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A Hopeless Passion

by James Payne

The Train, vol. 1, issue 6 (1856)

Pages 372-377

A sample page from A Hopeless Passion by James Payne
From “A Hopeless Passion.” Used by permission, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.

Introductory Note: “A Hopeless Passion” is about a man who, though consumed with a lifelong desire to see his writings published, is in fact a terrible writer. It is a lighthearted satire of both the periodical industry and those who have pretensions of being something that they are not, and thus fits in well with the humorous, socially-conscious tone of many of the stories in the The Train. This story can be best appreciated in the context of the Victorian period, which saw a surge in literacy rates and a consequent rise of literature for the masses. This opening up of the publication industry, the story suggests, also led to the perception that anyone who could write could be given a voice, could have a chance at publication.

Advisory: This story contains racial violence and racist language.

My young friend Ebenezer Waggles is the victim of a Hopeless Passion. He has a high forehead surmounted with curling hair, through the centre of which a little pathway conducts into the nape of his neck ; his eyes are large, and suffused by a tender melancholy ; his mouth is formed after the manner of a Cupid’s bow, and his chin is sharply pointed and has a hole in its extremity ; I don’t mention his nose, because it turns up, and rather mars the effect of his other features, but he is upon the whole a very striking looking person indeed. You could scarcely pass him in the street without remarking the distraught and wierdlike expression which he is in no way anxious to mitigate; and if you were in Cheapside itself, bent upon your Bulls and Bears, Cheques, Tare and Tret, Funds, or Invoices (which is Waggles’ general notion of City matters), and you were to meet him talking to himself, and with his hat on the back of his head, as his customs are, you would surely stop, if it was only to wonder what business he had there.1“Bulls and Bears” are terms that refer to the stock market. “Cheques, Tare and Tret” are commercial terms that refer to deductions from a purchase.

He himself admits that he is not of the “ common clay,” and some of his friends affirm in addition that he is rather of the “ mere sham” (or “ foam of the sea”); whatever affectations he may have, however, they have nothing at all to do with his hopeless passion, for that is a reality which goes nigh to consume him, “ he thinks by day, he dreams of it by night;” he soliloquises about it in lonely places, and bores you with it if you sit by him in an omnibus; he woos its object with an unceasing importunity, and expends upon it his time, his talents, and his letter paper.

And yet it is neither maid nor widow who is the goddess of his idolatry, and far less (for Waggles is the soul of honour) is it any body else’s wife; no maid, however coy, no widow, however suspicious, could indeed have held out such a siege so long. The idol of his heart is the Periodical Press, and his hopeless passion is to appear in print! To be in the third column of the supplement on Saturday, to be in yellow letters upon a crimson ground against blank walls for the ensuing week, to be (if such a bliss might only happen!) carried on a placard through the principal thoroughfares—that is the dream of his life, “the mirage (his own words) before his heated eyes in this vast Desert of Existence.”

It was born with him, just as the name of Waggles was born with him, and is as unlikely to depart from him as it is that her most gracious Majesty will grant him her letters patent to assume instead of his present title the name and arms of Montmorenci.2Possibly a reference to the Raymond Harvey de Montmorency, an English viscount and soldier who distinguished himself during the Crimean War.

I think, although my friend is a religious man, that he would barter his soul for the privilege of seeing a letter of his in print in the Times newspaper. Whenever a grievance arises at home or abroad, or the minutest excuse offers itself for addressing the leading journal, Waggles is one of the first in the field of “ Correspondents.”3The original reads: “Wraggles.” Now, although he has done this so constantly as to be enabled to affirm to strangers that “he has been writing in the Times for many years,” the effect of his arguments (except, perhaps, in their secret influence on the mind of the Editor) has not been great; his communications, in fact, have never been printed; and his connexion with others newspapers has not been less unfortunate. To me also Waggles delights in writing (though he confesses it is not like publishing), and confides in my secrecy at all times as in a brother; and I have taken the liberty of making a few extracts from his more confidential letters for the better illustration of his character. Of this newspaper writing, he says,

“ I have proposed more enigmas for the conservative journal of my native county than the Egyptian Sphynx ; when that venal and exclusive print refused to insert them, I sent them, week after week, to the radical organ, in which infidel and revolutionary paper, too, I have always found my initials under the head of “ unsuitable communications;” not my real initials, of course, but those which seemed to me the most suitable to the occasion: I have written, indeed, under the protection of every letter in the alphabet without the possibility (in the hypothetical case of their being printed even) of anybody being the wiser; but I. O. U. was always informed that ‘metre was not the sole requisite in a poem;’ or K.I.S., that there was a ‘point where gaiety became indecency;’ or D.A.M., that ‘ Blasphemy was not Wit;’ nor was I more successful with my more ambitious aliases ; ‘Juvenis’ was always recommended to grow older; ‘Steelpen’ to mend himself, and ‘Paterfamilias’ (for in despair, I tried that once) to stick to his home affairs and leave off writing rubbish.”

