LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
[Leigh Hunt]
Lord Byron and Mr. Murray.
The Examiner  No. 876  (14 November 1824)  722-24.
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No. 876. SUNDAY, NOV. 14, 1824.


We intended to have quoted in our last Number the whole of what Captain Medwin reports as uttered by Lord Byron in various conversations, regarding Mr. Murray, his Lordship’s former bookseller. But before we had put the matter into the printer’s hands, a long statement from Mr. Murray himself appeared in the daily papers, contradicting in express terms all the specific charges related by Captain Medwin, and quoting largely, to establish this contradiction, from the noble Poet’s letters to his ci-devant Publisher. As we have not helped to circulate the accusations, we of course are not bound to give the replies in detail: but we shall briefly advert to the principal points.

The following, though vague, is undoubtedly a serious imputation:

Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

[three? words obscured by stamp] Lord Byron, “pretends to have lost money by my writings, and pleads poverty; but if he is poor, which is somewhat problematical to me, pray who is to blame? Mr. Murray is tender of my fame. How kind in him! He is afraid of my writing too fast. Why? because he has a tender regard for his own pocket, and does not like the look of any new acquaintance in the shape of a book of mine, till he has seen his old friends in a variety of new faces; id est, disposed of a vast many editions of the former works. I don’t know what would become of me without Douglas Kinnaird, who has always been my best and kindest friend. It is not easy to deal with Mr. Murray.”—Medwin, p. 166.

Mr. Murray answers, that in the numerous letters he received from Lord B., who nevertheless always spoke his mind very freely, there is nothing which would even indicate a feeling of the kind attributed to his Lordship by Captain Medwin. He adds, that the “incongruity of these imputations will be evident” from a list he subjoins of the high prices which he paid the Noble Poet for his copyrights, from Childe Harold to Don Juan, Canto V, inclusive, amounting to all more than 15,000l. We confess we do not see the conclusiveness of this pecuniary argument. Mr. Murray might have given a direct denial to the assertion, that he had pleaded poverty and loss of money by Lord Byron’s writings—a plea which (if he ever made it) the public would be slow to think either true or creditable to the maker.

Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

Lord Byron, in Captain Medwin’s book, is made to assert, that Mr. Murray first offered him 1000l. a canto for Don Juan , and afterwards reduced it to 500l. on the plea of piracy, and complained of one canto being divided into two. Mr. Murray meets this by quoting a letter from Lord B., in which he expressly announces that the two short cantos, made out of one of the ordinary length, must only be paid for as one, and begs not to be suspected of a contrivance to get double pay. This is of course decisive in the bookseller’s favour.

The next charge is still more scandalously opposed to the truth. We quote from Medwin:—

Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

“Because I gave him one of my poems, he wanted to make me believe that I had made him a present of two others.”

Instead of this, it appears from a letter of Lord Byron’s, that he had expressly presented the poems in question to Mr. Murray; that the latter had not withstanding remitted his Lordship a draft for 1000 guineas, of which he pressed the acceptance as payment for the copyright; that Lord B. at first refused, and sent back the draft torn, but subsequently was induced, “by Mr. Murray’s earnest persuasion,” to accept it, and to assign the poems accordingly for valued received.

Another passage in Medwin’s Conversations is equally unpardonable, and in regard to the asterisks, very pitiful:—

Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

“When Murray purchased ‘Cain,’ ‘The Two Foscari,’ and ‘Sardanapalus,’ he sent me a deed, which you may remember witnessing, Well, after its return to England, it was discovered that * * * * * * * *. But I shall take no notice of it.”

Such was the form in which the passage appeared in the two first Editions of Medwin. Mr. Murray required and obtained from the publisher the suppressed words, as follow:—

“——it contained a clause which had been introduced without my knowledge, a clause by which I bound myself to offer Mr. Murray all my future compositions.”

Every assertion in this passage appears to be false: there is no such clause in the deed, which moreover was not signed abroad, or witnessed by Captain M. but was signed in London, and witnessed by the very friend of whom Lord B. speaks so highly as the guardian of his interests—the Hon. Douglas Kinnaird!

