“He wants to be just like Vincent Price”: Influence & Intertext in the Gothic Films of Tim Burton

“He wants to be just like Vincent Price”: Influence & Intertext in the Gothic Films of Tim Burton

Stephen Carver Ph.D

 In J. Weinstock ed, The Works of Tim Burton: Margins to Mainstream (New York: Palgrave 2013) pages 117 – 133. ISBN 978-1-137-37082-2

Reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher.


Copyright © SJ Carver 2013, 2014

The Cover to The Works of Tim Burton: Margins and Mainstreams'

The Cover to The Works of Tim Burton: Margins and Mainstreams’

2012 was a good year for Tim Burton. Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie, both directed by Burton (the latter a greatly expanded stop-motion re-make of his 1984 short) were released, as was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, produced by Burton and directed by Timur Bekmambetov from the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith. While Abraham Lincoln reflects current trends in popular horror — a crowded, image consuming, multimedia marketplace, characterized by kinetic violence and genre hybridization — Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie are pure Burton: stylized narratives that are at once traditional and highly idiosyncratic.

Although he clearly revisits earlier material with Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows is arguably just as much a return to source for Burton. In common with much of Burton’s work, the film is a re-working of a popular but weird source from his childhood. Dark Shadows was a Gothic soap opera that aired after school on ABC from 1966 to 1971, running to 1,225 episodes. The show was the brainchild of Dan Curtis, who, like Edward D. Wood Jr., another Burton hero, updated the traditional Gothic on a shoestring budget, albeit much more successfully than the tragic director of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Because it was taped and broadcast so quickly, the show had the unintentional feel of a low-budget horror film, complete with booms showing and actors upsetting Styrofoam tombstones. The original plot felt like Ann Radcliffe in a contemporary setting, but the show was enlivened in 1967 by the introduction of Barnabas Collins, a morally ambivalent character somewhere between Maturin’s Gothic immortal Melmoth the Wanderer and Rymer’s Varney the Vampire. Peyton Place met Dracula, and in terms of fantastic television, Barnabas Collins was as iconic in the sixties as Captain Kirk and Batman.

Burton’s version of Dark Shadows follows the original Barnabas story arc quite closely, transplanted to 1972 in a nod to Hammer’s Dracula: AD 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972). Performances are camp, catching the essence of the show, with Johnny Depp playing Barnabas Collins as straight as Adam West’s interpretation of Batman. There is also the gallows and cartoon humor that characterize the best Burton projects, as well as the director’s usual affinity for the isolated loner in the hostile universe, Depp’s clueless Barnabas recalling his Edward Scissorhands. Period detail, trash culture, and Gothic theatricality are referenced with a cameo from Alice Cooper, now, like Burton, his own cultural code. Visually, Burton returns to the marriage of theatrical melodrama and expressionism that epitomizes Gothic cinema — the death of Barnabas on the sublime Widow’s Hill worthy of Murnau or Whale.

The history of Gothic film can be read in Dark Shadows, as it can in all of Burton’s work, referenced, reproduced, and refined as the codes of the literary and cinematic Gothic are combined with surprising childhood sources, so that Edgar Allan Poe meets Dr. Seuss, and slamming the Rankin/Bass seasonal television special into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari suddenly makes perfect sense. This esoteric vision is already strongly realized in Burton’s earliest work for Disney, the stop-motion short Vincent (1982). Burton’s signature style is already present, a labyrinthine semiology of intertextual connections and cultural retrieval. There is a rejection of the suburban and an identification with the other throughout — key themes at the heart of Burton’s subsequent work in both modes of production, animation and live action — and the pseudo-autobiographical desire to be “just like Vincent Price,” expressed by a creative and alienated child, can be applied as a model and a metaphor for the contextualization of Burton’s work within the broad genre of Gothic film. As Burton now returns to black and white stop-motion animation with his re-make of Frankenweenie, Vincent remains the key to cracking the Enigma Code of Burton’s unique aesthetic. To understand Burton, we must understand Vincent.

