Transcript of John R Murray's talk

The John Murray Lecture 2007

  • Transcript of the talk by John R Murray at the National Library of Scotland on 1 November 2007. John Murray's talk followed that of his wife, Virginia. Their joint lecture was entitled: '50 Albemarle Street: Ledgers and legends'.

What is it like to be a Murray?

When I first joined the Firm I remember standing in the hall at Number 50 Albermarle Street. A visitor came in and when introduced to me, asked what Darwin was like as an author. I answered, 'I am afraid I don't know as it was my great, great, great, great grandfather who was his publisher'. Of course this was a most unsatisfactory reply and we both knew it. From then on I realised that if you are a Murray you have to telescope all the generations into one.

Not long after this I was asked what Livingstone was like. I answered, adopting my new approach: 'He was a great friend of the family and often came to visit us here at Number 50, but he could be very tricky over the editing of his books. On one occasion he was furious when our editor tried to polish his raw style, as Virginia has mentioned.' This received full approval. It seemed to be the right approach to take. Ever since, I have always spoken about authors through the ages as if I were their specific publisher.

David Livingstone's demands

Livingstone's demands on John Murray went well beyond what is normally expected of an author (although you should bear in mind that Byron asked John Murray II to arrange for his illegitimate daughter, Allegra, to be buried in Harrow Church, and James Hogg, 'the Ettrick Shepherd', asked John Murray to find him a nice wife). Livingstone, however, asked John Murray to arrange a music teacher for his daughter in Paris and to send pocket money to her, and he also asked Mrs Murray to give advice on what she should wear when she came out of mourning for her mother.

These demands are not so surprising when you get to know the nature of the Murrays' relationship with their authors.

Freya Stark

Freya Stark, the great Arabian traveller, all of whose books we published and whose archive I inherited, was my godmother. I was devoted to her but she could be amazingly demanding. She once asked my father to send a hip bath out to her in the South Yemen by diplomatic bag - no easy task.

On another occasion she asked me to take 12 rose bushes out to the new house she was building in the foothills of the Dolomites. Not only did I have to fetch them from Hillier's in Winchester but I also had to smuggle them across the Italian border. 'Simple,' said Freya, 'just put them under your dirty clothes in your suitcase'. As if I would have dirty clothes with me when going out to stay with her. But one must remember that she was a master smuggler herself.

On another occasion she nearly killed my father when he was attempting to teach her how to ride a Vespa in Asolo. She was fine on a camel but suicidal on anything mechanical.

Close family friends

And then there was Osbert Lancaster, the cartoonist, illustrator and architectural satirist, who was my younger sister's godfather. Each evening after drawing his Pocket Cartoon for the 'Daily Express' he came into Albemarle Street bringing all the Fleet Street gossip with him. John Piper, the artist, who with John Betjeman edited Murray's Architectural Guides and who designed the famous stained glass window for the new Coventry Cathedral, was my brother's godfather. And believe it or not Sir Francis Younghusband who, in 1904, led the notorious mission to Llasa under the auspices of Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India, was my sister's godfather. And just to get godparents out of my system, Layard the discoverer of Nimrud and Nineveh was John Murray IV's brother Hallam's godfather.

This is just to give you a taste of how Murray authors were so often close friends of the family.

But another point of interest is how there seem to be links with Murrays all over the world.

Dervla Murphy

A nice incident comes to mind when Dervla Murphy, that intrepid traveller (her daughter was my father's goddaughter - for a long time many people thought that he was her father!), was bicycling from Kenya to South Africa via Uganda and Zimbabwe.

In the usual way, I supplied her with a letter of introduction 'To whom this may concern' on John Murray headed paper. When Dervla was peddling through Uganda and it started getting dark, she decided to stop at the next village to find somewhere to sleep. She made for the largest hut that she reasoned must belong to the chief. In fact it turned out to be a small Livingstone museum. In the centre she found a cabinet displaying a copy of Livingstone's 'Missionary Travels' opened at the title page. Just as she was looking at it a man approached her. She immediately took out my letter of introduction and handed it to him. One look and he burst out with excitement and pointed at the 'Missionary Travels' in the cabinet with 'John Murray, Albemarle Street, London' on the title page, and then turned to the notepaper with 'John Murray, Albemarle Street, London' on it. The villagers were immediately summoned to meet Livingstone's publisher (I should mention that Dervla was often mistaken for a man).

