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2010-06, 365, 366, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

‘The Seven Lives of John Murray: The Story of a Publishing Dynasty 1768-2002.’ Humphrey Carpenter: ‘The Letters of John Murray to Lord Byron.’ Edited by Andrew Nicholson.

John Murray 2008 370 pp. $80 (US)

Liverpool University Press 2007, 608 pp. $75 (US)

HUMPHREY CARPENTER, a prolific British biographer and broadcaster, died in Oxford in January 2005 before he was able to complete the manuscript of The Seven Lives of John Murray, his account of the famous British publishing house of that name. The final manuscript was added to and completed by James Hamilton and Candida Brazil.

The history of a publishing house can be a relatively dry subject, but since the authors published by the firm included Byron, Austen, Darwin, Scott, Betjeman and Kenneth Clark, their interactions lift the narrative chronology which Carpenter clearly found a little constraining at times. Carpenter‘s wife, Mari Prichard, notes in her preface that Carpenter thus created three “imaginary scenarios” but the editors have retained only one in the text, the other two being “banished to the Appendix”.

The firm was founded in 1768 by John McMurray who soon dropped the “Mc” in his name in response to an outbreak of anti-Scottish feeling in London. McMurray, became a bookseller/publisher after noting that “many blockheads in the trade are making fortunes”. His credo was that “if you are able to entertain the ladies your business is done”. Murray also gave regular dinners and literary soirées. Thomas Sommerville, in a vignette of the parties in 1769, decried “the extravagant self-sufficiency of guests, their bare-faced reciprocal flattery, and the contempt which they expressed for the most esteemed living authors”. Plus ca change!

John Murray II moved the publishing firm from Fleet Street to 50 Albemarle Street where the firm remained until 2002 when it was sold to the French multinational Hachette. The name of John Murray, however, will always be linked with Byron, the subject of the magisterial Liverpool University Press Letters of John Murray to Lord Byron, edited by Andrew Nicholson, who acknowledges his debt to Humphrey Carpenter who he wished had lived to see the letters in print.

Nicholson‘s preface notes that the Byron/Murray correspondence is “the record of a relationship that lasted 11 years and is unique in the annals of publishing”. The correspondence runs from the autumn of 1811 to the winter of 1822, “when a number of factors compounded to break off all communication between them”. The first letter, about Childe Harold, which established Byron’s reputation and significantly increased Murray’s profits, reflects Murray‘s early deference to Byron, but soon private and business relations deepened, particularly when Byron went overseas and Murray was a prime link with news.

The correspondence reached its zenith around 1820-21, when Byron takes to addressing Murray as “High-minded Moray”. The relationship suffered in the winter of 1822, when Byron associated with another publisher, John Hunt; after Murray‘s publishing palpitations over Don Juan, and then posthumously in the spring of 1824, when Murray was involved with the destruction of Byron’s memoirs.

The gradual decline of relations is not as well documented in Nicholson because a number of key letters have not survived. The correspondence that does survive descends, according to Nicholson, “into a miserable exhibition of false accusations and rancour from which it was never to rise again”. While six of Byron’s friends were involved in the manuscript‘s destruction via the Albemarle drawing room fireplace – the group seeing them as obscene and damaging to Byron’s reputation – it is Murray who has largely carried the historical blame.

Murray also published Jane Austen’s Emma but again the relationships of Murray and an author were not always harmonious due to proof-reading and printing disagreements. Jane wrote of Murray to her sister Cassandra “He is a Rogue of course, but a civil one”.

For the rest of the nineteenth century the firm prospered, particularly with travel handbooks, travel narratives such as Franklin, Barrow and Livingstone, and key works such as Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. While Carpenter clearly finds John Murray III, IV and V less enthralling as individuals, as they aspire to move from trade to gentry, he warms to the bow-tied gentleman publisher, John ‘Jock’ Murray VI (1909-93), who apparently once declared that his “main claim to fame is that I am the only publisher who has typeset in the nude”.

Murray’s inspired publisher hunches, as well as long lunches, with key authors, whom he regarded almost as an extended family, undoubtedly paid off. He charmed the eccentric Freya Stark, packaged Parkinson’s Law, and cultivated authors such as Osbert Lancaster, John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Harold Nicolson who would regularly drop in for sherry at six every evening, making Albemarle Street a surrogate gentlemans‘ club. When Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation became a bestseller in 1969 Murray arranged for a “royalty cheque of many thousands of pounds to be tucked into the toe of the Clarks‘ Christmas stocking.”

This was not to last. The changing face of publishing impacted on the last 20 years of the firm’s existence and it was largely kept profitable by titles such as Don Mackean’s bestselling textbook Introduction to Biology. Indeed, it was the educational list that initially attracted the Hachette interest.

Carpenter‘s epilogue describes how the John Murray historical archive (1768-1920) of over 150,000 items was sold for £33 million to the National Library of Scotland in 2006, enabling the firm in one sense to come full circle back to Scotland. A permanent exhibition in Edinburgh, and increasing online access (www.nls.uk/jma/index), will ensure the firm‘s rich history is preserved for all.

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