Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Payn, James

PAYN, JAMES (1830–1898), novelist, was born at Cheltenham on 28 Feb. 1830. His father, William Payn, was clerk to the Thames commissioners, and lived at Maidenhead. He was popular in the county, kept the Berkshire harriers, and was compared to a hero of the old English comedy. He died too early to be distinctly remembered by his son, who became the pet of his mother, an affectionate and beautiful woman. Payn's father had begun to initiate him in various country sports; but from a very early age he preferred books, and devoured such fiction as he could obtain. He was known as a story-teller at a preparatory school, to which he was sent at the age of seven. He suffered much bullying, and did not find Eton, to which he was sent at eleven, more congenial. He was hurt by the rejection of an article written for a school magazine, and the classical lessons gave him a, permanent dislike of Greek and Latin. He was always a very poor linguist. He was taken from Eton to be sent to a 'crammer' for the Woolwich academy, to which he had received nomination. He passed third in the examination for the academy, but had to leave it after a year on account of his health. It was then decided that he should take orders, and he passed a year with a private tutor in Devonshire. Here he found himself for the first time in congenial surroundings. He had been disgusted with the rigid discipline and the coarse amusements of his comrades at Woolwich, and had relieved himself by boyish escapades and by nursing his literary tastes. From Devonshire he sent an article describing the academy to 'Household Words,' then edited by Dickens. Its publication produced a remonstrance from the governor of the academy, and incidentally led to Payn's first communication with Dickens, for whom he always entertained the warmest regard and admiration. While in Devonshire he also succeeded in gaining admittance of various pieces of verse to periodicals. In October 1847 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. He cared nothing for the regular course of study. He became president of the union, and was a popular member of various societies. He made many warm friendships among his contemporaries, and was kindly welcomed by some of the college authorities, especially William George Clark [q. v.] and George Brimley [q. v.] He retained many of his college friendships to the last. During his undergraduate career he published two volumes of verse, the first of which, 'Stories from Boccaccio' (1852), was warmly praised by Brimley in the 'Spectator.' Payn was greatly encouraged, and soon determined to devote himself to the profession of literature.

He took a first class in the examination for the ordinary degree at the end of 1852. He was already engaged to Miss Louisa Adelaide Edlin, and the marriage took place on 28 Feb. 1854. He had now to make his living. He first settled in the Lakes at Rydal Cottage, 'under the shadow of Nab Scar.' He was already known to Miss Mitford, a neighbour and friend of his father in early years. She introduced him to Miss Martineau, then residing at Grasmere, and both literary ladies encouraged and advised him. He soon became a regular contributor to 'Household Words' and 'Chambers's Journal.' In 1858 he became 'co-editor' with Leitch Ritchie [q. v.] of 'Chambers's Journal,' and settled in Edinburgh. A year later he became sole editor. He became a warm friend of Robert Chambers [q. v.], one of the proprietors, and made some pleasant acquaintances at Edinburgh. Both the climate and the puritanism of Scotland were uncongenial to him, and he was glad to remove to London in 1861, where he continued to edit the journal. Payn now settled in the Maida Vale district, and remained there for the rest of his life. He thoroughly enjoyed London life. He has described some impressions of his rambles in a volume called 'Meliboeus in London.' He had met Dickens in 1856, and soon made himself known in the literary circles in which Dickens was the great light. Payn rarely left London, and says that for the twenty- five years preceding 1884 he had only taken three days of consecutive holiday once a year. Upon the death of Robert Chambers in 1871, William Chambers became the chief proprietor of the journal. Differences of opinion arose, and Payn resigned the editorship in 1874. He then became reader to Messrs. Smith, Elder, & Co., and from 1883 till 1896 edited the 'Cornhill Magazine' for the firm. Payn's first novel, 'The Foster Brothers,' founded on his college experiences, appeared in 1859. From that date he was a most industrious writer of novels, long and short. His 'Lost Sir Massingberd,' which appeared in 'Chambers's Journal' in 1864, is said to have raised the circulation by twenty thousand copies, and permanently advanced his popularity. 'By Proxy,' published independently in 1878, was, he says, the most popular of his novels, and fully established his position. At a later period Payn became widely known by a weekly column of lively anecdote and gossip contributed to the 'Illustrated London News.' As a novelist Payn was much influenced by, though he did not imitate, Dickens. In his writing, as in his life, he was the simplest and least affected of men. He made no pretence to profound views of human nature, but overflowed with spontaneous vivacity and love of harmless fun. He had a singularly quick eye for the comic, and remarkable skill in constructing ingenious situations. The same qualities marked his short essays and his conversation. He had a great store of anecdote, and was most charming in conversation. He took a lively interest in most subjects of the day, though literary matters always held the first place in his mind. Nobody could be more generous in recognising the merits of his contemporaries ; and, as an editor, he took a special pleasure in helping young aspirants in the profession to which he was always proud of belonging. In later years he became crippled by rheumatism. Constant pain produced occasional fits of depression, but never soured his temper or weakened his elasticity of spirit. He had been on friendly terms with most of the literary men of his time. He was most retentive of old friendships, and constantly adding new ones to the number. He had been a good whist player from his college days, and in London a daily rubber was his main recreation. When he was confined to his house, members of his club arranged to get up a game there twice a week. The personal charm was heightened by the gallantry with which he met his sufferings, and few men have been so deservedly popular in a large circle. After his health had compelled him to give up his editorship he still devoted himself to literary work ; but his strength was failing, and he died on 25 March 1898 at his house in Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale.

