Publisher

Born: April 27, 1941

Died: June 24, 2017

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STEPHANIE Wolfe Murray, who has died aged 76, co-founded, along with her husband Angus, the Edinburgh publishing house Canongate at 17 Jeffrey Street, just off the Royal Mile.

It was 1973 and the couple were basically inexperienced dilettante dreamers, hoping to give Scottish writers and Scottish themes an outlet. Stephanie was a mother took her four sons every weekday on a long school run and back. Angus, she once said, at first just expected her to make the tea.

When Angus, a classic “ramblin’ man,” abandoned the business and his family a year after the publishing house started, Stephanie persisted, now a single mother of four and still doing the school run. (Angus was to return to the family 35 years after leaving them).

“It was a baptism of fire,” Stephanie recalled of running the firm almost alone from 1974. She was English-born but Scottish-influenced and a fighter. Along with family friend Charles Wild, she unearthed latent Scottish literary talent and Canongate became one of the most-respected publishing houses in the UK, eventually with a fine reputation around the globe for publishing works including Yann Martel’s best-seller Life of Pi (2002).

Stephanie gambled on and published the 1981 novel Lanark by Alasdair Gray, now considered a seminal Scottish work of the 20th Century. Rival publishers, including London-based Quartet, had no idea how to deal with Gray’s complex work but Stephanie Wolfe Murray did and Gray has since been described as “the best Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott.” Much of that was due to Ms Wolfe Murray’s editing.

At Canongate, she and Mr Wild also published other soon-to-be iconic works including Scottish Love Poems, edited by Antonia Fraser, and A Sense of Freedom, the redemptive autobiography of Glasgow gangland killer Jimmy Boyle. Canongate went on to publish the novel Quincunx by Charles Palliser, the children’s books series The Kelpies, and a popular Scottish Classics series.

“We wanted to publish good books, simple as that,” Ms Wolfe Murray said. “We had an eclectic list: the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, some fabulous American books, unusual autobiographies, fiction of course and some sumptuous Scottish art books; and my God, what did I not learn about Scotland, its geology, its history, its literature - a wonderful learning curve.”

After handing over Canongate in 1994 to her former unpaid intern Jamie Byng, a literature graduate of Edinburgh University who is now the firm’s CEO, Ms Wolfe Murray Canongate make its mark with the publication of Life of Pi and other globally-successful works. Mr Byng’s “new-look” Canongate published Alasdair Gray’s A History Maker, Laura Hird’s Born Free, The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh and Niccolo Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared. The Edinburgh publishing house also put out The Pocket Canons – texts from the Bible with introductions by famous names from Bono to the Dalai Lama.

Ms Wolfe Murray’s death caused waves of grief far beyond the publishing industry. Although her physical beauty was striking, her inner beauty quickly seduced all who met her. She was a magical presence, mystical, visionary, frustratingly intelligent.

“Stephanie was a beautiful, charismatic and kind woman who was utterly selfless in her support of others,” Mr Byng, now running Canongate, said: “She was an inspiring person to work for - passionate, instinctive, unpredictable and kind. Canongate would not be doing what it is doing today if it wasn’t for her.”

The novelist Alexander McCall Smith, who supported and was supported by Ms Wolfe Murray, added: “Stephanie somehow kept Canongate going. On one occasion, when there was absolutely no money in the bank, she offered to pay a writer in free-range eggs, which she duly did. Her real objective was to publish beautiful books – and she did that year after year.”

Stephanie Todd was born on April 27, 1941, in Blandon Forum military base, Dorset, one of two daughters of Liverpool solicitor Haddon Todd who was serving as an officer in the Royal Artillery, and his wife Wendy.

Her father died during the final week of World War Two, days after Stephanie’s fourth birthday. She grew up first in Shropshire but was sent to Overstone School outside Northampton, at the time described as an “experimental” public school for girls.

She was a natural beauty with exceptional charm and much in demand by young men of status or wealth, including Anthony Armstrong Jones, who would go on to marry Princess Margaret and become the famous photographer best-known as Lord Snowdon.

Stephanie, however, was a rebel. After school, aged 18, she fell in love with a penniless journalist, Angus Wolfe Murray, originally from Peebles. Angus was a rebel, too but when he returned to the woman he loved 35 years after leaving, his four sons forgave and accepted him back.

Phil Davison