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Memoir of John Murray

Vol. 1 Contents
Chapter I.
Chapter II.
Chapter III.
Chapter IV.
Chapter V.
Chapter VI.
Chapter VII.
Chapter VIII.
Chapter IX.
Chapter X.
Chapter XI.
Chapter XII.
Chapter XIII.
Chapter XIV.
Chapter XV.
Chapter XVI.
Chapter XVII.
Chapter XVIII.
Chapter XIX.
Vol. 2 Contents
Chap. XX.
Chap. XXI.
Chap. XXII.
Chap. XXIII.
Chap. XXIV.
Chap. XXV.
Chap. XXVI.
Chap. XXVII.
Chap. XXIX.
Chap. XXX.
Chap. XXXI.
Chap. XXXII.
Chap. XXXIV.
Chap. XXXV.
Chap. XXXVI.
‣ Chap. XXXVII.
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In considering the career of John Murray, the reader can hardly fail to be struck with the remarkable manner in which his personal qualities appeared to correspond with the circumstances out of which he built his fortunes.

When he entered his profession, the standard of conduct in every department of life connected with the publishing trade was determined by aristocratic ideas. The unwritten laws which regulated the practice of bookselling in the eighteenth century were derived from the Stationers’ Company. Founded as it had been on the joint principles of commercial monopoly and State control, this famous organization had long lost its old vitality. But it had bequeathed to the bookselling community a large portion of its original spirit, both in the practice of co-operative publication which produced the ‘Trade Books,’ so common in the last century, and in that deep-rooted belief in the perpetuity of copyright, which only received its death-blow from the celebrated judgment of the House of Lords in the case of Donaldson v. Becket in 1774. Narrow and exclusive as they may have been in their relation to the public interest, there can be no doubt that these traditions helped to constitute, in the dealings of the booksellers among themselves, a standard of honour which put a certain curb on the pursuit of private gain. It was this feeling which
provoked such intense indignation in the trade against the publishers who took advantage of their strict legal rights to invade what was generally regarded as the property of their brethren; while the sense of what was due to the credit, as well as to the interest, of a great organized body, made the associated booksellers zealous in the promotion of all enterprises likely to add to the fame of English literature.

Again, there was something, in the best sense of the word, aristocratic in the position of literature itself. Patronage, indeed, had declined. The patron of the early days of the century, who, like Halifax, sought in the Universities or in the London Coffee-houses for literary talent to strengthen the ranks of political party, had disappeared, together with the later and inferior order of patron, who, after the manner of Bubb Dodington, flattered his social pride by maintaining a retinue of poetical clients at his country seat. The nobility themselves, absorbed in politics or pleasure, cared far less for letters than their fathers in the reigns of Anne and the first two Georges. Hence, as Johnson said, the bookseller had become the Mæcenas of the age; but not the bookseller of Grub Street. To be a man of letters was no longer a reproach. Johnson himself had been rewarded with a literary pension, and the names of almost all the distinguished scholars of the latter part of the eighteenth century—Warburton, the two Wartons, Lowth, Burke, Hume, Gibbon, Robertson—belong to men who either by birth or merit were in a position which rendered them independent of literature as a source of livelihood. The author influenced the public rather than the public the author, while the part of the bookseller was restricted to introducing and distributing to society the works which the scholar had designed.


Naturally enough, from such conditions arose a highly aristocratic standard of taste. The centre of literary judgment passed from the half-democratic society of the Coffeehouse to the dining-room of scholars like Cambridge or Beauclerk; and opinion, formed from the brilliant conversation at such gatherings as the Literary Club, afterwards circulated among the public either in the treatises of individual critics, or in the pages of the two leading Monthly Reviews. The society from which it proceeded, though not in the strict sense of the word fashionable, was eminently refined and widely representative; it included the politician, the clergyman, the artist, the connoisseur, and was permeated with the necessary leaven of feminine intuition, ranging from the observation of Miss Burney or the vivacity of Mrs. Thrale, to the stately morality of Mrs. Montagu and Mrs. Hannah More.

