Monday, 15 March 2010

The House of Murray

I know what the John Murray Archive means for researchers and historians. It's a source of information and evidence on the extraordinary rosta of writers the firm published over 250 odd years, and on the history of publishing itself.

What it is for me, however, is a collection of voices, some familiar, most not...some of them bogglingly alien.

(I'll be doing a piece later on about a scientific Dictionary of the Bible published at the same time as Murray published Origin of Species that seems to me to speak volumes about the crisis of faith that was already well underway by the time Darwin exploded his time bomb...)

What's more, these voices are noises happening inside a space, a particular location. And that location is the former home of the archive, the amazing house at 50 Albemarle Street, Piccadilly, that John Murray 2 bought on the crest of a wave of success occasioned by the publishing sensation of 1812...namely Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.

(A pleasing footnote to that purchase was that Murray bought the house from his rival John Millar, who had turned Byron's manuscript down...the Regency equivalent of Decca knocking back the Beatles...)

This is the most amazing place. Though the firm of John Murray was sold in 2002 and amalgamated with Hodder, John Murray 7 and his wife Ginny are still there. They are the most charming people imaginable, and meeting them there was a slightly surreal experience, like dropping in on the set of some literary adaptation, like finding your self having tea with the Cheeryble brothers. I was at a reception there last year to mark 150 years since Origin of Species, and the place was full of pigeons...fantails and carriers and all sorts...pooping quietly to themselves as living metaphors of unnatural selection while original portraits of Scott and Byron and Livingstone looked down on them.

The upstairs drawing room looks now much as it did when Byron was doing fencing practice with the bookshelves, or when a grief stricken Murray sat in a conclave with other mourners and burnt Byron's (presumably scandalous) memoirs.

It's like wandering round Darwin's greenhouses at Down...being in those rooms gives you the unmistakable feeling that you're in a place where some rather wonderful things happened.

And it's impossible to understand the treasures of the archive, it seems to me, without that sense of event, a sense of those rooms being a theatre of possibilities. Because it was inherent to the strategy that Murray 2 adopted that he have these rooms, that these rooms were opened to literary and social nobility at 4 in the afternoon.

It was a gathering place, a club, a social hub. Murray was, in modern parlance, interfacing with both his writers (or at least the respectable ones) and his customers, the "opinion formers". It wasn't just that they might buy some books in the shop downstairs on the way out (aristocratic customers, then as now, rarely actually pay for things). It was more like those rooms full of goodies for filmstars in LA hotels around Oscar time. Murray wanted these ladies and gentlemen to include him in the social round. He wanted people to know (people always KNOW) that Lord and Lady such and such were reading his wares, because in this way he could advertise those wares and himself. His social and commercial presences were engineered in those rooms.

Murray 1, the founder, had been a bit of a cad. Scottish, which was a bad start in an era when Scotsmen on the make were even less popular in London than Gordon Brown is now, and a womaniser, a financially reckless ducker and diver, the first Murray has been memorialised in by Bill Zachs (an exceptional collector of 18th Century publishing who lives right here in Edinburgh) in his biography. He had also died when his legitimate son and heir, JM2, was only 14, recovering from an accident that had blinded him in one eye....

Murray 2 had struggled for control over his father's firm, and once he had it, he wanted to make more of it than a bookselling business. Hence the bright and hospitable rooms at Albemarle Styreet, hence also, three years earlier, the Quarterly Review, which was not simply a commercial proposition (a Tory counter and rival to the whiggish Edinburgh Review...) but also a place for gentlemen to meet and talk about the issues of the day. Political and diplomatic, military, scientific, religious...

Byron famously said that he awoke one morning to find himself famous...and wags commented that his publisher, John Murray, simultaneously awoke and found himself a gentleman. I don't think that's entirely accurate or fair. I think that the gentleman project, the making himself known as the social centre of an intellectual elite predated when Murray met Byron...and that their unusually close relationship, which I've written about elsewhere, was as much a danger to Murray's hard won status as it was an asset commercially and socially.

To wrap this bit up, it was the second John Murray who invented the publishing house as a "house", as a place full of voices. Just as it was he who’s close, perhaps obsessive relationship with Byron, his hording of Byron's friendship and memory, became the documentary cornerstone of the archive itself.

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