A Publisher And His Friends

Cover of Smlies, Publisher and his Friends, vol. 1Imagine Albemarle Street in London, on a day when Sir Humphry Davy was lecturing at the Royal Institution on one side of the road, and Lord Byron was visiting his publisher and friend John Murray on the other. It is claimed that the crush of carriages containing swooning ladies was so great that the ensuing regular chaos led to Albemarle Street become the first one-way street in London.

There are six canonical John Murrays (according to the ODNB), but the one who was publisher to Byron was Number Two. The diligent Samuel Smiles (he of Self-Help (coming soon!), Lives of the Engineers, etc.) produced this two-volume biography (‘with an account of the origin and progress of the house, 1768–1843’) in 1891: you will not be surprised to learn that it was published by the firm of John Murray.

The correspondence with Mrs Rundell over ‘her’ cookery book is given, as is a related conversation between Murray and Tom Moore: Murray wondered if Sydney Morgan, who was apparently a good cook, and had hinted that she might write for him, might be willing to re-edit the latest version of what by now was ‘his’ cookery book, though it soon after became Longman’s cookery book. It’s not clear if the offer was made, and if so what the author of Woman and her Master  (not published by Murray) said.

The form’s founder, John Murray (I), was actually a McMurray, but dropped the prefix when he moved from Edinburgh to London in 1768 to seek his fortune by buying an existing publishing business: ‘Many blockheads in the trade are making fortunes’, he said to a friend (and how eternally true that is!). In the firm’s early days it specialised in new medical titles, but also in cheap reprints of the ‘classics’ – Shakespeare, Milton, et al. His somewhat rackety private life left him with various children, but only one legitimate son, born nine months after his marriage to his deceased wife’s sister.

John (III) was fourteen when his father died in 1793. He had been sent to school all over the place –Edinburgh, Margate, Gosport, London. (He must have had nasty memories of Gosport, when he lost his right eye to his writing-master’s penknife…) On his father’s death, he was apprenticed to the latter’s assistant, Samuel Highley, on the terms that when he was of age, the two would become partners in the business. This didn’t work out, and the two went their separate ways in 1803. Murray moved to Albemarle Street in 1812, and the firm – arguably the oldest family-run publisher in the world – remained there until 2002.

Smiles’ work is built up around the voluminous correspondence of the business. Here is a reader’s comment on a book, already published elsewhere, the author of which was offering Murray a new manuscript: ‘… it really is a pretty thing. No dark passages; no secret chambers; no wind-howlings in long galleries; no drops of blood upon a rusty dagger – things that now should be left to ladies’ maids and sentimental washerwomen’. The work in question was Pride and Prejudice; fitting therefore that, as well as publishing the manuscript of Emma in 1814, and the second edition of Mansfield Park, Murray should have brought out posthumously Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, that sparkling parody of the Gothic genre.

Undoubtedly, Byron was the most famous of Murray’s authors, and a great deal of space is devoted to their friendship, including a detailed account of the famous destruction of the autobiographical manuscript, in the fireplace at Albemarle Street. But almost everyone else appears too: Walter Scott, Belzoni, Maria Callcott, Mrs Trollope (Murray was apparently instrumental in getting the young and apparently hopeless Anthony a job in the Post Office), Carlyle, Hobhouse, Mme de Staël … The index is almost worth reading in itself, as a who’s who of everyone and everything that mattered in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Murray family archive (which includes the manuscript of On the Origin of Species, published by John Murray (III)) now resides in the National Library of Scotland, and is being digitized – but while that happens, Smiles’ book is a very good place to start.


This entry was posted in Biography, English Men of Letters, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Publisher And His Friends

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