Trials of a Publisher
Girl Reading, Winslow Homer, 1879
by Agnes Repplier
In reading the recently published Memoirs and Correspondence of John Murray, a very interesting and valuable piece of biography, albeit somewhat lengthy for these hurried days, we are forcibly impressed with one surprising truth which we were far from suspecting in our ignorance namely, that the publisher’s life, like the policeman’s, is not a happy one, but filled to the brim with vexations peculiarly his own. It was as much the fashion in Murray’s time as it is in ours to bewail the hard fate of down-trodden authors, and to hint that he who prints the book absorbs the praise and profit which belong in justice to him who writes it. In fact, that trenchant and time-honored jest, “Now Barabbas was a publisher,” dates from this halcyon period when Marmion was sold for a thousand guineas, and the third canto of Childe Harold for nearly twice that sum. Murray himself possessed such influence in the literary world that the battle with the public was thought to be half won when a book appeared armed with the sanction of his name. He was a man of wealth, too, of social standing, of severe and fastidious tastes; exactly fitted by circumstances, if not by nature, to play the autocratic role popularly assigned to all his craft, to crush the aspiring poet in the dust, to freeze the budding genius who sought assistance at his hands, to override with haughty arrogance the wan and needy scholar who waited at his door. Instead of this, we see him enduring with lamblike gentleness an amount of provocation which would have hallowed a mediaeval saint, and which seems to our undisciplined spirits as wantonly exasperating and malign.
In the first place, his Scotch allies, Constable and the ever-sanguine James Ballantyne, appeared to have looked upon the English firm as an inexhaustible mine of wealth, from which they could, when convenient, draw whatever they required. Ballantyne, especially, required so much, and required that much so often, that Murray was obliged to sever a connection too costly for his purse. Then his partial ownership of Blackwood’s Magazine was for years a thorn in his flesh, and there is something truly pathetic in his miserable attempts to modify the personalities of that utterly irrepressible journal. ”In the name of God,” he writes vehemently to William Blackwood, “why do you seem to think it necessary that each number must give pain to some one?” Even the Quarterly, his own literary offspring, and the pride and glory of his heart, was at times but a fractious child, and cost him, after the fashion of children, many sleepless nights. Gifford, the editor, was incurably unbusinesslike in his habits, and never could understand why subscribers should complain and raise a row because the magazine chanced to be a month or six weeks late. It was sure to appear some time, and they had all the pleasure of anticipation. It was a point of honor with him, also, to conceal the names of his contributors, so that when offence was given to anybody, which was pretty nearly always, the aggrieved person immediately attacked Murray in return. There are hosts of letters in these volumes from indignant authors who express themselves with true British candor because the Quarterly has assailed their books, or their friends’ books, or their friends’ friends’ books, or their pet politicians, or their most cherished political schemes. There are hosts of other letters which merely record a distinctly unfavorable opinion of the magazine’s literary qualities, and which lament with pitiless sincerity that the last number hardly contained a single readable article.
All these annoyances, however, prickly though they appear, are but trifles in comparison with the extraordinary demands made upon Murray as a publisher. Impecunious playwrights, like poor Charles Maturin, pelt him with unsalable dramas and heartrending appeals for help. Impecunious essayists, like Charles Marsh, send papers to the Quarterly, and before they are read request fifteen pounds, “as money on manuscript deposited.” Impecunious patriots, like Foscolo, that bright particular star of sentimental Liberals, demand loans of a thousand pounds, to be repaid with literary work. Impecunious poets, like James Hogg, borrow fifty pounds with the lofty patronage of sovereigns. It is very amusing to note the tone assumed by the Ettrick Shepherd in his intercourse with a man of Murray’s influence and position. When he is in a good humor, that is, when he has negotiated a successful loan, he writes in this generous fashion: “Though I have heard some bitter things against you, I never met with any man whatever who, on so slight an acquaintance, has behaved to me so much like a gentleman.” Or again, “You may be misled, and you may be mistaken, my dear Murray, but as long as you tell me the simple truth as plainly, you and I will be friends.” If things go haltingly, however, and there is a delay in forwarding cheques, this magnificent condescension sharpens into angry protest. “What the deuce,” he writes vehemently, “have you made of my excellent poem, that you are never publishing it, while I am starving for money, and cannot even afford a Christmas goose to my friends?” When a new edition of The Queen’s Wake was printed in Edinburgh, a very handsome quarto selling for a guinea which seems a heartbreaking price Murray with his usual generosity subscribed for twenty-five copies; whereupon we find Hogg promptly acknowledging this munificence by begging him to persuade others to do likewise. “You must make a long pull and a strong pull in London for subscriptions,” he writes, with enviable composure, “as you and Mr. Rogers are the principal men I have to rely on.” There is something very tranquillizing in the gentle art of shifting one’s burdens to other shoulders. Genius flourishes like the mountain oak when it can strike root in the money-boxes of less gifted friends.
