who moreover had gone to great lengths to obscure his identity, for instance, enlisting an accomplice to write out a sample of the manuscript to entice a publisher, to ensure his own hand would not be recognized. Sir Walter Scott, who wrote a biography of Swift, was equally cagey about his authorship of the novel Waverly and its immensely popular successor. He appreciated that “the commercial business of producing novels could be kept separate from the life of the Laird of Abbotsford—even if the Laird’s estate was purchased by popular fiction,” and besides, “the anonymity fueled the interest of readers,” since (as his authorized biographer put it) “his name loomed larger through the haze in which he had thought fit to envelop it.” That’s as may be. But 19th-century Scottish lairds and 21st-century Italian translators may be very different kinds of creatures. Ferrante has spoken of her anonymity as protecting her freedom to write, and so I have to think that the man who wanted to strip her of that anonymity thereby meant to curtail her ability to write. It’s an aggression, not a game. But I’m getting too far away from my subject here, which is Mullan’s book, in which Ferrante plays no part. This Secret History of English Literature was not my cup of tea, I admit — longer on anecdote than on analysis, its aim is to be charming, not challenging, which is exactly the kind of thing that bores me. I’ll admit I started skipping ahead after a while. But never mind. It’s a good reminder that, whether writers meant their readers to guess their identities or not, anonymity used to be much more common than we realize. Virginia Woolf is often paraphrased as saying, “Anonymous was a woman”; it might be more accurate to say, “Anonymous was ‘A Lady,’” the name under which Jane Austen — among many others — first presented her work to the world. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea. Musicians don’t feel a need to use the names on their birth certificates — just ask Q-Tip or ?uestlove, Bon Iver or Cat Power — so I wonder why we writers have come to feel beholden to that convention? And who cares if we then publicize or conceal the underlying social identity? Just read the books.

John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (2007) is published by Princeton University Press.

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