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Anonymous Writing

Anonymous Writing in Mid-19th Century England

By Alessandra Tazoe (2024)

In the mid-19th century, British literature observed a prolific wave of writing by anonymous authors. In this paper, I will argue that publishing novels anonymously during this time period in London was not atypical for either men or women. Additionally, I will highlight London-based publisher Henry Colburn’s skills as entrepreneurial and influential for the publishing market. To examine these claims, I will use anonymously written novels and periodicals from the time period. Many of these novels pertain to Colburn, who worked dually with his publishing company and with his periodical businesses. I will use the novels and periodicals to contextualize the perception of anonymous writing by society at the time as well as understand how anonymity could be used as a marketable device. This industry report will first look at anonymous novels written by female authors and follow up with those by male authors, essentially touching on how anonymity does not necessarily assume gender. It will then proceed to highlight Henry Colburn’s work with anonymous writers and demonstrate his use of authorial anonymity as an advertising tactic.

In the 1820s-40s, women in England published novels anonymously, but not without criticism. The renowned Charlotte Bronte received great criticism for her now classic novel Jane Eyre, which was originally published anonymously and “edited by Currer Bell,” in an 1848 issue of The Quarterly Review. The review criticized the author’s vulgarity, stating that despite not knowing the gender of said person “without entering into the question whether the power of the writing be above her, or the vulgarity below her, there are, we believe, minutiae of circumstantial evidence which at once quit the feminine hand.”[1] This review demonstrated how ingrained gender norms and expectations were even in the romance and publishing industry at the time; there were ties to women and feminine and virgin-like qualities that deemed certain genres of writing styles to be unladylike. A critique such as this one signaled toward a particular view of what women should or should not stick to writing, possibly guiding other women toward using anonymous publishing styles that occult their identity to avoid social disapproval as shared by the author of this review. This kind of criticism could be seen as an impediment to female authors’ courage to step into the limelight and claim authorship for certain works, and another reason for apprehension.

The role of these social perceptions of women was not only reserved for critiquing and dictating what is appropriate for women to write about. It is also portrayed in general magazine reviews with generalized assumptions that anonymous authors were male. A review of Jane Loudon’s The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century in the January 1828 issue of the British periodical The Monthly Magazine exemplifies the default to assuming gender when it comes to anonymity. The critic constantly refers to the author as “he” when ridiculing “his fooleries through three volumes of foolscap, of which … he must by this time be thoroughly ashamed.”[2] The romance and science fiction novel that he critiques is one that uniquely made predictions of what the 22nd century would look like. It posits a future with many scientific innovations that were ahead of the time in which it was written, however this critic calls it an “idle flourish” of phrases.[3] This wording is similar to the way in which Bronte’s writing was described as being “poured out rather in the heat and hurry of an instinct.”[4] So while there was this assumption that Loudon was a male author, the critiques on writing style bear semblances for why they are being disapproved by a certain magazine. These negative critiques focused on how the author may have written parts in an “unconscious” manner or with flurried passion, possibly alluding to a stereotype of women.[5]

Anonymously published works were not strictly gendered, male authors also published anonymously during this time period. While anonymity may have been a useful tool for female writers to launch their careers and shield themselves in certain ways, male anonymous writers mustn’t be ignored, nor should we believe it was strictly a structure of difference for the genders. A novel published anonymously under the prominent London-based publisher Henry Colburn titled Tales of Passion was one of many authored anonymously by male writers. This work was labeled with an attribution style of “By the Author of Gilbert Earle,” a style of anonymity that hid said writer’s real name, but also referred back to a notable piece for which the audience should recognize them.[6] There were also famous poets who later in their careers made a swift switch into writing the novel, but who chose to write those anonymously. Sir Walter Scott, who began his career with narrative poems in the 1810s, transitioned into writing novels, of which Ivanhoe was a historical romance novel that was originally published using the same attribution style as mentioned earlier.[7] The choice to remain anonymous to the public for these two examples stemmed from different rationales. The author of Tales of Passion used his previously published novel Gilbert Earle to signal to the reader that there is some trust to be had with a similar style of writing to a novel they may have already previously enjoyed. Whereas Sir Walter Scott’s choice to omit his name in Ivanhoe differs as he sought to not be recognized for his poems and sonnets. Thus, there may have been many reasons, others in addition to these two remain as well, for why authors chose to omit their names.

There also remains the rationale that a certain kind of writing could be thought of as ‘below’ one’s rank or gender, and without the assurance of public approval, authors lingered away from revealing their identities upon first-edition publications. With authors such as Sir Walter Scott who didn’t reveal his identity until 1827, or Jane Loudon whose novels The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century and Stories of a Bride had several editions maintain her anonymity until later reprintings, we see this trend taking place. The prevalence in the number of anonymous authors during this time demonstrates that anonymity does not simply assume gender, but rather the choice is derived from several other complex meanings.


