The Family Scapegrace by James Payn

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I HAD written a great many short stories and articles in all sorts of publications, from Eliza Cook's Journal to the Westminster Review, before I ventured upon writing a novel; and the appearance of them I have since had cause to regret. Not at all because they were 'immature,' and still less because I am ashamed of them—on the contrary, I still think them rather good—but because the majority of them were not made the most of from a literary point of view, and also went very cheap. As a friend observed to me, who was much my senior, and whose advice was therefore treated with contempt, 'You are like an extravagant cook, who wastes too much material on a single dish.' The entrées of the story-teller—his early and tentative essays in Fiction—if he has really any turn for his calling, are generally open to this criticism. Later on, he becomes more economical (sometimes, indeed, a good deal too much so, because, alas! there is so little in the cupboard), and has a much finer sense of proportion.


I don't know how many years I went on writing narratives of school and college life, and spinning short stories, like a literary spider, out of my own interior, but I don't remember that it was ever borne in upon me that the reservoir could hardly hold out for ever, and that it was time to be doing something on a more permanent and extended scale. The cause of that act of prudence and sagacity was owing mainly to a travelling menagerie. I had had in my mind, for some time, to write a sort of autobiography (of which character first novels almost always consist, or at least partake), but had in truth abstained from doing so on the not unreasonable ground that my life had been wholly destitute of incidents of public interest. True, I had mended that matter by the wholly gratuitous invention of a cheerless home and a wicked sister, but I had hitherto found nothing more attractive to descant upon than my own domestic wrongs. Even if they had existed, it was doubtful whether they would have aroused public indignation, and I mistrusted my powers of making them exist. What I wanted was a dramatic situation or two (a 'plot,' the evolution of which by no means comes by nature, though the germ is often an inspiration, was at that time beyond me), and especially the opportunity of observation.

Signed drawing: James Payne

My own slender experiences were used up, and imagination had no material to work upon; one can't blow even glass out of nothing at all. Just in the nick of time arrived in Edinburgh, where I was then editing Chambers's Journal, Tickeracandua, 'the African Lion Tamer.' At that time (though I have seen a great deal of them since) lions were entirely out of my line, and also tamers; but this gentleman was a most attractive specimen of his class. Handsome, frank, and intelligent, he took my fancy from the first, and we became great friends. 'His actual height,' says my notebook, 'could scarcely have been less than six feet two, while it was artificially increased by a circlet of cock's feathers set in a coronet, which the majority of enraptured beholders believed to be of virgin gold. A leopard skin, worn after the fashion of a Scotch plaid, set off a jerkin of green leather, while his legs were encased in huge jack boots.' This, of course, was his performing dress, and I used to wonder how the leopards (with whom he had a great deal to do) liked his wearing their relative's cast-off clothing. In the 'leopard-hunt' (twice a day) these animals raced over him as he stood erect, and each, as it 'took off' from his shoulder, left its mark there with its claws. He was so good as to show me his shoulder, which looked as if he had been profusely vaccinated in the wrong place. A much more dangerous, if less painful, experience was his daily (and nightly) doings with the lions. There were two of them, with a lioness of an uncertain temper, who jumped through hoops at his imperious bidding with many a growl and snarl of remonstrance.


'Are you never afraid?' I once asked him tentatively.

'If I was,' he answered, quietly, but not contemptuously, 'I might count myself from that moment a dead man. Then, you see, I have my whip.' It was a carter's whip, good to keep off a dog, but scarcely a lion. 'The handle is loaded,' he explained, 'and I know exactly where to hit 'em with it, if the worst comes to the worst.' If I remember right, it was the tip of the nose.


His conversation was delightful, and he often honoured me with his company at supper, when the toils and perils of the day were o'er. Upon the whole, though I have since known many other eminent persons, he has left a more marked impression on me than any of them, and it is no wonder that in those youthful days he influenced my imagination. His autobiography, without his having the least suspicion of the appropriation, became in fact my autobiography, as may be read (if there is anybody who has not enjoyed that treat) in 'The Family Scapegrace.' But, as my predecessors in the field of Fiction were wont to exclaim, 'I am anticipating.'

Another official connected with the menagerie gave daily lectures upon the animals, so curiously dry and grave that they filled me with admiration; he was like an embodiment of the answers to 'Mangnall's Questions.' Whatever suspicions Tickeracandua may have subsequently entertained of me, I am quite sure that 'Mr. Mopes' would no more have seen himself in the portrait I drew of him than would the animals under his charge, if their attention had been drawn to them, have recognised their counterfeit presentments outside the show. I also became acquainted with the Earthman and Earthwoman, the slaughterman of the establishment, Mr. and Mrs. Tredgold (its proprietors), and other individuals seldom met with in ordinary society.

The adventures of 'Richard Arbour' were, therefore, cut out for me in a most convenient and unexpected fashion, but I had the intelligence to perceive that though the interest they might excite would be dramatic enough, they would be in danger of dealing too much with the animal world to interest adult readers; nor would the narrative have made an attractive book for boys, since I felt it would be too full of fun (for my spirits were very high in those days) to suit juvenile tastes. I knew little of the world, but had seen much of boys (though I had never belonged to the species), and was well aware that, except as regards practical jokes, the boy is not gifted with humour. I accordingly looked about me for some dramatic material of a wholly different kind, and eventually found it in the person of Count Gotsuchakoff.


