The Seven Lives of John Murray, By Humphrey Carpenter

The history of the dynasty that published Byron, Jane Austen, Darwin – and Debo Devonshire
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The Independent Culture

"I want to ask your advice about a publisher for my autobiography... with which I have been tinkering for a year," the erstwhile "Bright Young Person" Brian Howard wrote to his friend Cyril Connolly just over half a century ago. "Whose are yours? I feel Murrays are the most reassuring." No book was ever written, but the would-be author's instinct was correct. For upwards of 150 years, the house of John Murray was a byword for books that combined a certain amount of gentility with decent sales. You would not find Ronnie Kray's memoirs on its list, but you might very well turn up something by the Duchess of Devonshire, more of whom anon.

The origins of the firm, as this book, subtitled "The Story of a Publishing Dynasty", painstakingly reveals, were slightly more haphazard. The founding John Murray was a hard-drinking lowland Scot who headed south in the 1760s, set up as a Fleet Street bookseller-publisher (the 18th century saw no distinction between the two trades) and began by buying fractional shares in sure-fire best-sellers. His son, both more astute and less addicted to the bottle, built the business up, got in with Sir Walter Scott, founded the money-spinning Quarterly Review and made a fast friend of Byron, whose poem The Corsair sold a record-breaking 10,000 copies on publication day in 1814.

Like one or two of his descendants, all of whom took his name, John Murray II loved a lord, and several of his communications to Byron are quite saccharine in their obsequiousness. One talks of "the misery I suffer at receiving a Letter from your lordship without one word of that kindness which has made all the former ones so dear". There were difficulties with Lady Caroline Lamb, who hung around the office – now relocated to Albemarle Street at the heart of the fashionable West End – and who once walked off with her inamorata's portrait after forging a letter in his hand, but the firm seems to have regarded this an occupational hazard of dealing with quality.

Amid a riot of book-trade gossip, there are two wider points to be made about the first 100 years or so of Murray's existence. The first is how thoroughly the history of early 19th-century publishing reflects and symbolises the rise of the newly literate, acquisitive and consumer-conscious middle class, a process that enabled publishers to "Get On In Society" (to quote from a later Murray author, John Betjeman) as rapidly as some of their customers. The second is the utter absence of anything resembling that publishing golden age which elegists occasionally invoke. Graft, filthy lucre and back-handers were always lurking behind the frontispiece: the first number of the Quarterly may have featured Scott on El Cid, but there was also space for a notice of Miss Owenson's Woman; or Ida of Athens, while another lady novelist, Alicia T Palmer, hearing that her Daughters of Isenberg: a Bavarian Romance was to be reviewed, sent the editor three pound notes by way of a sweetener.

On we hasten, with stops along the way for Lyell's Principles of Geology, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Queen Victoria's letters and Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele, an enormous best-seller from 1930, which stayed in print for the rest of the century. The late Humphrey Carpenter, a delightful and generous-minded man to whose memory I doff my cap, died while still at work on the manuscript of Seven Lives, and the later sections are, despite the best efforts of his editors, a touch perfunctory. The last 60 years of the firm – the years of Betjeman, Freya Stark, Dervla Murphy and some lucrative science textbooks – are wrapped up in a scant 40 pages. This is a pity, because Murray's final decade as an independent concern, prior to its purchase in 2002 by the kind people at Hodder Headline, offers a fine old cautionary tale about the world of modern publishing.

It is pretty generally known, for example, that the reason why John Murray VII sold out to the conglomerates is that the chain bookstores could no longer be bothered to deal with his sales force. On a similar note, I was recently told by a Murray insider that the cover of a forthcoming exchange of letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh-Fermor (yes, Murray still publishes this kind of book), a beautiful illustration by John Craxton, was rejected by the marketing department on the grounds that Waterstone's wouldn't stand for it. More could have been made of these idiocies. Meanwhile, to describe the book as "gripping", as the back jacket does, is pushing it a bit.

D J Taylor's latest book is 'Bright Young People' (Chatto £20)