The Author, The bookseller and The Court Case: Maria Rundell V John Murray

Sarah Benjamin

Paper presented to SAG 22 November 2018

This is the story of English cookery book author Maria Rundell and her complicated relationship with bookseller John Murray. It is also the story of how recipes for scotch eggs, oyster soup and seed cake became the stuff of disputed ownership and how the copyright of cook books and recipes came to be valued as copyright.

Maria was born in 1745 and died in 1828 and is remembered today as the author of the impressive and hugely popular cookery book, A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed upon Principles of economy: and adapted to the use of to the use of Private Families, 1806. Though she has been characterised as the original domestic goddess, her story is more complex.

This sliver of culinary publishing history revolved around Maria who publicly acknowledged giving her original manuscript of Domestic Cookery as a gift to Murray, rising star of British publishing, only to later reclaim her copyright in the work and sell it to one of Murray’s competitors. The rival publisher was Longmans – well known to readers of old English cookbooks as the publisher of Eliza Acton. The ensuing dispute between Maria and Murray ended up in the English Court of Chancery – the same court that Dickens describes in Bleak House in painstaking detail.

The whole episode was described by Peter Isaac in his 1998 article, Maria Rundell and her Publisher, though his piece is less interested in exploring her motivation.  A closer examination of the relationship between author and bookseller reveals Maria’s action against Murray was in fact born of years of frustration; By relooking at court transcripts and correspondence between Murray and Maria and between Maria and some of her friends, a more nuanced picture emerges of an author and publisher deeply at cross-purposes.

Maria was the only known child of Abel Ketelbey, English barrister and landowner, educated at Oxford with chambers in Middle Temple and family land in Shropshire. The Ketelbey’s were a well-established family who had more recently sought to consolidate their position by pursuing opportunities in the New World; Maria’s paternal grandfather acquiring large holdings in the American territories and both he and his son, Maria’s farther, became members of the Royal Society. Yet by the age of sixteen Maria found herself an orphan. Though her education and upkeep were provided for, most of the family inheritance went to a male cousin, leaving her with income from a few smaller holdings. Whilst she was a model of the well-educated gentlewoman so admired in C18th England, Maria was the last of this branch of Ketlebeys. Rather than marrying a landowner, she married Thomas Rundell a university-educated physician from Bath, thereby putting herself on a different trajectory. She was now part of the growing number of urbanised middleclass families in England.

The Rundells were also an old family albeit less grand than the Ketlebeys. All the same, in this period of rapid growth in towns and cities, their prospects were rising, first in Bath and then in London. Thomas Rundell was a respected doctor in the burgeoning spa town, mecca to those who could afford to visit, take cures and engage with the energetic social life of the place. Maria became a dedicated doctor’s wife and mother to their growing broad. A woman of sizable energy she threw herself into the life of her husband, children and Bath in equal measure. On top of the daily demands of family and household she also found time to accompany Thomas on house calls to women in labour and would later write a manual on childbirth and women’s health.

In her own house she gave birth to seven children that we know of, two sons and five daughters and paid careful attention to their upbringing and education. Thomas Rundell was a busy man and happy to leave major decisions about schooling to Maria. Though education of the children was not unusual for the mistress of the middle class household, the attention Maria showed to each of these children as individuals is remarkable.

As the family grew, the Rundells moved into a series of ever more spacious houses before finally settling in suitably fashionable Bennet Street just off the Royal Circus in Bath, Maria and Thomas borrowed books from circulatory libraries in the town, attended local entertainments and hobnobbed with local worthies and visitors amongst the seasonal crush. Among some of this company, Maria gained a reputation for her excellent local contacts and knack for securing first-rate lodgings and domestic help for short-term visitors.

The churn of people heading to Bath allowed her to cross paths with people she might otherwise not have encountered. One such was Mary Hamilton an influential woman who had previously attended at Court and a member of the Bluestockings, the loose group of highly intelligent, educated, women writers, thinkers and keepers of salons including novelist Frances Burney, Elizabeth Montagu and Catherine Macaulay. Mary and Maria began a regular correspondence that lasted from 1789 until Mary’s death in 1815. Interestingly from the point of view of this story, it was through the relationship with the younger Mary that Maria came into contact with some of the most interesting minds of the day.  The Bluestockings valued the education of women as a benefit to both the individual and society; the education they favoured being both intellectual and practical. It is particularly relevant that some of the group’s feminist ideas found favour with Maria’s own developing sense of her role as an educator. Maria was particularly concerned about the lack of practical education available to young women expected to run households and raise families of their own. Her cookery book is her response to this concern and the gifting of it to Murray, proof of her eagerness to get the information out to her intended audience. Her impulse was to educate, writing was simple a means to that end.

