Plot summary: No one reads James Payn apparently, even though he was a prolific writer and had numerous works on the Victorian best-seller lists. Moreover, he contributed to many of the period’s most influential literary periodicals and even edited the Chamber’s Journal for several years.
So, why don’t scholars read Payn? Well, beyond his fascinating plot-lines the literary quality of his work leaves something to be desired. He focuses on the sensationalism of his plot and his style is minimalistic compared to the rich descriptive qualities of Dickens’ or Collins’ work. Otherwise, his works seem so topical to the concerns of the period that I am surprised more Victorianists don’t read and write on his works.
The title of the novel, Halves, is in reference to an agreement made by two brothers, Mark and Alec Raeburn. The brothers agree to split their fortunes in half, one helping the other. Mark stays in England to practice law, but Alec leaves to find his fortune in the New World. The story opens with the narrator, Harry Sheddon, becoming apprenticed to Mark in the hopes that he can woo Mark’s niece and ward, Gertrude Floyd. While Harry stays at the Raeburn home, the lost Uncle Alec returns to England. The greedy Mrs. Mark Raeburn is quick to begin probing into Uncle Alec’s financial status, hoping that his fortune will save her family from its financial woes. Uncle Alec, it seems, is poor himself and Mrs. Raeburn begins treating him harshly. Uncle Alec is heartbroken at treatment of his brother and sister-in-law and starts wasting away. He takes to his room and becomes isolated from everyone except his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.
Meanwhile, Harry’s suit has been successful and he becomes engaged to Miss Floyd. Miss Floyd, however, becomes mysteriously ill. She recovers when away from the Raeburn home but sickens again when she returns. She is tested for poison, but her doctor cannot pin point the cause of her illness. One day, Harry inadvertently sees Mrs. Raeburn fiddling with the horse-hair couch and reports this strange activity to the doctor. The doctor has Harry surreptitiously search Mrs. Raeburn’s room, in which he finds a strange device which can be used to finely chop foodstuffs. The doctor realizes that Mrs. Raeburn has been putting finely chopped horse-hair into Miss Floyd’s food, effectively “poisoning” her (horse-hair can perforate the bowels and cause severe gastrointestinal distress). Mrs. Raeburn has been poisoning Miss Floyd in order to keep her money (dowry) within the family. It also turns out that Uncle Alec has been long dead, and the family pretended he was alive to keep receiving his annuity.
In the end, Mrs. Raeburn commits suicide and her husband and son leave England. Harry inherits Uncle Alec’s fortune (the old man had kept his money a secret so he could judge the true character of his brother and sister-in-law). Harry marries Miss Floyd.
Themes/Keywords: Suicide, poison, bankruptcy, greed
I am primarily fascinated with the specifics of attempted murder and the use of horse-hair as poison, which is (as far as I know) unique to Victorian writing. I originally came to the novel after reading a reference to its strange method of poisoning in C.J.S. Thompson’s Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries:
Perhaps the most curious method of poisoning ever used in fiction, is that introduced by the late Mr. James Payn in his novel, “Halves.” The poisoner uses finely chopped horse-hair as a medium for getting rid of her niece. In this way she brings on a disease which puzzles the doctor, until one day he comes across the would-be murderess pulling the horse-hair out of the drawing-room sofa, which causes him to suspect her at once. This ingenious lady introduced the chopped horse-hair into the pepper-pot used by her victim. (248)
Neither Thompson, or the novel explains how horse-hair is “poisonous,” and I first assumed that it might be treated with arsenic or another poison. Arsenic was used in the production of a lot of furniture and household goods. But, as it turns out, horse-hair, when finely chopped and ingested, can perforate the bowels causing severe gastrointestinal problems. As Mrs. Raeburn figures out, Victorian medicine had no way of testing for this “poison” and without the eye-witness account of her taking the horse-hair from the couch she might not have been caught. Thus, this particular form of poisoning suggests the limitations of Victorian science to detect foul-play. On a symbolic level, Mrs. Raeburn using a couch to supply her with a murder weapon and hiding this poison in the meals she served her niece signals the dangers lurking within a seemingly-normal middle-class household. The home both harbors and enables her murderous scheme and it is only through the actions of outsiders–Harry the apprentice and the doctor–that can stop her.
Besides the poison-plot, there is some interesting passages about Uncle Alec’s exotic pets (parrot, dog, and snakes) and Mrs. Raeburn’s cruelty towards them. Those working on pets in Victorian literature might want to read the novel.
The novel also contains a short segment about Uncle Alec’s adventures in the American south and mentions slavery and slave owners.
Payn, James. Halves. In 3 vols. London: Tinsley Bros., 1876.
Thompson, C.J.S. Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries. London: The Scientific Press, 1899. Can be accessed on Googlebooks here