The Author Who Outsold Dickens

THE AUTHOR WHO OUTSOLD DICKENS: The Life and Work of W.H. Ainsworth

By Stephen Carver

Published by Pen & Sword History, January 2020

Now available from Pen & Sword here

William Harrison Ainsworth (1805 – 1882) is probably the most successful 19th Century writer that most people haven’t heard of. Journalist, essayist, poet and, most of all, historical novelist, Ainsworth was a member of the early-Victorian publishing elite, and Charles Dickens’s only serious commercial rival until the late-1840s, his novels Rookwood and Jack Shepherd beginning a fashion for tales of Georgian highwaymen and establishing the legend of Dick Turpin firmly in the National Myth. He was in the Dickens’ circle before it was the Dickens’ circle and counted among his friends the literary lions of his age: men like Charles Lamb, J.G. Lockhart, Leigh Hunt, W.M. Thackeray and, of course, Dickens; the publishers Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley; and the artists Sir John Gilbert, George Cruikshank, and ‘Phiz’ (Hablot K. Browne). He also owned and edited Bentley’s Miscellany (whose editorship he assumed after Dickens), the New Monthly Magazine, and Ainsworth’s Magazine. In his heyday, Ainsworth commanded a massive audience until a moral panic – the so-called ‘Newgate Controversy’ – about the supposedly pernicious effects on working class youth of the criminal romances on which his reputation was built effectively destroyed his reputation as a serious literary novelist.

As a popular writer and publisher whose life ran the course of the century, from Romantic innocence to Victorian experience, Ainsworth’s story is very much also the story of the development of the English novel, perhaps just as much as that story belongs to Dickens. But it is a story rarely told; at least until now.

  • A new biography of an unjustly neglected Victorian novelist, with original research drawing on his unpublished correspondence, and his work as both a journalist and a novelist.
  • An accessible study of the rise of the modern English novel, from the 18th century gothic romance to Victorian realism, arguing that Ainsworth forms a missing literary link between the death of Sir Walter Scott and the ascendency of Charles Dickens as National Author.
  • Includes rare illustrations from Ainsworth’s serial romances by George Cruikshank, Hablot K. Browne (‘Phiz’) and Sir John Gilbert, and early sketches by Daniel Maclise.
  • Explores the Newgate Controversy in context: its 18th Century antecedents, the politics of rebellion, and the schism it created between Ainsworth and Dickens.
  • Demonstrates how Ainsworth’s historical fiction invented myths that became so ingrained in the British psyche that they are nowadays unproblematically considered to be true stories, most notably his versions of Dick Turpin, Jack Shepherd, Guy Fawkes, and the Lancashire Witches.

Ainsworth was a literary journalist, novelist, and poet. An early-Victorian with a Romantic soul, his historical novels had a violent, sexy, gothic mise-en-scène, which transplanted the codes of the eighteenth century gothic into a modern, domestic, urban setting. His most significant work falls between the publication of the novel Rookwood in 1834 and The Lancashire Witches in 1848.

The son of a Manchester solicitor, Ainsworth attended De Quincey’s alma mater the Manchester Free Grammar School and was contributing to The European and The London Magazine from the age of sixteen. In 1822, he dedicated a collection of poems to Charles Lamb, who soon became a mentor. He moved to London to study law in 1824, where Lamb introduced him to Walter Scott’s son-in-law J.G. Lockhart, the publisher Henry Colburn, the radical journalist Leigh Hunt, Mary Shelley, and John Ebers, lessee of the King’s Theatre, whose daughter, Fanny, he married in 1826. In the same year, he published Sir John Chiverton, a novel written in collaboration with school friend J.P. Aston. Ashton abandoned literature for law, while Ainsworth came to the attention of his hero Sir Walter Scott. (Although Scott’s journals refer to Ainsworth as an ‘imitator.’) Ainsworth returned to the law, until the publication of Rookwood by Richard Bentley in 1834 bought fame overnight. Ainsworth befriended Dickens that year, introducing the young journalist to his life-long friend John Forster, his first publisher, John Macrone, and his future illustrator, George Cruikshank. Fanny could not cope with her dandy-husband’s celebrity and left the following year. She died in 1838.

