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  • Byron and John Murray: A Poet and His Publisher by Mary O'Connell
  • Kyle Grimes
Byron and John Murray: A Poet and His Publisher. By Mary O'Connell. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014. Pp. xi, 220. Cloth, $110.00.

It has been just over 25 years since the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP) was established jointly in the U.S. and the U.K. The event is important, not so much because it has some direct bearing on Keats or Shelley or Byron, but rather because it points to an interdisciplinary insurgency of book and publishing history into what previously had been the more insular field of literary studies. This interdisciplinary turn has had significant impact on the field of academic Romanticism, and nowhere is this impact more profound than in the study of Byron, whose singular fame (or notoriety) is now commonly seen not merely as the consequence of his formidable talents as a celebrity poet but also of the editorial advice and marketing strategies of his publisher John Murray. Mary O'Connell's Byron and John Murray: A Poet and His Publisher offers a useful contribution to this rapidly growing line of inquiry, taking its place alongside the work of Peter Cochran, Peter Graham, Peter Manning, Jerome McGann, Andrew Nicholson, William St Clair, and many others.

The book is organized chronologically, beginning with a chapter sketching Murray's early years and the emergence of the Murray publishing house followed by a chapter on Byron's early life and his youthful publications. O'Connell then brings the two together with the often-discussed publication of Childe Harold in 1812. The careful documentation of this landmark publishing event is one of the many strengths of the book; it sets forth very plainly the strategy Murray followed in order to maximize Childe Harold's cultural impact and his own prestige as a publisher. While other critics have examined the matter and come to similar conclusions, O'Connell's clear and careful analysis demonstrates quite persuasively that Byron's "overnight" success was anything but a surprise. Rather, it was built on the foundation of Murray's assiduous marketing [End Page 171] of his new poet to a select class of readers. From 1812 forward, O'Connell offers detailed and often illuminating accounts of Murray's deliberate cultivation of Byron's unprecedented fame with the oriental tales, of the increasingly strained relationship between poet and publisher in the initial years of Byron's self-exile on the continent (when Murray became the principal conduit through which news of England flowed to Byron and Byron's communiqués flowed back to his friends in England), and of the final collapse of the relationship with the controversial publication of Don Juan.

Byron and John Murray does not nor does it pretend to offer a dramatic new interpretive framework for the better understanding of Byron's poetry; neither does it uncover some heretofore neglected cache of primary documents and thereby reshape our biographical or historical understanding of the commercial contexts of Byron's writing. Instead, the value of the book lies in its pleasantly readable presentation of the history, from beginning to end, of the Byron/Murray friendship. This comprehensive approach reveals the complex evolution of the interchange between the two men: Murray's concern for marketing and profitability, and Byron's petulance and his ambivalence regarding his own popularity; Murray's need to have his own status as England's preeminent publisher/editor reaffirmed through his proprietary relationship with England's most famous poet, and Byron's need to affirm his status as a genuine poet of substantial and lasting fame rather than a mere "scribbler" of passing popularity.

To offer just one example: O'Connell traces the relatively familiar story of the final "break-up" of the association with the controversial publication of Don Juan. Clearly, this conflict is readable as a consequence of the poem's frank sexual and political content, a conflict, in other words of libertinism and political radicalism on Byron's part and a relatively prudish conservatism on Murray's. But when viewed within the longer history of a mutually satisfying...


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