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Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher

Selected and introduced by David McClay
John Murray, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1-4736-6269-8, PP 304
by Kristian Kerr


November 10, 2018 | by Kristian Kerr

Writers writing about books has always made for compelling reading. Writers writing about their own books in private correspondence to their publisher tends to produce a particular kind of letter. There is passion, conviction, fluency, doubt, deference, sometimes frustration and anger, maybe even gratitude. The letters in Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher, published to mark the 250th anniversary of John Murray, show these qualities and more. The book is a behind the scenes tour of a publishing enterprise of astonishing longevity and success.

David McClay, former senior curator of the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland, has assembled a collection of letters from that vast resource to tell not only the story of a publishing house, but also a history of literature. This is surely to have made order from chaos, for the correspondence that accumulates in the production of a book, from an author’s first enquiry to a volume’s arrival on shop shelves, would be a towering paper mountain alongside the neatly squared corners of a handsome Murray quarto. Not known for their tidiness, publishers must present particular challenges to the archivist.

McClay’s selection bristles with familiar names (Austen, Byron, Scott, Darwin, Bernard Shaw) but Dear Mr Murray also brims with almost forgotten literary phenomena, such as Samuel Smiles’ vastly popular nineteenth-century Self-Help books, while more celebrated people pop up in surprising situations. Felix Mendelssohn makes a cameo in a very funny chapter about the production of Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers. His recommendation of a friend’s Swiss hotel sits amidst complaints from travellers and tour operators about the misrepresentation (for better and worse) of various establishments.

Dear Mr Murray emphasizes tradition and consistency. The Johns Murray stretch from I to VII in an almost direct line of succession. As in all dynasties, though, there are some kinks in the line. John I was born John McMurray in Edinburgh in 1737. He dropped the ‘wild Highland Mac’ when he established the business under his name in Fleet Street in 1768. The business passed from father to son with only one falling out (between John IV and his brother Hallam) until John ‘Jack’ V died without issue. His nephew, John ‘Jock’ Murray took over as VI and the line was restored. While all this may seem like a lesson from Stuart history, the reader is not required to remember which John is which. A cumulative effect of reading these letters is that, like monarchs, the various Murrays merge, each a living embodiment of the same unchanging office.

This is the case because the publisher’s voice emerges almost entirely from the narrative linking the letters. McClay has excerpted the Murray side of correspondence skilfully. Responses are briefly quoted when interesting, paraphrased to relay essential facts. John Murray, in any decade, is circumspect and generally magnanimous in dealings, rising only occasionally to anger and drawing on a trusted circle of friends and critics for advice.

John Murray III’s letter to his father recounting Walter Scott’s first public admission of his authorship of the Waverley novels offers a glimpse of the young man’s training. Having studied at Edinburgh University, he was apprenticed briefly to Oliver and Boyd, showing the strong connections and equal footings of Edinburgh and London publishing houses at the time.

As generations of authors come and go, Byron haunts the halls of 50 Albemarle Street. His sensational popularity filled the Murray coffers and Murrays in turn shaped and perpetuated his stardom. Byron’s long absences from London made John Murray II his primary agent in the city, and many personal requests arise in the correspondence, from the mundane (a request for tooth powder) to, literally, the grave. In 1822 Byron asked him to arrange for the burial of his illegitimate daughter, Allegra, whose body was returned to London after she died in an Italian convent aged five.

Byron’s story is told across three chapters. The first cluster is a whirlwind of private correspondence from 1813 concerning a forgery that duped Murray into releasing a miniature of Byron into the clutches of his former mistress, Caroline Lamb. Caro, who coined the phrase ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, had impersonated Byron’s style and hand, the latter ‘to perfection’ as Byron admitted to his close friends. His letter to Murray on the matter requests discretion. ‘You have been imposed upon by a letter forged in my name…. This I know by the confession of the culprit, & as she is a woman (& of rank) with whom I have been unfortunately too much connected you will for the present say little about it’. In letters to friends, he writes of the affair with considerably less discretion and more cruelty.

