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Literary Review

The passing of John Murray

CHRISTOPHER HURST comments on the recent sale of London's last historic family-owned publishing house.

SOMEHOW we thought that John Murray would go on for ever remaining in the control of the Murray family without being swallowed up by a conglomerate. But we have been proved wrong, and now that the sale has happened it is impossible to see how things could have turned out differently, the circumstances being what they were.

The history of the firm is much more than publishing history: it is national, literary, social, political and scientific history as well. It is well known, and I shall only mention the salient facts. John Murray I started business in l768, at the age of 23, as a bookseller but quickly turned to publishing. An early publication which has a place in literary history is Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature (l793), and the influential Quarterly Review, which survived into modern times, was begun in l809. Spectacular success came overnight with the publication in l8l2 of Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, an instant bestseller which turned its author into a legend. The early cantos of his Don Juan had to be handed to the booksellers' messengers through the windows, such was the clamour for copies.

On the strength of this Murray bought 50, Albemarle Street, a large (by today's standards) and handsome house just off Piccadilly in London's smartest district, and the meeting place for a brilliant circle. Today, while Byron still has his admirers, Jane Austen has worshippers, and therefore the fact that Murray published first Emma, and then Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, puts the firm in a different league from any other. The reputation of John Murray II has been overshadowed by the fact that he burned Byron's diaries shortly after the poet's death in the drawing-room fireplace at 50, Albemarle Street, which can still be seen today. He evidently did so, because of their scandalous contents, in order to save Byron's reputation, but inevitably the less moralistic modern generation has tended to think of him as a philistine. (Queen Victoria's diaries were similarly burned after her death by her youngest daughter, and they were not scandalous at all.) In the 20th Century Murray published Byron's Letters and Journals in l3 volumes, and Queen Victoria's letters in nine volumes, both solid sellers.

The firm's interest in travel and science began early. In l836 John Murray III published the first of a long series of Handbooks for travellers (he wrote the first himself), and he was the publisher of George Borrow, David Livingstone and Herman Melville among others. But, in a typical publishing nexus, his interest in scientific travel led him to purchase the remaindered sheets of Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and republish it, and from this followed publication in l859 of The Origin of Species, a controversial book to this day; it appeared on the same day as another bestseller, Samuel Smiles's Self-Help.

To move forward to the 20th Century, in l9l7 the firm took over one of the great firms of the previous century, Smith, Elder, acquiring with it classics like the Brontes and Thackeray, but also Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the immortal Sherlock Holmes (a character so real that it is hard to think of him as having had a creator). In a not dissimilar line, Murray published in l924 an evergreen adventure story, P.C. Wren's Beau Geste.

The firm's long final chapter began with the publication in l928 of The Story of San Michele by the Swedish medical doctor Axel Munthe, a highly spiced mixture of memoir and travel. It was a tremendous bestseller, attracting especially a middlebrow readership. It is perhaps rather bold to suggest that this characterised the appeal of most of the firm's star authors in the 20th Century: the self-consciously unintellectual poet of place and mood, John Betjeman, who started as an upper middle class fad or cult but ended up among the bestsellers; Osbert Lancaster with his cartoons and humorous yet learned illustrated books on architecture and travel; Freya Stark the travel writer; Philip Magnus the biographer; and Kenneth Clark, who despite his fastidiousness directed his learned works of art history at a non-academic and finally, with his renowned "Civilisation" series, a popular public.

Perhaps an exception to this was the historian C. Northcote Parkinson's remarkable bestseller Parkinson's Law in l958. The "Law" is that "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion". His first example is of an old lady sitting at home writing a postcard to a friend. She has nothing else to do, and the composition of this simple missive takes her all day. Parkinson pursues his thesis into various areas of life, especially public administration, and it must be said that the appeal of the book is largely intellectual.

Unfortunately almost all of Murray's outstanding authors of the last two generations are now dead or very old, and here we come to the crux of the problem. The number of writers who would rather be published by a friendly private firm with limited cash reserves than by a conglomerate which can offer a big royalty advance is necessarily few, and it had become painfully clear in recent years that Murray's general list was unexciting.

Here we should move to the personalities of the recent heads of the firm. John Murray VI was a contemporary of Betjeman, Clark, Osbert Lancaster and all the great figures I have mentioned. He was convivial and charming; he worked hard in the firm and took seriously the responsibilities that went with his position; and he rode the wave of his authors' popular success. Murray's educational list, especially strong in the sciences, has been developed since the l960s with hardheaded realism into the firm's great strength. John Murray VII, the last chairman, now in his 50s, long ago made clear that he was not interested in talking about the firm's great past; but whatever its strengths in educational publishing, that was not what the name of Murray was famous for, nor what the elegant l8th Century mansion it inhabited seemed to stand for. John VII is not a man-about-town like his father, and he has revealed in recent days that life in Albemarle Street had ceased to be happy for him, and that he and his family now feel as if a great burden has been lifted from them. Neither of his two sons is called John, and neither wanted to enter the firm. So the family has seen its day of reckoning approaching for a long time. John VII movingly stated that the family had never become rich, and certainly did not have the resources for a major new capitalisation and re-launch.

Could this story have ended any differently? After all, family-owned publishing firms have fared better in other countries, although the process of takeover and agglomeration is almost universal (in this India might be said to be an exception). Here two factors in particular conspire to make general publishing an almost unwinnable game for all except the very biggest. Authors' agents have discovered that they can obtain fantastic advances from the mega-sized publishers, who are prepared to pay them even though often they can never be earned from sales. Naturally those authors able to command such advances are not unhappy with their situation. Everyone involved in this merry-go-round is acting irresponsibly, but who cares about the welfare of publishing if such personal benefits are on offer? The second factor is that chain bookstores now have great power, and that power tends to favour bestsellers and squeeze more run-of-the-mill offerings. The demolition of the Net Book Agreement in l995 is too complicated an issue to discuss here, but its effect on the health of the trade was almost wholly negative.

I almost forgot to mention who bought the house of John Murray: it was Hodder Headline, headed by Tim Hely Hutchinson who founded the downmarket firm of Headline in the late 1980s and acquired the much larger and older family firm of Hodder & Stoughton a few years later. Hodder Headline in turn was bought by the oldest chain booksellers, W.H. Smith — best known as sellers of stationery and fancy goods and as pioneers of railway station bookstalls. The Murrays have "stuck to their last" and never sought fame in other fields (like the Macmillans), but they are gentlemen to their fingertips. Strangely, Hely Hutchinson is the son of an earl, and the family of W.H. Smith long ago became viscounts and married into the old aristocracy. I suspect that John Murray VII might echo Margaret Thatcher's observation on being forced from office: "It's a funny old world."

Email: hurst1@atlas.co.uk

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