It was a mistake to call such a sombre and serious individual by so ludicrous a name, but it was a characteristic one. My disposition was at that time lively (not to say frivolous), and the atmosphere I usually lived in was one of mirth, but, as often happens, it had another side to it, which was melancholy almost to melodrama. In after years I found this to be the case in an infinitely greater story-teller, who, while he delighted all the world with humour and pathos, in reality nourished a taste for the weird and terrible, which, though its ghastly face but very rarely showed itself in his writings, was the favourite topic of his familiar and confidential talk. Tickeracandua himself was not dearer to me than the Count, who was almost entirely the offspring of my own invention; and though I have since seen in Nihilist novels a good many gentlemen of the same type, I venture to think that, slightly as he is sketched, he will bear comparison with the best of them. The conception of his long years of enforced silence, and even of the terrible moment in which he forgot that he was dumb, owed its origin, if I remember right, to a child's game that was popular in our nursery. It consisted in resisting the temptation to laugh, and the resolution to reply in tones of gravity when such questions as 'Have you heard the Emperor of Morocco is dead?' were put. The adaptation of it, in the substitution of speech for laughter, suddenly suggested itself, like any other happy thought.

Instead of writing straight ahead, as the fancy prompted, which, in my less ambitious attempts at Fiction (like all young writers) I had hitherto done, I had all these materials pretty well arranged in my mind before sitting down to write my first book. It was, after all, only a string of adventures, but it is still, and I think deservedly, a popular book. The question with its author, however, was how, when it was finished, he was to get it published. I took it to my friend, Robert Chambers, and asked for his opinion about it. He looked at the manuscript, which was certainly not in such good handwriting as his own, and observed slyly—


'Would you mind just reading a bit of it?'

I had never done such a thing before, nor have I since, and the proposal was a little staggering, not to my amour propre, but to my natural modesty. Moreover, I mistrusted my ability to do justice to it, remembering what the poet has said about reading one's own productions:

The chariot wheels jar in the gates through which we drive them forth.

However, I started with it, and notwithstanding that we were subjected to 'jars' (one by the servant, who came to put coals on the fire, just at a crisis, and made me at heart a murderer), the specimen was pronounced satisfactory.


'I think it will suit nicely for the Journal,' said my friend, which I think were the pleasantest words I ever heard from the mouth of man. I might have taken them, indeed, as a good omen; for though I have since written more novels than I can count, I have never failed to secure serial publication for every one of them. 'This gentleman's novels are suitable enough for serial publication,' once wrote a critic of them, intending to be very particularly disagreeable, but it aroused no emotion in my breast warmer than gratitude.

So 'The Family Scapegrace' came out in Chambers's Journal. I do not remember whether it had any effect upon its circulation, but it was well spoken of, and there was at least one person in the world who thought it a masterpiece. The difficulty, which no one but a young and unknown writer can estimate, was to get a publisher to share in this belief. For many years afterwards I published my books anonymously (i.e., 'by the author' of so and so), and many a humorous interview I had with various denizens of Paternoster Row, to whom I (very strongly) recommended them, by proxy. 'If I were speaking to the author,' they said, 'it would be unpleasant to say this (that, and the other of a deprecatory character), but with you we can be quite frank.' And they were sometimes very frank; and, though I didn't much like it at the time, their candour (when I had sold the book tolerably well) tickled me afterwards immensely. For persons who have enjoyed this experience, mere literary criticism has henceforth no terrors.


'The Family Scapegrace,' however, had appeared under my own name, so that concealment was out of the question; it was in one volume, a form of publication which, at that time at all events (though I see they now affirm the contrary), was unpopular with the libraries, and I was quite an unknown novelist. Under these circumstances, I have never forgotten the kindness of Mr. Douglas (of the firm of Edmonston & Douglas), who gave me fifty pounds for the first edition of the book—by which enterprise he lost his money. There were many reasons for it, no doubt, though the story has since done well enough, but I think the chief of them was the alteration of the title to 'Richard Arbour,' which, contrary to the wishes both of myself and my publisher, was insisted upon by a leading librarian. It is difficult, nowadays, to guess his reason, but people were more 'square-toed' in those times, and I fancy he thought his highly respectable customers would scent something Bohemian, if not absolutely scampish, in a Scapegrace. A mere name is not an attractive title for a book; though many books so called—such as 'Martin Chuzzlewit' and 'Robinson Crusoe'—have become immensely popular, they owed nothing to their baptism; and certainly 'Richard Arbour' prospered better when he got rid of his rather commonplace name.


A rather curious incident took place with respect to this book, which annoyed me greatly at the time, because I was quite unacquainted with the queer crotchets and imaginary grievances that would-be literary persons often take into their heads. Somebody wrote to complain that he had written (not published) a story upon the same lines, and even incidents, as 'The Family Scapegrace,' just before its appearance in the columns of Chambers's Journal, and the delicate inference he drew was that, whether in my capacity of editor or otherwise, I must have somehow got hold of it. He gave the exact date of the conclusion of his own composition, which was prior to the commencement of my story in the Journal.

Conscious of innocence, but troubled by so disagreeable an imputation, I laid the matter before Robert Chambers.

'You are not so versed in the ways of this class of person as I am,' he said, smiling; 'but since he has been so injudicious as to give a date, I think we can put him out of court. I am one of those methodical individuals who keep a diary.' And on reference to it, he found that I had read him my story long before that of my traducer, according to his own account, had left his hands.

It was a small matter, but proved a useful lesson to me, for there is a great deal of imposture of this kind going on in the literary world; sometimes, as perhaps in this case, the result of mere egotistic fancy, but also sometimes begotten by the desire to levy blackmail.

The above, so far as I can remember them, are the circumstances under which I published my first novel. I am sorry to add that poor Tickeracandua, to whom it owed so much, subsequently met the very fate in reality which I had assigned to him in fiction; though as good a fellow as many I have met out of a show, he came to the same end as 'Don't Care' did in the nursery story, and was 'eaten (or at all events killed) by lions.'

Signed drawing: W. Clark Russell