The subject of conversation, of curiosity, of enthusiasm almost, one might say, is not Spain or Portugal [where the Peninsular War was continuing], Warriors or Patriots, but Lord Byron! This poem is on every table, and himself courted, visited, flattered, and praised wherever he appears. He has a pale, sickly, but handsome countenance, a bad figure, animated and amusing conversation, and, in short, he is really the only topic almost of every conversation – the men jealous of him, the women of each other.
So the Duchess of Devonshire wrote to her son, Augustus, in spring 1812, after the publication of Byron’s verse poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (or the first two cantos of it). Byron’s friend Tom Moore thought it was almost as if London had been waiting for such a person to appear for it to lionise. “The effect was, accordingly, electric; ‑ his fame had not to wait for any of the ordinary gradations, but seemed to spring up, like the palace of a fairy tale, in a night.”
Childe Harold was to be a huge financial success for his publisher, John Murray, but not, at this stage, for Byron himself who, at this point in his literary career (he was later to change his mind) judged that making money from writing was beneath the dignity of an aristocrat. Of course like many aristocrats he was in constant money trouble and pressed by creditors and was at this time thinking of taking what was a quite normal route out of such a pickle – trading his noble name for ready cash by marrying the daughter of a wealthy bourgeois, or, as he put it, persuading “a wealthy dowdy to ennoble the dirty puddle of her mercantile Blood” by marriage to a baron.
Five hundred copies of the first, de luxe, edition of Childe Harold sold out within three days. A cheaper edition sold twenty thousand copies over the next few years. The profits enabled John Murray to move from his Fleet Street premises to the more prestigious Albemarle Street in Mayfair. Two years later Byron’s poem The Corsair sold ten thousand copies on the day of publication. A little later Murray wrote to Byron: “I believe I have now sold 13,000 Copies a thing perfectly unprecedented & the more grateful to me too as every buyer returns with looks of satisfaction & expressions of delight.”
The firm of Murray had been established in London in 1768 by the Edinburgh-born John Murray I, a former Royal Marines officer. His son, John Murray II, became the publisher of Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Washington Irving, the poet George Crabbe, and of course Byron, who, after eventually overcoming his aristocratic scruples about benefiting from trade, was to receive sums totalling around £20,000 for his work.
Jane Austen had a rather different attitude from Byron’s to the status or worth of people engaged in trade. She is amusingly scathing in Sense and Sensibility at the expense of those who sneer that Mrs Jennings’s considerable wealth derives from her late husband’s activities in Holborn (Holborn!): which is to say that he earned his money rather than having inherited it. And yet the Austen family was to come up against the sharp side of the mercantile spirit when Jane’s brother Henry tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Murray a satisfactory deal for his sister over the publication of Emma.
The Politeness & Perspicuity of your Letter equally claim my earliest Exertion. ‑ Your official opinion of the Merits of Emma, is very valuable & satisfactory. ‑ Though I venture occasionally from your Critique, yet I assure you that the Quantum of your commendation rather exceeds than falls short of the Author’s expectation & my own. ‑ The Terms you offer are so very inferior to what we had expected, that I am apprehensive of having made some great Error in my Arithmetical Calculation. ‑ On the subject of the expense & profit of publishing, you must be much better informed than I am; ‑ but Documents in my possession appear to prove that the Sum offered by you for the Copyright of Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park & Emma, is not equal to the Money which my Sister has actually cleared by one very moderate Edition of Mansfield Park.
The firm of Murray was led successively by seven men of the same name, from its foundation in 1768 until 2002, when John Murray VII sold it to Hodder Headline, which was itself acquired in 2004 by the French group Lagardère. The deal was believed to be worth up to £20 million. The main reasons cited at the time were that a small publisher like Murray was finding it impossible to compete with the conglomerates in paying author advances to bestselling authors, and also finding it extremely difficult to get its titles stocked by the likes of WH Smith and Waterstone’s (Hodder was then part of the WH Smith group). The firm had in fact made a profit of £367,000 in 2000 but John Murray told The Daily Telegraph: “The family has never made any money. We had salaries, that’s all. Everything went back into the firm. It had to. It was the only way of carrying on.”
In 2006, the John Murray Archive (from the beginning up to 1920) was unveiled in Edinburgh, having been sold to the National Library of Scotland/Leabharlann Nàiseanta na h-Alba by John Murray VII for £31.2 million. Most of it can be consulted online.
Source: Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy, published by John Murray and in paperback by Faber and Faber.