An interview with yours truly by American author and journalist Deborah Kalb…
How did you learn about W.H. Ainsworth, and at what point did you decide to write a book about him?
That’s a long story. I actually came across his novel, Rookwood, as a grad student in the 90s while researching the publisher Henry Colburn, and he went on to become a major part of my Ph.D research on the evolution of the early-Victorian novel. I subsequently published an academic study of his work almost twenty years ago, which gets cited a lot but which no one read outside of university. That always felt like unfinished business, because I really wanted to rehabilitate his critical reputation as a significant nineteenth century novelist. I started blogging about him about five years ago, and this caught the attention of Pen & Sword History. The first book I wrote for them, The 19th Century Underworld, had a chapter on Ainsworth, Dickens and the ‘Newgate Controversy’, a moral panic about the dangerous effects of ‘criminal romance’ on young working class men (Ainsworth being known for his bestselling novels on the highwayman Dick Turpin and the remarkable thief Jack Sheppard). We decided to develop this further, and to produce an accessible biography of Ainsworth with a focus on his relationship with Dickens as a friend and a commercial rival.
How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
To be honest, there were two stages to this, because I carried out a lot of primary research when I was a doctoral student. That was pre-Google, and I lived in Ainsworth’s native Manchester for a year, working through archives, rare book and newspaper collections, and his unpublished correspondence. I also read all forty of so of his books, mostly tracked down in antiquarian bookshops until I bought a complete works from the States via mail order. Then I applied secondary research on Victorian publishing, the gothic and historical novel (his primary genres), and the biographies and works of his friends and contemporaries, most notably Dickens and Thackeray. I also got hold of a copy of Ainsworth’s 1911 biography by S.M. Ellis.
Returning to this subject for Pen & Sword, I had to update the old research and take it forward. Because of digital archives like Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive, it was much easier than it used to be to track down Ainsworth’s journalism (which I knew very little about). Genealogical research was similarly much simpler because of sites like Ancestry.com, which relieve you of travelling across the country to hunt through parish records, while the British Library Newspaper Archive allowed me to track his professional life through news reports and reviews. Other work on Ainsworth had also appeared which needed to be read, for example Dr. Stephen Basdeo’s work on highwaymen (also Pen & Sword), and Claire Harman’s Murder by the Book, concerning the Newgate Controversy.
So, this project was a fascinating muddle of dusty, old school archival research and contemporary online sleuthing, which saved a lot of time and money, but somehow lacked romance.
I think what surprised me the most was how close Ainsworth remained with Dickens after the Newgate Controversy. They continued to socialise until the 1860s, when Ainsworth moved out of London. There was no rivalry or animosity. They just quietly drifted apart in the end, and then Dickens died suddenly. I was also amazed by Ainsworth’s pioneering work as a magazine editor and proprietor. He variously owned and edited Bentley’s Miscellany (editing it after Dickens), the New Monthly, and Ainsworth’s Magazine. His work on these is often brilliant, and had he just been a newspaperman rather than a controversial novelist, I suspect his name would now be better known as a lion of London publishing, alongside Richard Bentley, Henry Colburn, and Chapman & Hall.
Finally, through a lot of census cross-referencing, I discovered that his second wife was actually a domestic servant he got pregnant as quite an elderly man, the old rascal!
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