In 1768, John Murray established “perhaps the most influential of all British publishing houses, with an unrivalled list of authors. The ensuing seven generations of his publishing family have maintained an archive that includes original manuscripts of works by Murray authors, 150,000 letters, give or take, and journals, dating from 1768 through to 1920. The archive holds the largest collection of Byron letters, manuscripts and journals in the world.
Humphrey Carpenter has spent the last year researching for a book about the Murray publishing legacy. In the current issue of the U.K. Sunday Times, he wrote about the experience of combing through the archives:
I am sitting in one of the most beautiful rooms in London. Outside, the Mayfair traffic snarls and hoots, but the room maintains the same delicate calm it has displayed for nearly two centuries. Presiding over it is the fine portrait of Byron by Thomas Phillips.The poet displays no awareness that his memoirs will be burnt in the fireplace beneath the portrait – and burnt by a group of friends including his publisher, John Murray, whose house this is, and whose own likeness hangs in the next room.
Other authors observe me from the walls (Coleridge, Southey, Walter Scott, George Crabbe, David Livingstone and Washington Irving), but in front of me, on a table, are even greater riches. A letter from Dickens, apologising that he is stuck in Broadstairs, and cannot come to town to join Murray, who is leading a delegation to the Board of Trade to see Mr Gladstone about the new copyright Bill, aimed to stamp out the piracy that deprives Dickens of rightful earnings. Next to it, a letter from Gladstone himself, making suggestions for a guidebook to Sicily that Murray publishes. Next to that, another letter about the same series of guidebooks (the famous Murray Handbooks that predated Baedeker) – this one is from John Ruskin, who thinks the Murray Handbooks to Italy don’t come up to scratch when they deal with works of art (he wants the job himself, of course). And next to that, a letter from a musician in Leipzig, who wants a particularly good Alpine hotel added to the relevant handbook. It is signed: “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.”
When I say letters, I don’t mean photocopies or transcripts. These are the originals – and it is fair to say “priceless”. I gather that a single letter from Charles Darwin was sold recently for Â£60,000. The John Murray Archive, owner of the letters I have just described, has almost 100 letters from Darwin, plenty from Dickens, and from most of the key people of the 19th century. There are even a couple of sheets in the impeccable, slightly schoolgirlish hand of Jane Austen, whose Emma was published by Murray. The value of the archive has been put at a minimum of Â£45m. The collection will, all being well, soon be transferred to the National Library of Scotland for much less than that.
My own presence in this gilded drawing-room is because I am writing the history of the Murray family and their publishing achievements. There have been eight John Murrays, seven of them publishers. The first, an expatriate Scot who could drink six bottles of claret a night and then go out whoring, opened a bookshop at 32 Fleet Street in 1768. Why such a rumbustious character should have decided to become a bookseller is mysterious. His son moved the business to Albemarle Street, in the posher West End, and had a complex relationship with Byron that could occupy an entire book in itself.
(Article available only through the Times‘ paid archives.)