volumes in 'Family Library' series.
John Murray launched the 'Family Library' series in 1829 with the aim of making modern non-fiction works more accessible to a wider circle of readers.
Leading authors of the day contributed to the series and it included subjects such as:
- Natural history
- General literature
The 'Family Library' started with John Gibson Lockhart's condensed version of Sir Walter Scott's 'Life of Napoleon' with illustrations by George Cruikshank. It met with great success and reached several editions.
However, the series was not a financial success. Because of the need to make books affordable — each volume sold at only five shillings — and with the wish to pay their authors well, keeping the series in print proved too expensive.
Consequently, on 4 December 1834 Murray wrote to John Gibson Lockhart, one of its contributors, to say that he was contemplating selling 10,000 copies of the 47 titles to Thomas Tegg the bookseller for one shilling a copy.
The sale subsequently brought a marginal profit, and Tegg continued the series adding 21 new titles.
'Home and Colonial Library'
The 'Colonial and Home Library' was published by John Murray III between 1843 and 1849 with the specific aim of taking advantage of the colonial market. His advertisement read:
'Mr Murray's "Colonial Library" will furnish the settler in the back-woods of America, and the occupant of the remotest cantonments of our Indian dominions, with the resources of recreation and instruction at a moderate price.'
After only seven months the name was changed to the 'Home and Colonial Library'.
This reversal in the title reflects the publisher's disappointment with sales in the colonies, as well as the importance that was placed on the domestic sale of these cheap editions.
Six years after the first appearance of this series, Murray stopped producing titles for the 'Library'. Laws introduced to try and prevent publishers overseas from infringing works copyrighted in Britain proved to be largely unenforceable and this was a large factor in the series' demise.
However, the 'Library' was also criticised for being overpriced and for the lack of new titles that it contained. Many of the works that Murray included had already been available in some of the colonies, and pirated editions cost less.
Some of Murray's well known authors were represented in this series. In particular, Washington Irving and George Borrow were very popular.
It was also in the 'Home and Colonial Library' series that Murray published the first two works of Herman Melville. 'Typee' (1846) and 'Omoo' (1847) were published as factual travel accounts — a claim that many would come to question after their publication.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was a family friend of the Murrays as his father, Isaac Disraeli, was a Murray author.
Disraeli was extremely excited about the project and reported enthusiastically to Murray, using codewords for the various individuals involved in the enterprise:
'I arrived in Edinburgh yesterday night at 11 o'clock … It is exactly what I fancied it, and certainly is the most beautiful town in the world. You can scarcely call it a city; at least, it has little of the roar of millions, and at this time is of course very empty. I could not enter Scotland by the route you pointed out, and therefore was unable to ascertain the fact of the Chevalier being at his Castellum.
There is of course no danger in our communications of anything unfairly transpiring; but from the very delicate nature of names interested, it will be expedient to adopt some cloak.
The Chevalier will speak for itself.
M, from Melrose, for Mr L.
X for a certain personage on whom we called one day, who lives a slight distance from town, and who was then unwell.
O for the political Puck.
MR CHRONOMETER will speak for itself, at least to all those who give African dinners.'
'The Chevalier' was Scott, 'M' was Lockhart, 'X' was Canning, and 'Chronometer 'was John Barrow. The political 'Puck' may well have been Disraeli himself.
A costly disaster
Despite Disraeli's infectious enthusiasm — which saw him appointing architects for a grand new office — the paper was a complete disaster.
Disraeli was unable to appoint a proper editor, and he appointed correspondents that were 'better at spending money than writing'. The paper lacked not only news, but also style. As Samuel Smiles, one of Murray's best-selling authors, wrote in his biography of John Murray II:
'Incorrectness in a leading article may be tolerated, but dullness amounts to a literary crime'.
Murray bore the cost of the entire failed enterprise — despite Disraeli's undertaking a quarter of the risk in the paper's memoranda of understanding — and relations between the Murray and Disraeli family became strained.
Disraeli's mother wrote to Murray with the strong opinion that responsibility for the paper's success or failure should lie with an experienced publisher and not with a 'young boy of twenty'.
Isaac Disraeli threatened to publish a pamphlet against Murray — but, through the intercession of mutual friends, the Murrays and Disaraelis were reconciled.
There are a further 47 letters from Benjamin Disraeli to Murray in the John Murray Archive, testifying to their lasting relationship.
'Wisdom of the East'
John Murray's successful 'Wisdom of the East' series, published between 1905 and 1962, was made up of 122 booklets at five shillings each.
These short works were translations of classic Eastern works of poetry, religion and philosophy, often edited and introduced by leading scholars and specialists of the day.
The series was edited by Launcelot Cranmer-Byng (1874-1945) and Shaporji Aspaniarji Kapadia (1857-1941).
- 'Anthology of modern Indian poetry' by Gwendoline Goodwin (1927)
- 'The book of filial duty' by Confucius, translated by Ivan Chen (1908)
- 'Eastern science: an outline of its scope and contribution' by Henry James Jacques Winter, (1952)
- 'The spirit of Japanese art' by Yone Noguchi (1916)
- 'Poems of cloister and jungle, a Buddhist anthology' by Caroline Rhys Davids (1941)
- 'The message of Islam' by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (1940)
An advertisement described its aims:
'This Series has a definite object. It is, by means of the best Oriental literature — its wisdom, philosophy, poetry, and ideals — to bring together West and East in a spirit of mutual sympathy, goodwill, and understanding. From India, China, Japan, Persia, Arabia, Palestine, and Egypt these words of wisdom have been gathered.'