Anonymity through the ages

This “elaborate charade”

It looks like certain elements of the academy may be beginning to pay attention to the authorship question.  John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of Literature is one hopeful sign (Faber and Faber, 2007).  If he doesn’t exactly open the door to The Question, he does leave the keys on the table by the door.

An English professor at University College London, Mullan is as easy to read as he is informative (not always the case with academics).  Calling anonymity “a phenomenon that has never been plotted or explained,” he goes into anecdotal detail on the vast reality of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing that, however ignored, permeates the entire history of the English book and magazine trade from its very start.

To make his point, he describes Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudononymous Literature of Great Britain in which can be found almost every well-known English author from the 16th through the 20th centuries (before that, just about everything of importance is unattributed).  Begun in the 1850s, the first four volumes finally began getting published over 30 years later.  Today it fills “nine massive volumes” with “originally authorless works that have, since publication, been ‘reliably’ pinned on some particular writer or writers.  Permanently authorless works are not there. . . .”  The operative phrase here is “pinned on,” for like the works we study, many acquired their attributions later––from scholars, not principals.

As Mullan tells us:

Over the centuries the first readers of many famous literary works have been invited to unravel their secret histories.  A good proportion of what is now English Literature consists of works first published, like “The Rape of the Lock,” without their author’s names.  These works are now collected in bookshops or libraries under the names of those who wrote them, but the processes by which they were attributed to their authors are largely forgotten.  It is strange to think of “Joseph Andrews” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Frankenstein” being read without knowing the identities of their creators, but so they once were. (4)

The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were published anonymously.  So was William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  All of Thackeray’s early work was anonymous, followed by a whole battery of pseudonyms.  Samuel Butler’s early books were published as anonymous or under a pseudonym.  Some of Henry Fielding’s works were anonymous or published under a pseudonym.  Byron published his first book anonymously, and considered anonymity for his last.  Sir Walter Scott spent 13 years denying his authorship of the Waverly novels.  Thomas Gray refused to claim his immensely popular “Reflections in a Country Churchyard.”  And so forth and so on.

That so many authors through the centuries had reasons for remaining anonymous should require that such reasons be considered whenever there are questions over authorship.   The phenomenon of anonymity begins with the Elizabethans and the birth of the commercial press (according to the OED, the first use in print of the word anonymous was 1601, when it probably had been in use for some time).  Except for a brief look later in the book at Spenser’s use of the pseudonym Immerito, Mullan starts with the next big burst of literary splendor, the Augustans––the poets, playwrights and novelists of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the so-called Age of Reason.  In our efforts to decode the authorship mysteries of the Elizabethans, we can learn a great deal from what he tells us of this later group.

According to Mullan, all of Jonathan Swift’s works first appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym.  He details the elaborate measures that Swift and his friends took to keep secret his authorship of Gullivers’s Travels, which included getting John Gay to write the letter offering the manuscript to the printer so that Swift couldn’t be identified by his handwriting.  Later both Swift and Alexander Pope, together with the perplexed printer, shook their heads over the authorship of the mysterious manuscript, even going so far with the gag as to pretend to be perplexed in letters to each other.  (Can we see them as they share them with other members of their coterie around a table in a coffeehouse, convulsed with amusement over each succeeding paragraph?)  Mullan’s depiction of the community gathered around Swift, Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry Fielding and others, all members of the famous (infamous at the time) Scriblerus Club, not only knew each other, but formed a close-knit community of colleagues whose major interest was entertaining each other, one that saw publishing anonymously, or under a phony name, as a game.

Times change but people don’t.  Surely the “lewd friends” and secretaries that gathered around Oxford at Fisher’s Folly during the 1580s were the very University Wits of literary history.  The element of fun in the Nashe-Greene-Harvey pamphlet duel is the major reason why academics have missed the point, and keep missing it.  Until the death of Marlowe, most of the use of pseudonyms was simply Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and doubtless others still unknown to us (Thomas Sackville?) having fun with each other and sticking it to their enemies––and each other)––a la the wits of the Scriblerus Club a century later.