In letters to Mary Hamilton the two women shared daily news of travels, concerts and entertainments attended, of friends and acquaintances in Bath and elsewhere, there is an obvious preoccupation with her children’s education. Maria’s self-belief as an educator was there from the start, well before she conceived the idea of the cookery book. Many years later in a letter to Mary written in Jul 1814, Maria specifically asked Mary for an introduction to renowned educator and bluestocking Hannah More. Maria admired More’s ideas on girls’ education, advocating as she did for both a classical and a practical education to prepare them for their roles as serious wives and mothers.

By the time of her first meeting with Hannah More and since the success of Domestic Cookery, Maria had published another book intended as an advice manual for the education of young women, Letters to two Absent Daughters. She had also prepared the manuscript on childbirth and women’s reproductive health; original and progressive at a time when there were few examples of women writing on the subject. Maria was inspired to write in an effort to educate girls and young wives and mothers in the domestic realm. She saw this wider remit as a viable part of the publishing market, a view that Murray did not share. His refusal to appreciate her views would play a significant part in her growing frustration with Murray.

John Murray is a better known figure and at the time he and Maria crossed paths he had proven himself to be a man on the move. Murray inherited the business from his father  – the first of a long line of John Murrays – who had changed the family name from the more Scottish MacMurray to Murray. The senior Murray, born into a modest family, had begun his career as a marine but with and eye to commerce, he saw promise in the business of printing and bookselling. With costs of producing books coming down and levels of literacy on the rise, the book trade showed potential for profits.

The business of the first John Murray was nestled into Falcon Court just off Fleet Street, the traditional home for much of the printing trade. Where the first John Murray recognised the commercial potential of the new business, his son saw the added advantage of moving up the social ladder. After taking over the business from his father, he separated himself from the messy printing side to concentrate on the commissioning and marketing of new work and in the process became a publisher. This separation allowed him to push competitive prices from a variety of printers. This shift in emphasis toward the more cerebral and away from the muck and mess of printing gave him greater access to the fashionable drawing rooms of middle and upper class writers; the son had his eye on becoming a gentleman.

In addition to his commercial talent, the second John Murray was a clever publisher with a discerning eye for popular material and a real gift for marketing.  On taking over the business, one of his early pieces of luck was the gifting by Maria of her recipe collection and her insistence that she would not accept payment and that her name would not appear on the title page.  She claimed it was a gift to a friend, whom she may have met through one of her literary circle or even through her brother in law Phillip Rundell, who had moved up in the world from apprentice jeweller in Bath to one of the most fashionable jewellers in the land and whose famous showroom was an eight minute walk from Murray’s in Falcon Court.

Maria’s preference for anonymity and refusal of payment for her work may mystify the modern reader but it serves to remember she was balancing a belief in the value of her work against strong societal notions of respectability. The potential taint of commerce was staring at her from all angles. As a respectable middle class woman, she was mindful to distance herself from any suggestion she was writing for money. Whether Murray cared to think too much about her motivations, he would have understood her situation for he too knew the delicate balance between commerce and social aspiration. When Maria first delivered the manuscript, she was already a widow of sixty years old; her husband had left her well provided for, most of her children were respectably married and her favourite brother in law had become a huge commercial success as the crown jeweller. She was being careful not to send out the wrong message

Rather than profits, she was anxious to be published and read by young women and Murray enabled her. Astute as ever, he devised the clever title, A New System of Domestic Cookery; formed upon the Principles of Economy and Adapted to the use of Private Families. The emphasis on domestic, economy and private designed to appeal to burgeoning numbers of nuclear, middle class families. The book became a publishing phenomenon and the rest- as they say, might have been history.

From the time of the first edition, Murray and Maria, thirty years his senior, exchanged letters that were mostly civil and friendly in tone. She offered friendly advice on some personal matters, congratulating him on his forthcoming marriage to the daughter of reputable Edinburgh publisher and freely sending feedback on Murray’s new releases. On a couple of occasions she went so far as to seek his assistance on family matters of her own, once regarding a crisis with her second son Francis caught up in a disastrous military battle at sea where Murray had kindly offered help. Moreover Murray regularly sent her packages of books she had requested along with others he thought she would enjoy. In 1806, in what would later become a contested gesture, he had delivered to her some recipe books to look at in preparation of the second edition of the cookery book. Significantly she returned them saying, “ some things I availed myself of from each…but our little work is far more useful than any of them”

