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Darwin Correspondence Project

John Murray


John Murray
John Murray
CUL 456.d.91.291
Cambridge University Library

Darwin's most famous book On the origin of species by means of natural selection (Origin) was published on 22 November 1859. The publisher was John Murray, who specialised in non-fiction, particularly politics, travel and science. He was the grandson of John Macmurray, a Scot who had arrived in London, altered his name and in 1768 acquired a publishing house. The third John Murray, who followed his father as head of the business in 1843, had spent a year studying geology at Edinburgh University; as a result of his own travels in Europe he produced a series of guides and also published travel books. Successive John Murrays ran the publishing house; the seventh sold the business in 2002. The John Murray Archive was acquired by the National Library of Scotland: it contains more than two hundred letters from Darwin, from his first negotiations in 1845 until his final years. Although there are in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library a similar number of letters from John Murray and Robert Cooke, his cousin and business partner, the earliest letters date from 1859, the year of the publication of Origin. Darwin’s son Francis described how his father filed incoming letters and, when the files were full, the letters were burnt; from 1862 his father was persuaded to keep the more interesting correspondence (LL 1, p. v).

Darwin returned from his voyage around the world in the Beagle in October 1836: he was busy for several years thereafter writing articles and books drawn from his notes. The most popular was his account of the expedition, the Journal of researches, which had, as Journal and remarks, formed the third volume of the Narrative of the voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle. This had been published in London by Henry Colburn, but Darwin felt that the arrangements had been unsatisfactory. When they came to discuss a second edition, probably at the end of 1845, Darwin was not happy with Colburn’s terms (Letter 856). Instead he asked his friend Charles Lyell, whose Principles of geology (1830-3) had proved to be a scientific best-seller for the second John Murray, to open negotiations with his own publisher (Letter 824). Lyell’s talk with Murray must have been successful, for Darwin sold his copyright in the Journal of researches to Murray for £150 (Letters 857875). It was published in Murray’s Home and Colonial Library in three monthly parts (July to September 1845) before being reissued in a single volume. Returning to Murray the final proof sheets Darwin wrote, ‘I am much obliged for the pleasant manner, in which you have transacted the business with me’ (27 August [1845] Letter 908). Thus began the business relationship between Charles Darwin and John Murray.

Darwin’s next experience of publishing with Murray three years later was not so successful. Darwin contributed a section on using a microscope and a chapter on geology to A manual of scientific enquiry prepared for the use of Her Majesty’s Navy: and adapted for travellers in general edited by John Herschel, but there was an error at Clowes, Murray’s printers, and in the first copies some pages in Darwin’s chapter were transposed (Letter 1244). Darwin was anxious lest an employee suffer hardship because of the mistake:  if this had happened, he wanted to ‘write to Mr Clowes & make the poor workman some present’ (12 June [1849] Letter 1245).

Darwin’s next publications, his barnacle books (Fossil Cirripedia (1851 and 1854) and Living Cirripedia (1851 and 1854)), were technical monographs; they were produced by specialist societies and would not have interested a commercial publisher. In 1854 Darwin had begun writing up his species theory into what he called his ‘big species book’; on 18 June 1858, he received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace with the startling news that he, too, had had the idea that the mutability of species was driven by natural selection. In order to ensure Darwin’s priority, his friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker hastily arranged for a joint paper by Darwin and Wallace to be read at the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858, and Darwin began reworking his ‘big species book’ into On the origin of species by means of natural selection (Origin). Again he asked Lyell to act as his intermediary with John Murray (Letter 2437), who, without even reading the manuscript, offered Darwin two-thirds of the profit (Letter 2443). Darwin was not convinced that Origin would be a success: shortly before publication he wrote to Murray, ‘I heartily hope that my Book may be sufficiently successful that you may not repent of having undertaken it’ (15 October [1859] Letter 2506). Murray decided on a retail price of 14s., selling to the trade at 9s.6d. a copy (Letter 2513a). When Darwin first saw the finished volume, bound in green cloth, he commented, ‘I am infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child’ ([3 November 1859] Letter 2514). In the event, all Murray’s stock ofOrigin was sold on the first day of his trade sale – Mudie’s lending library took 500 copies – and a second edition was immediately called for (Letter 2549). In the end Murray paid Darwin £180 for the first edition of Origin (Letter 2577); by the time Darwin died in 1881 the book was in its sixth edition, and Murray had paid Darwin profits of nearly £3000.