When Graham Fuller interviewed Burton and Price together on the set of Edward Scissorhands (1990), he began by returning to Vincent, a verse-story in which an alienated suburban kid longs to live the life of the man People Magazine described as “the Gable of the Gothic” (qtd. in Price 479):

Vincent Malloy is seven years old
He’s always polite and does what he’s told.
For a boy his age, he’s considerate and nice
But he wants to be just like Vincent Price.

Price had narrated, telling Fuller that the project was “better than a star on Hollywood Boulevard.” “Are you the little boy in that cartoon?” Fuller asks Burton. “To some degree, he is,” replies Price, without hesitation. “Without being too literal,” Burton warily adds, “there are aspects of me. Vincent actually helped me to understand it better” (qtd. in Woods 14). Disney did not understand, and Vincent had a two-week L.A. run supporting the terrible coming-of-age drama Tex, before it was consigned to the “Disney Vault,” where it would soon be joined by Burton’s next project for the studio, Hansel and Gretel (1982), and the next, Frankenweenie, until it was appended to the 2003 “Special Edition” Nightmare Before Christmas DVD, by which time Burton was a global brand, courted by Disney and, like Vincent Price, a Gothic icon.

Burton’s Gothic style is instantly recognizable, oft-imitated, and yet difficult to define. Aurélien Ferenczi, for example, can find no correlative in his Cahiers du Cinéma profile: “From this most singular mind have sprung films whose only similarities are with their owner: scary and funny, dark and colourful” (Ferenczi 5). This auteurist reading is refuted, however, by Helena Bassil-Morozow: “Tim Burton is no Eisenstein. An anti-intellectual filmmaker, he does not make an effort to create ‘signs.’ He remains in the realm of the symbolic, operating with the images that are personally dear to him, which also happen to be so ‘loose’ that their own interpretative range is endless” (Bassil-Morozow 24). Alison McMahan, meanwhile, starts from scratch, using Burton as a “case study” to advance her theory of the “pataphysical” film as a new Hollywood genre. Pataphysical films, she argues, “follow an alternate narrative logic” (she allies Burton with the narrative conventions of animation), and rely “more on intertextual, nondiegetic references” (McMahan 3). McMahon is seeking a new critical vocabulary to move beyond mainstream, neo-modernist lamentations against image consumerism (1), but, alongside fan-based psycho-biographical critiques, for example Edwin Page’s Gothic Fantasy: The Films of Tim Burton (2007), that tend to cast Burton as one of his own protagonists, such readings ultimately fail to contain or contextualize Burton and his unique visual and narratological Gothic bricolage. Imagery is not so personal that it denies interpretation, and can be located within the wider context of Gothic film and illustration, while McMahan’s comparisons with other directors she deems “pataphysical” (Barry Sonnenfield, Stephen Sommers, and Roland Emmerich) feel notional. The motto of the Parisian Collège de ’pataphysique can, however, be usefully applied to Burton’s relationship with the Gothic: Eadem mutata resurgo — “I arise again the same though changed.”

In A Child’s Garden of Nightmares, Paul Woods spends most of his introduction seeking a suitable definition. Burton’s films, says Woods, have an “gothic-infantile aesthetic,” a “cartoon-gothic aesthetic,” a “macabre cartoonishness and arrested emotional development,” a “gothic fairytale sensibility,” a “Salvador Dali-on-Sesame Street aesthetic,” and a “pop-gothic aesthetic,” while the poems are “surrealistic” and the drawings “expressionistic” (Woods 5-11). Jenny He takes a similarly conjunctive, though less frenetic approach in the New York Museum of Modern Art catalogue that accompanied Burton’s 2009 exhibition. Burton is “a director of fables, fairy tales, and fantasies, with an aesthetic that incorporates the Gothic, the Grand Guignol, and German Expressionism” (Magliozzi and He 17). While Wood makes Burton sound like the Vegas of the Gothic, postmodern in the context of Venturi and Jameson, he places all Burton’s disparate influences and styles within the unifying field of the Gothic discourse. Jenny He suggests a similarly stable interplay of forms, in which children’s narratives are redefined through a visual aesthetic in which the Gothic is equated with theatricality and expressionism, the central tenets of Gothic film as it evolved in early cinema, most notably blended at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios.