Encouraged by the commercial success of the first edition, Murray took on further risk by commissioning improvements for a forthcoming second edition including expensive illustrations and pages of new recipes and text, to be written by Maria.  Amongst the additions were the now famous early recipe for tomata sauce and the intriguing sounding china chilo – a braised dish of minced mutton, lettuce, onion, peas and optional cayenne, served on a bed of rice.  Another striking addition was a section on carving; striking because it highlights Maria’s intention for the book and her aspirations as an author. She had referred to carving in the first edition but in the second edition she raised her voice, directing women to become expert carvers and stand at the head of the table to do the job. In this she was echoing the earlier C18th manual on carving by John Trusler. But in contrast to Trusler’s male expert, Maria deliberately described a woman. She was advocating carving as a female accomplishment at a time when feminine expertise might extend little beyond pianoforte, singing and sewing. In doing so she echoed Hannah More and the Blue Stockings in supporting useful and practical accomplishments.

The improved and expanded second edition was a sure sign of Murray’s confidence in the book, but at the same time, in his mind at least, the improvements he had underwritten were a mark of his own contribution and ownership of the work. Despite the success of the first edition, preparations for the second edition did not always run smooth and Maria’s letters to Murray around this time reveal some blunt speaking. These were early indications that she was not happy with the way he was attending to the detail of the work. “In sober English my good friend the second edition of DC [sic] has been miserably prepared for the press. Who pretended to correct it has greatly failed…I am quite shocked at the blunders that are crept into it, …I am seriously afraid this second edition will injure the reputation of the third”. Maria expected better. Years later, at the height of their dispute, Murray attempted to cast doubt on the extent of Maria’s contribution to the writing of the book despite their correspondence, especially in preparing the second edition, telling a different story.

A couple of months later she was still writing about the sloppiness of the second edition, blaming the compositor for confusing words and making a mess of things.  But by this time she was working on the proof sheets for the third edition, which would be her chance to put the problems of the second edition to right. She even went to the trouble of having noted educationalist Sarah Trimmer review the proofs. The cookery book in which she had dedicated so much time and energy was at the beginning of its long life and she wanted to get it right. From Murray’s perspective, it was accruing substantial profits and his initial risk was delivering the business a valuable asset. With revenues flooding in, his thoughts turned to making a formal payment to Maria, which if accepted, could help consolidate his ownership, so in September 1808 he Maria sent a cheque of £150. In response she wrote, Your very handsome and unexpected present I have just received; I can truly say I never had the smallest idea of any return for what I considered and which really was a free gift to one whom I had long regarded as a friend. They are both being coy but it is the first indication that Maria was coming to appreciate the value of her efforts and to feel more comfortable with recognition. Though Murray was mistaken if he thought he could secure his rights with such a relatively small amount.

The importance of Domestic Cookery to Murray’s wider ambition was demonstrated in 1813 when he decided to move his expanding business away from the rough and tumble of Fleet Street, westwards to the more fashionable 50 Albemarle Street, Mayfair into a grand new building with a large and comfortable salon and residence on the upper floors, a move that arguably confirmed the transformation from bookseller to publisher. To underwrite the move he used his three most valued copyrights as collateral. One of these was Domestic Cookery. Maria had no idea of any of this and he did not even think to inform her of the move until well after it had taken place. Indeed her letters around the time are peppered with concerns that Murray was not acknowledging receipt of this or that comment from her but still she continued to send him improvements for forthcoming editions by removing a recipe here and adding another there. The reality was that he was a busy man with little time to spare for an author whose work was bedded down and selling in such large numbers, besides he had by now signed up grander and prospectively greater authors. Their names can be found in the back pages of Domestic Cookery, which carried promotions for other John Murray titles.  A quick look at the back pages of the 1816 edition of Domestic Cookery reveals numerous works by Byron with some Walter Scott, Jane Austen and others thrown in for good measure, but really Murray’s new prize was Byron.

The relationship between the socially ambitious and commercially astute publisher and the mercurial, brilliant and aristocratic poet demanded a lot of Murray’s time. There is no clearer illustration of the centrality of the relationship than Murray’s commissioning and hanging a portrait of the poet in pride of place in the drawing room at Albemarle Street. This was where Murray gathered a growing circle of writerly and well connected men for his informal salon, and men there were – although Madame de Stael was a notable exception. Maria was familiar with De Stael because though she herself did not read French, her daughters took turns to read De Stael in French aloud to their mother in simultaneous translation. In fact Maria was familiar with the writings of most of Murray’s authors thanks to the books he had sent to her.  Be that as it may, Murray would never invite her to meet de Stael and the others. The gatherings at Albemarle Street – dubbed Murray’s 4 o’clock friends by Sir Walter Scott – were clubby in tone with an atmosphere somewhere between a London coffee house of the Eighteenth Century and the emerging gentlemen’s club of the type that would later flourish in Victorian London.

