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In transcribing the following passage from Blackwood’s discussion of early Victorian fiction I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable OCR text. You will find links to other parts of the article after Blackwood’s comments on Ainsworth. — George P. Landow

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he historical knowledge of the Early Victorian era was sadly to seek [sic]. Historians professed to aim at accuracy, and not at picturesqueness: they succeeded in being dull, but they did not succeed in being accurate. The novelists, if it is permissible to make use of a slang phrase, "went one better," for they extended the range of inaccuracy, and in some cases attained the picturesque. Scott, with all his antiquarian lore, set the unprincipled example of rearranging history to suit the exigencies of romance, and was unfettered by any latter-day notions as to historical truth. Those were the times in which the average reader took his ideas of history from Scott's novels, and so, alas! did the average writer. We hope we do not malign these industrious novelists; but an examination of their work leads to the conclusion that their modus operandi was to fix upon some ancient building — it might be a church, a castle, or a mansion — inquire from the least trustworthy source available when and how it was connected with history, and having thus obtained the germ of a plot, to throw aside all appeal to authority, and plunge into a wild orgy of melodramatic fiction mingled with muddled facts, and narrated in the language known only too truly as Wardour-Street English. Words, names, costumes, “propertied” generally (in and out again, transfer their affections to other objects, wander in and out of vaults and similar unpleasant places, go mad, attack and kill one another, and appear as ghosts, for no reason whatever but that the author needs their assistance at the moment in a particular capacity. In his preface to Rookwood, written in 1849, Ainsworth gives us some idea of his purpose in writing historical fiction.

"The chief object I had in view," he says, "in making the present essay, was to see how far the infusion of a warmer and more genial current into the veins of old Romance would succeed in reviving her fluttering and feeble pulses. The attempt has succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectations. Romance, if I am not mistaken, is destined slowly to undergo an important change. Modified by the French and German writers, . . . the structure commenced in our own land by Horace Walpole, Monk Lewis, Mrs Radclifle, and Maturin, but left imperfect and inharmonious, requires, now that the rubbish which choked up its approach is removed, only the hand of the skilful architect to its entire renovation and perfection.

The modesty of this design is as remarkable as its comprehensiveness, and it is noteworthy that Mrs Radcliffe, and not Scott, was the model that the author set himself to imitate. To her influence we may ascribe the secret panels, mechanical statues, sudden and violent deaths, charnel-houses, and other commonplaces of Ainsworth's world; but it would be unjust to visit upon the Salvator Rosa of British novelists the blame of her disciple's sins of language. We all know that "a little learning is a dangerous thing," and a slight acquaintance with the whole course of English history, concentrated upon a single period, produces somewhat ludicrous results. Nothing is ever black in Ainsworth's writings, — it is either raven, sable, or jet. A servant is a minion when he is addressed, a menial when he is spoken of. No one is ever told to go any where; the command is always, "Hie thee." A wedding is always alluded to delicately as nuptials, a girl is a maiden, a father's father is a grandsire. "What ho! with out there," is the recognised mode of summoning your menials, and the wild "Ha! ha!" of the baffled villain or the sardonic hero echoes frequently through the pages. [645-46]

Related Material


“Early Victorian Fiction.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. 161 (May 1897): 636-52. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 15 September 2020.

Last modified 15 September 2020