Henry Colburn was a distinguished publisher and businessman who used his literary periodicals and the anonymity of his authors for selling purposes. In the mid-1800s, Henry Colburn was widely known in the British publishing industry. He had a range of novels under his belt and as noted in his obituary years later, he worked with “most of the eminent novelists of the day.”[8] Colburn was described as a publisher who had “a keen perception of what the public required; and of the market value of the article offered,” as noted in the same newspaper article.[9] His knowledge of the English market stretched further than simply understanding what would sell, he was also extremely skilled at propelling his novels into the eyes and hands of readers. His obituary went as far as to say that “he was unrivaled in the art of advertising his publications.”[10] This praise signals toward an advertising method that he used for his own works commonly referred to as a puffing technique, which boosted novels he published in magazines he owned and thus making effective use of both businesses. Using both of his literary periodicals – New Monthly Magazine and The Literary Gazette – Colburn was able to advertise his own publishing house’s novels, placing positive reviews and notice of newly published works at the very beginning of each section. In a January 1821 issue of The Literary Gazette, the entire left-hand side of a page is exclusively occupied by advertisements for works published by and printed for Colburn.[11] Of the 22 publications listed in this one issue, only two of them have their author listed in association with the title, whereas each work is referred to either being published by or printed for Henry Colburn and Co. Conduit Street.[12]

Included in these advertisements is a similar attribution style to those printed on the novels themselves: “by the author of.” These appear in the periodicals to match the inside covers of novels. Similarly, on the inside back cover of The Mummy!, there is a section reserved for “popular works just published by Henry Colburn” where eight of his other freshly released novels are pushed toward the reader upon finishing the story they’ve just read.[13] Of the eight, seven had no author name attached to their description. Here, there is a preference marked for highlighting his more distinguishable name as opposed to the authors of the books he was publishing. By referring to the works only as something Colburn has even partial ownership of, in his periodicals and the inside of some novels themselves, he captures the reader’s attention toward a particular name or brand. It pushes forward to the audience that by lieu of his reputation, they could trust whatever noble they were purchasing and subsequently indulging in.

Anonymity is a condition that, to some degree, creates a wall between the author and the audience. And while it is romantic enough to believe that anonymity serves solely as a veil for authors to hide behind, it would be a misunderstanding to strictly adhere to that line of thinking. Mid-19th century British literature, in particular, challenges the notion that authorial identity was necessary and the norm. Rather, it demonstrates that anonymity was not uncommon nor was it a gendered dynamic. Additionally, Henry Colburn’s leveraging of anonymous writing as a powerful commercial and advertising tool amplifies how multifaceted its significance was during the time period.


[1] “Vanity Fair – and Jane Eyre,” The Quarterly Review 84, no.167-168 (December 1848-March 1849): 175, https://archive.org/details/sim_quarterly-review-1809_december-1848-march-1849_84_167-168/mode/1up.

[2] “The Mummy, 3 Vols. 12mo. 1827,” Monthly Magazine, Or, British Regster, Feb. 1800-June 1836 5, no. 25 (Jan, 1828): 83-84, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-periodicals/mummy-3-vols-12mo-1827/docview/4544217/se-2?accountid=10598.

[3] “The Mummy, 3 Vols. 12mo. 1827,” 83-84.

[4] “Vanity Fair – and Jane Eyre,” The Quarterly Review 84, no.167-168 (December 1848-March 1849): 174, https://archive.org/details/sim_quarterly-review-1809_december-1848-march-1849_84_167-168/mode/1up.

[5] “Vanity Fair – and Jane Eyre,” 173.

[6] Loudon, Jane, The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (London: Henry Colburn, 1828).

[7] Scott, Walter. Ivanhoe: a romance (London: Hurst, Robinson, and co., 1820).

[8] Nichols, John Gough, “Obituary – Henry Colburn, Esq,” The Gentleman’s Magazine: And Historical Review, Nov 1885, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-periodicals/henry-colburn-esq/docview/8445470/se-2.

[9] Nichols, “Obituary – Henry Colburn, Esq.”

[10]  Nichols, “Obituary – Henry Colburn, Esq.”

[11]“Advertisement,” The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, no. 210 (Jan 27, 1821): 64, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-periodicals/advertisement/docview/5029492/se-2?accountid=10598.

[12] “Advertisement,” 64.

[13]  Loudon, Jane, The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (London: Henry Colburn, 1828).



“Advertisement.” The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, no. 210 (Jan 27, 1821): 64. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-periodicals/advertisement/docview/5029492/se-2?accountid=10598.

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“The Mummy, 3 vols. 12 mo. 1827.” Monthly magazine, or, British register, Feb. 1800-June 1836 5, no. 25 (Jan 1828): 83-84. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-periodicals/mummy-3-vols-12mo-1827/docview/4544217/se-2?accountid=10598.

“Vanity Fair – and Jane Eyre.” The Quarterly Review 84, no. 167-168 (December 1848-March 1849): 174.https://archive.org/details/sim_quarterly-review-1809_december-1848-march-1849_84_167-168/mode/1up.

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