Upon the foregoing points it is impossible to deny that Mr. Murray has made out a most complete case; and whether Medwin has sinned wilfully or from an inexcusable slovenliness, an exposure of mis-statements so gross in regard to one subject in his book, inevitably throws an air of suspicion over the rest, and destroys our reliance on that fidelity so essential to this species of literary reporting. Mr. Murray does not content himself, however, with simpling refuting the specific charges above noticed; but, in order to do away with the general impression which Medwin’s book is calculated to convey—viz. that he had treated Lord B. unhandsomely in his dealings—he “thinks he shall be forgiven for stating the following circumstance:—

Mr. Murray having accidentally heard that Lord Byron was in pecuniary difficulties, immediately forwarded 1,500l. to him, with an assurance that another such sum should be at his service in a few months; and that, if such assistance should not be sufficient, Mr. Murray would be ready to sell the copyright of all his Lordship’s works for his use.

“The following is Lord Byron’s acknowledgment of this offer:—

Nov. 14, 1815.
John Murray, John Murray and Lord Byron

Dear Sir,—I return you your bills not accepted, but certainly not unhonoured. Your present offer is a favour which I would accept from you if I accepted such from any man. Had such been my intention, I can assure you I would have asked you fairly and as freely as you would give; and I cannot say more of my confidence or your conduct. The circumstances which induce me to part with my books, though sufficiently are not immediately pressing. I have made up my mind to them, and there it an end. Had I been disposed to trespass on your kindness in this way, it would have been before now,; but I am not sorry to have an opportunity of declining it, as it sets my opinion of you, and indeed of human nature,
in a different light from that in to which I have been accustomed to consider it. “Believe me, very truly your obliged and faithful servant,

To John Murray, Esq.Byron.”

The “liberality” of a wealthy bookseller, in pressing advances of money upon the most popular poet of the day, may well excite a smile, without knowing anything further on the subject; but when the public are informed (as they will be before we conclude this article) of the subsequent behaviour of Mr. Murray to the Noble Lord, we fancy they will be much inclined to class this vaunted “generosity” along with the “gratitude” attributed by Horace Walpole to certain politicians, and so truly described by him as “a lively sense of benefits to come.”

Of this anon, however. We have not yet done with Captain Medwin’s statements, for there are some which Mr. Murray does not attempt to deny, or attempts very lamely. Lord Byron evidently hit the right nail on the head, in regard to the Court Bookseller’s embarrassment between the patronage of office and a lucrative opposition customer:—

John Murray, John Murray and Lord Byron

Murray has long prevented the ‘Quarterly’ from abusing me. Some of their bullies have had their fingers itching to be at me; but they would get the worst of it in a set-to. * * * Murray and I have dissolved all connection: he had the choice of giving up me or the Navy List. There was no hesitation which way he should decide: the Admiralty carried the day.”—Captain Medwin, p. 169-71.

Mr. Murray’s answer is amusing. The assertion about the Admiralty, he says, is “unfounded in fact;” as if it was meant literally, that my Lords Commissioners had proposed to him the alternative of surrendering either the Navy List or Lord Byron’s poems! “With regard to the Quarterly Review,” he proceeds, “his Lordship well knew that it was established and constantly conducted on principles which absolutely excluded Mr. Murray from all such interference and influence as is implied in the Conversations.”—His Lordship must have been prodigiously deep then in the independent tactics practised between a Servile manager and his literary employés! If Mr. Murray exercised no influence over the Quarterly Review, it must be acknowledged that the books he published had a magical charm for its critics. But this delicate matter is so happily illustrated by the next passage we shall quote from Captain Medwin, that we should only lose time in further remarks upon it:—

Thomas Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

“It is true enough that ‘Don Juan’ has been pirated; but whom has he to thank but himself? In the first place, he put too high a price on the copies of the two first Cantos that came out, only printing a quarto edition, at, I think, a guinea and a half. There was a great demand for it, and this induced the knavish booksellers to buccaneer. If he had put “John Murray ” on the title-page, like a man, instead of smuggling the brat into the world, and getting Davison, who is a printer and not a publisher, to father it, who would have ventured to question his paternal rights? or who would have attempted to deprive him of them?—The thing was plainly this: he disowned and refused to acknowledge the bantling; the natural consequence was, that others should come forward to adopt it. Mr. John Murray is the most nervous of God’s booksellers. When ‘Don Juan’ first came out, he was so frightened that he made a precipitate retreat into the country, shut himself up, and would not open his letters. The fact is, he prints for too many Bishops. He is always boring me with piratical edition after edition, to prove the amount of his own losses, and furnish proof of the extent of his own folly.”