Handwriting and dictation

About Swift, Mullan adds: “He was in the habit of dictating controversial works to a “prentice who can write in a feigned hand,” sending the finished work to the printer “by a black-guard boy” [a poor boy who ran errands for cash].  Such maneuvers could not have been unknown to the crew at Fisher’s Folly.  Fran Gidley, who in 1999 unlocked the secrets of The Play of Sir Thomas More, shows how Oxford’s method was to dictate to secretaries like Anthony Munday, though with Oxford it was probably less a ruse to escape detection than simply the standard method then for anyone who could afford a secretary­­––or, as we see in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, four secretaries.

Mullan points out that “in ages before the typewriter,” it was handwriting “that was most likely to betray an incognito” (39).

When Swift wished to make corrections to “Gulliver’s Travels” for its second edition he had them copied and submitted by his friend Charles Ford . . . .  When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting  (39-40).

Which is, of course, why it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever find that much desired “smoking gun”: a letter or manuscript in either Oxford or Bacon’s handwriting that proves to the satisfaction of any and all left-brainers, not only were they involved in such larks, as far as history is concerned (or should be) they invented some of them.

By the time Alexander Pope came along, anonymously published satires, though officially illegal, were all the thing.   By publishing his Essay on Man anonymously he tricked his detractors into praising him.  One of them compared what he called Pope’s “vile” and “most immoral ribaldry” to the work of this new unknown author, who was, he trilled, “above all commendation” (19), surely a source of side-splitting hilarity amongst Pope’s circle as they read the review aloud, sitting around a table at Buttons or one of the other taverns or coffeehouses where the group was wont to meet.  Pope’s most famous work from late in life, the Dunciad, was written to unmask and denounce the various satirists who had attacked him and his friends anonymously in print, a clear case of the biter bit since he was one of the more vicious anonymous satirists himself.  But he was also the best, which is, of course, all that counts.

Oxford’s group of wits would have met at a tavern next door to Fisher’s Folly, where scenes reminiscent of the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part One could well have taken place.  This tavern, The Pye was owned and run by the parents of Edward Alleyn, the great actor, then still in his teens.

Sir Walter Scott was one who thoroughly enjoyed the game.  In Scott’s early days Poetry was still King and novels were seen as something that writers who couldn’t write poetry might turn to.  Having adopted anonymity out of concern that his Waverly novels would damage his reputation as a poet, Scott soon revelled in their popularity, but while happy to be guessed as the author, when questioned directly would always deny it.   He might have continued this way till death had not he been forced to admit the truth when, finding himself in debt, he had to publish an edition of his collected works, for which he would have to use his famous name.  As Mullan tells us: “Scott’s resolute anonymity has many features that we will find again in the stories of anonymity in this book: the elaborate concealment of the author’s handwriting; the initial deception even of publishers and family members; the willingness of the author to lie cordially when identified” (29).

But not all anonymous writers are alike in their reasons.  Swift and Pope were playing games with their readers and critics, games aimed at the the final act when all would be revealed and the book well on its way to popular, and fiscal, security.  But that was not the case with their counterparts of the 1590s, who did not want their authorships made public, not during their lifetimes certainly, and who could hope to escape detection because they were safe in ways that Swift and Pope were not, or at least, they hoped they were.

Like the members of the Scriblerus Club, Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly must have enjoyed watching outsiders speculate over the authorship of their pseudonymous publications, but any urge to reveal too much probably evaporated with the assassination of Marlowe in ’93.   That Greene “died” when he did in 1592 may have had something to do with his identity being in jeopardy.  It should be noted that, in Greene’s farewell pamphlet Groatsworth, in between death pangs he berates Marlowe for his atheism, warning him: “little dost thou know how in the end thou wilt be visited.”  What fools they are who miss the significance of this, for how on earth would the Robert Greene of literary history, the dissolute and impoverished pal of murderous thugs, come by such deadly inside information?

While masquerading in print as Greene and Nashe, Oxford and Bacon were what we today would consider amateur journalists, the first of their kind in English history.  First to use methods that would soon become a profession, their pamphlets were aimed at a small but growing reading audience, one that knew Greene by his writing, but not by his face––for, as Greene put it “my writings lately privileged on every post hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.”  In other words, the commercial press, still in its infancy, had opened up for the Wits and more dangerous satirists like Martin Marprelate, the possibility of what Burghley was known to refer to as “acting at a distance.”