The third John Murray made a successful business decision when he included Charles Darwin among his authors and added Origin to his list: but although geology was his favourite hobby and he continued to publish Charles Lyell’s books he was not himself a convert to new scientific ideas such as evolution. Indeed, he published under the pseudonym ‘Verifier’ an essay entitled Scepticism in Geology (1877), an argument against Lyell’s view of a world that is slowly and continuously changing.

Darwin now began work on The variation of animals and plants under domestication (Variation), but work progressed slowly (Letter 3078); meanwhile in 1862 Murray published On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing (Orchids), which Darwin had prepared for the Linnean Society of London. Murray only offered Darwin half profits for this title (Letter 3261); it was never a best-seller, but it received some excellent reviews from discerning critics (Letter 3609). The appearance of Variation was further delayed by Darwin’s ill-health and the preparation of the fourth edition of Origin in 1866; by the time Darwin had delivered most of Variation he was doubtful of the book’s success, and when Murray calculated that it would run to two volumes, each with more than 600 pages, Darwin became even more despondent: ‘I fear it can never pay’ (3 January [1867] Letter 5346). In the end Murray decided to print 1500 copies: the first issue sold out within a few days (Letter 5844).

Darwin’s next publishing project with John Murray in 1869 was a translation into English of Fritz Müller‘s book Für Darwin (in English, ‘Facts and arguments for Darwin’)In this book Müller, a German naturalist who had emigrated to Brazil, showed how his observations of crustacea supported Darwin’s theories; Darwin read the book when it was first published in German in 1864 and sent an enthusiastic response to Brazil, the beginning of a life-long correspondence (Letter 4881). Subsequently Darwin commissioned a translation from William Dallas, who prepared the indexes for many of his books, and Darwin decided to publish the translation with Murray on commission – that is, taking the risk himself. Murray suggested printing 750 copies (Letter 6597), but Darwin decided on 1000 (Letter 6628). It was not a great success: by April, a month or so after publication, only 400 had been sold (Letter 6715). Meanwhile, Darwin was working on The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (Descent); when Murray read the text he offered his usual terms of two-thirds profits and commented, ‘it cannot fail, I think, to be much read’ (28 September [1870] Letter 7329). Murray decided to print 2500 copies; Darwin, as usual, worried: ‘I hope to Heaven book will sell well’ (12 January [1871] Letter 7438). A second printing was required by 20 February (Letter 7496), and a month later Murray was planning a third (Letter 7604).

In the summer of 1871, Darwin decided to publish on commission with Murray 750 copies of a pamphlet of Chauncey Wright‘s critical review, published in America, of St George Mivart‘sGenesis of species (Letter 7907)this was Darwin’s riposte to Mivart’s cutting review (Letter 7863) of Darwin and Descent in the Quarterly Review, a magazine published by John Murray.The pamphlets were not primarily for sale but to advertise and circulate to reviewers. By November of that year, fourteen copies had been sold (Letter 8044). Meanwhile, Darwin was working on The expression of the emotions in man and animals (Expression), which was profusely illustrated not only with woodcuts but also with photographic reproductions. The Heliotype Company, which Darwin chose to print the photographic illustrations (Letter 7773), proved to be expensive (Letter 8473) and was very slow delivering the plates (Letter 8539). Murray had decided on an edition of 2000 (Letter 8575), but after his autumn sale he wrote,  ‘The modest way in wch you introduced to me your new work on Expression a little misled me as to its probable reception— I had not made allowance for the immense popularity of its author’ (9 November 1872). Seven thousand copies were required to satisfy his orders (Letter 8616). However, when Robert Cooke, John Murray’s cousin, went round to investigate the delay at the Heliotype Company, he discovered that there was a strike, and little prospect of all the plates being printed on time (Letter 8637). The day before publication, he wrote that only 4000 plates had so far been delivered: ‘The Trade & public will be dissatisfied, but we must defy them & it may be advisable to get 6 Policemen to defend this house’ (25 November 1872 Letter 8646). Fortunately, the policemen do not seem to have been required, but, after the initial rush, sales proved very slow (Letter 9071).

