lthough little read today, William Harrison Ainsworth turned out so many historical romances over his sixty-year career as a writer that to his contemporaries he was the king of the historical potboiler. Today, Ainsworth, whose narrative style reminds one of Sir Walter Scott's, is chiefly remembered for popularizing the story of the highwayman Dick Turpin in Rookwood (1834) and the legend of Herne the Hunter in Windsor Castle (1843).
During his early years of popularity in London Ainsworth played the gracious host at his home, Kendall Lodge, which lay just outside the metropolis, to such literary celebrities as John Forster, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Charles Dickens. He was born in Manchester on February 4th, 1805, and spent the first nineteen years of his life in that northern industrial city. However, in the early nineteenth century, an air of the past hung about the place, with eighteenth-century, Tudor, and even Gothic architecture, a prime example of which was the Manchester Free Grammar School (which Ainsworth attended from 1817 to 1822), founded by the Bishop of Exeter in 1515. The city was within easy walking distance of such ancient baronial halls as Hulme, Ordsall, Garrett, and Irlam. During his summer holidays young Ainsworth stayed at his great-uncle's house, Rostherne, in Cheshire. Thomas Ainsworth, Harrison's father, an attorney, was something of an expert on criminal history, and would regale his son with stories of daring robberies by swash-buckling highwaymen. Then, too, this was the era when the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott were in vogue. Another impetus towards writing was the boy's friendship with James Crossley, five years his senior, who was articling in Thomas Ainsworth's firm. An omnivorous reader and avid book-collector, Crossley was to be Harrison Ainsworth's friend and confidant for sixty-five years.
While still at grammar school, Ainsworth began writing melodramatic, gothic plays, which he produced in a theatre he had set up in the basement of his family's home on King Street. All the paraphernalia of a professional theatre he manufactured: playbills, painted scenery, costumes, properties, and even stage machinery. He also contributed poems, plays, and short stories to a number of popular magazines: the Pocket Magazine, the Edinburgh Magazine, the New Monthly Magazine, the European Magazine, and the London Magazine. In keeping with his father's wishes, however, he articled to another Manchester lawyer after leaving school in 1817, Alexander Kay, solicitor and conveyancer. But he persisted in amateur literary efforts, publishing a volume of verse entitled The Maid's Revenge; and A Summer's Evening Tale; with Other Poems(1822) — which he dedicated to the Romantic essayist Charles Lamb — under the pseudonym "Cheviot Ticheburn."
Connected by the London Magazine, Lamb and Ainsworth struck up a friendship through correspondence in the early 1820s. Also in these formative years, Ainsworth collaborated with a clerk in his father's office, John Partington Aston, on a long romance entitled Sir John Chiverton, which was subsequently published by Ainsworth's father-in-law, the London businessman John Ebers, whose daughter Fanny Ainsworth married that same year. Between the eventful year of 1826 and the juvenilia of the early 1820s lies the shadow of the death of Thomas Ainsworth on June 20, 1824. The younger Ainsworth's determination to study law at London's Inns of Court seems to have been genuine, since he would need to acquire greater legal skills to run his father's firm. Although Harrison Ainsworth was admitted as a solicitor to the Court of King's Bench in 1826, he had become something of a dandy and a man about town in his two years' residence in the metropolis.
Even if Sir John Chiverton may now be dismissed as a piece of juvenilia, it was so popular at the time that even Sir Walter Scott was impressed, and wrote, asking to meet the author of a romance markedly in his style. Recruited by his father-in-law to manage the Ebers publishing firm, Ainsworth quickly tired of business, and in 1830 opened a London law practice. The enormous success of Rookwood, based on the adventures of the highwayman Dick Turpin, enabled Ainsworth the time to travel and to associate with the brilliant men of letters known as "The Fraserians" who had founded Fraser's Magazine in 1830: among them, Carlyle, Thackeray, Southey, Coleridge, Maginn, and the French dandy, Count D'Orsay. In 1831, Ainsworth transformed Cuckfield Place, Sussex, owned by his friend William Sergison, into gloomy Rookwood Place for his first mature novel. Published by Richard Bentley in April, 1834, the novel went through five large editions in only three years, making Ainsworth's name and fortune.
Rookwood (1834) is very much a prose romance in the manner of Sir Walter Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor and Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables. The death of Sir Piers Rookwood leaves in doubt who will succeed him as lord of the manor: Ranulph (his son by Lady Rookwood) or Luke (his apparently illegitimate son, to whose mother, Susan Bradley, Sir Piers was secretly married prior to his marriage to Lady Rookwood). Since Luke is the elder, if his legitimacy can be established, he will inherit the estate and marry Eleanor Mowbray, who stands to inherit estates from Sir Reginald Rookwood, Sir Piers' father. In order to court Eleanor, Luke abandons Sybil Lovel, a gypsy girl who was his fiancée. The crazed sexton Peter Bradley (in fact, Alan Rookwood, Sir Reginald's wronged brother in disguise) and the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin offer to assist Luke, who is poisoned when he kisses a strand of Sybil's hair sent him by her grandmother, Barbara Lovel, queen of the gypsies. Thus, Ranulph wins Eleanor and his father's estate. Finally, the curse upon the house of Rookwood is lifted when the widow, Lady Rookwood, discovers the very dagger with which the founder of the family murdered his wife.
