In 1920 an editor of the Times stated: “people who care greatly for literature … do not as a rule notice or care by whom a book is published.” How much notice do you take of the name of a publisher on a book?
Well, there is one publisher I do always note with interest, and that is the name of John Murray, pictured above. Murray had the incredible privilege of publishing Emma, he also published Lord Byron’s poems. But there were seven John Murrays. The firm was started in 1768, by a Scot named John Murray. For the next 234 years, the publishing business went from one generation to the next and all in charge were called John Murray. The business was sold in 2002, but has continued as an imprint of Hodder and Stoughton, so the name ‘John Murray’ still appears on books. The firm published best-sellers such as David Livingstone’s travel book, Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele, Samuel Smiles’ self-help books, and John Betjeman’s county guides.
When the firm closed, it held an extraordinary archive of business papers and correspondence. This, through sale and donation, ended up in the National Library of Scotland and I’ve been lucky enough to visit it. The library is constantly changing its exhibitions, so that different authors are on display, with their letters, first editions, and advertising material.
When I took my tour groups to visit the Murray archive, our guide was David McClay. He has now produced a delightful book – Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher, selected and introduced by David. It’s a fabulous collection of letters from Jane Austen, Byron, David Livingstone, Axel Munthe, Freya Stark, Beryl Cook, and many more.
John Murray II moved the business to 50 Albemarle Street in Mayfair. About ten years ago I was in that part of London and stopped to admire the building which had given the world that inestimable gift of Emma. The front door was open and I went up the steps and peered into the hallway, when suddenly a voice behind me asked if he could help. I explained that I was a fan of both Jane Austen and Lord Byron and asked if there was any chance I could get a glimpse of the famous first floor drawing room. The gentleman turned out to be John Murray VII and he kindly took me upstairs. What a thrill to be standing in that room, where Sir Walter Scott sat and chatted with his friends, where Jane’s brother Henry Austen once visited, and where so many authors came and went.
The biggest excitement of the visit was seeing the small grated fireplace, for it was in that spot that the one and only copy of Byron’s memoir (probably telling his side of his notorious marriage) was burned – a decision taken by John Murray II and a few of Byron’s friends. Mr Murray was so kind and welcoming, and the visit was a memorable one.
I left feeling that it must be my lucky day, so decided to test that luck once more, further down the street. There, at no. 33 Albemarle Street, was Brown’s Hotel (Agatha Christie turned it into Bertram’s Hotel in a novel). Could I manage to get inside to see the Kipling Suite, I wondered? (It’s a place I’d love to stay in, but at a cost of over £6000 per night, it is quite beyond my reach.)
Presiding at the front was a gorgeously dressed doorman, with a most superior air. Putting on my nicest smile, I asked if there might be any chance a Kipling enthusiast might be permitted to see inside the famous set of rooms which Kipling left when he was rushed to hospital (he died a few days later)? ‘No, Madam’, was the response, delivered in frosty accents. I scurried away – no luck that day, though I might well try again some time.
However, my visit to the premises of John Murray’s publishing house was something to treasure, and reading this excellent and diverting book brought back that happy memory.
Do you take note of a publisher? Maybe you have stayed at Brown’s Hotel? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.