UCL News


UCL Bookshelf: 'Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature' by Professor John Mullan (UCL English Language & Literature)

26 January 2008

David Sexton, 'The Scotsman' As John Mullan, an English professor at UCL reveals, until the 20th century, anonymity was a significant literary practice which we have largely forgotten.

Mullan points out in his introduction that, until now, there has been "no single book giving you the history of anonymity" but only in an epilogue does he ruefully admit that he now understands why it had not previously been attempted. "There is no possible grand narrative of the changing conventions of anonymous and pseudonymous publication because, at any given time, there are different reasons for it."

Thus he has not organised the book chronologically but by broad themes. Under "Mischief" he groups those authors who have deliberately used anonymity to provoke "curiosity and conjecture", from Swift and Sir Walter Scott to Joe Klein. Under "Modesty", he studies writers who have genuinely felt abashed to appear in the public eye, most of them female, such as Fanny Burney and Jane Austen. …

"The reviewing of books was long the area where debates about anonymity were both most bitter and most high-minded," Mullan observes. In theory, anonymous reviewing can assist impartiality. In practice, it allows partiality a free hand, both in puffing and derision. …

Now, says Mullan, "only in two significant places does anonymous reviewing continue in Britain" - the Economist, where it is supposed to contribute to an air of corporate authority, and in Private Eye, where the literary pages "scorn the complicity between authors and reviewers that sometimes seems to be the rule elsewhere". …