To M.L.G.; or, He Who PassedJune 13, 2011
I’m fascinated by anonymous novels. I love seeing ads in old Publisher’s Weeklys claiming that a new novel is written by a bestselling author who’s concealing his or her name to see how it’ll affect sales. I think it’s amazing that people used to be able to publish anonymous sequels to other authors’ books. When I can find it, I love speculation about who the real author might be.
To M.L.G.; or He Who Passed is an anonymous novel from 1912 that purports to be the autobiography of a successful American actress. She’s fallen in love with an Englishman, and he with her, but she’s scared to tell him about her somewhat disreputable past face to face, so she’s decided to publish it as a book instead.
Needless to say, it’s pure fiction. And I have no idea when or how this was discovered, but apparently it was written by Alice Muriel Williamson. Yes, the one who was married to Charles Norris Willamson and wrote many nifty books with him. She also wrote a another book as the author of To M.L.G. — a novel than doesn’t pretend not to be one. And, although I’m beginning to think I dreamed it, I could have sworn I once came across a reference to another novel written by A.M. Williamson and published anonymously, possibly with the word “box” in the title?
Really, the fact of the book is more interesting than the content, although it isn’t a bad book. The narrator recounts her early life — in boarding houses, with a wealthy benefactor, and as an embryo actress — in a fairly natural way. She remembers more about some periods than others, she digresses and moves around in time a little, and she changes and grows in not entirely unreasonable ways. On the other hand, a lot of the book is just meant to shock. The narrator’s early life is meant to be kind of gritty and unpleasant, and it is, I guess. There are some moderately gruesome deaths, and for a while she’s put into the care of a drug addict. Later, she’s fairly frank about becoming a theatrical producer’s mistress in exchange for his patronage — as frank as you can expect of a 1912 novel that’s sort of tailored to become a sensation, anyway.
We finish up with a lot of vague stuff about self-discovery, and then, because the book is supposedly meant to tell this guy only the stuff he doesn’t know about her, it cuts off before we even get to meet him. And because the narrator talks about her life as if it’s all just leading up to falling in love with him, the book often seems like a lead-up to a meeting we never get to see. I get sort of frustrated when characters tell each other things they already know — a very unstealthy species of stealth exposition — but I really wanted it here, because as it stands, To M.L.G. has no real ending.
Some of the contemporary reviews are pretty enjoyable. Here’s a quote from a particularly diplomatic one: “Assuming even at the risk of questioning her good taste that this is a real human document, the author will have some compensation even if she fails to win back MLG — she may be sure of her royalties.” And here’s one from the only reviewer I found who was willing to state an opinion on the fact or fiction question: “To MLG or He Who Passed is one of the salient novels of the season. The autobiography of a successful actress, it is wonderfully impressive for a certain distance — until the reader comes to passages which seem merely made up.”
And here’s a letter continuing the charade, reprinted in the New York Times.