Ironically, although he is a peripheral character, the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin is one of the novel's most engaging personages; his ride on Black Bess from London to York with the minions of the law in constant pursuit and the tragic death of Turpin's faithful black mare are the best things in the romance. Unfortunately, in Rookwood, Ainsworth seems unable to choose between Scott and Radcliffe as his model.
It is not insignificant that the novel is interspersed with ballads, for one feels that Turpin belongs properly to the ballad tradition. Consequently, Ainsworth's famous description of Turpin's ride, good as it is, clashes with the Gothic atmosphere of Rookwood Place. [Kelly 8]
No sooner had he scored this astounding success, which was his entree into the salons of Lady Blessington and Lord and Lady Holland, than his young wife, the beautiful Fanny, returned to her father's house, dying in 1838. At Kensal Lodge on the Harrow Road two miles west of London, Ainsworth entertained the leading young men of letters, making himself the most noted literary host of the capital. Here and at the adjoining Kensal Manor House (to which he moved in March, 1841), he provided a meeting place for such talented writers as Dickens and Thackeray and such fashionable young men as Disraeli and D'Orsay. It was through Ainsworth that Charles Dickens, then an unknown short-hand reporter, met publisher Richard Bentley, his future biographer, John Forster, and the artist who would illustrate Oliver Twist for him, George Cruikshank.
Jack Sheppard (1839) reveals Ainsworth at his best in terms of characterisation and plot construction. Wishing to avoid a loose succession of incidents in the picaresque style, Ainsworth introduces two characters (the historical Jonathan Wild and the fictional Thames Darrell) to create a unifying thread in this tale set in eighteenth-century England. In a manner reminiscent of various television and film versions of The Fugitive, the thief-taker Wild relentlessly pursues the subtle and cunning Jack Sheppard, thief and house-breaker. Because Jack's mother has rebuffed Wild's sexual advances, Wild seduces Jack's father and then Jack himself into committing crimes that will inevitably lead them to the gallows. While Jack chooses the path of vice, his foil, Thames Darrell (like Jack in youth apprenticed to Mr. Wood the carpenter, and like Jack, the son of a father who has died violently after abusing his wife) chooses the path of virtue. Thames ultimately prospers with the aid of Jack's second-in-command, Blueskin, and wins the hand of the lovely Winifred, his master's daughter. Although the protagonist, Jack, is reconciled with his mother and saves both Thames and Winifred from Wild, he is ultimately hanged for his crimes. Poetic justice, however, is served when the narrator reveals that within seven months Wild himself is hanged.
Thus, the book illustrates the Hogarthian theme of the lazy and diligent apprentices that Dickens vivifies in Great Expectations and elsewhere, and which had already been dramatised in George Lillo's The London Merchant, or the History of George Barnwell (1731), a domestic tragedy based on the seventeenth-century ballad which appears on Percy's Reliques. In the ballad, young Barnwell is a London apprentice who falls in love with a Shoreditch prostitute (Sarah Millwood). In return for her favours, the apprentice gives her £200 which he has stolen from his master; again to supply the harlot with cash, he robs his uncle, a Ludlow grazier, and beats him to death. The hussy and the varlet impeach each other, and are subsequently hanged at Tyburn. The literary progeny of the tale is the so-called Newgate Novel, popularized by Thackeray, Dickens, Ainsworth, and Bulwer-Lytton.
Between 1840-1841 Ainsworth edited Bentley's Miscellany and still found time enough to produce three major novels: The Tower of London (serialized in monthly parts throughout 1840), Guy Fawkes (serialized in Bentley's Miscellany from January, 1840, through November, 1841), and Old Saint Paul's (serialized in the Sunday Times weekly from January 3rd through December 26th, 1841).
Probably the high-water mark of his association with Dickens and his circle came on Tuesday, April 11th, 1846, when Ainsworth attended Dickens's Dombey dinner with Macready, Forster, Beard, Lemon, Thackeray, Jerdan, Browne, D'Orsay, Hogarth, Burnett, Evans, and Frank Stone at Dickens's home at Devonshire Terrace, London. On Christmas Day, 1848, Dickens had given Ainsworth a copy of The Haunted Man, inscribed "From his old Friend" (p. 485). The two dined at the Garrick in late January, 1849. However, gradually, as Dickens established himself as the period's predominant novelist, and as interest in Ainsworth's Newgate novels and historical romances declined, the two saw less and less of one another.
