A Plumless Pudding

John Sutherland reflects on the sale of the John Murray archive

Publishers keep good records because those that don’t go out of business. Backlists and post-mortem copyright dispose them to be historically minded about their dealings. It was only relatively recently, however, that libraries and other storehouses of scholarship first became aware of the cultural, literary, historical and scientific value of the intact publisher’s archive, stretching back, as it might, over centuries and across many fields of intellectual endeavour.

This happened belatedly in part because the traditional academic disciplines had no obvious place, role or receptacle for such amorphous collections as publishers amass. There are no departments of publishing history in this country and only a few research centres or learned journals devoted to it. Another factor was the sheer volume and sprawl of the archives: so many dead files, so much apparently worthless paper to catalogue. It was easier to stick in one’s thumb, pull out a plum, and throw the rest away. Plum-picking explains why Dickens’s dealings with Chapman and Hall and Bradbury and Evans have survived, while the bulk of their papers have disappeared (some B&E materials washed up in the Punch archive; those of C&H were, apparently, thrown out when the firm was taken over by Methuen in 1938).

Only after 1945 did large libraries become seriously interested in acquiring what had been, for many publishers, the office slag heap – a heap which grew alarmingly after the arrival of the Xerox copier in the early 1970s. In the late 1940s, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (on the initiative of its bibliophile vice-president, Gordon Ray) acquired the literary correspondence of the publisher Richard Bentley and Sons, principal purveyor of the three-decker novel to the Victorian reading public. At the same time, the British Library (with financial assistance from the Friends of National Libraries) took possession of most of Bentley’s ledgers and business correspondence. Modest sums were paid for both sets of material. The papers had been retained by the Bentley family, after the takeover of the firm by Smith, Elder & Co (itself soon to be taken over by John Murray). A descendant – loyally named Richard Bentley – had lovingly conserved and catalogued them for posterity.

In 1967, the BL acquired a tranche of early Macmillan papers: Harold Macmillan, it seems, was keen that the family firm’s archive should remain intact. A second tranche was acquired in 1990. The BL is discreet about such things but the rumour is that for this last portion they mortgaged themselves to come up with £250,000, a price which, 14 years on, looks a steal.

In 1975, following a series of mergers which transformed the firm, the Routledge and Kegan Paul archive, dating back to George Routledge’s ‘railway library’ in the mid-19th century and coming forward to Wittgenstein, was deposited, on ‘permanent loan’, at nearby UCL. The Penguin and Hamish Hamilton archives are, substantially, on loan at Bristol University library, in recognition of Allen Lane’s birthplace.

In the 1970s Ian Fletcher and Jim Edwards at Reading University had the bright idea of offering publishers what was in effect curatorship in return for deposit. Reading took on the Macmillan and Longman business materials, which would have been unattractive to more obviously prestigious libraries, and by offering to take good care of them went on to acquire custody of archives from Chatto, Bodley Head, Secker, Cape, Allen and Unwin, Elkin Mathews, Heinemann Educational and Virago.

It isn’t hard to see why the parent firms were disposed to part with their records at this time. In 1945, Chatto (founded in 1855) had absorbed the Hogarth Press (begun by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917). In 1969, Chatto and Cape (founded 1921) merged, aiming, as they hoped, to maintain separate identities within their coalition. The union was enlarged by Bodley Head in 1973. In 1975, CBC formed an alliance with the paperback publisher Granada. In 1982, the feminist press Virago joined the combine – now CVBC. In 1987, Random House, an American conglomerate, bought the syndicate for £20 million. All pretence of ‘separate identity’ was by now gone (though Virago soon bought itself out of CVBC). In March 1998, Bertelsmann bought Random House, for a reported $1.3 billion. Who, "on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue or at Verlagsgruppe Random House in Gütersloh, can much have cared about the inter-office memoranda of Leonard Woolf and John Lehmann, or between Ian Parsons and Norah Smallwood – all of them big names in the days when British publishing houses were small? Let the librarians at Reading look after them, if they were kind enough to want to.

