Dear Mr Murray

David McClay is the former curator of the John Murray archive located at the National Library of Scotland which includes Paddy’s papers which were donated to the archive by Paddy in his will. This book may be of general interest to some of you.

by Rosemary Hill

First published in the London Review of Books

Some things in the relations between authors and publishers never change. Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher, edited by David McClay, a collection of letters written to six generations of the Murray family, is full of familiar complaints. Jane Austen was ‘very much disappointed … by the delays of the printers’. Maria Rundell, author of A New System of Domestic Cookery (1805), was furious about misprints in the second edition, including an unfortunate mistake in a recipe for rice pudding. Byron objected to cuts in his work, as did David Livingstone, who also took exception to the ‘absolutely abominable’ illustrations of his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, in particular the scene of his own encounter with a lion: ‘Everyone … will die with laughing … It’s like a dray horse.’ On the other side of the editorial desk successive John Murrays had their own difficulties. Rundell’s editor, Murray II, told his wife that ‘her conceit surpasses anything.’ Whitwell Elwin, the reader to whom Murray III sent the manuscript of On the Origin of Species, wrote back that, despite ‘the very high opinion’ he had of Darwin, he felt the book lacked substance. There was no proof of the argument. It would be better, he thought, to concentrate on one species, such as pigeons: ‘Everybody is interested in pigeons.’ Fortunately for Murray’s reputation, Whitwell was overruled.

Murray I began life as John McMurray in Edinburgh in 1737. On a friend’s advice he dropped the ‘wild Highland Mac’ when he came to London, setting up business in Fleet Street in 1768, at a time when publishers, booksellers, journalists and printers were often the same people. It was the age of Grub Street, of Boswell and Johnson, coffee houses, clay pipes and gallons of port. In 1812 Murray II moved the firm to Albemarle Street in the more respectable West End, where it remained until the seventh John Murray sold up in 2002. Here Murray’s built a list that included some of the best and most popular authors of their day, from Byron and Walter Scott to Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Freya Stark. It was Murray’s reputation for solid, conservative values that led both the geologist Charles Lyell and then Darwin to publish their potentially disruptive theories under its aegis. No. 50 Albemarle Street became famous for the great writers who passed through its door and notorious for its drawing-room fireplace in which Murray II burned Byron’s memoirs. Byron had wanted him to publish them but they were destroyed in deference to the family’s feelings about what David McClay refers to laconically as the ‘many ups and downs’ of Byron’s career.

McClay is an exasperating editor, vague about dates and details. The book is arranged thematically so that authors often feature in more than one section, but without an index it is hard to follow them. While he makes no claim to have done more than pick a few cherries from a vast archive, he seems unsure who they are for and the book is neither serious history nor stocking-filler. The reader who needs to be told that Alexander Pope was ‘an early 18th-century poet’ cannot be expected to know who ‘dear old Panizzi’ is in the same letter. His is one of many un-glossed names, some of them important. The ‘Owen’ referred to by Joseph Hooker in a letter to Murray III about Samuel Wilberforce’s hostile review of Origin of Species is Richard Owen, the palaeontologist who coined the word ‘dinosaur’, and who disagreed with Darwin about the transmutation of species. Hooker’s suggestion that Wilberforce, who is too often cast as merely a bigoted reactionary, had been ‘made a tool of’ by Owen for his rival evolutionary theory, is therefore significant. It is also interesting that the article, which sparked widespread controversy and led several months later to the famous debate on evolution between Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley at the Oxford Museum, appeared in the Quarterly Review, which was published by Murray’s. The editor was John Gibson Lockhart, but we aren’t told why he chose to commission what was guaranteed to be a savage review.

The Quarterly was founded by Murray II in 1809 when publishers’ operations in the last Georgian decades, if they were not as multifarious as in the first John Murray’s day, still extended beyond books. Archibald Constable, Walter Scott’s Scottish publisher, was also the publisher of the Whig Edinburgh Review, edited by Francis Jeffrey with the frequent assistance of Sydney Smith. The Quarterly was intended as a Tory rival and enjoyed Scott’s close co-operation. After an erratic start, its middlebrow conservatism built a large and loyal readership. The correspondence suggests, however, that as with books, a lot of time was spent on complaints: a subscriber cancelling because the titles chosen for review were so ‘utterly destitute of interest’, or a furious James Hogg in Edinburgh alleging Anglocentric bias in a review of Scott’s second novel, Guy Mannering: ‘How I do despise your London critics.’ Murray II sent a reply that was even-handedly disparaging of reviewer, author and complainant: ‘Our article is not good, & our praise is by no means adequate, but I suspect that you very greatly overrate the novel.’

In the days of anonymous reviewing editorial standards of impartiality were often compromised. Scott’s authorship of the Waverley novels was an open secret in the literary world but in 1816 Murray co-published his collected Tales of My Landlord, which carried no claim to be ‘by the author of Waverley’. Murray was sure it was ‘either by Walter Scott or the devil’, but Scott assured him it wasn’t and ingeniously suggested he should prove the point by reviewing it himself. He did and found he didn’t like it much: ‘unusually artificial; neither hero nor heroine excites interest of any sort.’ The piece concluded with a hefty hint that the author was his brother, Thomas Scott. The subterfuge worked and Murray was convinced, ‘to within an inch of [his] life’, that it was true.

The 19th century was Murray’s heyday, culminating in a selection of The Letters of Queen Victoria, which appeared in 1907, after the many exasperating delays and alterations attendant on all royal publications. As the editor A.C. Benson wrote to Murray in the course of a letter threatening to resign, ‘Royalty have no conception how much trouble they give.’ With the new century the correspondence changed in various ways. Telegrams began to appear, film rights became a consideration and so did commercial sponsorship. NBC paid $1000 for a radio adaptation of Beau Geste to be broadcast in the Campbell Soup Hour and Murray VI got his Oxford friend John Betjeman’s poems published by promising his uncle, who was then at the helm, that he would underwrite them with his own shares in Bovril. ‘I do appreciate the charity,’ Betjeman wrote when the book appeared, ‘for I can only call it that.’ In fact it was an instance of the benign self-interest that makes a far-sighted publisher succeed. As poet laureate Betjeman was worth his weight in Bovril.

Over its long life John Murray produced not only new books, but whole new genres. The famous red Murray’s handbooks were the original foreign guidebooks, a model for Baedeker. Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help of 1859 has had many successors. But this somewhat haphazard collection, intended as a tribute, has more the air of an obituary, and a lacklustre one at that.

Buy Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher

Edit 19 Nov – it has been brought to my attention that David McClay is the former curator of the John Murray Archive. More positive reviews of Dear Mr Murray may be found in the Scottish Review of Books and a 5 star review in the Telegraph.


2 thoughts on “Dear Mr Murray

    1. proverbs6to10 Post author

      David – I have made some changes to the text. Sorry it was a bit of negative one but I was unaware of other reviews. Good luck. Tom


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