16 AUGUST 2021
Court Assistant Professor Tim Connell writes of the relationship between authors and their publishers with a focus on a book by David McClay and published by John Murray (2018), Dear Mr Murray.
In the Days of the Gentlemen Publishers
Having been at the sharp end both as a critic and a victim of the same, and having worked with any number of publishers over the years, I take a sensitive view towards the relationship not only between authors and their critics but also the day-to-day relationship between author and publisher – which in my case I have to say has always been cordial, was beneficial to me as a young writer, and something which has even led to lifelong friendships. However, this is not always the case, and as a starting point I might recall the word of Vladimir Nabokov, who said in the face of the reception to his controversial novel Lolita: “Those who wish to know what the “Lolita” row is about had better read the book rather than the denunciations of it.” And that was back in 1959. [23.1.59]
I have been reminded of all this by reading Dear Mr Murray, a wonderful collection of letters based on the John Murray archives, which are now housed in the National Library of Scotland, despite the offices being based for so many years at the celebrated address of 50 Albemarle Street London, where the offices were located from 1812 to 2002. [Page ix] They not only indicate the ups and downs of even the most celebrated authors (the autographs alone must be worth millions) but they are also indicative of attitudes and social relationships at the time. And there is a precision and deadly surgical style to the language which, although antiquated, is abundantly clear:
There are four main ingredients in a drama – the plot, the characters, the incidents and the dialogue. The manuscript did not appear to me a success in any one of them. The plot excited no suspense, the characters were rather speaking abstractions more than living realities, and the incidents were not sufficiently rapid and stirring. It is, however, on the dialogue that the author seems principally to have relied and here also, I fear, he has failed. Unless blank verse is written with consummate skill it is only prose cut up into lengths, and the present drama is deficient both in metrical harmony and variety of rhythm. [page 173]
(In that respect the writer is in agreement with Rudyard Kipling who said that blank verse is fishing with barbless hooks and Robert Frost who said it was like playing tennis with the net down.)
The writer does, however, concede that writing poetry is a difficult art. In 1865 the Reverend Whitwell Elwin (a regular contributor and actually editor from 1853 to 1860) remarked,
I believe the writer would completely throw away his talents in cultivating a branch of literature which nearly everybody tries, and in which scarce anybody succeeds.
This was clearly something of a mantra as ten years later he makes a similar complaint:
I fear that many persons write poetry because they are not able to write prose. They hope that the metre will conceal the poverty of the ideas. I am appalled to say that Mr Blunt is a versifier of this class. His pieces are really below criticism and it would be wasting words to go into details. (…) I read some of the poems to my wife and when I commenced reading a sonnet beginning, ‘Why was I born in this degenerate age?’ she said parenthetically, ‘I should think because he was not fit for a better.’ (…) There ought to be no hesitation in peremptorily declining to countenance the poems in any way. [p171.]
I suspect that a modern critic would come to the same conclusion in a slightly less elegant way. But then the Reverent Elwin was also the man who did not think that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species would sell, and advised him to publish a book about pigeons instead. [page 188.] (It is a matter of historical fact that Species ultimately went through 150 authorised editions – a total of 94,000 copies.)
A key item in the John Murray stable was the Quarterly Review, and the related correspondence could become quite frenzied:
I read Johnstone’s book some time ago with reference to the question of his capability to furnish us with an occasional political article. His essay appeared to me to want brilliancy and power, & unless in a case of extremity I doubt the policy of appealing to him. [page 45]
Sometimes the vitriol comes steaming off the pen:
The article itself is astonishing & one does not know what to wonder at most – its eloquence, ability, utter misapprehension of the facts of Darwin’s book, appalling ignorance of the rudiments of science, or incredible blunders. (…) Scientific men have a right to be protected against a leading journal entrusting a scientific book to an intemperate reviewer, & the Review must assuredly wish to be protected… [page 191]
Even the reading public can become involved. One subscriber complains about the books that appear in The Quarterly Review (which ran from 1809 to 1967, so must have had at least some satisfied customers):
So far from thinking you unequal to the task of a reviewer, I conceive you to possess talents and acquirements every way requisite for conveying valuable information. What I object to, is that the publications you select for animadversion are so utterly destitute of interest, that the time and expence (sic) laid out in the perusal are utterly thrown away. [p38].
Of course, not all the criticism is targeted at the hapless writer. Authors can be as protective of their works as orphan children. The elegance of the language in that far-gone age does not conceal the frustration, irritation and even anger of a slighted author. Readers will recall that Maria Rundell produced a cookbook (published anonymously in 1805) which went on to become a best seller, clocking up sales of 245,000 copies and going through sixty-five editions by 1841. Miss Rundell, however, was clearly a stickler for detail – and lays it down all too clearly:
The second edition of the press has been miserably prepared for the press. Whoever pretended to correct it has greatly failed […] He has made some dreadful blunders such as directing rice pudding seeds to be kept in a keg of lime water, which latter was mentioned to preserve eggs in […] I still hoped the second edition would be put into so careful a hand to arrange, and correct my deficiencies, that I should not, or you either feel ashamed of the work; yet upon my word I am quite shocked at the blunders that are crept into it when it ought to have appeared in better garb. [p26.]
