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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in