Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Nowadays, the image of Guy Fawkes – the man who tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605, assassinating James I so a popular revolt could install a Catholic monarch – has become synonymous with anti-establishment protest. This modern symbolism began in the British comic strip V for Vendetta, a dystopian revenge tragedy with an anarchist heart by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1982 – 1988) produced during the darkest decade of Thatcherism. In the twenty-first century, the loosely associated and politically unaligned ‘Anonymous’ network of hackers and activists has taken as their emblem the ‘penny-for-the-guy’ mask worn by Moore’s protagonist, along with the ethos of the character. Just as ‘V’ once spoke to the people of an imagined fascist Britain that seems to be getting closer in fact every day, Anonymous broadcasts regularly to the world. History becomes fiction becoming history again; but while the cultural significance of Moore’s subversive hero is huge, the connotative seeds of Guy Fawkes as a revolutionary freedom fighter, rather than a terrorist to be burnt in effigy, were in fact sown in a relatively obscure early-Victorian novel…
Although the Newgate Controversy of 1839 had compelled the historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth to move away from the highwaymen that had made his name, he did not entirely abandon his interest in outlaws. While working on his historical epic The Tower of London – a much less controversial project than Jack Sheppard, the novel it followed – he was also writing a brooding gothic tragedy based on the life of Guy Fawkes.
Guy Fawkes: or, The Gunpowder Treason. A Historical Romance was serialised in Bentley’s Miscellany (which Ainsworth also edited, having succeeded Dickens the previous year) from January to November 1840, and then published as a triple-decker novel in July 1841. At the same time, Bentley published The Tower of London separately in monthly instalments from January to December 1840, releasing the book before Christmas as soon as the serial ended. Both projects were illustrated by George Cruikshank, and Ainsworth’s friend Samuel Laman Blanchard designated them ‘Twin-born romances’ in The Mirror (qtd. in Carver: 2003, 232), notably one with a Catholic hero, the other Protestant (Lady Jane Grey). Because The Tower of London is such a seminal work – a bestseller in its own day, British schoolkids were still being made to read it in the 1940s – Guy Fawkes tends to get forgotten, but it remains, nonetheless, a fascinating and surprisingly subversive piece of creative non-fiction, more than worthy of the author of Rookwood and The Lancashire Witches.
Guy Fawkes begins in the Summer of 1605, by which time the gunpowder conspiracy was already reasonably well advanced. The focal point of the text is the attempt to destroy Parliament on November 5 and Robert Catesby’s failed insurrection in the North, a response by increasingly desperate Catholics to the on-going religious persecution following Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome, that had intensified after King James succeeded Elizabeth. The story ends in the Spring of 1606 with the execution of the last of the conspirators. The narrative is divided into three books. ‘The Plot’ begins with the graphic execution of two seminary priests in Manchester, because under King James’s anti-Catholic laws, their very presence on English soil was a capital offence. The execution is briefly interrupted by the ravings of the prophetess, Elizabeth Orton, seeking a blessing from one of the condemned men. She escapes the pursuivant (an officer appointed by the Privy Council to seek out recusants) and his guards by diving into the Irwell. This scene introduces the novel’s two protagonists, both of whom attempt to save the half-mad woman: Humphrey Chetham, a Protestant nobleman who argues with the arresting authorities on Orton’s behalf, and a soldier in Spanish dress who saves her from drowning, Guy Fawkes. Orton dies prophesying her rescuer’s death.
After this arresting opening, Book the First, ‘The Plot,’ remains in the North, with much of the action taking place around Ordsall Hall, the ancestral seat of the Radcliffes, one of many old Catholic families in Lancashire who live in constant fear of the Protestant authorities. Sir William Radcliffe broadly supports the conspirators, and his daughter is torn between the love of the innocent Humphrey Chetham (a union divided by faith) and a deep, clearly physical attraction to Guy Fawkes. In a gothic interlude, Fawkes meets the alchemist Dr John Dee, who raises the spirit of Elizabeth Orton, who once again predicts disaster. Similarly, in a pilgrimage to St Winifred’s Well, Fawkes receives a divine vision warning him against the plot. At the end of Book the First, the Radcliffes are discovered to be harbouring the priests Fathers Oldcorne and Garnet, and the conspirators flee to London as the Hall is sacked by government troops. Book the Second, ‘The Discovery,’ follows the events immediately leading to the failed bombing attempt on November 5, diverting only from the historical record to marry Guy Fawkes to Viviana Radcliffe, who does not approve of the plot and urges him to abandon it. Fawkes, like all the conspirators, is however bound by oath to prosecute the plan. Book the Third, ‘The Conspirators,’ follows the trial of the gunpowder plotters and Viviana’s attempts to move her husband to repentance. This he does, by her deathbed in the Tower, going to his own execution both bravely and contentedly. The novel concludes, as it began, with the execution of the priest, Father Garnet, the principal Jesuit of England (although how involved in the plot he was in reality remains a contentious issue).
