THE AUTHOR WHO OUTSOLD DICKENS: The Life and Work of W.H. Ainsworth By Stephen Carver Published by Pen & Sword History, Forthcoming: Winter 2019/20… 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… Continue reading Forthcoming: The Author Who Outsold Dickens
This really happened... In the wake of the Trafalgar Square riots, the Duke of Wellington himself, then in his seventy-ninth year, was called upon by his government to protect the nation once again. This time the Iron Duke was tasked with defending London against the dangerous radicals that were intent on marching en masse to… Continue reading The Last Chartist Petition – Part Two
The million-strong People's Vote March today put me in mind of the Chartists. OK, I know that Chartism didn't end well, with the final petition discredited by the Tories (claiming the signatures were fake, the demonstration much smaller than it was, and turning out the army), but everything they were fighting for has since come… Continue reading The Last Chartist Petition – Part One
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.
Largely because of a popular fascination with the occult, The Lancashire Witches is the only one of Ainsworth’s novels to have remained consistently in print to this day, often shelved alongside the work of Dennis Wheatley and Montague Summers (both of whom it undoubtedly influenced). The novel is also one of the mainstays of the Pennine tourist industry, and at time of writing, it is still available in many local museums, railway stations and gift shops. As the Dick Turpin narrative of Rookwood seamlessly passed into the national myth, Ainsworth’s romance of Pendle Forest has supplanted the unusually well-documented history of these unfortunate men and women in Lancashire folklore. This ‘classic tale of the supernatural’ (1) although generally overlooked by scholars of the gothic, therefore continues to exist quietly both as a popular cultural curio and, rather more erroneously, in an extra-literary sense as a genuine history.
So this is how the big project first began, as an interior monologue that came to me quite spontaneously while I was still living in Japan, just over ten years ago. This was the voice of a soldier in the water after the Birkenhead went down on February 26, 1852, off Danger Point, a Victorian naval disaster that had fascinated me since I’d first come across the story as a student in the late-90s. It’s rough, but you can see the premise quite clearly. After writing two incomplete versions of the manuscript with the protagonist a soldier from the ranks, the first Irish, the second English, I realised he needed to be a journalist instead…
We were approaching the islands of Madeira, about midway in our journey, the day we lost a man and a horse. The animal belonged to Sheldon-Bond, and he was considerably more put out by its passing than he was that of the human being that accompanied it into the void. The young subaltern remained in a foul humour for the rest of that miserable and ill-omened day, his unfortunate man, Private Dodd, getting the worst of it. I tried to avoid him, as there was already bad blood between us, but this was difficult given the confines of the ship. As he stormed around the deck like a vengeful wraith in a graveyard, I could read the message in his eyes when they connected with my own quite clearly.
Jack Vincent used to be famous, part of a rising generation of literary authors that included Dickens, Ainsworth and Thackeray. Now he’s a nobody, scratching a living as a freelance journalist writing for a penny a line. Worse, the only job he can get is on a troopship bound for the frontier wars of colonial Africa. Outed as a friend of Dickens at the captain’s table, Jack recounts the events that have brought him to this fallen state. It is a journey that begins in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison and ends in the shark infested waters of the Western Cape and his berth on the HMS Birkenhead, the Victorian Titanic.
Writing historical fiction offers a unique set of challenges: How far should you let the historical record dictate your own plot? Should you dramatize famous historical figures, or should your central character or characters be fictional? How do you build a lost world in the pages of your book? This is also a task that requires meticulous research, but at the same time you must avoid what Walter Scott described as the ‘dragging in of unnecessary historical details.’ It can also be rather lucrative if you get it right, so if you’re thinking about writing a historical novel, here are a few tips to get you started…