Dervla, like Freya, could also be very demanding at times. Trying to track down typewriter ribbons for her manual typewriter that had long been discontinued but which she refused to be parted from, was a normal occurrence. However to receive an email from her somewhere in the middle of recently war-torn Serbia with a request to track down a large-scale map of the area for her did pose problems. Finding the right large-scale map was the first task and then getting it out to her in Pristina with no definite address demanded exceptional resource. One had to bear in mind that Dervla was bicycling through an area scattered with unexploded land mines so a good map was essential. Somehow I succeeded.

Then there was Dervla's habit of using the back of her old typescript pages on which to type her new book. She did not cross out the old page so often I would find myself reading pages from earlier books spread through the typescript of her new offering. I do think that some of her published works contain a number of pages from other works! And more often than not she typed off the edge of the paper because the bell on her typewriter was no longer working and I had to guess the missing words.

And then there was Noni Jabavu, the first Bantu to be published in English. She used to send me requests for plush prune nail varnish and the like. I had to seek the advice of Murray secretaries for this.

All this is merely to give you some idea of what it is like to be a Murray.

Guardians of Byron's reputation

But now to Byron. (It is impossible for a Murray to escape from Byron.) Throughout almost two centuries since his death in 1824 and for some years before, the Murrays have been the guardians of his reputation.

However, the excitement this year is the publication for the first time of 'The Letters of John Murray', outstandingly edited by Andrew Nicholson. This volume reveals the true nature of John Murray II's relationship with Byron and shows this correspondence to be one of the great correspondences of its kind.

It is clear from it that Byron depended on Murray as much as Murray depended on Byron. The letters cover a wide range of subjects many quite outside literature. Byron's even contain graphic accounts of his latest conquests while in Venice. Tommy Moore observed 'How strange it is that a nobleman should address his publisher on matters so unconnected with literature'. On another occasion he observes 'Murray showed me a letter which Lord Byron had written him, which is to me unaccountable, except from the most ungovernable vanity …'

What John Murray's letters to Lord Byron show is that John Murray II was quite up to the challenge of corresponding with Byron. He keeps Byron informed of what is happening in England, what books are being read, what friends are up to and parries Byron's barbs with skill.

Behind all this is the shrewd publisher advising Byron as an editor, and planning the production and publication schedules of his books. He chases Byron up to produce more verse to strengthen his Autumn list (just like any publisher today) and sometimes takes liberties in adding material to, for example, a canto of Childe Harold, to 'bulk it out'. In addition he sends to Byron tooth powders, magnesia, gunpowder and on one occasion Byron asked for two bull dogs but after Murray had found them, cancelled the order. One must realise that from the time Byron left for the Continent in 1816, John Murray was his chief link with England.

The Disraelis and John Murray

Now I plan to look briefly at an aspect of the relationship between the Disraelis and John Murray that is often overlooked.

Isaac D'Israeli had known John Murray II since 1795 when Murray took over the business and Isaac acted as his literary adviser. When Murray held his literary salons and dinners in Number 50, Isaac was introduced to those literary people such as Byron, Scott and Southey about whom he had written in 'Curiosities of Literature' and his other books.

Benjamin Disraeli, as Isaac's son, was naturally introduced to this circle at an early age and Murray was so taken by him that he asked him to advise on a manuscript before he was even 16. It seems that the distinguished publisher and businessman was already bewitched by this young man and for a while he acted as a kind of father-figure and patron to him. It is well known that later publisher and future Prime Minister fell out for a while but this is a charming early vignette of them together. Early on Benjamin modelled himself on Byron, which must have appealed to John Murray, and his father employed Byron's gondolier, Tita, after Byron's death.

I could follow this up with my ancestor's close friendship with Gladstone but instead and aptly I plan to move on to the early 20th century and to trespass on Virginia's territory.