But Waggles seemed never to be in anywise cast down by these disappointments, and did not think it at all out of the pale of chance that he might yet have been made one of “ Our own Correspondents” in the Crimea, with the Commander-in Chief under one thumb, and the Medical and Commissariat Staffs under the other. Nor did he confine himself at all to the newspaper press, nor any one branch in particular of general literature; he would have engaged to supply an article for “Punch,” and another for “ the Ecclesiologist” on the same afternoon; he has had one, scores of times, I will answer for him, ready for each, but they, unhappily, were not so well prepared on their parts for it.4Punch was a well-known satirical periodical.  “ From my earliest youth,” he confesses, “my delicately-stringed organisation has thrilled and quivered in contact with the roughness and brutality of the conductors of the periodical press; such a metaphor as that, sir, even with a supplementary reference to ‘harmony’ and ‘silver,’ has been remarked upon by those men disparagingly, or not remarked upon at all, while the rythmical utterance of the poetry of my impassioned spirit has been designated on one occasion as ‘Twaddle.’”

He is unfortunate, it appears, as regards his literary schemes even in his domestic relations: “My family are almost Calvinistic (he writes in one of his early letters); they congratulated themselves, I believe, that I was born with a caul; they prohibit my receiving my numerous rejected contributions upon the Sabbath day; their own periodical literature is of a sombre, not to say sulphureous, description.5A “caul” is a membrane on a newborn’s head that was thought to be a good omen. ‘A Live Coal from the Nether Pit,’ a tract of not only European, but African celebrity, was thrown off, after dinner, by my maternal uncle; his connexion with the ‘Weekly Scourge for Sinners,’ has been of no service to me as an introduction to that Journal. A rather amusing contribution of mine was returned but lately by its sub-editor with marginal request, written in red ink, that ‘I should take care of my precious soul.’”

From almost his infancy, indeed, a desire to inscribe his name upon the scrolls of fame, was “ready laid” (as the housemaids say) within. His breast needed only the slightest spark to set it alight. His own mother appears to have been the unwitting incendiary destined to lay his heart in ruins.

“About the time,” he says, “of my entrance into my eleventh year, I wrote a five-act tragedy upon the Landing of Hengist and Horsa; my dear mother placed it upon a level with the historical plays of Shakspeare ; my father conceived that there was ‘not enough of the religious element,’ in either author.6Hengist and Horsa are legendary brothers of a Germanic tribe who conquered areas of Great Britain. ‘Hengist and Horsa’ is, as yet, unpublished; the situations are fine, and the characters in accordance with the period; I have not fettered myself with actual facts, but the noble brothers are made to expire simultaneously, after an eating match for the sovereignty, in presence of their assembled nobles. On my twelfth birth-day I completed an epic poem in seventy-two cantos, upon the same absorbing topic, and subsequently composed two essays, one upon the character of Prince Hengist, and the other upon that of Prince Horsa.” And again, with relation to his mother he says, “she was the confidante of the never-to-be-printed sonnet, and the rejected elegy, and the unreturned (even) five-act drama: she sympathised with me in all my misfortunes, and was, and is, the only human being who ever believed in me.

Ebenezer believed, and believes in himself, however, in a very remarkable degree, and always attributes his failures to the jealousy, malignity, or dishonesty of the world in general, and of editors in particular.

“ I am sure that my concise little elucidation (in fifteen verses) of the etymological conundrum of the ‘Country Beehive,’ should have gained me the first prize of fifty copies; instead of which, it was awarded to ‘our clever young correspondent B.;’ it was awarded perhaps, and not presented; I have my doubts about the personal existence of that genius; and whether anything was given ‘to B, or not to B.’ (as Shakespeare observes), ‘that is the question.’ Again, in the case of acrostics, I am certain that what ingenuity “can” have done for acrostics, mine has done, and yet I don’t find our periodicals craving after my acrostics: I have written, too, ‘Jesuitical Letters’ of the most interesting description, to be read four ways, along and across and backwards and forwards, with a different and (almost) obvious sense to each. Loyola himself might have been proud of them, but the editor of the ‘Cottage Sun-Dial’ is nothing of the sort; he “says” he doesn’t understand any of the four meanings; but I have my own reasons for suspecting that his connexion with the Romanising party in this country, sir, forbids him from publishing such exposures of the arts of the enemies of our Protestant faith. I have, however, I trust, by this time been avenged. ‘The Cottage Sun-dial’ requests that the medical experience of its suffering readers may be kindly communicated, and I have at last succeeded in getting the following ‘cure for cold in the head’ into its columns. It is the most imaginative thing I ever composed, and I devoutly hope it may be tried by the Editor himself. ‘Hire a small cane bottom’d chair and set a camphine lamp alight beneath it; undress, and cause wet sheets to loosely hang from your neck, and fall, when you have sat down, outside the chair: as there is some little inconvenience felt for the first few minutes, it is better that the patient should be secured to the woodwork, and the woodwork to the lamp; the attendant may then leave the room for a quarter of an hour, which will be amply sufficient time for the production of the designed effect.