The quality of the writing of what really constitutes private correspondence and which was not intended for publication is quite remarkable even for what may be viewed as a more elegant age. Some authors had to write pleading letters because of a change of circumstance:
You published for me a poem called A Voice from the Factories –anonymously- which was perhaps a mistake, for my friends knew me without my name, & those who would have bought it for the name alone, did not know it. I am fond of the poem, & if you would allow me to reprint it, you would do me a great service. [page 130]
Mary Ann Evans first appeared in print as George Eliot in 1859 with Adam Bede, so it is unsurprising that Mary Norton should publish a poem on a controversial topic anonymously in 1836. And the wonderful John Murray Archive actually has the marked-up proofs of Mary Norton’s poem, which is epic-sized in length (and almost on a par with William McGonagall).
Permission of course was required as John Murray actually held the copyright. But Mary Norton pointed out that she was in great troubles & difficulties from which I look to my poem to extricate me, as the soldier trusts to his sword to cut his way through. Her plan was to re-publish the poem in a new volume being prepared by another publisher. (The original is actually available today through the Kissinger Reprint Series and may be found on Amazon.) It may not have done so badly at the time as, although anonymous, it was dedicated to one Lord Ashley, better known as the eldest son of the Earl of Shaftesbury and a great social reformer who was the driving force behind the passing of the 1833 Factories Act. The poem may even have inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning to pen The Cry of the Children which was published to great acclaim in Blackwood’s Anniversary Magazine in 1844, following on from the shocking parliamentary report produced by the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842 which highlighted working conditions for children in the mines and factories.
All of the Murrays must have been importuned and pestered by would-be writers. This quite bumptious letter dates from 1947:
Being at present disengaged (the fact is that I have never been engaged) I have no objection to tender my services for the advantage of your respectable journal. I do not much care what you require me to do, being equally able to perform all tasks great or small. (…) If the work is a scientific one I can charge the author with not treating the subject in a literary manner, and if the work is a literary one I can charge him with not treating it scientifically. (…)
I am aware of the fact that your esteemed journal publishes neither fiction nor poetry but nevertheless I deem it necessary to tell you that I can make poetry standing on one leg. (…)
I have no doubt that after this you will put me on the staff of your review. (…) [page 47]
There is of course a certain charming honesty in the way in which he passes proofreading errors on to the printer (modern day authors may have had some experience of this themselves!)
I have one fault that I must confess to you: I cannot spell; of course if mistakes in spelling ever occur in my articles (and they are bound to), you can blame them on the unfortunate printer. [Page 47]
It is perhaps hardly surprising that the author admits to being nineteen – and that John Murray V deigned to send a brief but courteous reply. And that was in 1947. [p47]
The John Murray archives of course contain letters from a wide range of literary celebrities, ranging from Sir Walter Scott to George Bernard Shaw, so one may expect a certain polished style in the correspondence. Here is Jane Austen querying delays in publishing Emma in 1815:
I am so very much disappointed and vexed by the delays of the printers that I cannot help begging to know whether there is no hope of their being quickened. Instead of the work being ready by the end of the present month, it will hardly, at the rate we now proceed, be finished by the end of the next, and as I expect to leave London early in December, it is of consequence that no more time should be lost. Is it likely that the printers will be influenced to greater dispatch and punctuality by knowing that the work is to be dedicated, by permission, to the Prince Regent? If you can make that circumstance operate, I shall be very glad. (p64)
I wonder quite what style Jane Austen would have used in the days of the internet. A modern-day author would probably get straight to point and in a few sharp lines. ( I remember writing a few of those myself, as my first book took three years to see the light of day, but that was in the days of the six-foot sheets of galley proofs that I used to read by spreading them out on the front room floor, and last-minute alterations were discouraged as they were expensive.)
Of course, not all the correspondence was about business. The whole John Murray clan was celebrated for its urbane style and polished manners, and this is reflected in the genteel nature of the letters both sent and received.
At the time of his marriage John Murray received fulsome congratulations from Maria Rundell herself in a rather backhanded style that has to be read twice in order to be understood:
It is really well for you that Mrs Murray reclaimed you in time, for if you had nurtured up such ideas a few years longer, you would have been possessed of such bachelor peculiarities, that she may not have ventured to encounter them. [p26.]
And there is a neat balance in the condolences sent by Lady Eastlake in 1841 on the death of John Murray II:
It is with very mournful feelings that I find myself addressing another Mr Murray, though at the same time I feel that I can pay no more grateful homage to your dear father’s memory than by expressing my entire regard & respect for his son. [p41]
Rather surprising is the tone taken by some of the Victorian writers, who might have been expected to be rather more staid in tone and style. Sir Francis Bond Head (a key name in the Victorian history of Canada) upbraided John Murray III in 1848 as he wanted permission to re-publish some of his items from The Quarterly Review under his own name:
Your father’s rule was to make it a rule to do whatever I asked him to do. He would have boiled his boots and fried his trousers if I had recommended it. Until he struck his flag we were always quarrelling about trifles, but after a desperate battle he determined to sail on the other tack, and to the last hour of his valued life we were the best of friends. I never injured his boots or trousers; on the contrary, the more he trusted me, the more careful I was of him. [page 44]
The Archive contains letters from Lord Byron, Conan Doyle and a host of other key names in English Literature right up to Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Betjeman. It is interesting to see Wordsworth squabbling about the terms of trade, [page 97] or Dr Livingstone railing against pirate publications. [page 170] Herman Melville writes at length to confirm the genuine background of some of his stories. [page 154] All seven generations of Murrays come through in a very positive light and all appear to have been of much the same calibre as the people they were dealing with. This long line of the gentlemen publishers provides us with an insight of a long-gone age whose demise many will surely regret.
Dear Mr Murray: Letter to a Gentleman Publisher is by David McClay and published by John Murray (2018).