The grandest family in publishing

Jock Murray in 1983 (Mercer photography)

A review of a book about Paddy’s publishing house – John Murray. They have quite a line-up of authors, including Jane Austen, Byron, Darwin, Freya Stark and John Betjeman, as well as Paddy.

Jeremy Lewis reviews The Seven Lives of John Murray: the Story of a Publishing Dynasty, 1768-2002 by Humphrey Carpenter

First published in The Telegraph 5 July 2008.

When I started out in publishing 40 years ago, most of the famous firms were fiercely independent, and were housed in elegant if often dilapidated Georgian houses in Bloomsbury, Soho or Covent Garden.

Some, such as André Deutsch or Hamish Hamilton, were run by their founding fathers; others were still family firms, of which Collins was the most muscular, and John Murray the grandest and most upper class.

Murray was famed as the publisher of Byron, Darwin and, more recently, John Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, Osbert Lancaster and Patrick Leigh Fermor; and it had the inestimable advantage of being housed at 50 Albemarle Street, a treasure trove crammed with Byronic memorabilia, marble busts and gold-framed portraits of eminent authors.

Six years ago, the firm was swallowed up by a giant conglomerate and it now operates from a tower block on the Euston Road; Humphrey Carpenter’s history of the firm, completed by other hands after his death in 2005, is an evocation of a vanished age.

Like many of the best-known publishing houses, Murray has strong Scottish connections – reflected most recently in the decision to sell its archives to the National Library of Scotland.

A former Marine from Edinburgh, John McMurray bought a bookselling business in Fleet Street in 1768, dropped the “Mc” in response to an outbreak of Scottophobia, and inaugurated the dynasty that ended with John Murray VII.

As Carpenter observes, “Bookselling and publishing do not necessarily involve the intellect or the imagination; the story of the Murrays is not chiefly about the life of the mind.”

John Murray I’s adage that “if you are able to entertain the ladies your business is done” remains as pertinent as ever, and although Byron berated John Murray II for being “shuffling” and “time-serving”, the family manifested all those qualities traditionally associated with publishers, in that, as Carpenter says, they were both “cautious and adventurous”, and “conservative and innovative at the same time”.

John Murray II was a much more respectable figure than his rakish father. He moved west to Albemarle Street, published Jane Austen’s Emma, rejected a clergyman’s Observations on Diarrhoea, and is best remembered for his turbulent relations with Lord Byron.

He worried about publishing Byron’s more risqué verses, but more often than not the businessman prevailed, and “my sordid propensities got the better of me”.

After the poet’s death, Murray masterminded the burning of his memoirs: he hadn’t read them, but was worried that they might contain references to anal intercourse and incest with his half-sister. Carpenter suggests that putting a match to them enabled Murray to cross the great gulf that separated the tradesman from the gentleman.

Succeeding Murrays liked to think that the memoirs had somehow survived, peering into cupboards and under floorboards in the hope of finding them.

During the 19th century, Murray published On the Origin of Species and travel books by, among others, Isabella Bird and David Livingstone. Fiction received short shrift, but as the firm became ever more established, with royal and aristocratic memoirs looming large, Humphrey Carpenter’s eyes began to glaze over and he found himself writing imaginative accounts of life in Albemarle Street; these have been retained as appendices to a book that is lively enough in its own right and has no need for fictional embellishments.

The revival of the firm in the last century was thanks to the bow-tied, bustling “Jock” Murray, who persuaded his cautious seniors to take on the best-selling Story of San Michele, put up his own money (100 shares in Bovril) to secure the rights to publish Betjeman’s Continual Dew, nudged Freya Stark into print, spotted the potential in Parkinson’s Law, and modestly declared that his “main claim to fame is that I am the only publisher who has typeset in the nude”.

No mention is made of the great diarist James Lees-Milne: a contemporary of Jock at Eton and Magdalen who came to the firm late in his career, he regarded Albemarle Street as his spiritual home, and wrote entertainingly about it.

John Murray VII sold the firm partly because he felt it was increasingly difficult for independent firms to survive, and partly because he didn’t want his sons to have to take up the burden of the family firm.

The Daily Telegraph suggested at the time that “there are fears that its identity could disappear”, and the John Murray of today is less “carriage trade” than it was, and indistinguishable from any other firm of publishers.


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