Pages from history
IT HAS been described as astounding, priceless and "the most important literary archive to be made public in over a century". But for almost 200 years, the records of the John Murray publishing house were crammed into any available space at its London home - even on a shelf labelled "underpants".
The Georgian townhouse at 50 Albermarle Street was the family home and headquarters of the Murray empire, which has published many of the greatest names of two centuries. From Jane Austen to Byron, Darwin to David Livingstone, a dynasty of seven John Murrays has presided over a cornucopia of literary giants. And the Murrays kept almost every scrap of paper relevant to clients and their business, in a literary archive valued at around 45 million.
Yet this archive, of 150,000 documents covering more than 16,000 names, was until recently housed in ramshackle conditions in Albermarle Street. Boxes of letters, sales ledgers and draft manuscripts were bound in ragged ribbon; assorted ephemera spewed from the shelves into boxes and drawers, on to the floors and into the laundry cupboard, until it had eaten up every spare inch of space.
"Everything had been loaded into laundry baskets," says the current John Murray, who is still based at the house. "Most of it ended up in the attic - but when we explored the airing cupboard, we had Darwin in a shelf marked 'underpants' and Byron in a drawer marked 'sheets'!"
The story of the archive is remarkable. The publishing firm started in 1768 when a young Scottish naval officer, John MacMurray, left the navy to become a bookseller.
He dropped the 'Mac' from his name and set up in Fleet Street, using his naval reputation to secure contracts to ship books to new colonies.
If the first John Murray was a canny businessman, the second was an inspired judge of literary talent. In 1809, John Murray II launched the Quarterly Review which published most of the leading novelists and commentators of the day. Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli were regular contributors, and Murray soon found himself at the centre of an influential and trailblazing political and literary network. Through this network, his attention was drawn to a rising star in the literary firmament. In 1811, Murray was offered a manuscript by a certain George Gordon, Lord Byron. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage had been rejected by two rival publishers but Murray seized his chance.
The first edition sold out in three days. Byron famously wrote: "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." Murray had made his fortune and reputation. It was with the proceeds of Childe Harold that Murray was able to purchase the grand townhouse in Albermarle Street, an address that became as famous as its authors throughout the 19th century.
The new premises afforded Murray the social standing to make his home a centre of ideas. Every afternoon at 4pm, he would welcome into his home the biggest and best brains from every aspect of life. From science to politics, travel and the arts - not to mention literature - great names would assemble in a bubbling cauldron of intellectual debate. These men and women became known as the "four o'clock friends".
Among their ranks were Jane Austen, Byron, Walter Scott, Michael Faraday, Thomas Malthus, Mungo Park and JMW Turner. But during these meetings, Murray became much more than just a publisher and social impresario: he became a valued confidant and friend. This special relationship between Murray and his authors is typified by the vast collection of personal correspondence in the archive - over 10,000 letters relate to Byron alone, the world's largest collection of Byron papers.
The relationship between poet and publisher has all the hallmarks of a love story turned sour, a drama played out on faded scraps of paper. The letters show how Murray ascended from being a tradesman to mentor and protector for the young aristocrat, against the advice of the Lord's close friends, who thought the class mix most irregular. Irregular or not, the publisher insulated Byron from the attentions of Caroline Lamb, his lover-turned-stalker.
Her letters, drawings and diaries preserved in the archive, catalogue her descent from passion to obsession over the man who in her words was "mad, bad and dangerous to know". And when Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra, died in Italy, it was to Murray he turned to arrange the shipping and church burial of her body - no mean task in those religiously strictured times.
Inevitably, however, the correspondence documents how Byron grew to resent Murray's paternalistic role, especially when it came to editing and "censoring" the manuscripts he was sending from Italy. Little did he realise that Britain had moved away from the Age of Romance into the Age of Repression: Byron's sexually suggestive texts were testing the limits of 19th-century morality.
Murray may have been a friend, but he also realised that to publish the texts as written would be professional suicide for both of them - and this he could not countenance. So was their relationship really about business after all? Again, the evidence in the archive suggests not - though it's the evidence missing that seems to hold the key to a remarkable friendship.
After Byron's death, it was in the drawing room at Albermarle Street that Murray burned Byron's memoirs, believing them too incendiary for 19th-century sensibilities. The manuscript that would have surely been Murray's bestseller went up in smoke, and with it the riches that would have ensued for the publishing dynasty. "I'm still hoping to find a copy hidden behind the plasterwork some day," says the current John Murray. "I can't quite believe my ancestor would destroy the only copy...".
John Murray VII owes much of his good fortune to the book-burner and his son, John Murray III. Murray III was equally skilled at spotting rising talent and fostering it at Albermarle Street. Although a profoundly religious man, he thought nothing of agreeing to publish Charles Darwin's Origin of Species before he had even had the chance to read it.
The correspondence exists in the archive, along with the entreaty by a certain Reverend Elwin that Darwin should instead publish a book on pigeons - because "everyone is interested in pigeons. The book would be received in every journal in the kingdom and would soon be on every table". In all the exchange of letters, the brown ink scrawls headily across the yellowing paper, but it still feels as momentous today as 150 years ago.
Ironically, perhaps, the book was far from an instant success, being outsold by another Murray author published the same year. 1859 saw Samuel Smiles's Self Help manual become not only a bestseller in Britain but also one that was translated into almost every major language before disappearing without a trace. Meanwhile, Darwin's Origin of Species has become perhaps the most influential book of the 19th-century. Such are the fortunes of publishing.
