- Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature by John Mullan
Faber, 374 pp, £17.99, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 19514 5
All literary works are anonymous, but some are more anonymous than others. It is in the nature of a piece of writing that it is able to stand free of its begetter, and can dispense with his or her physical presence. In this sense, writing is more like an adolescent than a toddler. I might pass you a note at a meeting, but a note is only a note if it can function in my absence. Writing, unlike speech, is meaning that has come adrift from its source. Some bits of writing – theatre tickets or notes to the milkman, for example – are more closely tied to their original contexts than Paradise Lost or War and Peace. Fiction (since it is imaginary) has no real-life original context at all, and hermeneutically speaking can therefore circulate a lot more freely than a shopping list or a bus ticket. Literary works are peculiarly portable. They can be lifted from one interpretative situation to another, and may change their meaning in the course of this migration. Waiting for Godot as performed in San Quentin prison is not quite the same play as Peter Hall’s first London production. We cannot simply put Auschwitz out of our minds while watching The Merchant of Venice. Writerly meaning does not always trump readerly meaning. Walter Benjamin believed that works of literature secreted certain meanings which might be released only in their afterlife, as they came to be read in as yet unforeseeable situations. He thought much the same about history in general. The past itself is alterable, since the future casts it in a new light. Whether John Milton belonged to a species which ended up destroying itself is up to us and our progeny. The future possibilities of Hamlet are part of the play’s meaning, even though they may never be realised. One of the finest English novels, Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century masterpiece Clarissa, became newly readable in the light of the 20th-century women’s movement.
Works of literature, then, are to some extent cut free from those who engender them, wandering through the world to accumulate different meanings in different situations. Cast out, homeless and orphaned, literary writing is forced to survive from hand to mouth, and thus bears a curious resemblance to the picaro or wandering rogue who is the protagonist of so many novels. Those who are allergic to such Parisian formulas as the Death of the Author might prefer D.H. Lawrence’s more traditional dictum: never trust the teller, trust the tale. Literary works have intentions of their own, of which their producers may know little or nothing. It would be impossible to deduce from Sean O’Casey’s anti-political The Plough and the Stars that its author was a Communist Republican. The logic of the play runs athwart the ideology of the dramatist. A text may carry the signature of a particular writer without being truly part of his or her work. Not every text which bears the signature of Karl Marx is necessarily ‘Marxist’. There is a difference between what Middlemarch is seeking to do at any particular point, and what George Eliot had in mind at the time, if she had anything particular in mind at all. The literary intentions that matter are those built into a work itself, rather as the structure of a chair ‘intends’ one’s sitting on it. If I say, ‘I promise to loan you five pounds,’ but as the words cross my lips have no intention of doing so, I have still promised. The promising is built into the situation. It is not a ghostly impulse in my skull.
Authors can say the silliest things about their own stuff, which is one way in which they resemble critics. The Waste Land is not just a piece of rhythmical grousing, even though T.S. Eliot said it was. There is a sense in which writers are the first readers of their own works. Pushkin expressed astonishment that a character in Eugene Onegin was getting married. In the case of other artistic media, the issue of authorship can be even more problematic: who is the author of Westminster Abbey or There Will Be Blood? Even so, the author is not quite dead. It is true, as Paul Valéry pointed out, that many things are involved in the creation of a work of art besides an author; but this is to demote authors rather than to annihilate them. ‘What does it matter who is speaking?’ Michel Foucault famously scoffed. In real life, it can matter quite a lot. In literary affairs, too, knowing who wrote a piece can be important. It helps to know that the Foucault who published The Archaeology of Knowledge was also the author of The History of Sexuality, since it allows one to see how the cult of the body in the latter book stands in for the drastic elision of the human subject in the former. The fact that Jane Austen could create Emma Woodhouse as well as Fanny Price tells us something about Mansfield Park’s view of its own heroine. If we did not know that industrial imagery in William Blake’s work generally carries a negative charge, it would be harder to argue that the speaker of the ‘Tyger’ poem is not Blake himself, a point highly relevant to the work’s meaning. On the other hand, if we discovered that William Blake was actually a pseudonym for the Duke of Wellington, we would not necessarily stop reading him as radical. We would simply, as philosophers are fond of saying, not know what to say.