What Reading now holds, conserves, organises, and makes freely available, is an unparalleled resource for a history of British publishing over the last two centuries (see Alexis Weedon’s checklist at www.indiana.edu/~victoria/pubarc.html for a full account of the library’s collection). There is nothing to match it in Britain or America. And the library has built up the collection merely by offering a service: it has not purchased a commodity in the saleroom, which it could never have afforded.

Any publisher looking for a good home for his firm’s archive would be impressed by what the National Library of Scotland has done with the Blackwood papers, presented to it in 1942. The NLS has been similarly conscientious in its stewardship of the Constable, Oliver and Boyd, and Smith, Elder records. The library’s long-term aim is to create a coherent historical archive of Scottish publishing. Last year, John Murray came to it suggesting a sale of his firm’s archive by private treaty. Founded in 1768, and presided over ever since by a dynastic series of seven John (‘Jock’) Murrays, the firm was taken over by Hodder Headline (a component of the W.H. Smith empire) in May 2002, for £17m. Another gobbet for the conglomerate soup.

The archive, which includes memorabilia such as Byron’s trophy collection of his lovers’ pubic hair, was retained as personal property by the Murray family, who have assured the NLS that any money they receive from the sale (if it goes through) will be applied to a charitable trust. As a publisher, Murray had always been careful of its business records. It employed an archivist and, unusually, charged scholars a modest fee for access. It was worth paying, since the materials were in such apple-pie order.

The John Murray Archive has been put in the hands of Bernard Quaritch (‘Antiquarian Booksellers since 1847’), who have examined, described, catalogued and valued the property. ‘The Murray Archive is a collection of pre-eminent importance,’ they assert, ‘an outstanding national treasure.’ The word ‘national’ is carefully chosen. The up-set price (as the Scots say) for the whole archive is a cool £45m: well over twice what the firm itself sold for on the open market. On the face of it, the valuation is astounding. Michael Bott, currently in charge of ” the Reading collection, said that he first thought a decimal point had gone missing. And if the Murray archive is worth those many millions, how much is the (firmly closed) Aladdin’s cave, the Faber archive, worth: £100m?

At Quaritch’s asking price there are only two conceivable buyers: a very rich American institution, or a British copyright library, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. ‘National’ money, in other words, for a ‘national treasure’. Clearly, the NLS, whose total gross expenditure in 2002-03 was £14.6m, can’t come up with such a sum unassisted. But there is, apparently, every likelihood that the HLF – rolling in cash – will pitch in. According to newspaper reports, Murray is prepared to lower the price (to £33.2m) for their purchaser of first choice. According to the same reports, the HLF is likely, at least, to offer a ‘challenge’ 50 per cent, if the rest can be raised by public subscription. A decision will be announced later this year. The Scottish Executive Grant-in-Aid fund has already pledged £6.5m towards the purchase. A campaign to be headed, it’s hoped, by Sir David Attenborough and Scottish worthies is planned to drum up the missing millions. The publicity push, and a barrage of press handouts, are already inspiring such blandly favourable pieces as that of the Guardian arts correspondent and John Murray himself on the ‘battle to keep an outstanding 19th-century archive in the UK’. It’s not so much a battle as a sales drive.

Is it curmudgeonly to ask whether the archive is worth that amount of money? Is any publishing archive? This is what Quaritch argue, by way of justification (their valuer, it seems, thought the asking price somewhat on the low side):

The firm of John Murray was one of the greatest and perhaps the most influential of all British publishing houses with an unrivalled list of authors. Lord Byron, David Livingstone, Charles Darwin, Jane Austen, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, Samuel Smiles, Herman Melville and Washington Irving were all published from Albemarle Street. J.M.W. Turner and David Roberts provided illustrations for Murray Books.

