Guessing games

John Mullan recalls that curiosity and concealment have a grand literary history

Sometimes a news item brings back to life what was for centuries an essential habit of readers and critics: guessing at the identity of a hidden author. Today, where anonymity provokes widespread curiosity, it is usually via the internet and often in connection with sexual confessions. Recently there was the media hunt for "Belle de Jour", author of the supposed memoir of a happy hooker, and the outing of Zoe Margolis as the anonymous writer of a blog of sexual adventures that became the book Girl With a One-Track Mind. It isn't always sex. The coup of Primary Colors, the bestselling political roman-à-clef "by Anonymous", was to use concealment of its authorship to suggest that its author was from the inner circle around Bill Clinton, whose campaign in the Democratic primaries it wittily fictionalised.

These instances are novelty items because we have lost what was once second nature to readers: the habit of guessing at a hidden author's identity. Before the 20th century, anonymity and pseudonymity were common. From Spen ser's Shepheardes Calender and Shakespeare's Richard III, through much of the great satire of Dryden, Pope and Swift, to Lyrical Ballads, the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, Byron's Don Juan, Tennyson's In Memoriam, Oliver Twist . . . the list of the great works of English literature first published without the true author's name goes on and on.

Few of these authors were truly modest. Jonathan Swift took elaborate measures to keep himself concealed - the manuscript of Gulliver's Travels, copied out in another man's hand, was dropped in secret at a publisher's house with a letter, under a false name, specifying contractual conditions - yet he was irked if anyone misattributed his great satire.

Nowadays the science of attribution is practised by academic specialists. Once everyone was looking for clues. When Jane Eyre first appeared, under the name "Currer Bell" - gender uncertain - reviewers argued about whether it had been written by a man or a woman. The descriptions of cookery and women's clothing were scrutinised: more than a man could know? Or not accurate enough for a woman? Fanny Burney laughed in her journal about hearing her novel Evelina attributed to a metropolitan man of letters. George Eliot (who was really called Mary Ann Evans) recorded her pleasure when literary friends supposed that the author of Adam Bede was a Cambridge-educated clergyman.

Roland Barthes proclaimed "the death of the author" and literary theorists have long renoun ced the interpretation of text with reference to its author. Yet the wonderful history of literary anony mity teaches the opposite lesson. Curiosity about the author has always animated the experience of reading.

John Mullan is the author of "Anonymity: a Secret History of English Literature" (Faber & Faber, £17.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty