Literature for the People: How the Pioneering Macmillan Brothers Built a Publishing Powerhouse by Sarah Harkness - review by Nigel Andrew

Nigel Andrew

Bestseller Ho!

Literature for the People: How the Pioneering Macmillan Brothers Built a Publishing Powerhouse


Macmillan 496pp £25

Harold Macmillan, the most lordly of postwar prime ministers, was proud of the fact that his great-grandfather Duncan Macmillan was a dirt-poor Isle of Arran crofter, and that his family had risen from absolute poverty to wealth, success and high status through their own efforts. Specifically, the family owed its rise to the efforts of two of Duncan’s sons, Daniel and Alexander, who in the Victorian period built the Macmillan publishing company from nothing into a giant of the literary world. Their endeavours are the subject of Sarah Harkness’s absorbing new book. 

When their father died, worn out in his fifties, he left his sons nothing but firm moral convictions and the certain knowledge that they would get on in the world only through unremitting hard work. The brothers had contrasting personalities. Daniel, the elder, was the more high-minded and driven of the two; Alexander was more relaxed and clubbable, but no less of a worker than his brother. Indeed, to read of his routine is to wonder what kind of superhuman race these Victorian Stakhanovites belonged to. As well as running the business, Alexander read almost everything that came into the firm and often wrote long, detailed responses: in one period of six months, he wrote some eight hundred pages of letters. Somehow, he also found time for a lively social life, despite being plagued by sciatica and dyspepsia, often made worse by medical treatment. Daniel suffered even more from ill health (and poor doctors) and died at the age of forty-three, not of the tuberculosis he had struggled with for years but of throat cancer. Already by the time of his death in 1857, the family firm was forging ahead, having had big successes with Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days. Alexander was to continue the good work and grow the company into an international business with a hugely impressive list, featuring authors as distinguished as Matthew Arnold, Lewis Carroll, T H Huxley, Christina Rossetti, Kipling, Hardy and Tennyson. He also oversaw the birth of The Statesman’s Year-Book, Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians and the science journal Nature.

The brothers were clearly brilliant publishers, with sharp commercial instincts, an eye for talent, a strong vision and a willingness to take risks, but what drove them, as the title of Harkness’s book suggests, was a determination to bring good reading matter, both recreational and educational, at a reasonable price

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