What energy resonates in that word infinite.  Therein lies the published writer’s eternal temptation, to acquire an audience, not necessarily one that is actually infinite, but, as the word suggests, has the potential for infinite growth and extention.   You can almost hear the surprise in that word––infinite!

The idea of an infinite audience, reinforced by the knowledge of how many readers over the centuries had been reached by the works of Homer and the Greek dramatists, led him eventually, with the help of his friends and patrons, to reach beyond his immediate and often distressingly stupid audience to the infinite audience known as posterity.  (Consider Touchstone’s complaints about the public audience, that unpoetic slut Audrey (audire) whom he must marry, and the mournful comment, When a man’s verses cannot be understood . . . it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”)

Thus his realization that the audience, once acquired, would return over and over again to buy anything that had Greene’s name on it, was also a revelation of a lesser sort, one that inspired him to keep writing for it throughout the 1580s, with Bacon jumping on board in 1589 with a style borrowed from Martin Mar-Prelate.  The rest is history––or it should be.

Enter the tabloids

Oxford and Bacon were able to escape identification because both their persons and their handwriting were hidden behind the veil of print, but by the time Swift and Pope were writing a century later, a strong publishing establishment had developed, one that included review journals and newspapers.  This meant that in the still quite small publishing circles of their time, anything published anonymously would be immediate questioned in print.  The volume and intensity of the questioning of the authorship of books and articles that had developed by the turn of the 18th century should suggest that such questioning was hardly something new.  It was only the transfer to print of what had been dominating after dinner conversations ever since the birth of the commercial Stage and Press.

Not only were Nashe and Greene the first English journalists, they, or Nashe at least, can be seen as having created the first review journal, for a large part of his reason for publishing was so that in between comedic rants he could promote the writers that he thought worthy of notice––including of course, himself.

Letters to the Reader

One of the primary features of the Elizabethan novel or narrative poem is the “Letter to the Reader” in the front of the book with its convoluted tale of how the printer or publisher managed to acquire the manuscript without the writer being in any way involved.  As Mullan tells us: “In the 17th and 18th centuries, a satirical writer in particular might like to leave the impression that the very act of publication was inadvertent, and the publisher more like the author’s antagonist than his or her collaborator.” ( They were naughty, yes, but naughty in private.  Who isn’t?)  But it wasn’t just the naughty stuff that was considered  infra dig for gentlemen and ladies, it was everything.  The ancient tradition of manuscript publishing, which for centuries had kept such communications safely private within a select coterie, saw commercial or print publishing as revealing things to the commonalty that they had no right to know.

So long as the proletariat remained illiterate and the press remained the fiefdom of nobles and government officials, manuscript publishing was private and secure.  But with the spread of education beyond the confines of the nobility and upper gentry, press piracy from below combined with the excitement from above felt by some members of the Court community about connecting with an “infinite” audience, so that by the late 1570s the dam of separation, though far from burst, was beginning to develop some serious leaks.

Pope, Swift, John Arbuthnot, Jonn Gay, and other members of the Scriblerus Club, would work together to create collective satirical writings which took the form of mock books, attributed to the fictional scholar, Martin Scriblerus, which contained, as Mullan puts it, “peculiar explanations of how their manuscripts found their way into print.”

The social and literary convention of unwillingness to publish was surprisingly resilient.  It was clearly still alive for Sheridan in the late 18th century, when he nicely catches the troublemaking it permits in an exchange in his School for Scandal:

Lady Sneerwell:  I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish anything.

Sir Benjamin Backbite:  To say truth, ma’am, ‘tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons upon particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties.  (18)

This kind of folie was a bow to the convention that it was déclassé to write for publication.  But of course these men weren’t writing just to earn a living, but to wield power in their communities, the power of the word, the power that came with the ability to ridicule and humiliate whoever caused them aggravation.

Treason doth never prosper . . .

Anonymity was not solely due to the fact that publishing was seen as déclassé, for often it was a response to more serious dangers than a temporary dip in a man’s reputation.  The history of publishing is one long record of men and women being jailed, executed, and assassinated by governments and enemies for what they produced in print or on the stage.  Surely Christopher Marlowe’s assassination by government agents had more to do with the popularity of Tamburlaine than a dispute over a tavern bill.