On the other hand, the whole period of Murray’s life as a publisher, extending, to speak broadly, from the first French Revolution to almost the eve of the French Revolution of 1848, was characterised in a marked degree by the advance of Democracy. In all directions there was an uprising of the spirit of individual liberty against the prescriptions of established authority. In Politics the tendency is apparent in the progress of the Reform movement. In Commerce it was marked by the inauguration of the Free Trade movement. In Literature it made itself felt in the great outburst of poetry at the beginning of the century, and in the assertion of the superiority of individual genius to the traditional laws of form.

The effect produced by the working of the democratic spirit within the aristocratic constitution of society and taste may without exaggeration be described as prodigious. At first sight, indeed, there seems to be a certain abruptness
in the transition from the highly-organized society represented in
Boswell’sLife of Johnson,’ to the philosophical retirement of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is only when we look beneath the surface that we see the old traditions still upheld by a small class of Conservative writers, including Campbell, Rogers, and Crabbe, and, as far as style is concerned, by some of the romantic innovators, Byron, Scott, and Moore. But, generally speaking, the age succeeding the first French Revolution, exhibits the triumph of individualism. Society itself is penetrated by new ideas; literature becomes fashionable; men of position are no longer ashamed to be known as authors, nor women of distinction afraid to welcome men of letters in their drawing-rooms. On all sides the excitement and curiosity of the times is reflected in the demand for poems, novels, essays, travels, and every kind of imaginative production, under the name of belles lettres.

As in the sphere of poetry this strange blend of democratic energy and aristocratic refinement found its fullest expression in the works of Byron, so in the sphere of taste it met with its most congenial interpreter in Murray. A certain romantic spirit of enterprise shows itself in his character at the very outset of his career. Tied to a partner of a petty and timorous disposition, he seizes an early opportunity to rid himself of the incubus. With youthful ardour he begs of a veteran author to be allowed the privilege of publishing, as his first undertaking, a work which he himself genuinely admired. He refuses to be bound by mere trading calculations. “The business of a publishing bookseller,” he writes to a correspondent, “is not in his shop, or even in his connections, but in his brains.” In all his professional conduct a largeness of view is apparent. A new conception of the scope of his trade
seems early to have risen in his mind, and he was perhaps the first member of the Stationers’ craft to separate the business of bookselling from that of publishing. When
Constable in Edinburgh sent him “a miscellaneous order of books from London,” he replied: “Country orders are a branch of business which I have ever totally declined as incompatible with my more serious plans as a publisher.”

With ideas of this kind, it may readily be imagined that Murray was not what is usually called “a good man of business,” a fact of which he was well aware, as the following incident, which occurred in his later years, amusingly indicates.

The head of one of the larger firms with which he dealt came in person to Albemarle Street to receive payment of his account. This was duly handed to him in bills, which, by some carelessness, he lost on his way home. He thereupon wrote to Mr. Murray, requesting him to advertise in his own name for the lost property. Murray’s reply was as follows:—

Twickenham, October 26, 1841.
My dear ——,

I am exceedingly sorry for the vexatious, though, I hope, only temporary loss which you have met with; but I have so little character for being a man of business, that if the bills were advertised in my name it would be publicly confirming the suspicion—but in your own name, it will be only considered as a very extraordinary circumstance, and I therefore give my impartial opinion in favour of the latter mode. Remaining, my dear ——,

Most truly yours,
John Murray.

The possession of ordinary commercial shrewdness, however, was by no means the quality most essential for successful publishing at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Constable and Ballantyne were men of great cleverness and aptitude for business; but, wanting the higher endowments of head and heart, they were unable to resist the whirl of excitement accompanying an unprecedented measure of financial success. Their ruin was as rapid as their rise. To Murray, on the other hand, perhaps their inferior in the average arts of calculation, a vigorous native sense, tempering a genuine enthusiasm for what was excellent in literature, gave precisely that mixture of dash and steadiness which was needed to satisfy the complicated requirements of the public taste.