Queen Victoria's letters

It was when the post-1920 book files were returned from our warehouse to Albemarle Street that we came upon seven thick files marked 'The Letters of Queen Victoria'. We showed these to an Australian academic, Yvonne Ward, who was researching her thesis on how Queen Victoria was interpreted to the public after her death. Her excitement was enormous, for here was the story of the preparation and publication of Queen Victoria's correspondence - the first time the correspondence of an English sovereign had ever appeared in print. Here John Murray is shown exerting his publishing skills to the full.

These files begin in 1904 and show how Lord Esher, that 'eminence grise', A C Benson, the brother of the archbishop and author of 'Land of Hope and Glory', Lord Knollys, Edward VII's private secretary, and John Murray achieved a publishing first that at times seemed impossible. Lord Esher, who moved freely in royal circles, had the idea of publishing the Queen's correspondence. He chose A C Benson as editor, who was a master at Eton at the time and so usefully close to Windsor. As publisher he decided on John Murray, who had already published the speeches of Prince Albert and the elephant folio of the Albert Memorial for Queen Victoria and who was A C Benson's publisher.

The problem of selecting, editing and printing the correspondence - initially in three volumes - was horrendous. Princess Beatrice, literary executor of Queen Victoria and known as 'Babe' by her family, had her own views on how the Queen should be portrayed, and Edward VII, who had to approve the proofs, seemed to have little interest in reading them and was often out of the country in Baden Baden, Marienbad or elsewhere when most needed. Lord Esher had a devious habit of making changes that appeared to come from the King when they were in fact his own.

No sooner was volume one in proof than Princess Beatrice decided to reveal additional correspondence to be included. John Murray then had to instruct the printer to insert this, in already standing type. A new set of proofs was then produced. Edward VII was given them and after holding on to them for nine months insisted on a number of cuts. Each time something was cut out Murray had to try to get Benson to find something of equivalent length in chronological sequence to insert to save the printer from having to move all the type up. If letters were inserted the procedure was reversed.

More often than not the printer had to move the type up and down to accommodate these additions and deletions. At a late stage this became even more difficult and expensive and time consuming as the index had to be amended as well. Each person involved in checking and amending the proofs - there were six - was instructed to make their suggestions and corrections in a different coloured pencil to keep them distinct.

Esher, Princess Beatrice and Edward VII all had their own different ideas of how Queen Victoria should be presented. However, they agreed on one point - that she should be seen as Queen and Empress, and nothing that showed her as a woman, or as mother of her children, should appear. Passages that were too private or potentially scandalous or trivial were to be cut out, but everyone had different ideas as to what these were. In the end so many letters had extracts removed in them that it was decided not to use ellipses as these would, as Lord Esher said, 'destroy the readers' confidence'.

When the first two volumes were in type (1,200 printed pages) there was not sufficient type to set volume three, even though Murray had already bought additional type for the printer. Only when volume one was 'stereod' could the type be dished and volume three composed. One has to bear in mind at this point that French and German editions were to be published simultaneously and the volumes had to be reset in the USA to establish local copyright. This all added to the extraordinary complexity of this whole operation.

Wealth of research possibilities

Throughout, John Murray had to oversee the project and somehow keep everything moving. This proved a nightmare and it was he who bore the brunt of the professional and financial anxiety. However, the project had attached to it enormous prestige and ultimately both John Murray IV and V were knighted by the King for their services.

This whole episode shows an interesting aspect of the archive and one that I find totally absorbing. It reveals the whole picture, in its most complex form, from concept of a book through the editing process into production including the actual printing problems and then to final publication.

When you bear in mind that the John Murray Archive includes all the ledgers and back-up material to the books Murray published and over 150,000 manuscript items, you get some idea of the wealth of research possibilities contained in it.

But you have had enough of me.

I would like to finish by thanking you all for listening so patiently to us.

Bear in mind that I had to follow someone who knows more about the archive than anyone else and has lived with it for so long.

And I'm going to arrange for her picture to go there! [John Murray points to a wall.]

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