As Mullan relates, the political philosopher John Locke, author of the influential Two Treatises of Government, was strangely paranoid about allowing his name to be connected with this famous work.   According to Mullan, the seemingly excessive caution that lasted his entire life derived from the dangerous uncertainty of the early days leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Two Treatises, published in 1689, appeared to be a retrospective, but which, in fact, had been written many years earlier in anticipation of it.

In other words, until King James II was ousted, the manuscript was pure and simple sedition.  Had it been discovered then, it would have meant a fate for Locke similar to that of friends like the Earl of Essex (2nd creation), imprisoned in the Tower where he committed suicide, or Algernon Sidney (Philip and Mary’s nephew), whom Judge Jeffreys (known as the “hanging judge”) condemned to death by using Sidney’s own treatise as the required second witness, saying “Scribere est agere,” “to write is to act.”   It seems Locke never felt safe, for how could he be sure that the political pendulum would not swing the other way, as it so often did.

That throughout the years when life was most dangerous Locke hid the deadly manuscript “in plain sight” by titling it “de Morbo Gallico.”  By disguising it as a medical treatise on syphilis, he made it safe from prying eyes (162).   This ruse is not so different from those practised continually in the16th century by publishers of bawdy poems or tales by giving them sober or meaningless titles and filling the front pages with moralistic-sounding nonsense in the form of Letters to the Reader.

Other tricks and dodges

Some authors are simply so private by nature that they see notoriety as a thing to be avoided at all costs.  According to Mullan, it was largely for this reason that Charles Dodgson went to neurotic extremes to prevent the truth about his identity as Lewis Carroll, author of the immensely popular Alice in Wonderland, from being spread any further than his family and close friends, despite the obvious fact that everyone already knew (41-2).  Perhaps he was afraid that if readers knew that the author was an Oxford professor, they would quickly discover the originals of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, is among the earliest of the Augustans.  One of the first writers who can be described as a realist, Mullan calls him “that addict” of anonymity, who “played dizzying games of self-answering” by which he means responding in a different persona to others that he himself had created––“possible only because of anonymity, and often hardly grasped by biographers and scholars.”

Greene and Nashe did exactly the same thing, both pretending to be Gabriel Harvey at one time or another, recommending their own books, and, in Oxford’s case, dedicating them to himself.  All of which has certainly been “hardly grasped” by their still befuddled biographers and scholars.   As Mullan says of Defoe, that “his very hyperbole” in defying those who wished to attribute to him every satire in print “indicated a kind of pride” which can certainly be said as well of Francis Bacon, who, masquerading as Tom Nashe, delighted in complimenting or sometimes castigating his Spenser persona.  Alexander Pope made the same defense of publishing his famous Rape of the Lock as did Francis Bacon in 1596 when he published his Essays, namely that he was forced to publish them himself to forstall piratical printers from putting out a bad copy.

Mullan points out how hidden authors depended on friends or servants to maintain their distance from their work.  The publisher of Fanny Burney’s Evelina was forced to negotiate by letter with a Mr. King through a local coffeehouse, while receiving the final manuscript from her “heavily disguised” brother.  Sir Walter Scott conducted his negotiations with publishers through his friend and business partner.  Mullan details how George Elliott was finally revealed to her publisher, who then shared “the profound secret.” John Locke’s friend, the philosopher’s chosen emissary or dealing with printers and publishers, was ordered never to mention his name (160).

A special voltage?

Mullan introduces his book by asking: “If we reopen once celebrated cases of anonymity, can we see how, for their first readers, an uncertainty about their authorship could give new and original works of literature a special voltage?” Even more voltage was added where the poem or play revolved around characters that audiences believed were based on authorities or other leading figures.  Such satires have been facets of English merry-making since feudal times, as, via rubber masks of the royals and popular entertainers, they are still to this day.

Just as George Etheridge’s character Dorimant in The Man of Mode was taken to represent the Earl of Rochester (225), so of course Shakespeare’s audience would dissect the leading characters in his plays to discover which living personalities were implied, finding the Queen perhaps in Richard II and Robert Cecil in Richard III.  And just as audiences were eager to decipher who was being satirized by characters like Armado or Aguecheek, so were authors to remain unknown and so protected from the wrath of those they satirized.