Mr. Murray takes no notice whatever of this part of the story,—a prudent silence, doubtless. We would wager a trifle, that he will be equally dumb in regard to the following exposition, which is rather a more serious matter.

After giving the last-quoted letter from Lord Byron, relative to the offer of money, Mr. Murray states, that “NOTHING HAD OCCURRED TO SUBVENT THESE FRIENDLY SENTIMENTS”—(i.e. the friendship of Lord Byron for Mr. Murray) and to bear out this assertion, he quotes two letters—a short complimentary one to himself, dated May 8, 1819; and a longer one, most certainly not in the old friendly tone, dated Missolonghi, Feb. 25, 1824. A long interval, the reader will allow: how it was in part filled up, a plain tale shall set forth.

In the autumn of 1822, Lord Byron transmitted to London an order upon Mr. John Murray to deliver to the Publisher of the Liberal, his poem entitled the Vision of Judgment, in order to its being printed in the first No. of that work. This poem had been written a considerable time, had been put in type, a proof sent to Lord Byron, and returned by him corrected; but Mr. Murray hesitated to publish it—indeed refused. When however he was waited upon, with the order for its delivery, he manifested an extreme reluctance to part with it, and suggested that he would “get it published” (in the sneaking mode no doubt that he had adopted with Don Juan.) The delivery of the piece was however insisted upon; and Mr. Murray then sent to the Publisher of the Liberal,—not the complete and corrected proof he had received from Lord Byron,—but a copy printed before correction, and having the Preface, an essential and most important portion of the work, taken away. The Publisher of the Liberal was consequently ignorant of the existence of a Preface; and he printed the poem from the imperfect and incorrect copy, never supposing but that it was the corrected proof which he knew the Author had sent to London. In its published state consequently the piece was full of errors, and contained phrases which Lord Byron never intended to appear; for his Lordship was in the habit of transmitting MSS. to England with may words and passages which he had by no means determined to print, but which he let go for the time, knowing he should have an opportunity of erasing or modifying them, frequently at a more reflective moment, in the proofs which were invariably sent to him. But the printing of a poem with numerous blunders was not the only mischief to which Mr. Murray knowingly subjected Lord Byron and the Publisher of the Liberal, by this inexcusable trick. To say nothing of the suppressed Preface (which explained many of the severest things in the poem) in the corrected proof, which he withheld, the harshest epithets applied to George the Third in the Vision were omitted—the very epithets which formed the pith of the indictment on which the Publisher has been convicted and sentenced! Let the reader turn to the errata in the second edition of the Liberal, No. I. and then ask himself whether, had those corrections not been inexcusably withheld by Mr. Murray the Bookseller, the Vision of Judgment would ever have been indicted by Mr. Murray the Mock-Constitutional Attorney?

After conduct like this, is it uncharitable to say, that in making offers of pecuniary advances, Mr. Murray only showed himself a shrewd speculator, who knew the advantage of laying under obligation a prolific producer of golden verses? As long as he expected to derive benefit from Lord Byron, he was forward enough with his flattery and his pressing offer of money; but when he found that Lord B.—disgusted with his underhand mode of publishing Don Juan, and with the omissions of passages in his writings in deference to the courtly or canting crew,—began to adopt other channels for the publication of his works, Mr. Murray did not hesitate to deceive, injure, and insult his former patron in the manner we have just narrated. Yet he did not give up all hope at once, nor leave off altogether his cringing habits. In October, 1822, he wrote to Lord Byron (as we have learnt from a friend with the latter in Italy) how delighted he would be, if his Lordship would but be “so nobly generous” as to let him publish works of his “former glorious description”—[what an eminently bad compliment to the Noble Bard!]—And in another letter he declares, that he sits of a morning, for hours, looking at his Lordship’s picture. Imagine the languishing bookseller! About the same time, he begged to be allowed to publish Werner without Heaven and Earth, “for fear of the parsons.” But what did Lord Byron think of all this? A letter to Mr. Murray , which was on its road to England, while the latter was turning these pretty compliments, will settle that point:—

Genoa, Oct. 22, 1822.

