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John Murray (1778-1843)

This article was written by Richard Garnett and was published in 1894

John Murray, a publisher, was born at 32 Fleet Street, London on 27 November 1778. He was son of John MacMurray, a descendant of the Murrays of Athol.

The father was born in Edinburgh in 1745, and, after serving as lieutenant of marines from 1762, retired on half-pay in 1768, and commenced business as a London bookseller and publisher, purchasing, in November 1768, the business of William Sandby, at the sign of the Ship, 32 Fleet Street, and discontinuing the prefix Mac before his surname. He advanced slowly, publishing many important works, and meeting with alternate gains and losses. He also wrote several pamphlets, and edited an annual register, successively entitled The London Mercury and The English Review. A half-length portrait is in the possession of John Murray, Esq. His first wife having died childless, he married again, and had three sons, the two elder of whom died in infancy.

John, the third child, was educated successively at private schools in Edinburgh, Margate, Gosport, and Kennington. While at Gosport, under Dr. Burney, he lost the sight of his right eye from an accident occasioned by the carelessness of a writing master. His father died on 6 November 1793, and during young Murray's minority the business was conducted by the principal assistant, Samuel Highley, who became a partner. Murray, however, was dissatisfied with Highley's want of enterprise, and, although he attempted no change on coming of age in 1799, he procured a dissolution of partnership on 25 March 1803, retaining the house in Fleet Street, while Highley took the medical publications of the firm. He commenced business on his own account with the same spirit which he continued to display throughout; his first step, even before the dissolution was completed, being to offer Colman £300 for the copyright of his comedy of John Bull, just produced at Covent Garden.

Murray's first publication of importance was The Revolutionary Plutarch, in December 1803. Before this he had opened up a correspondence with Archibald Constable, the Edinburgh publisher, which had important consequences. Murray became London agent for constable's publications, had a share in Marmion and other important works jointly brought out by them, and acted for a while as London agent for the Edinburgh Review, of which he was part publisher from April 1807 to October 1808. Murray paid three visits to Scotland, partly on Constable's affairs and partly on a more interesting errand, that of wooing Anne, daughter of the deceased Charles Elliot, publisher, a constant correspondent of his father. The marriage took place at Edinburgh on 6 March 1807. Shortly afterwards relations with Constable became unsatisfactory, chiefly owing to the Edinburgh publisher's habit of drawing accommodation bills. Business relations were broken off in 1808, and, though resumed in 1810, were finally terminated in 1813. A personal reconciliation between Murray and Constable, however, took place shortly before the death of the latter.

The breach with Constable enabled Murray to carry out a scheme which he had for some time contemplated. While still one of the publishers of the Edinburgh Review, and therefore in a peculiarly favourable position for appreciating its iniquities, he had denounced them in a letter to Canning (25 September 1807), and had suggested the establishment of an opposition review on tory principles. Negotiations in this quarter were greatly facilitated by a service Murray had previously rendered to Stratford Canning, Canning's cousin, and other young Etonians by relieving them of risk in connection with The Miniature, an Etonian magazine for which they had become liable. The conjuncture was favourable. Scott, estranged by political differences and the treatment accorded to his Marmion by Jeffrey, had ceased to write in the Edinburgh. Murray visited him in November 1808, and secured his co-operation. Southey, who had always refused to contribute to the Edinburgh, promised his assistance. Gifford was appointed editor, and after busy arrangements and discussions, in which George Ellis bore an important part, the first number appeared in February 1809. 'It did not entirely realise the sanguine views of its promoters', writes Dr. Smiles,'or burst like a thunderclap on the reading public', but it soon reached a second edition. 'Although', Murray wrote,'I am considerably out of pocket by the adventure at present, yet I hope that in the course of next year it will at least pay its expenses'. Yet in August 1810 he still had to write to Gifford, 'I cannot yet manage to make the Review pay its expenses.

One great hindrance to its success was the unpunctuality of its appearance, due partly to the lack of business qualifications on the part of Gifford — an excellent editor in all literary respects — and partly to the liberties which leading contributors permitted themselves. One article, to which Murray himself strongly objected, had to be inserted 'from the utter impossibility of filling our number without it' when the number was already six weeks late. 'This was enough', remarks Dr. Smiles,'to have killed any publication which was not redeemed by the excellence of its contents'.