While silent cinema was creating the genre in Hollywood, its narrative and visual influences were originally literary, theatrical, and essentially Victorian — the films compressed versions of Gothic melodramas, shot by a static camera with high-key lighting. With the migration of key modernists from German cinema, such as Conrad Veidt and Paul Leni, to Universal, Gothic melodrama was fused with the interiority of Expressionism, which exaggerated the symbolic and emotional, distorting physical reality to convey individual perception. James Whale, for example, who had learned his trade at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, had Robert Weine’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920) screened repeatedly during the pre-production of Frankenstein at Universal in 1931 (Curtis 149).

Burton equates films like Frankenstein with fairytales, historically undifferentiated through the homogeneity of Saturday afternoon television re-runs:

Because I never read, my fairy tales were probably those monster movies. To me they’re fairly similar. I mean, fairy tales are extremely violent and extremely symbolic and disturbing, probably even more so than Frankenstein and stuff like that, which are kind of mythic and perceived as fairy tale-like. But fairy tales, like the Grimms’ fairy tales, are probably closer to movies like The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, much rougher, harsher, full of bizarre symbolism. (qtd. in Salisbury 3) (2)

The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962) is an American International Picture directed by Joseph Green, in which a scientist revives the decapitated head of his fiancée, and is representative of the post-war horror film, in which the codes of period Gothic, in this case Frankenstein, are updated to Cold War America and pitched at a teenaged drive-in demographic. AIP led this new market 93). The style is hybrid and kitsch with a gallows humor, the best of it inspired by the short-lived but hugely influential EC horror comics, Tales From The Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear, which had been killed off by a moral panic in 1954 (4). Following 1940s radio shows like Inner Sanctum Mysteries and The Witch’s Tale (which Burton references in Ed Wood), EC comics were introduced by ghoulish hosts, and this trend continued on television with Ghoulardi on Cleveland’s WJW Channel 8, Portland’s KPTV’s Tarantula Ghoul, and Vampira on Los Angeles’s KABC. Burton caught this paradigm perfectly in Ed Wood (1994), and Mars Attacks! (1996), while Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice has elements of the original EC Crypt Keeper, who was often portrayed as a psychotic sideshow barker, rather than the hooded death’s head of the later HBO Tales from the Crypt TV show.

Hammer Film Productions in the U.K. resuscitated the traditional Gothic, retelling the Universal stories while dropping the Expressionist mise-en-scène in favor of melodrama and Technicolor Grand Guignol in The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) and The Horror of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958). These films had a set-bound, dreamlike style that Burton later captured in Sleepy Hollow (1999), his love letter to Hammer, Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and Mario Bava’s neo-baroque La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan, 1960). The success of Hammer inspired AIP to produce a full-color version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher in 1960, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. The subsequent AIP “Poe Cycle” ran to eight titles, concluding with The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman) in 1964, which has thematic similarities with Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Burton loved these films, later telling Price’s daughter Victoria that, “There was a connection, an emotional link for me, growing up and watching the Poe films. Vincent’s characters had a sensitivity. There was an energy he had; it was evident in everything. I liked believing Vincent; I believed him” (Price 433). Vincent, then, is Burton’s first serious homage to Gothic film, consumed via television as a kid, alchemically blended, and personified by Vincent Price as a cultural code.

In six minutes, Vincent takes us places that high concept genre blockbusters dare not go. The black and white film is a series of chiaroscuro scenic juxtapositions, alternating between the bright exterior reality of Vincent’s family home and the dark, visually Expressionist interior world of his imagination. The narrative is a network of allusions to Gothic film and fiction, in particular Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, The Raven (1963), and The Tomb of Ligeia. Vincent also references Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), “He likes to experiment on his dog Abercrombie/In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie,” and House of Wax (André de Toth, 1953), the Warner’s film that re-branded Price as a Gothic villain: “Vincent is nice when his aunt comes to see him/But imagines dipping her in wax for his wax museum.” Without citing a specific film, Vincent imagines London as a Gothic space, a hyper-real Victorian version built on penny dreadful and silent film foundations that Burton will fully realize a quarter-of-a-century later in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007): “So he and his horrible zombie dog/Could go searching for victims in the London fog.” The alternative scenes are unified by Ken Hilton’s score, a simple version of “The Streets of Cairo” (AKA “The Snake Charmer”) that Vincent plays on the recorder, an instantly recognizable piece of Vaudeville exotica lifted from a traditional Algerian folk song (“Kradoutja”), that connects Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque with “The Hootchy Kootchy Dance” and the animated fairy tales Ali Baba Bound (Porky Pig, 1941), and Aladdin’s Lamp (Mighty Mouse, 1947), both of which used this musical theme to signal orientalism.

