Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron and John Murray: A Poet and His Publisher

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron and John Murray: A Poet and His Publisher

Article excerpt

BYRON AND JOHN MURRAY: A POET AND HIS PUBLISHER. By Mary O'Connell. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014. Pp. 220. ISBN 978-1-78138-133-5. £75.00.

The legacy of Andrew Nicholson's carefully edited volume of John Murray's letters to Byron has, in part, been to underscore the lack of critical attention granted to the significance of Byron's decade-long relationship with the publisher who brought him to fame. Mary O'Connell's new book fills this gap in Byron scholarship with admirable effectiveness. O'Connell's study examines how the relationship between poet and publisher offers far more than mere biographical anecdote. The book at once illuminates the material circumstances of Byron's earliest poems, along with the poet's (often ambivalent) opinion of those compositions and the writing of poetry more generally, whilst giving due care and attention to both Byron's and his poetry's place in the nineteenth-century publishing industry.

The introduction offers a fascinating negotiation of the tension between art and industry that exists in both publishing and poetry. The former is at once an artisanal practice as well as a means of raising capital. The latter is equally caught between craft on the one hand and commerce on the other. Byron's disparaging opinion of inky-thumbed poets who sang for their supper (as he wrote to Thomas Moore in 1818, 'I thought that Poetry was an art, or an attribute, and not a profession') is shown by O'Connell to be not simply snooty, but revealing of the rivalry between those who wrote to be famous, and those who wrote to be fed. From here, the book progresses in chronological fashion, beginning with the early years of Murray's publishing house, and ending with a chapter on the eventual disintegration of the relationship with Byron amidst the poet's increasing resentment of Murray's commercial control of his works. O'Connell devotes a chapter each to the circumstances surrounding the publication of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, whilst the fourth and fifth chapters cover Byron's years of fame, carefully examining the relationship between the success of Byron's Turkish Tales and the advantageous location of Murray's infamous Drawing Room. (Charles Lamb's dubbing of Albemarle Street, 'John Murray Street', whilst facetious, gives some sense of the importance of the geographic and demographic positioning of the poet's publisher). In the sixth chapter O'Connell argues that the tensions that led to Byron's eventual separation from Murray were already discernible in 1816, and proceeds to suggest that the break attended to in the final chapter 'necessarily represents a momentous change in the practices of composition, publication and reception' of the preceding years.

The chronological organisation of the chapters and a painstaking level of historical detail, along with titbits from the correspondence, often lends the study the feel of a biography. This is felt particularly keenly in O'Connell's detailing of Murray's friendship with Caroline Lamb-described by Leslie Marchand as 'one of the strangest in literary history'. Biographical leanings are equally discernible in O'Connell's attention to the publication history of Childe Harold, in which she emphasises Murray's role in ensuring an 'aura of immediate popularity'; for example, the withholding of advance copies of Childe Harold from reviewers to ensure he had greater control over the poem's debut, and the delayed publicising of the poem until after Byron's speech on the Frame Breakers' Act, with the first advertisement for the poem not appearing until the following week. Yet this is not to suggest that O'Connell's study is disinterested in the poetical ramifications of Byron's relationship with Murray. She moves with great subtlety from Murray's crucial role in Byron awaking to find himself famous to a closely focused reading of Byron's 'equivocal' opinion of fame in the poem itself, which the author contends is motivated by the poet's fear of being forgotten. …

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