Foucault is right to suspect that the category of the author has traditionally operated as a kind of intellectual policing, though his point would be more persuasive if he did not find such policing everywhere he looked. Asking who wrote a work is among other things an implicit injunction to place it beside other texts by the same writer, which is not necessarily the most illuminating move. Mrs Gaskell’s North and South might be better read in the context of Victorian sanitation reports than in the context of Cranford. Yet the fact that Gaskell wrote Cranford as well throws light on why the industrial conflicts of North and South are not resolved by socialist revolution.
Literary anonymity takes different forms. A work may come unsigned because who wrote it is not thought to be all that important. Some medieval art is a case in point. What does it matter who is praising God, as long as he gets praised? The oldest form of literary anonymity is divine inspiration. There is only one author, and which mundane mouthpiece he selects to reveal his glory is neither here nor there. John Mullan is accordingly wrong to suggest that every anonymous work sends us off in search of an author. Finding out who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might deepen our understanding of the poem, but it might prove no more enlightening than finding out who bolted down the final rivet on the Forth Bridge. There are literary works in which what speaks is less a personal voice than a set of conventions, and which are none the worse for that.
Romantic literature, with its cult of the poetic personality, might seem just the opposite of this. Yet the Romantic poet’s richly particularised voice is largely a way of giving tongue to the transcendent. From Wordsworth to D.H. Lawrence, one speaks most persuasively when one articulates what is not oneself, whether one calls this Nature or the creative imagination, the primary processes or the dark gods. The self runs down to unfathomably anonymous roots. Men and women emerge as unique beings through a medium (call it Geist, History, Language, Culture or the Unconscious) that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.
It is this bleak doctrine that Modernism will inherit, as a cult of impersonality takes over from the clapped-out Romantic ego. For Romanticism, the self and the infinite merge in the act of imaginative creation. To surrender oneself to dark, unknowable powers is to become all the more uniquely oneself. One must lose one’s life in order to find it. For one strain of Modernism, by contrast, the self is displaced by the very forces which constitute it – unhoused, scooped out, decentred and dispossessed. We are no more than the anonymous bearers of myth, tradition, language or literary history. The only way the self can leave its distinctive thumb-print, from Flaubert to Joyce, is in the fastidiously distancing style by which it masks itself. Language itself may be authorless; but style, as Roland Barthes claims in Writing Degree Zero, plunges straight to the visceral depths of the self.
Another strain of Modernism turns back to subjectivity itself, as if by way of refuge. The self may be fitful and fragmentary, but there is something we can rely on in the immediacy of its sensations. And though the essence of selfhood is now elusive, there are certain rare moments in which it can be fleetingly recaptured. Postmodernism, by contrast, rehearses the Modernist tale of the unhoused, decentred self, but without the consolations of an essential self. There never was such a thing, for Barthes any more than for David Hume, and we are doubtless all the better for it. What looks like a loss is actually a liberation. Unity is an illusion, and consistency is more a vice than a virtue. Postmodernism is full of personality cults, but they know themselves to be groundless. Like commodities, individual selves are basically interchangeable. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
Mullan’s Anonymity is far from such grandiose reflections. It is a history of literary anonymity from the 16th century to the present, which wisely refuses a grand narrative of its subject on the grounds that the motives for such anonymity are too diverse. Some authors are too shy for publicity, some are too scurrilous, a few exploit their anonymous status for the sheer mischief of it, while others use anonymity as a perverse way of provoking curiosity. Anthony Trollope resorted to anonymity because he wrote too fast and was sensitive to charges of overproduction. Anthony Burgess went anonymous for a while for much the same reason. He was also the undeclared reviewer of one of his own novels in the Yorkshire Post. Thomas Gray’s Elegy, the most frequently reprinted poem of 18th-century England, was published anonymously. With becoming modesty, Sense and Sensibility was advertised as ‘By a Lady’, a common enough ascription at the time. None of Austen’s other novels bore her name during her lifetime. Walter Scott published his ‘Waverley’ novels (the most popular novels Britain had ever seen) without owning up to being their author for many years, and lied through his teeth when challenged on the question by the Prince Regent himself. Yet in a cat-and-mouse game with his colleagues and readers, Scott never really attempted to remain unknown. Seventeenth and 18th-century publishers often put out work whose true authorship was hidden even from them. Manuscripts were dropped off at dead of night by intermediaries in heavy disguise. In Memoriam, bedside reading for Queen Victoria, made Tennyson’s name but was published anonymously, and remained officially unattributed throughout his life.