The narrative pendulum stops in the imaginary realm after Vincent is scolded by his exasperated mother. There is a Gothic epiphany, “To escape the madness, he reached for the door/But fell limp and lifeless down on the floor,” and Burton fades to black as Vincent whispers the closing lines of “The Raven,” “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/Shall be lifted—nevermore!” “The people at Disney thought he died,” Burton later explained, “but he’s just lying there … in his own little dream world” (qtd. in Salisbury 17).

Character design, storyboards, and backdrops place Burton in the tradition of post-war illustration, with stark lines, heavy shadow, and grotesque, black and white caricatures. This visual style is already present in Burton’s CalArts animated short Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979), the film that got him head-hunted by Disney. Burton’s “expressionism” appears, however, to originate with Dr. Seuss rather than Dr Caligari:

I certainly saw pictures of it [The Cabinet of Dr Caligari], in any monster book there were pictures of it. But I didn’t see it until fairly recently. I think it probably has more to do with being inspired by Dr Seuss. It just happened to be shot in black and white, and there’s this Vincent Price/Gothic kind of thing that makes it feel that way. I grew up loving Dr Seuss. The rhythm of his stuff spoke to me very clearly. (qtd. in Salisbury 19)

As Burton’s engagement with German Expressionist cinema became more developed, for example in the Gothic-Noir Batman Returns (1992), which explicitly cites F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and dresses the Penguin like Werner Krauss’ Dr. Caligari, the red and white candy cane stripes of Dr. Seuss remain.

Burton originally conceived Vincent as a children’s book (Woods 14). Darker than Dr. Seuss, this would have not been out of place shelved with Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963), an illustrated abecedary in which each letter of the alphabet stands for the name of a dead child, their demise told in dactylic couplets: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears, C is for Clara who wasted away…” (Gorey 128-29; see contribution by Lackner in this volume). Burton’s illustrated collection of poems The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (1997) is clearly in this tradition, which includes Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (1907), and the work of Roald Dahl, some of which Burton later filmed, co-producing (with Denise De Novi) Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach in 1996, and directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005, a faithful adaptation to which Burton added only his own motif of the abandoning parent.

Although a Disney project, Vincent feels anti-Disney in both ethos and practice. Like the reflection of the House of Usher in the “black and lurid tarn” (Poe 76), Vincent is the Gothic other of the sentimental populism of the “Silly Symphony” tradition of Technicolor full-cel animation, still prevalent at Disney in the early-1980s. Walt Disney had loathed black and white animation, which he once described as, “as drab … as a gray day alongside a rainbow” (qtd. in Gabler, Walt Disney 178). Shot off-lot, with its adult themes and stop motion animation, Vincent more closely reflects the influence of Disney’s competitors (Max) Fleischer Studios, who created the first animated sex symbol, Betty Boop, and Rankin/Bass Productions, known for stop-motion “Animagic” animation and seasonal television musicals, including the highly successful Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Mad Monster Party (1967). The latter was voiced by Boris Karloff and written and designed by EC horror comic stalwarts Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis, and the merging of both films is a probable synergetic foundation for Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

Another likely influence is the animated short Gerald McBoing-Boing (Robert Cannon, 1950), an Academy Award winning Columbia “Jolly Frolics” cartoon written by Dr. Seuss in which a toddler begins “talking” in sound effects. The story begins in a very similar way to Vincent, “This is the story of Gerald McLoy/And the Strange thing that happened to that little boy,” while the limited animation style was a direct challenge the graphic realism of Disney Studios through caricature and abstract backgrounds. Initially alienated at home and at school, Gerald finally achieves acceptance when discovered by a talent scout from the “XYZ Radio Network.” Vincent Molloy, in comparison, does not reconcile with his mother or the outside world. Ordered to “get outside and have some real fun,” his only recourse is to lie on the floor quoting “The Raven,” in a final image interpreted by Disney executives as suicidal, and by Burton as liberating.

