Tuesday, 17 July 2018
James Payn (1830-1898) was a literary workhorse. He was always in love with literature and it took him several attempts at education (he dropped out of a prep school, Eton and The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich) and a period Cambridge University’s various social clubs, before he found his true place at the coal-face of the Victorian publishing industry. According to Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), “He had taken to literature as some people take to drink, simply because he could not help it. It was in his nature.” (Stephen, xlii, “Introduction” to The Backwater Life:, or, Essays of a Literary Veteran, 1899)
Payn’s literary career began with the publication of his poem “The Poet’s Death” in Leighton’s Journal 15th March, 1851, when Payn was twenty-one years old. A self-published collection Stories from Boccacio and Other Poems followed in 1852. A year later, he got lucky, “Gentleman Cadet,” a story based on his own unhappy experiences at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, was published in Household Words. Payn used his fee for this article to buy a pig for his tutor in Devonshire. The Royal Military Academy protested about their portrayal, and that is how Payn first made a personal acquaintance of Charles Dickens, who took the side of his young contributor. Payn was a great admirer of Dickens, whose praises he would sing at every opportunity. He was also a personal friend of Wilkie Collins.
In 1854 Payn married Louisa Adelaide Edlin (born 1830/1) and the young couple moved to Rydal Cottage in Ambleside. There Payn had two literary neighbours Mary Russel Mitford and Harriet Martineau (Martineau Society conference coming up! http://martineausociety.co.uk/2018-annual-meeting-24th-27th-july-dr-williams-library/ ). Through them, Payn met Matthew Arnold, Thomas DeQuincey and other literary greats of the time.
Payn contributed to the Edinburgh-based Chambers Journal and was invited to become its editor in 1858. The Scottish climate did not agree with the Payns and “A Scottish Sabbath was more than he could bear with composure (Stephen, xxviii). The family were glad to follow the journal down to London when it relocated in 1861. According to Stephen, “Year in year out, he was turning out novels and articles, editing and reading for publishers, with admirable punctuality.” (Stephen, xxx) James Payn became part of the London literary scene. In addition to Dickens and Wilkie Collins he knew Thackeray, Trollope and Charles Reade.
Payn’ first novel The Foster Brothers came out in 1859, his last, Another’s Burden in 1897.
His first best-seller was Lost Sir Massingberd: a Romance of Real Life (1864). It is a traditional sensational mystery, where an unpleasant uncle vanishes. The novel was a great success, it was said it brought the circulation of