The Seven Lives of John Murray

By HUMPHREY CARPENTER

Oh for the days when publishing books was a matter of pride and taste! At least that?s the impression one gets from this witty and opinionated history of the house of John Murray, the longest-lived independent publisher in history. When John Murray VII finally sold to a conglomerate in 2002 it meant the end of a family dynasty — seven generations of Murrays who rose from their scrappy origins to become exclusive publishers of England’s aristos. Lord Byron’s bestselling Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) made him famous (and Murray more solvent) almost overnight, and he topped that achievement with, Don Juan, the sexy and wildly popular poem that found its publisher torn between prudery and profit. The late Humphrey Carpenter, a prolific biographer who died leaving this manuscript to be finished by others, highlights the censorship struggles with the glamorous Byron, culminating in the infamous decision by Murray the Second to burn the libertine poet?s memoirs after his death. Carpenter stays on the lookout throughout for odd and funny details — Louche authors, sex-crazed printers, and courageous travel writers — in what could have been a story as dry as an account ledger. For every success story, such as Darwin’s Origin of Species, there are countless misses, passing on Wordworth (“Turdsworth” in Byron?s memorable opinion), Moby-Dick, George Bernard Shaw, and, perhaps worst of all, the project that became the OED. Near the end, though, the charismatic Jock Murray (John VI) brought to the house his friend John Betjeman, whose collected poems eventually sold over 2 million copies! As print culture declines, here’s a welcome (nostalgic?) reminder of what publishing was like before shareholder profits ruled.