As ever, Ainsworth’s historical mise-en-scène is a synergy of meticulous antiquarian research and gothic sensibility, featuring necromancy, ill-omens, violent death, and ghostly visitants, while Chat Moss (in the seventeenth century a boggy swamp to the West of Manchester) becomes a terrifying, alien landscape where horses and their riders are sucked up by a living morass beneath eerily glowing mist. This genre alchemy is immediately apparent in the opening scenes of the first act, during which Fawkes saves the half-mad prophetess, Elizabeth Orton. To aid their escape, Orton leads Fawkes to a secret place on the bank of the river Irwell:
Descending the eminence, and again entering the lane, which here made a turn, the soldier approached a grassy space, walled in on either side by steep sandstone rocks. At the further extremity of the enclosure, after a moment’s search, by the direction of his companion, he found, artfully concealed by overhanging brushwood, the mouth of a small cave. He crept into the excavation, and found it about six feet high, and of considerable depth. The roof was ornamented with Runic characters and other grotesque and half effaced inscriptions, while the sides were embellished with Gothic tracery, amid which the letters I.H.S., carved in ancient church text, could be easily distinguished. Tradition assigned the cell to the priests of Odin, but it was evident that worshippers at other and holier altars had more recently made it their retreat. Its present occupant had furnished it with a straw pallet, and a small wooden crucifix fixed in a recess in the wall. Gently depositing her upon the pallet, the soldier took a seat beside her on a stone slab at the foot of the bed. He next, at her request, as the cave was rendered almost wholly dark by the overhanging trees, struck a light, and set fire to a candle placed within a lantern.
After a few moments passed in prayer, the recluse begged him to give her the crucifix that she might clasp it to her breast. This done, she became more composed, and prepared to meet her end. Suddenly, as if something had again disturbed her, she opened wide her glazing eyes, and starting up with a dying effort, stretched out her hands.
‘I see him before them!’ she cried. ‘They examine him – they adjudge him! Ah! he is now in a dungeon! See, the torturers advance! He is placed on the rack – once – twice – thrice – they turn the levers! His joints snap in their sockets – his sinews crack! Mercy! he confesses! He is led to execution. I see him ascend the scaffold!’
‘Whom do you behold?’ inquired the soldier, listening to her in astonishment.
‘His face is hidden from me’, replied the prophetess; ‘but his figure is not unlike your own. Ha! I hear the executioner pronounce his name. How are you called?’
‘GUY FAWKES’, replied the soldier.
‘It is the name I heard’, rejoined Elizabeth Orton.
And, sinking backward, she expired. (Ainsworth, Guy Fawkes, 11).
In this space, different ages seem to converge and coexist in a single moment. The cave is a natural phenomenon and therefore effectively prehistoric, it has been a place of illicit pre-Christian worship (the Anglo-Saxons taking Woden from the Norse god Odin), and the walls share pagan, runic writing with increasingly contemporary signs of Christian habitation, from the ancient Greek symbol for Christ carved on the medieval gothic decorations to the evidence of a very recent Jesuit hiding place. Through the medium of the dying seer, the future (to the reader the past) is also revealed from the edge of eternity. The textual construction of the cave is therefore based upon these various temporal co-ordinates, with each axis an infinity. This is Ainsworth’s perception of history at its most elegant, as a fourth dimensional drama with sets that could have been designed by Pugin, ranging across the streams of time where they converge, such as historically charged sites of great religious or political significance.
In Guy Fawkes and The Tower of London it would notionally seem that Ainsworth had once more entered the realm of his boyhood hero, Sir Walter Scott (whose style he had tried to emulate in his first novel, Sir John Chiverton, co-authored with school friend J.P. Aston in 1826).
The historical novel as we know it begins with Walter Scott (1771 – 1832). Scott wrote his first novel, Waverley or ’Tis’ Sixty Years Since (a story of the ill-fated Jacobite rebellion of 1745) in 1814, producing thereafter an average of two historical novels a year for the rest of his life, characterised by an innovative sense of the plight of the individual subject within complex and threatening historical processes. In his hugely influential study The Historical Novel, the Marxist philosopher, critic and cultural historian Georg Lukács identified the refinement and influence of Scott’s technique in the work of Pushkin and Tolstoy. His summation very much encapsulates the concept and device of the defamiliar in historical fiction:
What matters in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in these events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality … Scott thus lets his important figures grow out of the being of the age, he never explains the age from the position of its great representatives, as do the Romantic hero-worshippers. Hence they can never be central figures of the action. For the being of the age can only appear as a broad and many-sided picture if the everyday life of the people, the joys and sorrows, crises and confusions of average human beings are portrayed. The important leading figure, who embodies an historical movement, necessarily does so at a certain level of abstraction (Lukács: 1974, 42).
Lukács called such a protagonist – typified, for example, by Scott’s Edward Waverley – the ‘mediocre hero.’