Vincent Molloy’s rejection of parental (adult/societal/Disney) values and withdrawal from the world in favor of a self-created reality can similarly be seen in the majority of Burton’s central characters. In Frankenweenie, little Victor Frankenstein denies death, and is a more self-actualized, metonymic version of the catatonic Vincent (he really does create a zombie dog); Pee-wee Herman is a textbook puer aeternus; in Beetlejuice, Lydia Deetz is a goth teenager in the manner, again, of Vincent, while Beetlejuice “does not work well with others.” In Batman and Batman Returns, heroes, anti-heroes and villains all retreat into their masked personas, worlds full of “wonderful toys.” Edward Scissorhands, like Willy Wonka, begins and ends in a high castle, while Ed Wood and Ed Bloom retreat into fantastic fictions. Sweeney Todd and Burton’s Alice both reject Victorian notions of social class, gender and identity, substituting their own extreme realities. Burton’s films frequently open by leading the viewer into these alternative diegeses, through doors, gates, windows, factory chimneys and magic trees.

Like Burton, Vincent Molloy believes in Vincent Price, inaugurating a pattern in which the Gothic discourse itself is subverted by embracing rather than resisting otherness:

I’ve always loved monsters and monster movies. I was never terrified of them, I just loved them from as early as I can remember. My parents said I was never scared, I’d just watch anything … there was something about that identification. Every kid responds to some image, some fairy tale image, and I felt most monsters were basically misperceived, they usually had much more heartfelt souls than the human characters around them. (qtd. in Salisbury 2-3)

As Ed Bloom observes in Big Fish, upon discovering that Amos Calloway (a character not in the original novel by Daniel Wallace) is a werewolf, “It was that night I discovered that most things you’d consider evil or wicked were just lonely or lacking in social niceties.” This is a La Belle et la Bête fairytale device, but without the need for a return to normality, like the one requested by Disney executives of Vincent, a final scene resisted by Burton in which Dad arrives to take Vincent to a ball game (Salisbury 17).

There is a correlative here in the work of Irish director Neil Jordan, who collaborated with Angela Carter on The Company of Wolves (1984), a dark, magic realist re-telling of fairytales adapted from Carter’s collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber (1979), and whose comic ghost romance High Spirits was released the same year as Beetlejuice. Unlike Burton, Jordan’s academic background and influences are literary, and the visual style of The Company of Wolves and High Spirits owes much to the production designer Anton Furst. Burton loved the look of The Company of Wolves and wanted Furst to work on Beetlejuice — they finally collaborated on Batman (Fraga 22). It is interesting to note that Burton’s affinity was with Furst rather than Carter or Jordan, and in discussing the connection with Alan Jones for Cinefantastique the reason was implicit: “my background is in illustration and design” (qtd. in Fraga 23).

There is, nonetheless, a literary Gothic foundation underpinning Burton’s work. The Burtonesque protagonist, like the nineteenth-century Gothic narrative, is structured around dualism, the internal origin of the other — so prominent in Frankenstein and Poe’s monologues of madness, both key sources for Burton — a cultural process described by Rosemary Jackson as “the progressive internalisation of the demonic” (Jackson 56). Jackson, following Todorov, identified two key myths in the modern fantastic narrative, those dealing with the self, “I,” and the other, “not-I,” which she relates to the Frankenstein and Dracula archetypes. The Dracula myth centers on the problem of power — the self suffers an attack which makes it part of the other. In the Frankenstein myth, a variation of the Faustian, “Danger is seen to originate from the subject, through excessive knowledge, or rationality, or the mis-application of the human will … self becomes other through a self-generated metamorphosis, through the subject’s alienation from himself and constant splitting or multiplying of identities” (Jackson 58-59). Burton has recently engaged with vampirism in Dark Shadows (2012), but he is predominantly concerned with the Frankenstein myth, which is already present in Vincent, then fully realized in Frankenweenie, the Batman films, and Edward Scissorhands, then more allegorically in Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, and then back to Frankenweenie (2012), now a twice-told tale by Burton in both his modes of production. In Dark Shadows, Burton also casts Barnabas as an orphan (the narrative is full of references to absent or dead parents), who is cursed to be a vampire by the witch Angélique and then abandoned, placing his character within the Frankenstein rather than the Dracula paradigm.