Gradually greater punctuality was attained, although many years elapsed before the publication of the Review could be effected with the undeviating regularity which would now be regarded as a matter of course. From 1811 onwards Southey became a regular and copious contributor; his essays raised the general tone and character of the Review, and he was for many years paid at the rate of £100 per article. He was, however, exceedingly restive under Gifford's excisions. In December 1811 Murray sent Gifford a present of £500, which may be considered evidence that the periodical had begun to pay. Gifford's services were entirely editorial, and no article wholly from his own pen ever appeared in the Quarterly. The overthrow of Napoleon and the disappointment of the whigs' expectations under the regency were favourable circumstances for the Quarterly, which went on prospering, until in 1817 Southey could write of Murray, 'The Review is the greatest of all works, and it is all his own creation; he prints ten thousand, and fifty times ten thousand read its contents'.

While the Quarterly was still struggling two of the most important incidents in Murray's life occurred — his purchase in May 1812 of the historic house No. 50 Albemarle Street, and his acquaintance with Byron. The house was bought from William Miller (1769-1844), a retiring publisher, along with his copyrights. The price paid for the whole was £3,822 12s. 6d., which was not finally liquidated until 1821, and for which Miller received as security the copyrights of the Quarterly Review and Mrs. Rundell's Cookery (one of Murray's most successful speculations).

Murray's acquaintance with Byron had been made the preceding year by his agreement to publish the first and second cantos of Childe Harold on account of Mr. Dallas, to whom Byron had given them in one of his fits of whimsical generosity. After Byron 'awoke and found himself famous', Murray purchased the copyright from Dallas for six hundred guineas, contrary to the advice of Gifford. Rogers, however, assured him that he would never repent it, and this judgment was soon verified. For several years Murray's relations with Byron continued to be a singular inversion of those usually existing between author and publisher, the publisher continually striving to force money upon the author, which the latter long rejected. Byron probably could not forget that he had himself most unreasonably denounced Scott for making money out of Marmion; but at length his consistency and his pride gave way to his necessities, though he magnanimously refused the relief which Murray with equal generosity pressed upon him when his affairs had become hopelessly deranged about the time of his separation from Lady Byron. The alliance subsisted long after Byron's retirement to the continent, and only broke down under the strain of Don Juan; Murray produced cantos i. to v., however, before his tory principles compelled him to desist. The mutual regard of the two was never impaired, and, notwithstanding much caprice on Byron's part and some self-interest on Murray's, this episode in their lives must be pronounced equally honourable to both. Murray did not shine equally in his relations with Coleridge, to whom he offered no more than £100 for a translation of Faust. It is probable, however, that he had a very imperfect idea what Faust was like, and doubtless believed that Coleridge, who accepted his terms and never produced a line of the translation, would have followed the same course if the terms had been ten times as liberal. Murray made one great mistake when he declined to buy the copyright of the Rejected Addresses for £20. He wished to obtain a share of the Waverley Novels, but Scott was bound hand and foot to his Edinburgh publishers. He had himself made an excursion into Scotland by becoming a joint publisher of Blackwood's Magazine, but relinquished it after a while from disapprobation of its personalities. The list of important books published by him at this time would be a very long one, but not many have maintained a permanent place in literature. The more remarkable exceptions were perhaps the novels of Jane Austen, which afterwards passed into the hands of Bentley, and the poems of Crabbe, for whose Tales of the Hall Murray gave three times as much as was offered by Longman. A noticeable feature of his business was the number of books of travel, in the selection of which he derived much assistance from Sir John Barrow, who had become one of the most extensive contributors to the Quarterly.

The year 1824 produced two events of importance to Murray — first, the controversy relating to Lord Byron's Memoirs, resulting in their destruction. Towards the close of the year Gifford's health compelled him to retire from the editorship of the Quarterly. He was succeeded by Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Taylor Coleridge, who withdrew after a year in consequence of increasing practice at the bar. He may not have been a very strong editor, and his views on the Catholic question were too liberal for Southey and others of Murray's allies. He was succeeded by Lockhart, a rather surprising choice when Lockhart's share in the personalities that had driven Murray away from Blackwood is considered. Lockhart, however, had been brought into intimate connection with Murray through his having been selected by Disraeli for the editorship of a proposed newspaper called The Representative, and although Scott disapproved of his son-in-law's connection with a newspaper, he was most willing to see him editor of the Quarterly. His influence carried the day, and Lockhart soon proved himself one of the greatest of editors, far more efficient than Gifford in business matters, and, unlike Gifford, able to enrich the Review with a series of brilliant contributions from his own pen. He entered upon his office with an unfriendly feeling towards Croker, but they were soon reconciled, and during Lockhart's editorship Croker continued to be more intimately identified with the periodical in the public mind than Lockhart himself, not entirely to its advantage.