Actually there is no evidence that Maria ever visited Albemarle Street even to meet with Murray on practical matters. She was mostly out of London staying with one or other of her married daughters and in any case he saw no reason to have her there. It’s also true that Austen who was first published by Murray in 1815 – never attended Albemarle Street either, it simply would not have occurred to Murray or any of his group to include women writers let alone the author of recipes for an early Bubble and Squeak or Gooseberry Trifle to join the conversation. Some of his attitude was simply the age he lived in but if Murray could have taken Maria more seriously he may well have avoided the trouble ahead.

As the editions rolled out, Maria’s attitude to payments and authorship continued to evolve. Whilst Murray and much of the reading public thought of her as the authority on domestic cookery, she continued to see herself as an educator to young women. In 1814 her second book, Letters to Two Absent Daughters waspublished, but not by Murray. Although he had belatedly offered to publish it in a small run at his expense – largely as a gesture of gratitude for Domestic Cookery –  due to yet another mix up in their correspondence, when Maria did not hear back from Murray on her proposal and did not double check with him before sending the manuscript elsewhere, he missed his opportunity. It was as if she was proving her point to him about being taken for granted. For this new work she was asking for and accepted payment. Moreover she agreed to place her name on the cover. Earlier reservations about authorship and money had finally ebbed away.

In the matter of publishing this title, Murray had found himself in a bind that contributed to his slow response to Maria. He did not think it was as viable as the cookery book but he wanted to keep his author on side. Both he and his lawyer Sharon Turner were aware that to negotiate copyright for this new book would be delicate given the history of Domestic Cookery so Turner hatched the plan to simply offer to pay for the whole publication and keep the print run modest. Turner was both a barrister and scholar of English history and one of Murray authors. He had a reputation as fine legal mind on matters of literary property and libel and often advised Murray. Missing the opportunity to publish the book likely gave Murray some initial relief but Maria’s move to another publisher was also a hint of what was to come. She was determined to get her message out and to be taken seriously. Murray could not have imagined how far she had moved from the apparently docile, kindly widow he first knew. The extraordinary success of Domestic Cookery since it first came out and Maria’s own intellectual development over the same time had changed the equation. If he could not see her as anything other than a collator of recipes she would find a publisher who would. From this time on, an obvious distance developed between the two I have had such a letter from Mrs Rundell accusing me of neglecting her book and stopping the sale… her conceit passes everything, he complained to his wife later in 1814. Though in reality he had little time to dwell on the situation; Maria was not the first author to grumble and besides the book was still adding to the bottom line and still the best selling English cookery book ever.  

He made his money on the book by keeping it at a consistent price. In 1818 he sold it for seven shillings and 6 pence, roughly equivalent to £21.54 in today’s money and it had been more or less that price for at least ten years. In the meantime Murray negotiated his costs of production down – even when he needed extra paper and new illustrations for the expanded second edition and other improvements. The gift of the best selling cookery book was that it was as close to a set and forget asset as could be found in publishing, providing a very useful cross subsidy to the business. Extending to sixty-seven editions and considered the standard household reference for middle classes, it also sold into America and the far reaches of empire.  This was a huge advantage for Murray who had to spend so much time coaxing new work out of Bryon and others to satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite for the latest poem or story. But taking Domestic Cookery for granted was about to backfire spectacularly

Despite the acknowledged cooling of their relationship, in 1819 Murray was shocked when he was told of Maria’s move to effectively reclaim her copyright and offer the book to his commercial rival Longmans. It was fourteen years since she gave John Murray her manuscript and that was the period of copyright. She wanted it back and she had every reason to think that she owed Murray nothing more.  Murray was doubly horrified by the very public fashion in which she did this.  It was incredible to him that an all but invisible woman, now in her seventies, whose book he had published successfully for well over two decades, could behave in such a way without any prior warning to offer “his” title to a competing business.

Though Longmans were Murray’s competitors they, none the less, did the gentlemanly thing and alerted Murray to Maria’s offer. Murray immediately turned to Sharon Turner who advised an urgent legal challenge to Maria’s right to the work. Injunctions and legal wrangling with authors and printers in the book business were part and parcel of the trade and questions of literary property could be unclear and contestable but here the impulse was stop Maria in her tracks. The cost of running legal disputes was simply a part of doing business though Murray would be surprised how far Maria was prepared to fund her side of the quarrel.