A high sense of rectitude is apparent in all his business transactions; and Charles Knight did him no more than justice in saying that he had “left an example of talent and honourable conduct which would long be a model for those who aim at distinction in the profession.” He would have nothing to do with what was poor and shabby. When it was suggested to him, as a young publisher, that his former partner was ready to bear part of the risk in a contemplated undertaking, he refused to associate his fortunes with a man who conducted his business on underhand principles. “I cannot allow my name to stand with his, because he undersells all other publishers at the regular and advertised prices.” Boundless as was his admiration for the genius of Scott and Byron, he abandoned one of the most cherished objects of his ambition—to be the publisher of new works by the author of Waverley—rather than involve himself further in transactions which he foresaw must lead to discredit and disaster; and, at the risk of a quarrel, strove to recall Byron to the ways of sound literature, when through his wayward genius he seemed to be drifting into an unworthy course.

In the same way, when the disagreement between the
firms of
Constable and Longmans, seemed likely to turn to his own advantage, instead of making haste to seize the golden opportunity, he exerted himself to effect a reconciliation between the disputants, by pointing out what he considered the just and reasonable view of their mutual interests. The letters which, on this occasion, he addressed respectively to Mr. A. G. Hunter, to the Constables, and to the Longmans, are models of good sense and manly rectitude. Nor was his conduct to Constable after the downfall of the latter, less worthy of admiration. Deeply as Constable had injured him by the reckless conduct of his business, Murray not only retained no ill-feeling against him, but, anxious simply to help a brother in misfortune, resigned in his favour, in a manner full of the most delicate consideration, his own claim to a valuable copyright. The same warmth of heart and disinterested friendship appears in his efforts to re-establish the affairs of the Robinsons after the failure of that firm. Yet, remarkable as he was for his loyalty to his comrades, he was no less distinguished by his spirit and independence. No man without a very high sense of justice and self-respect could have conducted a correspondence on a matter of business in terms of such dignified propriety as Murray employed in addressing Benjamin Disraeli after the collapse of the Representative. It is indeed a proof of power to appreciate character, remarkable in so young a man, that Disraeli should, after all that had passed between them, have approached Murray in his capacity of publisher with complete confidence. He knew that he was dealing with a man at once shrewd and magnanimous, and he gave him credit for understanding how to estimate his professional interest apart from his sense of private injury.

Perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic as a
publisher was his unfeigned love of literature for its own sake; a love which he owed in great part to the example and instruction of his half-brother
Archibald. His almost romantic admiration for genius and its productions, raised him above the atmosphere of petty calculation. Not unfrequently it of course led him into commercial mistakes, and in his purchase of Crabbe’sTales,’ he found to his cost, that his enthusiastic appreciation of that author’s works and the magnificence of his dealings with him were not the measure of the public taste. Yet disappointments of this kind in no way embittered his temper, or affected the liberality with which he treated writers like Washington Irving, of whose powers he had himself once formed a high conception. The mere love of money indeed was never an absorbing motive in Murray’s commercial career, otherwise it is certain that his course in the suppression of Byron’s Memoirs would have been something very different to that which he actually pursued. On the perfect letter which he wrote to Scott, presenting him with his fourth share in ‘Marmion,’ the best comment is the equally admirable letter in which Scott returned his thanks. The grandeur—for that seems the appropriate word—of his dealings with men of high genius, is seen in his payments to Byron, while his confidence in the solid value of literary excellence appears from the fact that, when the Quarterly was not paying its expenses, he gave Southey for his ‘Life of Nelson’ double the usual rate of remuneration. No doubt his lavish generosity was politic as well as splendid. This, and the prestige which he obtained as Byron’s publisher, naturally drew to him all that was vigorous and original in the intellect of the day, so that there was a general desire among young authors to be introduced to the public under his auspices. The relations between author and publisher
which had prevailed in the eighteenth century were, in his case, curiously inverted, and, in the place of a solitary scholar like
Johnson, surrounded by an association of booksellers, the drawing-room of Murray now presented the remarkable spectacle of a single publisher acting as the centre of attraction to a host of distinguished writers.

