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.
Vol. 26 No. 8 · 15 April 2004
John Sutherland raises some important issues about the proposed purchase of the John Murray Archive by the National Library of Scotland (LRB, 18 March). They reflect similar discussions in other areas of culture and heritage when efforts are made to acquire significant – but expensive – items and collections for the nation. It is sad that his article is compromised by factual errors which could easily have been avoided, together with assumptions and innuendo that bear no relation to reality.
Sutherland’s piece contains too many factual errors to respond to in a letter such as this. These stem from his lack of knowledge of the archive, which he has never visited; nor has he had the benefit of reading the four-volume listing that forms the core of the valuation. Instead he relies solely on a brief summary which the NLS has made widely available, together with a number of press articles. Had he known more about the archive he would appreciate that its scale, complexity and depth are unique: much is of real interest to the public, and many parts are unexplored by researchers. He would also have avoided obvious mistakes, such as the suggestion that the archive includes the pubic hair of Byron’s lover.
Of particular concern are Sutherland’s assertions regarding the role of Bernard Quaritch in the sale. Rather than handling the sale, Quaritch – one of the best known and respected professional valuers in the country – was commissioned by the NLS to provide an independent valuation of the archive following the approach by John Murray. The company is not involved in the sale, which is the subject of direct negotiations between John Murray and the library, and to suggest that it benefits from a ‘handsome’ commission – or any commission – is simply wrong. Sutherland’s disparaging tone regarding the work of the valuer is both ill informed and unprofessional.
The article also seems very much at odds with the strong letter of support that Sutherland himself wrote to the NLS on 16 December 2003, having already been made aware of the valuation figure provided by Quaritch. In the letter he suggested that the archive was extremely important, that the NLS would be the best home for it and that grant-giving bodies should be urged to see the value of this case.
The importance of the archive has been recognised by the many academics who have written to support our proposals, as well as the Scottish Executive, which has committed substantial funds to the Library. We believe that such an archive is best placed in a library dedicated to maximising access to its collections, with the resources to make it widely available through digitisation and exhibitions, and to provide quality research facilities. If we are successful, an extraordinary archive will have been acquired for the public in a way that will secure its future without any ongoing call on public funds, and without the potential controversy of private gain by wealthy individuals.
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
John Sutherland’s key objection to the sale of the John Murray archive to the National Library of Scotland is that ‘the sum of money … might … be put to better use.’ How often does a cultural resource as important to Britain’s historical memory as the Murray archive come available? The price is large, no doubt. Is it too large? I do believe – and I believe Sutherland believes – that if this archive left the UK, or, worse yet, were broken up, the loss would be past calculation. If ‘it’s hyperbolic to call it … “a mini-British Library”,’ it’s a failure of perspective to call it a ‘plumless pudding’. John Murray has operated across three centuries, and its presence as a dominating cultural force in the 19th century is beyond question. Sutherland argues that ‘the firm’s traditional dislike of fiction and poetry’ diminishes the value of the archive, and he even argues that travel literature, on which it focuses, is ‘not of central importance’. But Sutherland knows very well that travel literature is fundamental to the study of the growth and self-understanding of the British Empire. One of the glories of this archive is precisely in those special interests, such as travel literature, that guided its publishing.
University of Virginia, Charlottesville
I was startled to find in the penultimate paragraph of John Sutherland's article a statement claiming that I had $8 million a year to spend on the purchase of archives. One tenth of that sum would be nearer the mark.
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin, Texas
John Sutherland writes: I apologise to Martyn Wade for the errors in my piece. Those which are unfit for publication in the LRB I ask him to send to me personally.
On the ‘commission’ issue. I understand that Quaritch were acting as valuers for the NLS and not as agents for John Murray. I was misled by an article in the Guardian of 28 February, in which its arts correspondent described Quaritch as ‘the London antiquarian booksellers handling the sale’. The description (that Quaritch is ‘handling the sale’) has been repeated in other large-circulation newspapers. Wade says that Quaritch ‘is not involved in the sale’ but did not, as far as I am aware, have any correction printed in the Guardian or elsewhere. Others will have been similarly misled.
I make clear in my article (as I did in a letter solicited by the library) that I regard the NLS as an ideal home for the Murray archive. But I do question the huge amount of public money which will be required to place it there.