‘Great Malvern.Signed ATE.’

‘N.B. I have never known a second application to be required.’”

The sombre life of my persevering young friend has not, however, been unchequered with some gleams of passing joy: some years ago Ebenezer Waggles was as near attaining the object of his fondest wishes as any mortal in this ineffectual world may be; the golden opportunity, it will be seen, was only lost through his own indiscretion and impatience.

“I was one and twenty years of age,” he says, in one of his numerous autobiographical letters, “when the great event of my existence (very nearly) came to pass. The Editor of ‘the People’s Soapdish,’ a journal devoted to the Dignity of Labour and the Empire of the Spade (for which vide Prospectus), accepted one of my contributions; it was rather a thrilling tale of wrong and retribution; ‘The Lord and the Labourer’ was no ordinary story of everyday life, believe me; the Peer was insolent, ignorant, debauched, and bloodthirsty; the Peasant, made Lord Chief Justice, had reason to congratulate himself and society, when he passed sentence of death upon that hereditary ruffian! ‘Libertas’ (that is, myself) was informed that the ‘Lord and the Labourer’ was in type; was I not justified then upon its non-appearance in the next number, in writing an abusive communication to the Editor? But was he, I would ask you, on the other hand, justified in returning the MS. with ‘Libertas is a fool,’ written outside it? And yet that was exactly what he did.”

This blow had a very severe effect upon Waggles for some time, and caused his imagination, partly through the sorrow which is most fitly poured forth in song, and partly because he thought it would be more likely to succeed than prose, to take a poetic course; he was not, however, more successful in this respect, for after a little time I find in one of his letters a quotation of some fifty blank verse lines, “extracted,” he writes, “from an Epic Poem, entitled ‘Never,’ forwarded some weeks ago to the ‘Weekly Coronal,’ and, need I say, rejected?

Since I have known this victim of a Hopeless Passion he cannot have spent less than twenty pounds in postage-stamps and four times as much in writing paper—foolscap: (he is immensely careful, poor fellow! about blots and erasures, and fastens all his sheets together with a red silk riband): I have counted in that huge escritoire of his as many as forty-eight pretty voluminous MSS.; “ This,” said he, alluding to the ‘ Family Hodge Podge,’ for which he was just then engaged in compilation, “this journal is the nine and fortieth in which my young soul has yearned to expand myself and failed; if this too be not accepted I leave the whole periodical press to their receipts and recipes for ever.”

Since that distressing circumstance took place, however, Waggles has been as constant a contributor to everything as before; it was only a few days back that he came to me with heightened colour and his melancholy eyes lit up with joy to tell me of his having broken ground in a new quarter.

“But it’s a secret,” he said, “ a great secret, and I believe it may be death, aye, and death by burning to reveal it.”

“I tell you what it is, Waggles,” said I, “you’ll write in one magazine yet, before you die, if you go on talking in this way; and that will be the Hanwell Intelligencer, or Bedlam Monthly Regenerator.7Hanwell and Bedlam were mental institutions. “What do you mean?”

“Why, I mean,” replied Ebenezer in a low whisper, and looking suspiciously around him, “that I have written a story entitled ‘ The Screw, the Lever, and the Plumb Rule,’ and I have sent it to the ‘Freemason’s Weekly Journal.’”

But you’re not a Freemason, Waggles?

“No,” said he, “that is the only difficulty, but I have sealed it with a pair of compasses and I have signed it ‘ Brother Smith.’”8The Square and Compass is one of the symbols of the Freemasons.

And if my young friend is not the victim of a Hopeless Passion I don’t know who is.

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Timothy Crain
Cosenza Hendrickson
Alexandra Malouf


22 January 2021

Last modified

14 December 2021


1 “Bulls and Bears” are terms that refer to the stock market. “Cheques, Tare and Tret” are commercial terms that refer to deductions from a purchase.
2 Possibly a reference to the Raymond Harvey de Montmorency, an English viscount and soldier who distinguished himself during the Crimean War.
3 The original reads: “Wraggles.”
4 Punch was a well-known satirical periodical.
5 A “caul” is a membrane on a newborn’s head that was thought to be a good omen.
6 Hengist and Horsa are legendary brothers of a Germanic tribe who conquered areas of Great Britain.
7 Hanwell and Bedlam were mental institutions.
8 The Square and Compass is one of the symbols of the Freemasons.

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