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Family Library

Family Library

Sold at five shillings a volume (approximately £12 in modern currency), the aim of this series was to make copyrighted works cheaper and more accessible to a wider circle of readers. Leading authors of the day contributed to the series and it included subjects such as:

  • History
  • Biography
  • travel
  • Science
  • Natural history
  • General literature.

The 'Library' started with John Gibson Lockhart's condensed version of Sir Walter Scott's 'Life of Napoleon' and illustrated by George Cruikshank. It met with great success and reached several editions. There was also a wide range of non-fiction. However, authors tended to be overpaid and keeping the series in print proved too expensive.

Consequently, the 'Family Library' did not do as well as hoped for and on 4 Dec 1834 Murray wrote to John Gibson Lockhart, one of its contributors, to say that he was contemplating selling 10,000 copies of the 47 titles to Thomas Tegg the remainder bookseller for one shilling a copy (approximately £1.50 in modern currency). The sale subsequently brought a marginal profit.

Home and Colonial Library

Home and Colonial ledger

'Colonial and Home Library' as it was first known, was published between 1843 and 1849. This was the first series that was produced with the specific aim of taking advantage of the colonial market.

Murray began this series as a reaction to a change in copyright law. Pirated editions of British works were being circulated in the colonies. Laws were put in place in the 1840s to try to prevent this and help the condition of the British author and publisher.

Murray wanted the series to appeal to many different types of people. His advertisement read 'Mr Murray's "Colonial Library" will furnish the settler in the back-woods of America, and the occupant of the remotest cantonments of our Indian dominions, with the resources of recreation and instruction at a moderate price.'

Disappointing sales in the colonies
After only seven months the name was changed to the 'Home and Colonial Library'. This reversal in the title reflects the publisher's disappointment with sales in the colonies, as well as the importance that was placed on the domestic sale of these cheap editions.

Six years after the first appearance of this series, Murray stopped producing titles for the 'Library'. The laws were proved to be largely unenforceable and this was a large factor in the series' demise. However, the 'Library' was also criticised for being overpriced and for the lack of new titles that it contained. Many of the titles that Murray included had already been available in some of the colonies and the pirated editions had cost less.

Murray did not include many fictional works in the series which was also a problem. The titles were mainly travel writing, histories and biographies. Despite his claims to be providing the public with what they wanted, Murray was ignoring the steadily increasing popularity of fictional novels.

Some of Murray's well known authors were represented in this series. In particular, Washington Irving and George Borrow were very popular. It was also in this series that Murray published the first two works of Herman Melville. 'Typee' (1846) and 'Omoo' (1847) were published as factual travel accounts - a claim that many would come to question after their publication.

The Representative

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli was a family friend of the Murrays, who had published his father, Isaac Disraeli, as one of their earliest authors. John Murray undertook to publish the young Disraeli's proposed daily newspaper, 'The Representative', with the advice of Walter Scott and the participation of J G Lockhart.

Disraeli was extremely excited about the project and reported enthusiastically to Murray, using codewords for the various individuals involved in the enterprise:

'I arrived in Edinburgh yesterday night at 11 o'clock … It is exactly what I fancied it, and certainly is the most beautiful town in the world. You can scarcely call it a city; at least, it has little of the roar of millions, and at this time is of course very empty. I could not enter Scotland by the route you pointed out, and therefore was unable to ascertain the fact of the Chevalier being at his Castellum.'
'There is of course no danger in our communications of anything unfairly transpiring; but from the very delicate nature of names interested, it will be expedient to adopt some cloak.
The Chevalier will speak for itself.
M., from Melrose, for Mr. L.
X. for a certain personage on whom we called one day, who lives a slight distance from town, and who was then unwell.
O. for the political Puck.
MR. CHRONOMETER will speak for itself, at least to all those who give African dinners.'

The Chevalier was Scott, M was Lockhart, X was Canning, and Chronometer was John Barrow. The political Puck may well have been Disraeli himself. Despite Disraeli's infectious enthusiasm, which saw him appointing architects for a grand new office, the paper was a complete disaster. Disraeli was unable to appoint a proper editor, he appointed correspondents that were 'better at spending money than writing'. The paper lacked not only news, but also style. As Samuel Smiles, one of Murray's best-selling authors, wrote in his biography of John Murray II:

'Incorrectness in a leading article may be tolerated, but dullness amounts to a literary crime'.

A failed enterprise
Murray bore the cost of the entire failed enterprise (despite Disraeli's undertaking a quarter of the risk in the paper's memoranda of understanding) and relations between the Murray and Disraeli family became strained.

Disraeli's mother wrote to Murray with the strong opinion that responsibility for the paper's success or failure should lie with an experienced publisher and not with a 'young boy of twenty'. Isaac Disraeli threatened to publish a pamphlet against Murray – but, through the intercession of mutual friends, the Murrays and Disaraelis were reconciled. There are a further 47 letters from Benjamin to Murray in the John Murray Archive, testifying to their lasting relationship.

Wisdom of the East

Wisdom of the East volumes

Murray's successful 'Wisdom of the East' series was made up of 122 booklets at five shillings each. These were generally translations of classic Eastern works, often edited and introduced by leading scholars and specialists of the day.'

An advertisement describes aims of the 'Wisdom of the East' series:

'The series and its purpose: This Series has a definite object. It is, by means of the best Oriental literature – its wisdom, philosophy, poetry, and ideals – to bring together West and East in a spirit of mutual sympathy, goodwill, and understanding. From India, China, Japan, Persia, Arabia, Palestine, and Egypt these words of wisdom have been gathered.'

Top of page

Topics in the archive

In publishing:

'The sensation about the paper is very great.'
– Letter from Benjamin Disraeli to John Murray II December 1825.

Who's who?

Key figures in Murray publishing:

'Your scruples about doing an epitome of the 'Life of Boney' for the Family Library that is to be, are a great deal over delicate. My book in nine thick volumes can never fill the place which our friend Murray wants you to fill'.
– Letter from Sir Walter Scott to John Gibson Lockhart, October 1828.