In Murray the spirit of the eighteenth century seemed to meet and harmonise with the spirit of the nineteenth. Enthusiasm, daring, originality, and freedom from conventionality made him eminently a man of his time, and, in a certain sense, he did as much as any of his contemporaries to swell that movement in his profession towards complete individual liberty, which had been growing almost from the foundation of the Stationers’ Company. On the other hand, in his temper, taste, and general principles, he reflected the best and most ancient traditions of his craft. Had his life been prolonged, he would have witnessed the disappearance in the trade of many institutions which he reverenced and always sought to develop. Some of them, indeed, vanished in his own life-time. The old association of booksellers, with its accompaniment of trade-books, dwindled with the growth of the spirit of competition and the greater facility of communication, so that, long before his death, the cooperation between the booksellers of London and Edinburgh was no more than a memory. Another institution which had his warm support was the Sale dinner, but this too has all but succumbed during the past decade, to the existing tendency for new and more rapid methods of conducting business. The object of the Sale dinner was to induce the great distributing houses, and the retail booksellers to speculate, and buy an increased supply of books on special terms. Speculation has now almost ceased in consequence
of the enormous number of books published, which makes it difficult for a bookseller to keep a large stock of any single work, and renders the life of a new book so precarious that the demand for it may at any moment come to a sudden stop.

The country booksellers—a class in which Murray was always deeply interested—are dying out. Profits on books being cut down to a minimum, these tradesmen find it almost impossible to live by the sale of books alone, and are forced to couple this with some other kind of business.

The apparent risk involved in Murray’s extraordinary spirit of adventure was in reality diminished by the many checks which in his day operated on competition, and by the high prices then paid for ordinary books. Men were at that time in the habit of forming large private libraries, and furnishing them with the sumptuous editions of travels and books of costly engraving issued from Murray’s press. The taste of the time has changed. Collections of books have been superseded, as a fashion, by collections of pictures, and the circulating library encourages the habit of reading books without buying them. Cheap bookselling, the characteristic of the age, has been promoted by the removal of the tax on paper, and by the refuse out of which paper can now be manufactured. This cheapness, the ideal condition for which Charles Knight sighed, has been accompanied by a distinct deterioration in the taste and industry of the general reader. The multiplication of Reviews, Magazines manuals, and abstracts, has impaired the love of, and perhaps the capacity for study, research, and scholarship on which the general quality of literature must depend. Books, and even knowledge, like other commodities, may, in proportion to the ease with which they are obtained, lose at once both their external value and their intrinsic merit.


Murray’s professional success is sufficient evidence of the extent of his intellectual powers. The foregoing Memoir has confined itself almost exclusively to an account of his life as a publisher, and it has been left to the reader’s imagination to divine from a few glimpses how much of this success was due to force of character and a rare combination of personal qualities. A few concluding words on this point may not be inappropriate.

Quick-tempered and impulsive, he was at the same time warm-hearted and generous to a fault, while a genuine sense of humour, which constantly shows itself in his letters, saved him many a time from those troubles into which the hasty often fall. “I wish,” wrote George Borrow, within a short time of the publisher’s death, “that all the world were as gay as he.”

He was in some respects indolent, and not infrequently caused serious misunderstandings by his neglect to answer letters; but when he did apply himself to work, he achieved results more solid than most of his compeers. He had, moreover, a wonderful power of attraction, and both in his conversation and correspondence possessed a gift of felicitous expression which rarely failed to arouse a sympathetic response in those whom he addressed. Throughout “the trade” he was beloved, and he rarely lost a friend among those who had come within his personal influence.