While editing such periodicals as Bentley's Miscellany (he succeeded Dickens in that post) and Ainsworth's Magazine (1842 — 54), Ainsworth churned out nearly forty popular historical romances. Michael Steig describes Ainsworth's readership as largely middle-class and non-intellectual. He notes that the style of Phiz's illustration for Auriol, with its careful cross-hatching, resembles that of Cruikshank for the three Ainsworth novels which that artist illustrated: Jack Sheppard (1839), The Tower of London (1840), and The Miser's Daughter (1842). "Cruikshank and Ainsworth had been uneasy colleagues on Bentley's Miscellany and Ainsworth's Magazine, and were only imperfectly reconciled" (Pilgrim Letters 80 n). Michael Steig notes that John Harvey has shown that Ainsworth actually altered scenes to accommodate Cruikshank's illustrations. Phiz, Dickens's illustrator (otherwise, Hablot Knight Browne) illustrated five of Ainsworth's novels:
1844-5: The Revelations of London in Ainsworth's Magazinewith 15 etchings; republished as Auriol in 1845;
1847: Old St. Paul'swith two etchings (dark plates);
1848-9:Crichton in The New Monthly Magazinewith 18 etchings, eight of them dark plates;
1851-2: Mervyn Clitheroe. Monthly parts (1-4 only; resumed 1858) with eight etchings and engraved wrapper;
1857:The Spendthrift: A Tale. 8 plates;
1858: resumed illustrating The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe with 16 etchings, 12 of them dark plates.
Little did he realize that his career had passed its zenith, that his editorial work, for his own periodicals Ainsworth's Magazine (founded in February, 1842) and the New Monthly Magazine, would exhaust his creative energies. In 1854, he terminated Ainsworth's Magazine but purchased Bentley's Miscellany in the same year, and continued as editor of two journals until he sold the latter in 1868. His move from Kensal Lodge to Brighton, "London by the Sea" in Sussex, signalled a spiritual as well as a physical departure from the London scene of his youthful triumphs, although his editorial work required frequent visits by rail to the metropolis. During the remaining three decades of his life and career as a writer, few honours and successes came his way. Lord Palmerston's administration awarded him a Civil List pension in 1856, further evidence of his decline as a popular writer, since this was then "the characteristic tribute by a nation to a writer who has ceased to be a writer primarily and has become a monument" (Worth 21). To stave off penury, he moved from Brighton to Tunbridge Wells in 1867, and sold family property in Manchester, Bentley's Miscellany in 1868, and the New Monthly Magazine in 1870. Dickens was now dead, and Ainsworth was a remnant of a bygone literary era. His only recourse was to submit to the indignity (and low pay) of publishing in the cheap London magazine Bow Bells with the Penny-Dreadful Man, John Dicks, whose "Dicks' Standard Plays," miniature adaptations of works by major novelists, circumventing British copyright law, were also sold at a penny apiece, without even covers. He married again in 1878, but nothing is recorded about his second wife. A final tribute to his contribution to British letters came on September 15th, 1881, when the Lord Mayor of Manchester threw a dinner in his honour, for in The Lancashire Witches and Mervyn Clitheroe Ainsworth had put his native city on England's literary map.
All of Manchester's were there [at the Town Hall], but what was Ainsworth, whose own generation except for the faithful Crossley was dead and gone, to make of these youngsters? The sad, resigned face, fringed by receding white hair and a white beard, which stares off into space from the front page of the souvenir brochure of the dinner bears no recognizable relationship to the handsome young man whose picture was drawn by [Daniel] Maclise and [Count] D'Orsay in the 1820s and 1830s.
Three and a half months after the banquet, William Harrison Ainsworth was dead. [Worth 21-22]
He died at Reigate on January 3rd, 1882, and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery, largely forgotten by all but academic readers of the present. He was not merely an English version of Sir Walter Scott or the Victorian counterpart of Anne Radcliffe: "Like Tennyson and Arnold, he shares the Victorian preoccupation with finding in the past some clarification of a bewildering present" (Kelly 9).
"Ainsworth, William Harrison." http://biography.com
Dickens, Charles. Pilgrim ed. of the Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 5 (1847-1849). Ed. Graham Storey and Katherine Tillotson. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
Golden, Catherine J. "Ainsworth, William Harrison (1805-1882." Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York and London: Garland, 1988. Page 14.
Kelly, Patrick. "William Harrison Ainsworth." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 21, "Victorian Novelists Before 1885," ed. Ira Bruce Nadel and William E. Fredeman. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. Pp. 3-9.
Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Worth, George J. William Harrison Ainsworth. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Created 2 February 2001; last modified 21 September 2023