It’s been a long time coming, but my new biography of the ‘Lancashire Novelist’ William Harrison Ainsworth, The Author Who Outsold Dickens is published in hardback today from Pen & Sword Books.
Here’s the Prologue…
On the evening of Thursday, 15 September 1881, the man they called the ‘Lancashire Novelist’ attended a mayoral banquet in his honour at the new Manchester Town Hall, ‘as an expression of the high esteem in which he is held by his Fellow-townsmen and of his services to literature’. William Harrison Ainsworth, the author of the bestselling novels Rookwood, Jack Sheppard, The Tower of London, Old St Paul’s, Windsor Castle and The Lancashire Witches was seventy-six years old. Four decades before, he had sat at a similar table at another public dinner in the city, sharing the laurels with his close friend, Charles Dickens.
Back then, reviewers had called Ainsworth the ‘English Victor Hugo’ and the ‘Defoe of his day’, fit to fill the shoes of Sir Walter Scott, who had died in 1832 without an obvious successor. But the glory days were long past now. Although Jack Sheppard had eclipsed even Dickens’s Oliver Twist in its day, his current serial, Stanley Brereton, could only find a place in the Bolton Weekly Journal. Now, a new generation of writers like Henry James, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy were redefining the English novel, laying the foundations for the Modernist revolution that was to come with the new century. Ainsworth’s epic historical adventures, replete with ghosts, outlaws and scheming English monarchs, now felt hackneyed and melodramatic. He had made some powerful enemies as well. His legacy would not survive the century in any meaningful way. Ainsworth was destined to become a footnote, at best, in the history of English literature.
But they still loved him in Manchester. The great gothic banquet hall was packed with civic dignitaries, captains of industry, old soldiers, spiritual leaders, journalists, novelists, family and friends. Although seven years younger than Ainsworth, Dickens had died, ‘exhausted by fame’, in 1870. Were he still alive, however, it is unlikely that he would have attended. Their friendship had not stood the test of time.
After an extravagant meal, the Lord Mayor, the Right Honourable Thomas Baker, rose to toast Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria, before delivering his welcoming address to Ainsworth. It was an expansive eulogy, in which the mayor spoke with great civic pride of the Manchester-born novelist’s prolific bibliography, over three-dozen historical novels, several of which were set in his beloved home county of Lancashire. He allied him, too, with many of the great writers of his generation, all of whom Ainsworth had known well. But that generation had all but gone. Ainsworth had outlived them all, friends and foes alike. The mayor had managed to trace three surviving friends from the Manchester Free Grammar School, but all were too infirm to attend. ‘We may congratulate ourselves’, he said, having explained this, ‘that Mr Ainsworth is in a sufficiently hale state of body and mind to be with us to-night to receive our recognition of his great literary abilities.’
Four months later, Ainsworth would be dead. But this was a good night. With cheers ringing in his ears, he accepted the mayor’s toast and rose to speak …
In the history of English literature, William Harrison Ainsworth is the national treasure that most people haven’t heard of. Literary journalist, magazine editor and proprietor, and, most of all, novelist, Ainsworth was a member of the early Victorian publishing elite, and Charles Dickens’s only serious commercial rival until the late 1840s. He counted among his friends the literary lions, political giants and great artists of his age, both Regency and Victorian. He was in the Dickens circle before it was the Dickens circle, and he worked closely with the most prominent publishers in London. In an illustration of the Fraser’s Magazine 1835 New Year dinner, for example, he can be seen seated next to Coleridge. At various times throughout the century, he owned and edited Bentley’s Miscellany (whose editorship he assumed after Dickens), the New Monthly Magazine and Ainsworth’s Magazine. An energetic and prolific author, Ainsworth wrote and published well over a hundred literary articles and short stories, two volumes of poetry, and forty (mostly) historical novels, fictionalising four centuries of British history. In his heyday, Ainsworth commanded a massive audience, if not always critical acclaim, his novels multiply adapted for the stage and plagiarised by the penny-a-liners.
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 and his other more famous contemporaries.
But it is a story rarely told, at least until now.
You can purchase the book here – I think there might even be a discount 🙂
If you’d like a review copy, an interview or anything like that, please PM me here or contact me via my website.
They’ll be a formal launch with Inside History Magazine in mid-March, so please watch this space…
With thanks, as ever, for all your support.