If tact and patience were both required in soothing Hogg’s petulant vanity and in providing for his extravagant habits, the task became harder and more thankless when Leigh Hunt presented himself in the field. I can imagine few things more delightful than to have had money transactions with a person of Leigh Hunt’s peculiar and highly original methods. He was a kind of literary Oliver, crying perpetually for more. When the Story of Rimini was still uncompleted, it was offered by the poet to Murray with this diverting assurance:
Booksellers tell me I ought not to ask less than four hundred and fifty pounds (which is a sum I happen to want just now), and my friends, not in the trade, say I ought not to ask less than five hundred, with such a trifling acknowledgment upon the various editions, after the second and third, as shall enable me to say that I am still profiting by it.
Murray, evidently disconcerted by the coolness of this proposal, writes back with veiled and courteous sarcasm, suggesting that the manuscript be offered upon these terms to other publishers. Should they refuse to accept it, he is willing to print a small edition at his own expense, and divide the profits with the author, to whom the copyright shall be restored. Rather to our amazement, and perhaps to Murray’s, Leigh Hunt closes immediately with this very moderate offer; and as soon as the book appears he writes again, begging to have part of the money advanced to him. Murray’s reply is eminently characteristic of the man. The poem, he says, is selling well. Should the entire edition be exhausted, which he doubts not will be the case, the poet’s share of the profits would amount to exactly forty-eight pounds and ten shillings. He takes pleasure in enclosing a cheque for fifty pounds, and only asks that a receipt may be sent him for the same. The receipt is not sent until ten days are past, when it arrives accompanied by a long letter in which Leigh Hunt enlarges upon his pecuniary troubles concerning these he is as explicit as Micawber and proposes that Murray should now purchase the copyright of Rimini for four hundred and fifty pounds, and let him have the money at once. Unhappily, the answer to this admirable piece of negotiation has been lost, but it was evidently too patronizing to please the poet, who was as sensitive as he was insatiable.
The next letter we have from him sharply reminds Murray that he is not seeking for assistance, but merely endeavoring to transact a piece of business which would involve no possible risk for any one. Finally the poor harassed publisher persuades him with soft words to sell the copyright of Rimini to another firm, and there must have been a deep breath of relief drawn in Albemarle Street when the matter was at last adjusted, and the troublesome correspondence ceased. In fact, there is a letter from Blackwood frankly congratulating Murray on his escape. “I dare say you are well rid of Leigh Hunt,” writes this experienced ally to his fellow-sufferer; “and I really pity you when I think of the difficulty you must often have in managing with authors, and particularly with the friends of authors whom you wish to oblige.”
One of those whom Murray wished eagerly to oblige, until he found the task too costly for his purse, was Madame de Stael. For the English and French editions of her work on Germany he paid no less than fifteen hundred pounds, and speedily found himself a loser by the transaction. Gifford, who had scant liking for the celebrated “hurricane in petticoats,” writes to him on the occasion with gentle malice, and a too evident amusement at his discomfiture: “I can venture to assure you that the hope of keeping her from the press is quite vain. The family of Oedipus were not more haunted and goaded by the Furies than the Neckers, father, mother, and daughter, have always been by the demon of publication. Madame de Stael will therefore write and print without intermission.” Not without being well paid, however; for three years later we find the Baron de Stael writing to Murray in his mother’s name, and demanding four thousand pounds for her three-volume work, Des Causes et des Effcts de la Revolution Fransaise. “My mother insists upon four thousand pounds, besides a credit in books for every new edition,” says this imperative gentleman, somewhat in the manner of a footpad; to whom Murray responds with much tranquility, thanking him for his “obliging letter,” and intimating that he and Longman together are willing to pay one thousand pounds for the first French and English editions, and three hundred and fifty pounds for the second. Madame de Stael indignantly repudiates this offer, declaring that twenty-five hundred pounds is the least she can think of taking, and that the book will be a bargain at such a price. Murray, who knows something about bargains, and who has been rendered more cautious than usual by his experience with L’Allemagne, declines such palpable risks, and excuses himself from further negotiations. La Revolution Fransaise did not appear until after Madame de Stael’s death, when it was published by Messrs. Baldwin and Cradock, and proved a lamentable failure, people having begun by that time to grow a trifle weary of such a thrice-told tale.
