Byron Society of America and Scottish Literature Discussion Group Session: 'Four O'Clock Friends: John Murray and His Circle' 29 December 2009 Modern Language Association Conference Philadelphia

Article excerpt

The circle of writers nurtured by the so-called 'prince of all booksellers and publishers', John Murray II, was the subject of an experimental panel co-sponsored by the Byron Society of America and the Scottish Literature Discussion Group at the 2009 Modern Language Association conference in Philadelphia. On 29 December, members of both groups met in the Philadelphia Marriott to hear three stimulating papers from David McClay (John Murray Archive), Hermione de Almeida (Tulsa) and Susan Oliver (Salford). Though the atmosphere of a large academic conference might seem to have little in common with Murray's famously convivial drawing room, all of the speakers graciously rose to the occasion to offer fascinating, thoughtful papers on the inner workings of the Murray circle.

The proceedings were opened with some words from Tim Webb, dedicating the panel to the memory of Andrew Nicholson. As Professor Webb noted, Nicholson's contributions to Byron scholarship, particularly The Letters of John Murray to Lord Byron, have crucially shaped our understanding of the poet's relationship with his publisher. We are all indebted to Nicholson's scrupulous work as an editor and to his extraordinary generosity towards other scholars.

David McClay, Curator of the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland, delivered the first paper, 'John Murray II', and began by describing how Murray effectively transformed a 'fledging family business into one of the most successful and prestigious of publishing dynasties'. Importantly, Murray modelled the concept of the publisher as respectable, gentlemanly professional, a shift marked by his own withdrawal from a bookseller's shop to the more polite surroundings of the drawing room at 50 Albemarle Street where, by 1812, he conducted most of his business. Here he gathered the circle soon nicknamed 'the four o'clock friends', a loose coterie of Murray authors and visitors that included such figures as George Canning, William Gifford, Madame de Staël, Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Murray's library, convivial style and sizable payments to authors were all elements in his fashioning of publishing as an activity above 'mere' pecuniary demands. At the same time, however, the very real business of pounds and pence continued. As McClay concluded, Murray can be described as creating not only the professional publisher, but also the professional author. …