The history of anonymity in literature is one so dense, so populated, that not one but two Edinburgh librarians died on the job of compiling it. Samuel Halkett and Reverend John Laing's Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature of Great Britain is their legacy, "one of the great, but neglected, monuments to 19th-century scholarship". For those readers disinclined to get dust on their hands, the academic John Mullan has grappled with this tome. His Secret History is a far leaner, wittier study.
It was in the 1850s that Halkett's probe into publishing incognito began. Two decades later, death relieved him of the project. The material passed into the hands of Laing and was plentiful enough to see out the last decade of his life also. The ominous task then fell to Laing's daughter, who was young and robust enough to cheat the death that surely accompanied the job, and completed the first edition in the 1880s. Flushed by her triumph, another Scottish clergyman, James Kennedy, was foolhardy enough to attempt an updated, expanded edition, shovelling away 50 years of his life, dying the year before publication. By the 1960s, with the addition of a further supplement, the time spent gathering and pre paring material had extended over a century.
Unlike the Edinburgh librarians and their clergyman friend, Mullan has survived the endeavour and lived to tell the tales. Lies, subterfuge and, of course, fiction are as much characters in this fresh, gossipy analysis as the authors themselves. Anonymity, it seems, was as prevalent as the pox - over 70 per cent of English novels written towards the end of the 18th century were published without attribution.
Mullan is sensibly selective with his cast list, which spans several hundred years, from the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser to the 1980s Anglican vicar writing under the guise of an Asian babe, "Rahila Khan". Yet Mullan's interest in anonymity lies not so much with whodunnit but why. Chapters tackle not individuals or genres, but motives - and often, we read, conflicting motives, the desire to hide matched only by the desire to be discovered.
The search for a motive starts with the least complicated one: mischief. There is much pleasure to be had in the author's revelation that the likes of Jonathan Swift and Sir Walter Scott are really just a bunch of big flirts performing a kind of literary striptease, unveiling their true identity over time. "Rarely," observes Mullan, "is final concealment the aim."
There is much glee to be had from wrong-footing one's critics, and Mullan includes some tasty anecdotes about authorial delight when praise is heaped upon the anonymous writer's work by a foe. "I am as much overpaid this way now as I was injured that way before," wrote Alexander Pope. But Mullan shows how, at a time when literary duels were fought in ink and won with blood, misattribution could be a cross or a crown. He explores the lure of danger and devilry, his chapters growing darker towards the second half of the Secret History.
Mullan charts the development of a literary culture in which writers strove to be wielder of the pen that could launch a thousand whispers, comment and speculation. Not knowing the identity of the writer was all part of the excitement. Where the text was antagonistic, poking fun at celebrities and politicians, for example, finding out the writer's identity was vital to deciphering a deliciously malign intent.
Like all good professors, Mullan cannot resist getting down to the nitty-gritty of social and political history. By the time we are reading about machinations at the court of Charles II and the political philosophy of John Locke, however, he has us rapt. The book boasts equal measures of character study and knowledge. John Mullan's portraits of great writers are rich in intrigue and trickery, blood and guts. His Secret History is a scholarly and authoritative book. But it also contains the stuff of all good dramas - conflict.