restricted access Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
John Mullan. Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature. Princeton: Princeton, 2007. Pp. 374. $23.95.

Mr. Mullan enumerates and analyzes various motives for anonymity, including mischief, modesty, and privacy. Indeed, for some, anonymity and pseudonymity became literary devices, useful fictions that inflected the works themselves. Defoe and Swift, for instance, attributed their fictions to their narrators; such literary disguises formed an integral part of their work. Other writers shunned publicity. For centuries, women writers needed to be particularly careful, for if a stigma attached to a gentleman’s appearing in print, the “offense” of a woman’s publication was greater. Women, therefore, frequently signed their works “A Lady” or posed as men. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is that literary cross-dressing went in the other direction as well. Mr. Mullan contends that, among other things, such gender-switching allowed male authors to spin out domestic themes, which were normally associated with women. Writing ignoto also had a generic dimension. While writers in all genres embraced anonymity, novelists seem to have been especially secretive: most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novels were published anonymously or pseudonymously.

Authors went to strange lengths to distance themselves from their work. Sir Walter Scott, for instance, wrote a review critical of one of his own anonymously published novels. The Rev. C. L. Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) implored a Vanity Fair cartoonist not to publish his “likeness” as Carroll. The magazine editors acceded to his request, provided that he would write an article for them—a genteel form of blackmail. For a time, Fanny Burney used her brother Charles as an intermediary between herself and the bookseller Thomas Lowndes. In disguise and answering to “Mr. King,” Charles first met Lowndes “in the dark of the evening.”

Anonymous reviewing afforded the pretense of objectivity; it also provided a screen, and sometimes a shield, for the reviewer. Friends puffed the works of friends, and rivals skewered rivals. Thus, Mary Shelley praised her father William Godwin’s novel Cloudesley in the pages of Blackwood’s Magazine. A scathing review of Endymion, also in Blackwood’s, provoked the normally temperate Keats to demand “satisfaction” from the reviewer, but the poet was unable to identify him (or them). In such an environment, misattributions flourished.

Anonymity also has flaws. Although the book is highly readable, at times the organization seems higgledy-piggledy. I cannot discern a method to the arrangement of the chapters; nor can I detect a guiding thread other than the broad topic of its title. Mr. Mullan in spots might also have probed more deeply. Take, for example, this perceptive passage on Swift’s use of [End Page 85] anonymity: “In his satires Swift enacted what he disdained or despised or feared; he imagined what should not be. His best writing is entirely negative creation. Anonymity was at its root. The initially authorless life of Gulliver’s Travels was part of its author’s design.” Mr. Mullan does not follow up these astute insights.

While he devotes a chapter to “Danger,” in some cases he hastily dismisses the pressures of censorship and self-censorship in anonymous publications. In his treatment of the Travels, for example, he emphasizes the playfulness of Swift’s elaborate plots to cloak his authorship. Not all of the dean’s stratagems of self-concealment can be reduced to teasing or taunting, however; for the Scriblerians, anonymity was not merely a game. Swift enjoyed toying with his readers, but his caution was as much prudential as playful. Indeed, Pope’s remark in a letter to Swift that “none, bar ‘the mob of criticks’ . . . ‘suspected [Gulliver’s Travels] of particular reflections . . . so that you needed not to have been so secret on this head” indicates the degree of Swift’s anxiety over publishing a topical satire.

Finally, Mr. Mullan is not the first to have written on anonymity, yet he overlooks or minimizes Foucault, Marcy North, Paul Hammond, and Donald Foster, who have published on this topic. Anonymity, nevertheless, is a fascinating survey of anonymous literature from the Renaissance forward. Rendered in clean, vigorous prose, it wears its learning lightly and will interest scholars, students, and general readers.

Randy Robertson...