Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/James, George Payne Rainsford

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JAMES, GEORGE PAYNE RAINSFORD (1799–1860), novelist, born in George Street, Hanover Square, on 9 Aug. 1799, was son of Pinkstan James, M.D. (1766–1830), a physician in practice in London, who had previously been an officer in the navy (Munk, Coll. of Physicians, ii. 466). Robert James [q. v.], the inventor of James's powder, was his grandfather. He was educated at the Rev. William Carmalt's school at Putney, where he readily acquired a good knowledge of French and Italian, and is said to have shown some turn for Persian and Arabic. While still a youth he travelled much on the continent; read history and poetry widely, although in a desultory way; and became acquainted with Cuvier, Darwin, and other eminent men. Influenced by Sir Walter Scott's style, he soon began to write romances, which had some success in the magazines, and while living the life of a man of fashion in London, he continued his historical studies. He had expected to have been able to enter political life, but about 1827 this hope was abandoned (see, however, J. Morley, Life of Cobden, ed. 1881, i. 272). Fortified by the encouragement of both Scott and Washington Irving, he continued his career as a novelist, and producing about one romance in every nine months for eighteen successive years, became the most prolific, and in some ways the most successful novelist of his time (see letter from James to J. Murray in S. Smiles, A Publisher and his Friends, ii. 374). He is said to have written (Athenæum, 23 June 1860) upwards of a hundred novels, many of which have been repeatedly reprinted, and the British Museum Catalogue enumerates sixty-seven. ‘Richelieu,’ his first novel, was written in 1825, and published in 1829; the plan of ‘Darnley’ was sketched at Montreuil-sur-Mer in December 1828, and the book was completed before the winter was over. The author was at that time living near Evreux in France, and ‘De l'Orme,’ written in 1829, appeared in 1830. ‘Philip Augustus,’ a volume of 420 large octavo pages, was produced in less than seven weeks, and was published in 1831. At the close of the year 1833 he published anonymously ‘Delaware,’ which met with no success till he republished it as ‘Thirty Years Since’ under his own name. Others of his better known romances are ‘Henry Masterton,’ 1832, ‘The Gypsy,’ 1835, ‘Attila,’ 1837, ‘The Man-at-Arms’ and ‘The King's Highway’ in 1840, ‘Agincourt’ and ‘Arabella Stuart,’ both in 1844, ‘The Smuggler,’ 1845, ‘Henry Smeaton’ in 1851, and ‘Ticonderoga’ in 1854. He collected his novels in a large octavo series of twenty-one volumes, with prefaces and dedications, 1844–9.

James was also an active author and editor of popular historical books. He began a work, ‘France in the Lives of her Great Men,’ in 1832, but it ended with the first volume, a life of Charlemagne, which De Quincey reviewed in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ in November 1832. He wrote ‘Memoirs of Great Commanders,’ in 3 vols., 1832; a useful ‘Life of the Black Prince,’ in 2 vols., in 1836; ‘Memoirs of Celebrated Women,’ in 3 vols., 1837; ‘Lives of Eminent Foreign Statesmen,’ 4 vols., in Lardner's ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia,’ 1838–40; ‘The Life and Times of Louis XIV,’ in 4 vols., in 1838; ‘A History of Chivalry’ in 1843; ‘Life of Richard I,’ in 4 vols., 1842–9; ‘Life of Henry IV of France,’ 1847, and in 1849 ‘Dark Scenes of History,’ in 3 vols., ‘John Jones's Tales from English History,’ in 2 vols., and ‘An Investigation into the Murder of the Earl of Gowrie.’

On the strength of James's reputation as an historical student his friends had procured for him from William IV the post of historiographer royal, and in that capacity he published in 1839 a pamphlet, ‘History of the United States Boundary Question.’ He had previously written in 1835 a pamphlet on the ‘Educational Institutions of Germany,’ and one on ‘The Corn Laws’ appeared in 1841. He also attempted poetry in ‘The Ruined City,’ a poem, 1828, ‘Blanche of Navarre,’ a five-act play, 1839, and ‘Camaralzaman,’ a fairy drama, in three acts, 1848, and he edited ‘Letters illustrative of the Reign of William III,’ ‘Letters of James Vernon, first Duke of Shrewsbury,’ a careless piece of work (see Edinburgh Review, October 1841), W. H. Ireland's ‘Rizzio,’ 1849, and R. Heathfield's ‘Means of Relief from Taxation,’ 1849. Though his works had brought him large sums, he was a poor man. About 1850 he was appointed British consul for Massachusetts, about 1852 was removed to Norfolk, Virginia, and in 1856 became consul-general at Venice, where he died of apoplexy on 9 June 1860, and was buried in the Lido cemetery. An epitaph, in terms of somewhat extravagant eulogy, was written by Walter Savage Landor (Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. ii. 366). His last novel appears to have been ‘The Cavalier,’ published in America in 1859. His widow, an American lady, died on 9 May 1891 in the United States.

Flimsy and melodramatic as James's romances are, they were highly popular. The historical setting is for the most part laboriously accurate, and though the characters are without life, the moral tone is irreproachable; there is a pleasant spice of adventure about the plots, and the style is clear and correct. The writer's grandiloquence and artificiality are cleverly parodied by Thackeray in ‘Barbazure, by G. P. R. Jeames, Esq., &c.,’ in ‘Novels by Eminent Hands,’ and the conventional sameness of the openings of his novels, ‘so admirable for terseness,’ is effectively burlesqued in ‘The Book of Snobs,’ chaps. ii. and xvi.

[The best authority for his life is the preface which he wrote for the collected edition of his novels cited above. See too Athenæum, 23 June 1860; Times, 15 June 1860; Ann. Reg. 1860; M. B. Field's Memories of Many Men, pp. 188 sq.; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Edinburgh Review, April 1837; Gent. Mag. 1860.]

J. A. H.