Maria Rundell was the original domestic goddess,
an elderly widow whose best-selling book on cookery, medicinal
remedies, and household management defined the perfect home. She
taught her readers how to cook a goose, brew beer, make ink, and
Fame and obscurity
A New System of Domestic Cookery was a
publishing sensation in the early 1800s. It sold half a million
copies and conquered America. Its profits helped found one of the
Victorian era's most influential publishing empires, one which
boasted Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen,
Benjamin Disraeli, and Arthur Conan Doyle amongst its authors.
Yet the most famous cookery book of its time - and
its author - disappeared into obscurity. In 2007, nearly 180 years
after her death, her rehabilitation began when the National Library
of Scotland in Edinburgh opened to the public a new exhibition which
contained one of the most significant single collection of papers on
nineteenth century literature.
The John Murray Archive, compiled by the seven
generations of Murrays who ran the family-owned publishers, had
recently been purchased by the library for £31 million (45 million
euros), chiefly with lottery money. It included 150,000 pages of letters,
manuscripts, and documents from some of the most significant thinkers,
scientists, and writers of modern history.
Scholars have largely ignored Mrs Rundell, a friend of
the Murrays and the widow of a surgeon from Bath, and have overlooked her
remarkable role in the company's success - a success soured by a
Earliest manual of household management
In 1805, aged sixty-one, she had sent the second John
Murray, the son of the Scottish printer who set up a small publishers
in London in 1768, an unedited collection of recipes, remedies, and
advice on running a home. She had originally compiled it for her
seven daughters, and she offered it to Murray free of charge.
Murray recognised its potential. It was some sixty
years since the first English cookery book had been written by Hannah
Glasse, and Mrs Rundell's New System of Domestic Cookery, 'formed
upon principles of economy and adapted to the use of private families by
a lady', was about to become the bible for Britain's nineteenth century
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
describes it as 'the earliest manual of household management with any
pretensions to completeness, it called forth many imitations'.
Stored in a double-locked 'cage' in the library's
vault, his firm's 'subscriptions book' for 21 November 1805 reveals
advance sales of 310 copies. In July 1807 booksellers placed advance
orders for 1,150 copies for the next edition. By 1841 it had run to
sixty-five British editions, selling 10,000 copies a year. It was
snapped up in Britain's late colony, America, where it was retitled
American Domestic Cookery and the Experienced American Housekeeper,
and there ran to thirty-seven editions. It was also translated into
It sold more than 245,000 copies in the UK, remaining
in print until the 1880s. Its profits enabled Murray to buy one of the
most famous addresses in literature - 50 Albemarle Street, Mayfair.
Doubling up as the publisher's offices and home, Albemarle Street's
drawing room became the location for some of the most influential
gatherings in nineteenth century English literature, and the scene of
a remarkable act of censorship.
Murray's guests would include Isaac Disraeli, father
of the future prime minister, George Canning, a foreign secretary and
briefly prime minister, Sir Walter Scott, and Lord Byron. The poet
was one of Murray's biggest signings.
The archive holds 10,000 Byron papers but in May 1824,
a month after the poet's death, Murray's innermost circle decided to
destroy one of the most valuable of all: Byron's memoirs. After a long
debate they burnt them to preserve the poet's reputation, and those of
The archive reveals that Mrs Rundell and her publisher
soon fell out. In 1807 the author wrote angry letters about errors in
the new edition. She said: 'I am hourly struggling against my feelings,
but they are grievously wounded'. It had been 'miserably prepared'.
Corrected editions soon appeared, but by 1814 their relationship had
Convinced Murray was neglecting her book, she offered
a revised version to a rival, Longmans. They issued injunctions against
each other. Mrs Rundell prevented Murray from republishing the book
after his rights expired. Murray blocked her rival version, rightly
claiming he had improved and 'embellished' the book. Their battle
ended in 1821, when the lord chancellor cancelled both injunctions
and asked them to settle privately. In February 1823 a legal agreement
records that Murray paid her 'the sum of two thousand and one hundred
pounds of good and lawful money'.
Later, Mrs Rundell moved to Lausanne, Switzerland,
where she died in 1828, aged eighty-three. It was only then that her
authorship was revealed.
- Isabella Bird (1831-1904)
A pioneering female explorer, Bird travelled extensively in the
Far East, Australia, and North America in the late 1800s. In Colorado
she met a handsome one-eyed outlaw, 'Mountain Jim' Nugent, sparking
speculation about an affair. The John Murray archive holds her
letters, manuscripts and scores of photographs. Bird was the first
woman to join the Royal Geographic Society.
- Mary Somerville (1780-1872)
Dubbed the 'Queen of Science', Somerville was one of the nineteenth
century's most influential popular science writers. Despite little
formal education, she learned algebra and Euclid in secret, later
studying mathematics and astronomy. Scientists recommended that Murray
publish her. She became one of the first women members of the Royal
Astronomical Society in 1835, and Somerville college, Oxford, is
named after her.
- Caroline Norton (1808-1877)
After separating from her violent husband, Tory MP George Norton,
she became an early champion of a mother's rights to see her children
after being refused access to their three sons. A poet and short story
writer, John Murray published her anonymous poem, Voice in a
Factory, exposing the exploitation of children. Her campaigning
and writing contributed to the Infant Custody Act 1839, and the
Married Woman's Property and Divorce Act 1857.