There was also authorial cross-dressing, more usually from female to male than vice versa. ‘Examples of women choosing masculine pseudonyms are legion,’ Mullan remarks; ‘it is much rarer to find men writing as women.’ Two distinguished exceptions were Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, who took shelter behind their female protagonists. The Brontës are an obvious example of female writers posing as male, or at least behind the carefully androgynous pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; though in a lengthy account of the sisters’ attempts to beard the male-dominated publishing establishment, Mullan misses the opportunity to relate this to the intricate cross-gendering in the novels themselves. Gender-spotting was a common pursuit among reviewers of anonymous or pseudonymous works. R.D. Blackmore’s anonymous novel Clara Vaughan was outed as from a female pen on the grounds that it displayed an ignorance of the laws of physics and the laws of the land. The late 19th-century Scottish writer William Sharp proved a great hit as ‘Fiona MacLeod’, writing novels full of Celtic twilights that attracted the admiration of the equally Celticising W.B. Yeats. Sharp even received an offer of marriage from an enthusiastic male reader.
There were also legal and political reasons for the ubiquity of Anon. There were times when the state needed to know the author or printer of a work in order to know who to prosecute for heresy or sedition. In 1579, John Stubbs had his right hand cut off for writing a work opposing the marriage of Elizabeth I to a French nobleman. Elizabeth herself urged that the printers of the anti-Anglican Marprelate tracts should be subjected to torture. In 1663, a London printer who published a pamphlet which argued that the monarch should be accountable to his subjects, and justified the people’s right to rebellion, was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He refused, even so, to reveal the name of the pamphlet’s author, though the disclosure might have saved his life. Between the 16th and the 18th century, printers were fined, imprisoned and pilloried for publishing supposedly treasonable works whose authors remained concealed. Being Jonathan Swift’s printer was not a job for the faint-hearted. John Locke fearlessly inscribed his name on the title page of his Essay concerning Human Understanding, but went to great and fearful lengths to preserve the anonymity of his more political works.
Other acts of violence were less official. John Dryden was beaten up when leaving a coffee house because of an anonymous poem attributed to his pen. William Blackwood, proprietor of Blackwood’s Magazine, was horsewhipped at least twice by the victims of pugnacious, unsigned reviews by his contributors. For much the same reason, one irate author beat the proprietor of Fraser’s Magazine with a riding crop before proceeding to fight a duel with the journal’s dipsomaniac editor, William Maginn. It was a vitriolic anonymous review of Keats by J.W. Croker which Shelley considered to have caused the ruptured blood vessel that eventually killed the poet. There was, however, profit as well as peril in anonymity. Tobias Smollett was almost certainly the author of an unsigned complimentary review of his own Complete History of England. An unattributed notice in the London Chronicle which praised a work by James Boswell as ‘a book of true genius’ was written by Boswell himself. John Wilson wrote an anonymous letter to Blackwood’s Magazine robustly defending Wordsworth from some unsigned criticism in a previous issue of the journal, which he himself had written. The Elizabethan scholar M.C. Bradbrook complained in a letter to the TLS that an anonymous review of Blake had slighted the critic Kathleen Raine, who was the doubtless amused author of the piece. An ecstatic unattributed review in Blackwood’s of a novel by William Godwin was written by his daughter, Mary Shelley. Even the high-minded George Eliot anonymously reviewed her partner G.H. Lewes’s life of Goethe, a work she had helped him compose. Not everyone disapproved of such practices. Stanley Morison, who edited the TLS in the 1940s, declared the self-review to be the ideal example of the genre. Coming from a man who ran a journal devoted entirely to anonymous contributions, this was dangerous stuff.
Mullan has hit on an absorbing subject, which he treats with learning and lucidity. The book lacks the crispness and sparkle of his best reviews, and there is the odd patch of tiredness or spot of repetition. We are told that ‘anger is frequently the response to a hoax’; that the 19th-century dramatist James Sheridan Knowles was Scottish (he was from Cork); and that ‘a book about anonymity is a book about the importance of authors, and about how and why readers need them.’ There is an absurdly brief epilogue on Anon in the modern age, when he or she has been much eclipsed by publishers’ publicity departments. Even so, there is a good deal to relish. The book seems to be beamed at a general audience, and certainly represents a commendable attempt to bridge the gap between literary scholarship and the reader-in-the-street; but since its subject matter demands much detailed unpacking of obscure literary matters, one wonders whether the punters will feel that their £17.99 has been entirely well spent.