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Wednesday 28 March 2012


Many years ago I read Lady Audley’s Secret , a ‘sensation’ novel of 1862 by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It was a huge best-seller, made the author rich and enabled the publisher to build a villa in Barnes he was proud to call Audley Lodge.

Years on, not a lot of the book has stayed with me – but some of the ‘sensations’ have, particularly the very heightened rendering of a train journey in which the discomfort of the passenger is not due to the unusual speed of transport, but in going from city to city surrounded by anonymous people. She cannot begin to know if the people are who they look to represent. The taxonomy of village life has been swept away. She is lost in a world without markers. Her feelings are particularly acute because she is a ruthless social climber herself and is travelling to make sure a secret remains secret.

Lady Audley does not want fame. She wants high rank as a kind of worldly cloak to keep her safe in her, at the very least, sociopathic pretensions.

As I’ve said before, part of my Sunday morning routine is reading Javier Marías’ weekly column in El Pais.

A couple of weeks ago he dealt with anonymity of another kind. As a twelve year old, Marías became aware that his father, the philosopher Julian, received anonymous mail. Marías senior had left Spain with his family after Franco took power. No choice really, he was declared unfit to be a university professor and thus deprived of his livelihood. When he managed to return to Spain from the USA, he was welcomed by a barrage of anonymous mail.

Marías senior explained to his son that people who sent mail anonymously were of course cowards. There was also very little point in reading what they wrote since there was no address to reply to.

The point here, of course, is that the anonymous mail was also hate mail with no right of reply.

Javier Marías writes that he has had his own share. Some of this has been political. Some of this has been literary.

Of course, anonymous hate mail has a very long, very repetitive history. (The insults are rarely inventive) But it’s deeply unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

Marías, however, notes a change since the development of social media. In Spain – and elsewhere in Europe – the argument over copyright law in the internet age has led to attacks by those in favour of what they call ‘democracy’ – see arguments over pricing all the way to free downloads – on those who want to be paid royalties for their work. The tactics used, from publishing photos of where an author lives, to details of his or her family, carry a marginally bigger threat than a letter hoping the author rots in hell. In other words, behind the freedom of information or right to know comes the threat of ‘we know where you live’.

What’s interesting is that this type of anonymity is collective. While Javier Marías’s father knew pretty well the groups behind the mail he received, he also knew they would deny sending the stuff and were protected by the Franco regime.

The new internet anonymity is a lot more public – the attacks on Marías Sr. were private, were attempts to wound him. Publishing however that a writer’s twelve year old daughter goes to such and such a school and lives in this building, widens the threat to someone merely related to a person who ‘overcharges’ for his or her work.

Quite apart from the reality – the writer does not get much of a say in the price set by the publisher – the tactic seems to me near trolling, and akin to the bully-boy stuff employed by Franco’s hacks.

Who does it remind me of? Lady Audley actually. However cloaked, the anonymous attacks are self-righteous to the point of craziness.

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