He was eager to look for, and quick to discern, any promise of talent in the young. “Every one,” he would say, “has a book in him, or her, if one only knew how to extract it,” and many was the time that he lent a helping hand to those who were first entering on a literary career.

To his remarkable powers as a host the many descriptions of his dinner parties which have been preserved, amply testify; he was more than a mere entertainer, and
took the utmost pains so to combine and to place his guests as best to promote sympathetic conversation and the general harmony of the gathering. Among the noted wits and talkers, moreover, who assembled round his table he was fully able to hold his own in conversation and in repartee.

On one occasion Lady Bell was present at one of these parties, and wrote: “The talk was of wit, and Moore gave specimens. Charles thought that our host Murray said the best things that brilliant night.”

Many of the friends whose names are most conspicuous in these pages had passed away before him, but of those who remained there was scarcely one whose letters do not testify to the general affection with which he was regarded. We give here one or two extracts from letters received during his last illness. Thomas Mitchell wrote to the present Mr. Murray:—

“Give my most affectionate remembrances to your father. More than once I should have sunk under the ills of life but for his kind support and countenance, and so I believe would many others say besides myself. Be his maladies small or great, assure him that he has the earnest sympathies of one who well knows and appreciates his sterling merits.”

Sir Francis Palgrave, who had known Mr. Murray during the whole course of his career, wrote to him affectionately of “the friendship and goodwill which,” said he, “you have borne towards me during a period of more than half my life. I am sure,” he added, “as we grow older we find day by day the impossibility of finding any equivalent for old friends.” Sharon Turner also, the historian, was most cordial in his letters.

“Our old friends,” he said, “are dropping off so often that it becomes more and more pleasing to know that
some still survive whom we esteem and by whom we are not forgotten . . . Certainly we can look back on each other new for forty years, and I can do so as to you with great pleasure and satisfaction, when, besides the grounds of private satisfaction and esteem, I think of the many works of great benefit to society which you have been instrumental in publishing, and in some instances of suggesting and causing. You have thus made your life serviceable to the world as well as honourable to yourself . . . You are frequently in my recollections, and always with those feelings which accompanied our intercourse in our days of health and activity. May every blessing accompany you and yours, both here and hereafter.”

It was not only in England that his loss was felt, for the news of his death called forth many tokens of respect and regard from beyond the seas, and we will close these remarks with two typical extracts from the letters of American correspondents.

Dr. Robinson, of New York, summed up his qualities in these words written to the present Mr. Murray:—

“I have deeply sympathised with the bereaved family at the tidings of the decease of one of whom I have heard and read from childhood, and to whose kindness and friendship I had recently been myself so much indebted. He has indeed left you a rich inheritance, not only by his successful example in business and a wide circle of friends, but also in that good name which is better than all riches. He lived in a fortunate period—his own name is inseparably connected with one of the brightest eras of English literature—one, too, which, if not created, was yet developed and fostered by his unparalleled enterprise and princely liberality. I counted it a high privilege to be connected with him as a publisher, and shall rejoice in continuing the connection with his son and successor.”

Mrs. L. H. Sigourney wrote from Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.:—

“Your father’s death is a loss which is mourned on this side of the Atlantic. His powerful agency on the patronage
of a correct literature, which he was so well qualified to appreciate, has rendered him a benefactor in that realm of intellect which binds men together in all ages, however dissevered by political creed or local prejudice. His urbanity to strangers is treasured with gratitude in many hearts. To me his personal kindness was so great that I deeply regretted not having formed his acquaintance until just on the eve of my leaving London. But his parting gifts are among the chief ornaments of my library, and his last letter, preserved as a sacred autograph, expresses the kindness of a friend of long standing, and promises another ‘more at length,’ which, unfortunately, I had never the happiness of receiving.”