At the end of 1874, Darwin offered Murray a new book, Insectivorous plants (Letter 9758);Murray decided on an edition of 1250 copies (Letter 9972) and agreed to sell the book for 14s. rather than 15s. (Letter 10034). Darwin responded, ‘I am very glad of the 14s, for though I much like making money, I care very much more about the wide distribution of my books’ (29 June [1875] Letter 10035). When the book went on sale, Robert Cooke wrote, ‘You took such a desponding view of your new work that you made us over cautious & we printed but 1250 Copies, & lo & behold we have sold some 1700 Copies!!!’ (3 July 1875 Letter 10040). In all 3000 copies were printed (Letter 10071). Meanwhile Murray also published the second edition of The movements and habits of climbing plants (Climbing plants) (Letter 9921), which had first appeared in the Journal of the Linnean Society of London. This edition of 1500 sold more slowly than Insectivorous plants, but even so only 130 were left by the end of 1875 (Letter 10297). The following year Darwin presented Murray with The effects of cross and self fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom (Cross and self fertilisation) and commented, ‘The greater part of the book is extremely dry’ (16 September 1876 Letter 10603) and ‘I doubt possibility of 1500 being sold until the lapse of some years’ (19 September [1876] Letter 10610). Nevertheless the run of 1500 copies was nearly exhausted within a few months (Letter 10896). Darwin was just as pessimistic the following year about The different forms of flowers on plants of the same species (Forms of flowers), and said, ‘it is not likely that more than a few hundred copies wd. be sold’ (11 April 1877  Letter 10926). Murray decided to print 1250 copies of this work (Letter 11107) but by the end of the year few remained (Letter 11255).

After this run of botanical books, Darwin’s next work was very different: a biography of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (Erasmus Darwin).  Ernst Krause, a German botanist and science writer, had published an essay about Erasmus in the German periodical Kosmos, which he edited, and Darwin decided to have this translated into English by William Dallas and published with an introduction of his own (Letter 12078). Murray liked the memoir, and suggested a run of 1000 copies, offering half the profits (Letter 12217); but Darwin felt that this did not do justice to Dr Krause (Letter 12218). Darwin was, however, pleased to accept a subsequent offer of two-thirds profits (Letter 12219), and the book was published in 1879.

The following year Darwin returned to botany with The power of movement in plants (Movement in plants), which he wrote with his son, Francis. It was extensively illustrated, and, as usual, Darwin was not optimistic about sales (Letter 12222). Although Murray offered to publish it (Letter 12654), in the end Darwin decided to take the risk himself: ‘As I have made some money by science, I must now lose some for science’ (21 July 1880  Letter 12665). A thousand copies were printed, but at 15s. each Robert Cooke reckoned that Darwin would lose £50 even if every copy sold (Letter 12794). In the event, Murray had to order an extra 500 to meet demand (Letter 12862).

In 1881 Darwin sent Murray the manuscript of The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms (Earthworms) (Letter 13110). Darwin was eager to push on with publication (Letter 13256), but Robert Cooke persuaded him to wait for Murray’s autumn sale (Letters 1326113265). An edition of 1000 was printed at the beginning of October (Letter 13374), another 1000 were required almost immediately (Letter 13378), and a third thousand was ordered before the end of the month (Letter 13430). Darwin was, as usual, most surprised: ‘I am extremely pleased at the sale of my book and utterly astonished’ ([after 25 October 1881?] Letter 13433).

Earthworms was Darwin’s final book. In one of his last letters to his publisher, after Murray’s annual sale in the autumn of 1881, Darwin expressed his satisfaction at his success as an author: ‘I am much pleased at the sale of my books’ [6 November 1881 Letter 13466]. He died a few months later, on 19 April 1882.

Further information: 

See also

Read the texts of Darwin’s publications. and many of the other publications referred to in this article,  on the Darwin Online site, a comprehensive collection of Darwin’s published writings and other material.

For more information on the Murray family and the firm of John Murray, Publishers, visit the site of the John Murray Archive, at the National Library of Scotland, and in particular their timeline for the publication of Origin.