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ery little is known of the life of GEORGE PAYNE RAINSFORD JAMES; yet he was the author of forty novels, each in three volumes, and. produced other works, outnumbering, indeed, the productions of Sir Walter Scott. He began to publish in 1822, his first book being a "Life of the Black Prince." In 1829 "Richelieu" appeared, and from that time the issues of his fertile brain came so rapidly before the public as to create astonishment at his industry, and the "speed." at which he worked with his pen.
G.P.R. James. Drawn by F. Cruikshank and engraved by J. C. Armytage. From the Berg Collection, New York Public Library (digital id no. 483543). [Click on image to enlarge it.]
I knew him and esteemed him much as an agreeable and kindly gentleman, somewhat handsome in person, and of very pleasant manners. He had the aspect, and indeed the character, that usually marks a man of sedentary occupations. His work all day long, and often into the night, must have been untiring, for he by no means drew exclusively on his fancy; he must have resorted much to books, and have been a great reader, not only of English, but of continental histories ; and he travelled a good deal in the countries in which the scenes of his historic fictions were principally laid.
His novels have always been popular — they are so now — although many competitors for fame, with higher aims and perhaps loftier genius, have of late years supplied the circulating libraries. It was no light thing to run a race with Sir Walter Scott and not be altogether beaten out of the field. His great charm was the interest he created in relating a story, but he had masterly skill in delineating character, and in "chivalric essays" none of his brethren surpassed him. He received this tribute, and it is a just one, from the historian Alison: —
"There is a constant appeal in his brilliant pages, not only to the pure and generous, but to the elevated and noble sentiments. He is imbued with the very soul of chivalry, and all his stories turn on the final triumph of those who are influenced by such feeling's. Not a word or a thought which can give pain to the purest heart ever escapes from his pen."
Christopher North proclaimed his works to be those of "a gentleman," while he spoke highly of their graphic power; and Leigh Hunt "hit the vein" in which he wrote, and which constituted the charm of his writings : — "Interest without violence, and entertainment at once animated and mild; novels which have been tonics to the critic in illness and in convalescence."
As "next to nothing" is known of the life of so remarkable a man — one who has, for half a century, kept a foremost place among British writers of fiction — I gladly avail myself of some notes furnished to me by a lady who knew him well and long.
"He was born in London, August 9th, 1800. He first studied medicine, but at an early age showed a love of letters, and, when very young, published several short tales and poems — among them the 'String of Pearls.' During the exciting times that followed the abdication of Napoleon, he visited France and Spain, and no doubt thus obtained the perfect knowledge of the history of those countries afterwards displayed in his writings. He married a daughter of Dr. Thomas, and for some time after his marriage resided in different parts of France, Italy, and Scotland, where he became acquainted with, and gained the friendship of, Sir Walter Scott. It was Sir Walter who, after perusing 'Richelieu,' advised him to adopt literature as a [233/264] profession. 'Richelieu' was published, in 1829, and it is well known how successful was the career of the author, and how eagerly the appearance of a new work from his pen was looked for by the public; but to those who knew him in his home, in addition to the admiration felt for him as an author, there could not fail to be joined sincere esteem for him as a man. He had a large and noble heart, and was always a kind friend to those who needed assistance, especially to his poorer literary brethren, whilst his courteous, gentlemanly bearing gained him friends in all ranks of society.
"About 1842 Mr. James took up his residence at Walmer, and was a frequent guest of the Duke of Wellington at Walmer Castle. In 1845 he left England with his family for a short visit to Germany, partly for recreation and partly to collect some information connected with the 'History of Richard Coeur de Lion,' a work he was then writing. The illness of two of his children detained him for a year, and at Carlsruhe and Baden-Baden 'Heidelberg' and the 'Castle of Ehrenstein' were composed. Soon after his return to England, he removed to the neighbourhood of Farnham, Surrey, and there he wrote with great rapidity. His industry was immense; his custom was to rise at five o'clock and write till nine. For four or five hours later in the day he employed an amanuensis, and usually walked to and from his study while dictating. In June, 1850, Mr. James left England with his family to visit the United States, and purchased an estate in Massachusetts, where he continued to reside till he was appointed British Consul at Norfolk, Virginia, in 1852. His duties there were very arduous, and his health suffered greatly from the climate, which was rendered more than usually trying to European residents, at that time, by the terrible scourge which frequently ravages the Southern States — yellow fever.
"During Mr. James's residence in the States he wrote several works, taking American life and history for their subjects, such as 'Ticonderoga,' 'The Old Dominion' &c. The last work he published in Philadelphia was 'Lord Montague's Page,' in 1858. 'Bernard Marsh,' a sequel to this, appeared afterwards, and was the last work that emanated from the pen of this highly-gifted author, making a total of about one hundred and ninety volumes.
In 1859 Mr. James was removed, at his earnest request, from the Consulate of Norfolk to that of Venice, his friends hoping that the Italian climate might benefit his health and restore his strength, but although he at first seemed to improve from the change, the demands upon his mental powers were so great that even his untiring energy was unequal to the task imposed upon it. Soon after the arrival of Mr. James in Italy, war broke out, and Venice was besieged, which added greatly to the fatigue and anxiety of the consul's position, and in the early part of 1860 he was seized with an illness that proved fatal in the April of that year. He was interred in the Protestant Cemetery at Venice, and a monument was erected to his memory by the English residents of that city.
Mr. James left a widow, one daughter, and three sons. He was a most kind and affectionate husband and father, a warm-hearted, faithful friend, a genial companion, and to sum up all good qualities in one comprehensive title, a Christian gentleman."
Hall, S. C. A Book of Memories of Great Men and Women of the Age, from Personal Acquaintance. 3rd ed. London: J. S. Virtue, .
Last modified 12 May 2016