The most amusing and at the same time most pathetic bit of correspondence in these two big volumes relates to a translation of Faust, which Coleridge, so eminently qualified for the task, offers to write for Murray. He unfolds his views in a letter as long as an average essay or what we call an essay in these degenerate days evincing on every page a superb contempt for the reading public, which was expected to buy the book, a painful reluctance to “attempt anything of a literary nature with any motive of pecuniary advantage “which does not prevent him from doing some elaborate bargaining later on and a tendency to plunge into intellectual abstractions, calculated to chill the heart of the stoutest publisher in Christendom. There is one incomparable paragraph which Coleridge alone could have written, and a portion of which only a portion I cannot refrain from quoting: “Any work in Poetry strikes me with more than common awe, as proposed for realization by myself, because from long habits of meditation on language, as the symbolic medium of the connection of Thought with Thought as affected and modified by Passion and Emotion, I should spend days in avoiding what I deemed faults, though with the full foreknowledge that their admission would not have offended three of all my readers, and might perhaps be deemed beauties by three hundred if so many there were; and this not out of any respect for the public (i.e., the persons who might happen to purchase and look over the book) but from a hobby-horsical, superstitious regard to my own feelings and sense of Duty. Language is the sacred Fire in this Temple of Humanity, and the Muses are its especial and vestal priestesses. Though I cannot prevent the vile drugs and counterfeit Frankincense which render its flames at once pitchy, glowing, and unsteady, I would yet be no voluntary accomplice in the Sacrilege. With the commencement of a Public, commences the degradation of the Good and the Beautiful both fade and retire before the accidentally Agreeable. Othello becomes a hollow lip-worship; and the Castle Spectre, or any more peccant thing of Froth, Noise, and Impermanence, that may have overbillowed it on the restless sea of curiosity, is the true Prayer of the Praise and Admiration.”
Fancy the feelings of a poor publisher assailed with this raging torrent of words! Murray, stemming the tide as best he can, replies in a short, businesslike note, proposing terms, not very liberal ones, for the desired translation. Whereupon Coleridge writes a second letter, actually longer than the first, intimating that a hundred pounds is but scant remuneration for such a piece of work, “executed as alone I can or dare do it that is, to the utmost of my power; for which the intolerable Pain, nay the far greater Toil and Effort of doing otherwise, is a far safer Pledge than any solicitude on my part concerning the approbation of the Public.”
Finally, the undertaking was abandoned, and the English-speaking world lost its single chance of having Faust adequately translated; lost it, I truly believe, through the reluctance of even a patient man to stomach any further correspondence.
Trials of a very different order poured in on Murray through his connection with Lord Byron, an honor which was not altogether without thorns. People who thought Byron’s poetry immoral wrote frankly to Murray to say so. People who did not think Byron’s poetry immoral wrote quite as frankly to complain of those who did. His noble lordship himself was at times both petulant and exacting, and there is a ring of true dignity in the following remonstrance offered by the publisher to the peer, by “Mr. Bookseller Murray,” as Napier contemptuously calls him, to the poet whose good qualities he was so quick to understand: “I assure you,” he writes, “that I take no umbrage at irritability which will occasionally burst from a mind like yours; but I sometimes feel a deep regret that in our pretty long intercourse I appear to have failed to show that a man in my situation may possess the feelings and principles of a gentleman. Most certainly do I think that, from personal attachment, I could venture as much in any shape for your service as any of those who have the good fortune to be ranked amongst your friends.” In fact, the friends of authors were too often, as Blackwood hinted, the sources of Murray’s severest trials. Friends are obliging creatures in their way, and always ready to give with lavish hearts their wealth of criticism and opinion. There is a delightful letter from the Rev. H. H. Milman, Dean of St. Paul’s, offering to Murray his sadly unreadable poem Belshazzar, with this timely intimation: “I give you fair warning that all the friends who have hitherto seen it assure me that I shall not do myself justice unless I demand a very high price for it.” Murray, in reply, hints as urbanely as he can that, as it is he and not Mr. Milman’s friends who is to pay the price, he cannot accept their judgment in the matter as final; he is compelled to take into consideration his own chances of profit. Throughout all his correspondence we note this tone of careful self-repression, of patient and courteous kindness. Now and then only, particularly trying letters appear to have been left unanswered, as though the limits of even his endurance had been reached. When we remember that the Quarterly was the cherished idol of his life, and that his pride and delight in it knew no bounds, we can dimly appreciate his feelings on receiving the following lines from Southey, whose principal income for years had been derived from the magazine’s most liberal and open-handed payments. “It is a great price,” writes the author of Thalaba, who has just pocketed a comfortable sum, “and it is very convenient for me to receive it. But I will tell you, with that frankness which you have always found in my correspondence and conversation, that I must suspect my time might be more profitably employed (as I am sure it might be more worthily) than in writing for your journal, even at that price.”
I am not wont to peer too closely into the secrets of the human heart, but I would like to know exactly how Murray felt when he read that letter. “Let me at least be eaten by a lion!” says Epictetus. “Let me at least be insulted by a genius!” might well have been the publisher’s lament.
Essay first published in 1893. Via