Granted, it’s a major archive. But the firm’s traditional dislike of fiction and poetry somewhat undercuts the sales pitch. Murray’s pre-eminence over the centuries has been in travel literature – interesting, but not of central importance. It’s hyperbolic to call it, as the hopeful head of the NLS has, a ‘mini British Library’.

Will the public (who balked at the £12.5m paid out by the HLF in 1995 for the Churchill papers) protest at such a large amount of public money being handed over to an already extremely wealthy publishing dynasty? Rich as the Murray archive is, has not much of the cream been skimmed off? One thinks of Leslie Marchand’s 12-volume edition of Byron’s letters, published by Murray, and proudly subtitled ‘the complete and unexpurgated text of all the letters available in manuscript and the full printed version of all others’. Is there anything outstandingly important which Austen or Darwin scholars have not, thanks to the generosity of the firm in the past, already put in the public domain? Is it a plumless pudding?

Chauvinism is essential to the forthcoming subscription campaign. Is Murray, then, an echt Anglo-Scottish firm? Despite the profusion of presiding Jocks, and commercial connections in the 19th century with Edinburgh’s Ballantyne Brothers and sundry Blackwoods, Murray has been an Albemarle Street operation, as W1 in its day-to-day business as Gieves of Savile Row. The nearby London Library might seem as appropriate a home for the papers as George IV Street.

Most troublingly, what effect will this sale have on the future cost-free deposit (or low-cost purchase) of such archives? If, for instance, you were a German accountant going over the books in Guterslöh, would you not be tempted to reclaim the firm’s property (usefully prepared for immediate sale by Reading University) and dispatch it to Sotheby’s? What publisher can’t find some use for a £15m windfall?

Will firms in future hold onto their office materials (keeping out prying scholarly eyes) until the time is right to make a killing? Will university and copyright libraries for their part be less happy to accept materials ‘on loan’ if they think that at some future point, after they have invested expensive curatorial time in the collection, the loan will be called in and the archive sold off at a price they could never afford? In the long term, the large act of public benevolence represented by the Murray deal may well have a chilling effect on the scholarship it ostensibly intends to serve.

The biggest and most vexatious question is whether this sum of public money, and the overflowing coffers from which it comes, might not be put to better use. If, for example, £15m were donated to Reading University’s Centre for the Book, would it not do publishing history as a discipline more good? I think it would and so do they. As it is, such research institutions have to scrape by on pathetically small handouts.

Why, one could also ask, should HLF money be so generously bestowed on the dead files of John Murray, and not on living authors? Are they not in the business of creating literary heritage for Britain? The sums available for the relief and patronage of creative writers are paltry compared to what is confidently projected for the Murray archive. The Royal Literary Fund, for example, has some £4m a year to dispense to authors in need. What would help ‘literature’ more: a subvention to the RLF or tens of millions to the Murray family (even if they do set up a trust), with a handsome rake-off in the form of commission for Bernard Quaritch?

Some years ago Whitehall decreed that Heritage Lottery money could not be used for the purchase of literary remains less than twenty years old – effectively disbarring the practising writer from benefiting. This restriction has been recently relaxed to ten years. Under the sponsorship of the Royal Society of Literature, Andrew Motion has launched a campaign to have the restriction lifted altogether and a ‘manuscripts tsar’ appointed. These reforms would, it is plausibly claimed, divert money away from the archival graveyards of literature to the workshops in which literature is currently being made. One of Motion’s arguments is that the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, under its dynamic director Tom Staley, is methodically scooping up all the best contemporary British literary manuscripts. Staley has, he tells me, some $8m a year to spend. If Britain’s cultural custodians have two or three times that much to spend on the Murray archive why do they snipe at him for putting money into living, and needy British authors’ pockets?

In an ideal world, the Murray archive would remain intact and be lodged for scholarly use in the National Library of Scotland. In an ideal world, public money would be provided for the writers who produce the literature which, after the passage of time, national libraries preserve for us. Good luck to both the NLS and to Andrew Motion. Motion, I suspect, needs it more.