Murray was keenly aware of his role in shaping Byron’s reputation and how that reputation could, in turn, affect his business. Correspondence concerning Don Juan shows an escalating tension about the cutting of incendiary passages from the final published version. ‘Having fired the bomb,’ Murray II wrote on its publication, ‘here I am [at Wimbledon] out of the way of the explosion.’ The sure sales assuaged his misgivings, as Francis Palgrave reassured Murray: ‘Don Juan must sell: grave good people, pious people, regular people, all like to read about naughty people & even wicked words… do not really offend many very modest eyes.’

PC Wren telegraphed on news of a $22,500 rights sale, ‘I am most delighted and grateful, but I do not believe a word of it – WREN’

The danger for an anthologist is to draw attention to something enticing but not to include it. In the final Byron chapter, dealing with his literary estate and the infamous burning of his memoirs, we learn of executor Thomas Moore’s disgust at the familiar tone of Byron’s correspondence with Murray and the idea that a particular letter detailing Byron’s affair with a Venetian woman would be read in Murray’s salon. Moore’s letter about the letter is included because it shows Moore’s distaste at the private being made public in what he saw as a vulgar setting, but the telling tantalizes: can we read this Venetian letter? What are the details? Was Moore clutching his pearls too tightly?

Over 250 years times change, even in books. While the processes of writing, editing, and forming opinions remain strikingly unchanged by the march of technological progress, modernity creeps into Murray’s by the inch. The accurate illustration of non-fiction works was considerably more difficult before there was a camera in everyone’s pocket. David Livingstone, for example, preparing his first book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, for the press in the spring of 1857, fired a volley of letters in which he suggested giving a ‘peep’ of the images of the Victoria Falls and his encounter with a lion to a friend ‘who is a good judge of lions’. A few weeks later he finds that ‘lion encounter is absolutely abominable. …Everyone who knows what a lion is will die with laughing at it. …It really must hurt the book to make a lion look larger than a hippopotamus; I am quite distressed about it.’

In the 1920s and ’30s the selling of motion-picture rights promised sacks of cash and posed new challenges in communication. Transatlantic telegrams surface in the correspondence at this point, as large and time-sensitive deals are forged across the Atlantic. Novelist PC Wren telegraphed on news of a $22,500 rights sale, ‘I am most delighted and grateful, but I do not believe a word of it – WREN’. It was, of course, too good to be true: the novel was not copyrighted in America so Murray’s and Wren received only a $5,000 advance.

John Murray V had to act as intermediary between Swedish author Axel Munthe who was being ‘hustled’ to agree a deal with Paramount for his book The Story of San Michele. Munthe’s view was that, ‘nothing but the much needed money from those animals could make me agree for a moment to submit to this vulgarisation of our book.’ Despite Murray’s entreaty that the agents ‘altogether unhustle him now’, the offer was withdrawn and it was a further thirty years until the book was filmed.

As the anthology approaches the present, Jock Murray VI is credited with ‘reigniting the literary and social spark of John Murray II’. Featuring correspondence with John Betjeman, Freya Stark, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Dervla Murphy these chapters overflow with warmth and friendship. Betjeman had been a college friend before the publishing relationship began; Stark’s letters from across the globe reflect on World War Two and what it asks of humanity. Murphy is the only living author in the book: her selection revealing a story ‘not to be publicized, please’ that she agreed to a long interview on Irish television to win a £300 bet for a friend who had recently been abandoned by her husband.

An elegiac chapter about Patrick Leigh Fermor is beautifully balanced and a moving conclusion to Dear Mr Murray, though it is not quite the end. Fermor’s friends write to Jock about his life and work, and about his connection to Greece, weaving through recollections and news before the voice of the man himself finally rings through with deep sincerity. His letter is a reflection on how he should best represent his introduction to Greece, a pivotal moment in his life, as he plans the account of his iconic walk across Europe to Constantinople.

The journal of that walk has been returned to Fermor unexpectedly. He finds the writing ‘immature, awkward, pretentious… unwittingly comic, often embarrassing’ but also fresher and more immediate than his present recollections of the period. Musing on how to resolve these two voices, he expresses the paradox of age, time and progress quite simply, ‘although I’m the 1934 diarist’s descendant I could also be his grandfather’. The same could be said for the publishing house. Just as Murray’s moves venerably but inexorably towards its sale to Hodder & Stoughton in 2002, this bustling collection brings its salad days resonantly to life.

From this Issue


by Jamie Maxwell


by Brian Morton

Name Dropping

by Colin Waters


by Rosemary Goring

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