Rookwood alchemically blends different genres – the gothic, the historic, melodrama, and the picaresque. There are also goth ballads and ‘flash’ songs. As the author explained in a later preface: ‘I resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe (which had always inexpressible charms for me), substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle, and the brigand of the great mistress of Romance.’ Rookwood is the story of two rival half-brothers in eighteenth century Yorkshire, set against a backdrop of plots, counter-plots, supernatural events, ill omens, ancient prophecy, villains-in-disguise, heiresses, highwaymen, and hot gypsies. Striking gold, Ainsworth made ‘the English adventurer’ Dick Turpin a central character, inventing and including the ‘ride to York’ legend. A craze for highwaymen ensued and, briefly, Ainsworth was viewed critically as the natural heir to Scott, while Rookwood was one of the most successful novels of the century.

Ainsworth also superseded Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and bought the gothic to the English mainland. Rookwood represents a bridge between the eighteenth century gothic and the soon-to-come contemporary urban nightmares of the penny dreadful and the Victorian literary novel, much as it is stylistically liminal, somewhere between Regency and Victorian.

Ainsworth returned to the Newgate Calendars in 1839, serialising Jack Sheppard in Bentley’s Miscellany, which ran concurrently with Oliver Twist for four months. As both stories were illustrated by Cruikshank and dealt with young boys caught in the London underworld, a connection was easily made between them, much to Dickens’ annoyance. The novel also out-sold Oliver Twist. A moral panic, the ‘Newgate controversy’, followed, originally led by Forster in the Examiner and Thackeray in Punch, centring around the ‘Newgate novels’ of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Ainsworth, and Dickens concerning the potential influence on young, working-class males. When the valet François Courvoisier murdered his master, Lord William Russell, in 1840, allegedly after reading Jack Sheppard, the charge against Ainsworth seemed incontrovertible and his status as a good Victorian and a serious literary novelist never recovered. Dickens dodged the bullet, and publicly and privately distanced himself from his old friend. His 1841 preface to Oliver Twist clearly attacks Ainsworth, as discussed in my book The 19th Century Underworld (Chapter 3).

Ainsworth took over the editorship of Bentley’s from Dickens in 1839, and began two historical romances, Guy Fawkes and The Tower of London, transferring his gothic sensibilities from the underworld to the kings and queens of England, using the codes of Classical tragedy to overcome historical determinism. Forty years on he was still turning national landmarks into sublime spaces, and populating them with fated monarchs, paupers of noble birth, star crossed lovers, gothic villains, and plenty of ghosts. A stream of romances followed. His last major work was The Lancashire Witches of 1848 (although a further 28 novels were yet to be written).

The Lancashire Witches is the only of Ainsworth’s 43 novels to have remained in print, often shelved alongside Dennis Wheatley and Montague Summers (both of whom it undoubtedly influenced). Presenting powerful women who have embraced Satan, Ainsworth’s Faustian protagonists return to Eve herself, and in their role of gothic Other to patriarchal versions of femininity, the witches know that they have a much better chance with the devil than God. Although the primary plot offers a more moral interpretation, the possibility that it is good to be bad remains forever teasing and present. At times, the author appears on the threshold of more serious comment on persecution but chooses, instead, magic realism. The narrative therefore works according to the logic of a fairytale, which is really where witches belong, and much of the story takes place in an enchanted wood. This anachronistic synergy of history, folk tale, romance and melodrama is the last English novel that can truly be said to belong to the original gothic tradition.

From this point, Ainsworth dropped from the literary mainstream, and Palmerstone awarded him a Civil List Pension in 1856. The ‘Lancashire Novelist’ was honoured at a Lord Mayor’s banquet in Manchester Town Hall in 1881 as ‘an expression of the high esteem in which he is held by his Fellow townsmen and of his services to Literature’. An accompanying article in Punch affectionately described him as ‘the greatest axe-and-neck-romancer of our time’.  Ainsworth died in 1882, shortly after his final romance, Stanley Brereton, concluded in the Bolton Weekly Journal.

Although rejected by his contemporaries as a hack, and still often critically overlooked, Ainsworth’s work contributed significantly to the development of the literary novel after Scott, and to the new urban gothic of Dickens, G.W.M. Reynolds, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

He is also tremendous fun to read…

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