But Ainsworth’s approach to the stories of British history remains very different from the model left by the author of Waverley, a style that cost him critically but not commercially in his own day, and lead to his excision from the mainstream of Victorian literary study in ours. In his introduction to the 1968 Heron Literary Heritage edition of Windsor Castle, John Moore has described Ainsworth’s novels of this period as ‘history in gorgeous Technicolour’ (Moore: 1968, 16). This is a pretty fair assessment. Ainsworth was an author who loved melodrama and his work translated effortlessly to the Victorian stage. The closest correlative to his historical narratives today is therefore the lavish film or TV costume drama, in which the emphasis is usually on pageantry, romance and valour while the dramatis personae are always famous historical figures, a model that is romantic rather than defamiliar.
Already prejudiced against Jack Sheppard, contemporary critics such as Dickens’ friend and collaborator on Household Words R.H. Horne were also quick to label Ainsworth’s historical fiction in opposition to that of Scott, and, in their opinion as newly styled ‘Victorians,’ romantic and therefore worthless. In a collection of critical essays intended to capture the new Victorian literary zeitgeist, A New Spirit of the Age (1844), Horne wrote of Ainsworth that:
From the historical novel and romance, as re-originated, in modern times, by Madame de Genlis and Sir Walter Scott, and adopted with such high success by Sir E.L. Bulwer, and with such extensive popularity by Mr. James, there has of late years sprung up a sort of lower or less historical romance, in which the chief part of the history consisted in old dates, old names, old houses, and old clothes. But dates in themselves are but numerals, names only sounds, houses and streets mere things to be copied from prints and records; and any one may do the same with regard to old coats, and hats, wigs, waistcoats, and boots. Now, we know that ‘all flesh is grass,’ but grass is not flesh, for all that; nor is it of any use to show us hay for humanity (Horne: 1844, II, 217).
Whereas, in contrast, Horne continued, the significance of the ‘great’ writer of historical romance is in his ability to:
…throw the soul back into the vitality of the past, to make the imagination dwell with its scenes and walk hand in hand with knowledge; to live with its most eminent men and women, and enter into their feelings and thoughts as well as their abodes, and be sensitive with them of the striking events and ruling influences of the time; to do all this, and to give it a vivid form in words, so as to bring it before the eye, and project it into the sympathies of the modern world, this is to write the truest history no less than the finest historical fiction; this is to be a great historical romancist – something very different from a reviver of old clothes. (Horne: 1844, II, 218).
Horne’s belief in the primacy of the ‘vivid form’ as opposed to the ‘lower’ is a Victorian statement of what Lukács would later describe as the ‘conscious growth of historicism’ that he believed characterised the cultural significance of the historical novel, beginning with Scott (Lukács: 1974, 22).
There were some who did consider Ainsworth’s historical novels educational, however. When Ainsworth’s Magazine was launched in 1842, the Atlas delivered an endorsement so glowing that it was appended to later advertisements:
For a romance writer, possessed of such peculiar powers as Mr. Ainsworth brings to his subjects, it was an admirable notion to commence a series of historical illustrative romances, each of which should be made to throw open, as it were, the traditions and the mysteries of some particular locality. Thus, the Tower of London afforded the first specimen of what might be done in that way, and Old St. Paul’s, the second: and now, the author announces his intention of commencing immediately Windsor Castle. The indolent circulating-library reader gains something by such works as these. He gets a peep into old architecture and old history; he sees moving around him old characters, whom he has hitherto known only by the echoes of dull books which he has never troubled himself to peruse; he gets a glimpse of the ways and means of antiquary, of the visages and costumes of his ancestors, and makes a current flesh-and-blood acquaintance with people in far-off centuries, of whom he had never before known anything except by name, regarding them rather as inscriptions in an unknown tongue which he should never be called upon to decipher, than as human realities whom he should be thus tempted to sympathise with (qtd. in Carver: 2003, 245).
Ironically, this review attributes a similar quality to Ainsworth’s historical romances to that posited by R.H. Horne with regard to Scott and his supposedly more legitimate successors, although the two reviewers obviously had different classes of audience in mind: the ‘indolent circulating-library reader’ being most likely to gain by Ainsworth’s straightforward patriotism; historical knowledge transmitted by stealth under cover of an action-packed plot. As a literate costermonger once explained to Henry Mayhew:
‘Love and murder suits us best, sir; but within these few years I think there’s a great deal more liking for deep tragedies among us. They set men a thinking; but then we all consider them too long. Of Hamlet we can make neither end nor side; and nine out of ten of us – ay, far more than that – would like it to be confined to the ghost scenes, and the funeral, and the killing off at the last. Macbeth would be better liked, if it was only the witches and the fighting’ (Mayhew: 1985, 21).
Popular culture was, of course, of no interest to bourgeois critics like R.H. Horne.
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For more about W.H. Ainsworth, you could always check out my books: The Life and Works of Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805-1882 (Studies in British Literature No. 75) – a bit pricey these days, but available in most good libraries – and Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner; otherwise, there’s more stuff on the ‘Ainsworth & Friends’ blog.