Payn's domestic life had been thoroughly happy. His sense of the blessing is pathetically indicated in the essay called 'The Backwater of Life,' which gives the title to a posthumous volume of essays. Mrs. Payn survived him, with two sons and five daughters, the third of whom, Alicia Isobel, married in 1885 Mr. G. E. Buckle, editor of the 'Times,' and died in 1898.

Payn's publications include:

  1. 'Stories from Boccaccio,' 1852.
  2. 'Poems,' 1853.
  3. 'Stories and Sketches,' 1857.
  4. 'Leaves from Lakeland,' 1858.
  5. 'The Foster Brothers:' a novel, 1859.
  6. 'The Bateman Household,' 1860.
  7. 'Richard Arbour,' 1861 (republished under the title of 'A Family Scapegrace,' 1869).
  8. 'Melibœus in London,' 1862.
  9. 'Furness Abbey and Neighbourhood,' 1862; new edit. 1869, 4to.
  10. 'Lost Sir Massingberd: a Romance of Real Life,' 1864, 2 vols.; 4th edit. 1878.
  11. 'Married beneath him,' 1865, 3 vols.
  12. 'People, Places, and Things,' 1865; new edit. 1876.
  13. 'The Cliffards of Clyffe,' 1866, 3 vols.
  14. 'Mirk Abbey,' 1866, 3 vols.; new edit. 1869.
  15. 'Lights and Shadows of London Life,' 1867, 2 vols.
  16. 'The Lakes in Sunshine,' Illustr. 1867; new edit. 1870.
  17. 'Carlyon's Year,' 1868, 2 vols.
  18. 'Blondel Parva,' 1868, 2 vols.
  19. 'Bentinck's Tutor:' a novel, 1868, 2 vols.
  20. 'Found Dead,' 1869.
  21. 'A County Family,' 1869, 3 vols.; new edit. 1871.
  22. 'Maxims by a Man of the World,' 1869.
  23. 'A Perfect Treasure; or, Incident in the Early Life of Marmaduke Drake, Esq.,' 1869.
  24. 'Gwendoline's Harvest:' a novel, 1870, 2 vols.
  25. 'Like Father, like Son,' 1870, 3 vols.
  26. 'Won not Wooed,' 1871.
  27. 'Cecil's Tryst:' a novel, 1873, 3 vols.
  28. 'A Woman's Vengeance,' 1872, 3 vols,; new edit. 1874, 1 vol.
  29. 'Murphy's Master,' 1873, 2 vols.
  30. 'The Best of Husbands,' 1874.
  31. 'At her Mercy,' 1874, 3 vols.
  32. 'Walter's Word,' 1875, 3 vols.; new edit. 1879.
  33. 'Halves,' 1876, 3 vols.; new edit, 1880.
  34. 'Fallen Fortunes,' 1876, 3 vols.
  35. 'What he cost her:' a novel, 1877, new edit. 1880.
  36. 'By Proxy,' 1878, 2 vols.; 1880, 1 vol.; new edit. 1898.
  37. 'Less Black than we're painted,' 1878, 3 vols.
  38. 'High Spirits: being certain Stories written in them,' 1879, 3 vols.; 1880, 1 vol.
  39. 'Under one Roof: a Family Episode,' 1879, 3 vols.; 1880, 1 vol.
  40. 'A Marine Residence, and other Tales,' 1879, 12mo; new edit. 1881.
  41. 'A Confidential Agent,' 1880, 3 vols.
  42. 'From Exile,' 1881, 3 vols.; new edit. 1883.
  43. 'A Grape from a Thorn,' 1881, 3 vols.
  44. 'Some Private Views: Essays from the "Nineteenth Century Review,"' 1882; new edit. 1883.
  45. 'For Cash only:' a novel, 1882, 3 vols.; new edit. 1882, 1 vol.
  46. ' Kit: a Memory,' 1883, 3 vols.; new edit. 1885.
  47. 'Thicker than Water,' 1883, 3 vols.; new edit. 1884.
  48. 'Some Literary Recollections,' 1884; new edit. 1885.
  49. 'The Canon's Ward,' 1884.
  50. 'In Peril and Privation,' 1885.
  51. 'The Talk of the Town' (or the story of the forger, William Henry Ireland), 1885.
  52. 'The Luck of the Darrells,' 1885; new edit. 1886.
  53. 'The Heir of the Ages,' 1886.
  54. 'Glowworm Tales,' 1887.
  55. 'Holiday Tasks,' 1889.
  56. 'A Prince of the Blood,' two edits. 1888.
  57. 'The Eavesdropper,' 1888.
  58. ' A Mystery of Mirbridge,' 1888.
  59. 'The Burnt Million,' 1890.
  60. 'The Word and the Will,' 1890.
  61. 'Notes from the "News," ' 1890.
  62. 'The Modern Dick Whittington,' 1892; another edit. 1893.
  63. 'A Stumble on the Threshold,' 1892; 2nd edit. 1893.
  64. 'A Trying Patient,' 1893.
  65. 'Gleams of Memory, 1894.
  66. 'In Market Overt,' 1895.
  67. 'The Disappearance of George Driffel,' 1896.
  68. 'Another's Burden,' 1897.
  69. 'The Backwater of Life,' with an Introduction by Leslie Stephen, 1899.

[Introduction by the present writer to the 'Backwater of Life,' 1899; written on information from the family. See also autobiographical notices in 'Some Literary Recollections,' 1884, and 'Gleams of Memory,' 1896.]

L. S.