Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature by John Mullan - review by Jeremy Lewis

Jeremy Lewis

Noms de Plume

Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature


Faber & Faber 351pp £17.99

‘I have seldom felt more satisfaction than when, returning from a pleasure voyage, I found Waverley in the zenith of popularity, and public curiosity in full cry after the name of the author’, Sir Walter Scott recalled, looking back to the happy days of his anonymity as a novelist, when his wife was the only member of his family to be let in on the secret, and even his publisher, Archibald Constable, was kept in the dark. Worried that the printers might recognise his handwriting, he had his novels copied out in someone else’s copperplate before submitting them; he denied authorship to the Prince of Wales, repudiated ‘that paternal interest in them which my friends do me the credit to assign to me’, and went so far as to write an unfavourable review of Old Mortality. The sleuths on his trail played by the rules of the day: John Adolphus, a young Oxford don, used stylistic analysis and recurrent motifs – in particular an authorial obsession with dogs – to finger his man, but having done so simply referred to him as ‘the author of Marmion’.

Scott was a celebrity in his day, but it’s hard to imagine any modern author, let alone a celebrity, being allowed to hide behind anonymity, or even a pseudonym. In a publicity-driven age, authors are expected to appear on television, give interviews to the press, sign copies in bookshops and

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