With the inauguration of review magazines in the late 17th century, such a mystery would build around a new book until it became the talk of the pubs and coffeehouses, thus ensuring its survival.  If, as with Shakespeare, the mystery remained officially unsolved throughout the author’s lifetime, another phenomenon takes place, that of the select group of insiders who maintain their status with each other by maintaining the secret:

To know what you were reading, especially if it were audacious or abusive, was to belong to a select group.  Inside knowledge, especially of the Court, allowed special kind of deviltry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A distinct genre of mocking and revealing works called “secret histories” flourished.  They relied a great deal on the mystery, or pseudo-mystery of their authorship.  Such accounts were “secret” because they came from an insider, revealing what was supposed to be concealed.  Naturally, such an author had to stay hidden, though the sense of risk was largely manufactured.  The flourishing of secret histories marks a transition between a truly courtly culture of priviliged readers, and a public of readers relishing the gossip and scandals of a world to which they did not actually belong. (231-2)

Here then is the Authorship Question resolved, for Shakespeare (the poet) was doing the same thing, only his “secret histories” were plays in which the characters were taken from history or folk tales, but their personalities were those of his friends and of certain authority figures that were getting in his way.  Think what an interest this raised among an earlier version of the group Mullan describes.  How can we think that the rise of Shakespeare did not also signal the rise of the Authorship Question?  Of course it did.

In the same breath, Mullan suggests a solution to one of the more pressing side issues of the Authorship Question, how the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their associates managed to keep their playwright’s authorship a secret for so long.  However particular readers managed to discover the truth, those who did found themselves members of a select group, something they would hardly wish to jeopardize by speaking out of turn.  For those who slipped, or sought revenge for perceived slights, perhaps stronger measures were employed.  We know from many stories of violence and even manslaughter that the actors of that time could be real bully boys if circumstance required.

Anonymity and the Authorship Question

In my view, the Shakespeare Authorship Question arose, not halfway through the 19th century, but immediately––as soon as the plays as we know them today began appearing on the London Stage.  As soon as Oxford began rewriting for the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men the plays he’d written originally for the Court and Inns of Court communities, his audience, or rather that part of the audience that cared about authorship, began questioning their source.  The sublime quality of these plays plus their obvious popularity plus the behavior of later audiences as depicted in Mullan’s book should be all that’s necessary to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

For those who knew the Court, and knew Oxford, answers to the Question weren’t slow in coming, so whenever they appeared to be reaching a level where his identity was threatened, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or most specifically their manager, John Hemmings, and their patrons on the Privy Council, moved to distract the questioners through further use of the cover name acquired in 1593 for the publication of Venus and Adonis.  While this kept the question at bay throughout the years that Shakespeare was alive and writing, it left the Company and its patrons in a quandary following his death, for the plays, of course, continued to live and keep the question alive.  Finally with the publication of the First Folio with its engraved portrait of the fictional author and hints pointing to the uneducated William of Stratford, there was a (more or less) definite solution to the problem.

Yet for those closest to the author, or the Stage, this was hardly the end of it.  With the publication of his collected works, dozens of friends and family members were still alive who knew the truth and who doubtless passed it on, always as a secret.  This raises the question of how long it was known as a secret, because it seems clear that by the 19th century, if it remained at all it was only as a rumor among those members of the nobility most closely descended from the principals.

To me it seems very possible that the individuals who created the statue in Poet’s Corner in the mid-18th century knew the truth.  There are many things connecting Oxford and his descendants with the men and women involved in this effort that make it seem likely.  But that’s a subject for another time.

3 responses to “Anonymity through the ages

  1. Excellent discussion. Mullan should be required reading for all Shakespeare specialists. We need his book as an antidote to the decline in anonymity in the 20th century, that misleads so many people into thinking it was equally uncommon in de Vere’s day.

  2. This book will be helpful I think: Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, by Carmela Ciuraru, forthcoming in June from HarperCollins.

  3. hopkinshughes

    Thanks, Gerit. Certainly worth checking out.

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