Anonymity by John Mullan
|Anonymity by John Mullan
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: Anyone expecting a lighthearted trawl down the highways and byways of literary history won’t find it here, for reading it does require concentration. Nonetheless it does seem that the author has pulled off a first, for nobody else appears to have attempted a work of this nature until now. It may be of somewhat limited appeal, but any devotee of the history of English literature will find it not only a very rewarding read, but also a useful work of reference.
|Date: January 2008
|Publisher: Faber and Faber
In the 21st century when marketing and branding are virtually a religion in all walks of life where money rears its ugly head, the mere thought of an author concealing his or her identity behind a nom de plume seems highly unlikely, particularly in the case of a celebrity turned author. Witness the likes of Alan Titchmarsh, Edwina Currie, Sarah Kennedy and many others.
It’s a far cry from bygone days when, as John Mullan shows in this book, some of the most renowned names in English literature went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their identities. In the early years of the eighteenth century Daniel Defoe was renowned for writing ‘scandalous and seditious pamphlets’ under the cloak of anonymity. Some time after being found out and charged with libel, he argued that anonymity should be made illegal. Jane Austen went to considerable lengths when approaching publishers to avoid declaring her name, apparently out of modesty. When Pride and Prejudice was first published, one critic told her brother that he would like to know who was the author, ‘for it is much too clever to have been written by a woman’. Some sixty years later Algernon Swinburne wrote an epistolary novel, A Year’s Letters, but could not do so under his own name as some of the characters were based on members of his own family. Perhaps the most famous pseudonyms, long since exploded, of the nineteenth century, were those adopted by the Bronte sisters – namely Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell.
As Mullan notes in his Epilogue, anonymity became less common in the twentieth century, largely because ‘the convention of genteel reticence about making your name public had been eroded away’. Nevertheless a few men of letters still found it necessary to hide behind pseudonyms. Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell)’s Down and out in Paris and London was rejected by two publishers and then sent to a literary agent with the stipulation that if it was accepted it should be published pseudonymously, ‘as I am not proud of it.’ (How badly did he really want to see it in print, one might ask). Some years later, Anthony Burgess’s editor persuaded him that his ‘prolific rate of production might begin to attract critical scorn’, a problem faced almost a century earlier by Anthony Trollope, and a pseudonym – Joseph Kell - was the only solution.
In a little less than three hundred pages, the author provides a lively yet scrupulously-researched account of why so many great authors in English literature chose to publish their work anonymously, or use a pseudonym. Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Elizabeth Gaskell and Doris Lessing are just a few of the others who found it expedient to resort to subterfuge, for reasons of political expediency, fear of prosecution for offending political or religious mores, sheer modesty, rampant sexism or various other reasons.
On the whole, this book inclines towards the more scholarly side of things. Anyone expecting a lighthearted trawl down the highways and byways of literary history won’t find it here, for reading it does require concentration. Nonetheless it does seem that the author has pulled off a first, for nobody else appears to have attempted a work of this nature until now. The very nature of the subject matter has more or less precluded one; for as he observes, ‘anonymity does not exactly have a history’. It may be of somewhat limited appeal, but any devotee of the history of English literature will find it not only a very rewarding read, but also a useful work of reference.
If you enjoyed this book then you might also appreciate How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland.
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