Those fortunes finally turned for the Murrays in the late 20th century when the publishing world began to shrink into the hands of a few multinational giants. Although the firm still published great names such as Freya Stark and John Betjeman, it was sold to Hodder Headline in 2002. However, with the business sense that had characterised the previous 250 years, the family held on to the immense archive.
When the seventh John Murray and his wife, Ginny, realised they could no longer cope with the number of researchers wanting to use the archive, let alone keep the papers in pristine condition, they reluctantly looked around for a new permanent home with the space and expertise to conserve this world-renowned resource. Their favoured option was the National Library of Scotland (NLS), which fitted well with the Murrays' Scottish roots. Many a John Murray had studied at the schools and university in Edinburgh, and most had found a Scottish bride. Not only that, the archive would have a natural home in the library. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the city had been at the forefront of British publishing and bookselling - and the NLS contained many of these collections.
The Murrays finally sold the collection to the NLS earlier this year for 31 million, the money being raised from a Heritage Lottery grant, the Scottish Executive and 6.5 million by public subscription. Indicative of the size and depth of the archive, neither the Murrays or the library know exactly what was being handed over, as no-one has ever managed to catalogue the vast resource. Even the valuers for the sale had to make an educated guess of its value when they ran out of time. A single Jane Austen letter can command 50,000 and there were thousands of equivalent letters and documents in the archive. Not only that, new discoveries were being made every week, making it a daunting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for its curators.
The NLS team are now embarking on a massive programme of cataloguing, conserving and digitising the archive, so much of it will be available via the internet - 5,000 pages by the end of 2007, with a further 10,000 pages by 2010. Public access has come a long way from the underpants shelf at Albermarle Street. A permanent exhibition, showcasing a number of characters from the archive, is planned towards the middle of next year. In the meantime, although the locked metal cage is less cosy than the Murray attic, anyone holding a reader's ticket can access the archive, though it is advisable to make an appointment to give the curators time to locate the correct manilla box from the hundreds on the shelves.
But the real value of the archive lies in offering us the chance to go behind the scenes of the great publishing company to the personal relationships between the Murrays and their authors - to be in the drawing room at Albermarle Street; to feel the excitement of holding a letter written by Byron; to re-live the terror with David Livingstone as he shares with Murray his near-fatal attack by a lion.
It is the crossings-out and amendments, the changes in handwriting that mirror the emotion of the moment which tell us most about these remarkable men and women. The private, funny, heartrending and gossipy glimpses paint a picture as enthralling as any bestseller - and these hidden gems are the real treasures in the archive of this true "emperor of publishers".
• Vanessa Collingridge is presenting a five-part series, The 4 O'Clock Friends on 9:30am Tuesdays on Radio 4. For more information on the archive, contact the National Library of Scotland on 0131-623 3700 or via www.nls.uk/jma
FROM THE ARCHIVES
At the end of a business letter, Mary Somerville - the queen of Science - says:
I have just heard news that has surprised us not a little. Sir David Brewster 76 years old was married a few days ago to Miss Parnell aged 26 a grocer's daughter. Sir David and his daughter have been living at Cannes which he left a few days before the wedding without saying a word to his daughter of his engagement.
John Murray to Charles Darwin, 1 April 1859
I thank you for your obliging letter of yesterday and for the interesting details regarding your work on Species contained in it - On the strength of this information and my knowledge of your former publications, I have no hesitation in stating at once even without seeing the MS that I shall be most happy to publish it for you.
Walter Scott to John Murray, 18 December 1816
I am just going to Abbotsford to make a small addition to my premises there. I have now about 700 acres, thanks to the Booksellers and the discerning public.
PS - I have much to ask about Lord Byron if I had time. His third Canto is inimitable. Of the last poems, there are one or two which indicate rather an irregular play of imagination. What a pity that a man of such exquisite genius will not be contented to be happy on the ordinary terms! I declare my heart bleeds when I think of him, self-banished from the country to which he is an honour.
Mary Shelley to Byron
I like your Canto extremely; it has only touches of your highest style of poetry, but it is very amusing and delightful. It is a comfort to get anything to gild the dark clouds now my sun is set- sometimes when very melancholy I repeat your lyric in The Deformed, and that enlivens me: But I will not scrawl nonsense.
John Murray letter on Scott and Byron meeting for the first time
I can recollect having seen Ld B at Albemarle St. As far as I can remember he appeared rather a short man, hands and countenance remarkable for the fine blue veins which ran on his temples. The deformity in his leg was to me very evident as he walked down stairs, he carried a stick... Mr M first introduced Walter Scott to Lord B - on meeting, they embraced each other in the most affectionate manner and were highly delighted with each other. It was a curious sight to see the two greatest poets of the age (both club footed) stumping down stairs arm in arm...
Darwin letter outlining Origin of Species
The book ought to be popular with a large body of scientific and semi-scientific readers, as it bears on agriculture & history of our domestic productions & on whole field of zoology, botany and geology. I have done my best, but whether it will succeed I cannot say - I have been quite surprised at finding how much interested strangers and acquaintances have become with the subject. Only some small portions are at all abstruse. I hope to be ready for press early in May and shall then most earnestly wish to print at a rapid rate, for my health is much broken, and I want rest... As far I can judge, perhaps very falsely, it will be interesting to all (and they are many) who care for the curious problem of the origin of animate forms.
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