Sir,—You have delivered to Mr. Hunt the Vision of Judgment without the preface, with which I had taken particular pains, and particularly desired you to forward to him. Is this fair, is it honest? Is it proper to be thus remiss with papers committed to your charge, and in some prose tracts incomplete, which you sent to me complete at the beginning of the year. I have no wish to repeat what I have so often been obliged to say, and I leave to your own reflection on the manner in which you have conducted yourself toward me in this matter.

“I am, your obedient servant,
Noel Byron.

“P.S. If you have (as seems apparently to be the case) purposely kept back the Preface to the Vision,—I can only say, that I have no words strong enough to express my sense of such conduct.

To John Murray, Esq.
Care of John Hunt, Esq.
* There is a laughable little history connected with the delivery of this letter, which we must tell our readers. It was sent from Italy, without seal or wafer, enclosed in a letter to Mr. John Hunt, who was directed to “take a copy and forward it open.” Nevertheless, Mr. Hunt put the letter in an envelope, which he sealed and directed to Mr. Murray, and forwarded to Albemarle-street; not wishing to inflict on Mr. M. the humiliation of receiving an open letter through his servants. Mr. Murray, however, unluckily “rode the high horse” at that moment; and thinking perhaps to annoy Mr. Hunt by a piece of affected scorn and real rudeness returned the double letter unopened. [It had “From Mr. J. H.” on the outside.] There was no alternative; the intended mercy had been unconsciously spurned; Lord Byron’s letter was taken out, and delivered open at Mr. Murray’s counter; whence (not perhaps without being first perused by his clerks and shopmen) it was of course expedited to the inner sanctum, where the scornful Bookseller sat wrapped in his proud contempt! It was impossible to pity him—the retribution was so entirely the fruit of arrogance and ill-manners.
We think it right to say, that if this letter could, in any sense, be deemed a private one of Mr. Murray’s, it would never have met the public eye in our columns. We reprobate as much as any one the late and [illegible].

If Mr. Murray had done this wrong in negligence only (however unpardonable) would he not, on receiving such a letter as the above, have hastened to explain as much to Lord Byron, who manifestly believed there was a bad design? He owed Lord B. at least an apology; and he owed to himself, if ignorant of the wilful offence, an explanation. Can his silence then be construed otherwise than as consciousness of wrong?

How many more letters in a similar style Mr. Murray received from the same writer, we cannot say; but we see this letter alludes to others in a like tone, and we know that the sense of his misconduct here expressed by Lord Byron was neither a transient impression, nor one that any “explanation” did or could remove. In November 1822, in a letter pointing out an erratum, his Lordship adds,—“This however is the fault of honest Mr. Murray;” and on the 24th April, 1823, the treatment he had received in that matter was still so much on his mind, that (in a letter to England) he enforced a direction about some publication thus emphatically—“Do not forget this, nor treat me as Mr. Murray did about the Preface to the Vision.” The reader may now refer to Mr. Murray’s declaration, in his answer to Captain Medwin , that “nothing occurred to subvert these friendly sentiments” of Lord Byron towards himself!

Mr. Murray—we repeat—was ready enough with his bank-bills in advance, when he thought he could by them secure future lucrative publications; but when he began to doubt the continuance of the advantage he derived from Lord B., he did not hesitate, we see, to commit an act which he knew might lead (and which did lead) to very mischievous consequences—which he also knew must be peculiarly painful to his Lordship as an author—and which it is impossible to regard otherwise than as a shameful insult, as indeed Lord B. evidently felt it. Yet, until he received the letter above quoted, by which he learnt that his treacherous suppression was known to the Noble Poet, he still endeavoured to obtain favours from him by the low adulation we have described.—But enough: he will be cautious how he asserts again in print, that Lord Byron’s friendship for him suffered no interruption.

P.S. Should Mr. Murray so far condescend to Public Opinion as to put forth an answer to this statement, we beg he will include in it a reply to the subjoined question:—

Did Mr. Murray ever receive a verbal compliment paid to him by Lord Byron, from the lips of Colonel ——, on the return of the latter from the Ionian Islands?