On Turner’s suggestion Murray secured a limited injunction from Lord Eldon at the Court of Chancery, limited because Lord Eldon had already concluded Maria did indeed hold copyright of the recipes. The court found that if Maria had composed the receipts or arranged them in a book she would have copyright  but if she had only collected them and handed them over to Mr Murray, she would not have copyright. This was a significant determination and a major win for the author. However she could not sell Murray’s “part” of the work which included the title, index and illustrations. On the 16 December 1819 Murray was more optimistic when he learnt that the injunction against Maria selling his part had been granted. If Maria could not claim title, illustrations or editorial updates, he was confident she had little to sell Longmans.

At this early stage of the long drawn out legal manoeuvres, Murray was less concerned about ownership of the recipes, confident he would have no trouble sourcing new ones if necessary. He boasted that a more biddable writer could provide instructions for hotch-potch, anchovy toast and Devonshire junket. It was the framing and marketing devices of Domestic Cookery that he deemed worth saving. For now, Murray wanted to protect the expensive illustrations of trussed partridge, shoulder of mutton and haunch of venison rather than the recipes for their preparation and cooking. He had so shame declaring his earlier payment of £150 for the recipes. In reply Maria made it clear that payment had been for the life of the current copyright period only and nothing more.

In the meantime Maria redoubled her largely rewriting the entire book, challenging the injunction against her use of Murray’s “parts’ and resubmitting her rewritten work to Longmans.  She could not have known she would succeed in having the injunction lifted hence the precaution in rewriting the work enabling it to stand on its merits without the original title and illustrations if needs be. She took a chance that her name and the quality of the recipes would be enough for Longmans to take the work.

Further more she took the extraordinary step of initiating a new and separate claim against Murray for damages under common law. She was now playing her former friend on two fronts. This must have been exasperating for Murray. This woman who dealt in apple dumplings and lemon cheesecakes was making a mockery of him and threatening his business.

Maria’s confidence that her reputation alone would be enough to entice Longmans to publish proved well founded, but again Longmans played a double game, unable to resist Maria’s offer but alerting Murray in a letter sent on 29th Dec 1821 to a forthcoming advertisement for Mrs Rundell’s improved edition of her cookbook. It was now two years since Maria first approached Longmans and Murray was still fighting to stop her, a fight he claimed somewhat disingenuously, he was leading on behalf of the entire trade. This was his longest and most expensive legal dispute over literary property, but still he was not ready to concede.

Back in the Court of Chancery on the 14th June 1822 Murray continued to wrangle. Only now there was an obvious change in his attitude to the actual recipes. Belatedly Murray had come to accept that the recipes did have value, that instructions for red current jelly, chicken pie and Welsh rarebit were valuable because they came from the pen of a particular author. These recipes were prized by British housewives for their reliability and the way they were written and organised, moreover Murray had to concede that Maria was so well regarded as the author that his competitors would eagerly publish her recipes with or without Murray’s prized title and illustrations.  

Under intense pressure, Murray adopted a new line of attack, actually casting doubt on Maria’s authorship of the recipes. He now argued that many hands had been involved, that the recipes had come from friends and family and in particular he mentioned a Mrs Pitt as the source for many of them. Murray also claimed he had paid others to revise the work at various times though he could name only one women who had done this and she had since died. Perhaps attempting to discredit Maria in the eyes of Longmans, Murray called for a full discovery by the Court, demanding Maria prove how many and which recipes were hers, when they were written and which and by whom others were written and how she came into the possession of each and every one of them. Of course no mention was made of Maria’s early correspondence to him back and forth about revisions, improvements and mistakes demanding correction.

But more than points of law, Murray could see his precious property imperilled by real life commerce. Stewed tongue, brown bread ice cream and plum cakes had taken on a new significance; there was a palpable sense that he could loose the lot to another publisher and seriously imperil his bottom line.

Three years on Murray and his lawyer concluded their only realistic hope of gaining undisputed ownership of the work was to pay a full and proper price for it. So finally Murray agreed to an out of court settlement to pay Maria the very large sum of £2100 for a book that was now eighteen years old. His biographers would later suggest the settlement was a generous gesture from an old friend but in reality it was made after lessor offers had been rejected. In addition, Maria demanded and received full payment of all her costs.

Murray and his advisors put their best face on the outcome and posterity has accepted their telling of events but in truth Maria had succeeded. The “invisible” author of raised crusts, pippin pudding and flummery had worn the celebrated publisher down leaving him little choice but to pay properly for her work. Later editions, which continued to be published long after the deaths of both Maria and Murray had her name clearly embossed on the cover.

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