The project suggested about this time to Murray by Benjamin Disraeli for starting a daily newspaper, to be entitled The Representative, was perhaps the only one of Murray's important enterprises which brought him nothing but mortification and loss, and the only one in which his usual excellent judgment failed to be displayed. Nothing can more forcibly evince the extraordinary talent of Disraeli than the spell which at the age of twenty he threw over this sagacious and experienced man of the world. At the same time it is sufficiently evident that the secret of his fascination lay in his own intense belief in his own project, and that the measures he took to further it were judicious as well as energetic; while it is by no means certain that the scheme might not have been a success after all if Murray had not trusted his confederate only by halves. When Disraeli, not from his own default, but from that of the person on whom he had relied, proved unable to advance his share of the capital, Murray immediately broke with him, and in so doing 'took the post-horses from his carriage', as Brougham said on another occasion. It is strange that all the resources of his house should have produced nothing more creditable, but so it was: The Representative was an unmitigated failure from first to last, and its discontinuance in July 1826, after an ignominious existence of six months, left Murray no other cause for self-congratulation than the fortitude with which he had shown himself capable of bearing a loss of £26,000. The affair naturally led to the interruption of his old friendship with the elder Disraeli, and sowed the seeds of the enmity between Disraeli and Croker which bore literary fruit in Coningsby. It also inspired Vivian Grey, long supposed to have been derived from actual experience of party cabals, but now seen to be neither more nor less than the history of The Representative transported into the sphere of politics. Murray and Disraeli were afterwards coldly reconciled, and the latter's Contarini Fleming and Gallomania were published in Albemarle Street. Another reconciliation, prompted by the strongest mutual interest, produced Moore's Life of Byron and his edition of Byron's works, Murray buying up all the copyrights not already in his possession for more than £3,000.

Murray's latter years were unmarked by striking incidents. He published many of the most important books of his day, among which may be particularly mentioned the first volume of Napier's Peninsular War, by which he lost heavily; Croker's Boswell, so lashed by Macaulay and slighted by Carlyle; Borrow's Bible in Spain, Lyell's Geology, and Mrs. Somerville's Connection of the Physical Sciences; and he narrowly escaped publishing Sartor Resartus and Mill's Logic. He deferred so far to the growing taste for cheap literature as to bring out The Family Library, a most admirable collection of popular treatises by Scott, Southey, Milman, Palgrave, and other first-class writers, which ran to forty-seven volumes, but does not appear to have been exceedingly profitable. Another very important undertaking was that of the world-famous handbooks, which originated in the publication by him of Mrs. Mariana Starke's Guide for Travellers on the Continent in 1820, but received their present form as a consequence of the continental travels of his son, the third John Murray. He depended much on his own judgment; his principal literary advisers seem to have been Lockhart, Milman, Barrow, and Lady Calcott.

Murray's health began to decline in the autumn of 1842, and he died on 27 June 1843. His character was that of a consummate man of business, who had caught from his pursuits much of the urbanity that should characterise the man of letters, and possessed moreover an innate generosity and magnanimity which continually streams forth in his transactions with individuals, and inspired this general maxim: 'The business of a publishing bookseller is not in his shop, or even in his connections, but in his brains'. These qualities were evinced not merely by his frequently munificent dealings with individual authors, but by his steady confidence in the success of the best literature, and his pride in being himself the medium for giving it to the world. His own interest was indeed the polestar of his life, nor could he otherwise have obtained his extraordinary success; but he was always ready to devote time, trouble, and money to the service of others. If some instances of his liberality to the most conspicuous writers (who not unfrequently repaid him in kind) may have been the effect of calculation, he was also liberal to some, like Maturin and Foscolo, from whom he could expect little return. He did more than any man of his time to dignify the profession of bookselling, and was amiable and estimable in every private relation.

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