The original Frankenweenie is the live action counterpoint of Vincent, bridged by the Hansel and Gretel TV movie made for the Disney Channel in 1982 (5). It is Burton’s most literal interpretation of James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the transposition of this film to the world of a child is inspired. In common with Vincent, Frankenweenie is packed with visual detail and intertextual references. Following a mise-en-scènic line taken by Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein (1974), producer Julie Hickson linked Frankenweenie to the Universal classic through the use of the original electrical props designed by Kenneth Strickfaden (qtd. in Woods 20), but what’s most interesting about little Victor’s attic laboratory are the toys and domestic appliances that Burton makes into machines of reanimation, for example a toaster, a dustbin lid, a Goofy bicycle, and retro table lamps resembling giant electrodes. Most memorably, the gantry used by Colin Clive to elevate the platform bearing Boris Karloff to the heavens is recreated by a horsey swing, with one horse still attached. Burton’s device is to make the ordinary Gothic. The black and white film concludes, like the original, with a burning windmill, though Burton’s is on a derelict miniature golf course. Like Whale, Burton uses low-key lighting and deep space to create depth and contrasts between light and shadow, an Expressionist effect developed by Murnau in Nosferatu.

Test marketing fed back parental concerns about the general “intensity” of the film, which was given a PG rating. Its planned paring with a reissue of Pinocchio was therefore shelved (Woods 20). Burton parted company with Disney soon after, but Stephen King’s enthusiasm for Frankenweenie led to Warner’s offer to direct Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Fraga 156). The remake of Frankenweenie represents Burton returning to his roots, combining the extended narrative of the original — Burton has often noted that he felt the original could’ve easily been a full-length feature (Salisbury 32) — with the black and white stop-motion animation and visual style of Vincent and Corpse Bride.

As both films share a common source, Frankenweenie contains many future echoes of Edward Scissorhands, for example identification with a physically fragmented and misunderstood monster, the suburban setting, the failed attempt to integrate an outsider into a provincial community, and angry mobs. “The fiend,” argues Bassil-Morozow, is also “a metaphor for the introverted, creative outcast” (Bassil-Morozow 51). The fragmented subject notionally suggests a postmodern protagonist. Sparky the dog, as well as belonging to a long line of Burton’s canine characters, often dead, is sewn together from an assemblage of parts in the manner of Shelley’s original creation and its interpretation by Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff at Universal. This is a constant and visually metonymic motif in Burton’s work. In Nightmare Before Christmas, Sally, like Sparky, Voodoo Girl (from the Oyster Boy collection), and Catwoman, is literally stitched together. Edward is a mechanical boy who is “not finished,” the Joker is a plastic surgery disaster, and Emily, the Corpse Bride, is, like Sally, forever falling apart and reassembling herself. There is a constant threat of decapitation in Sleepy Hollow, and even Ed Wood, “Glen” and “Glenda,” is coming apart, his front teeth knocked out by a Japanese soldier during the invasion of Tarawa Island (Grey 20), while the schism between Benjamin Barker and his double Sweeney Todd is represented physically by a lightening streak of white hair, recalling Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the obsessive Captain Ahab in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) and “the marks of some inner crucifixion and woe deep in his face.” As Burton has said of the Nightmare Before Christmas character designs: “I was into stitching from the Catwoman thing, I was into that whole psychological thing of being pieced together … The feeling of not being together and of being loosely stitched … is just a strong feeling for me” (qtd. in Salisbury 122-23).

Internal fragmentation is implicit within Batman and Batman Returns, as it is in all dual identity superhero narratives. Burton’s version is, however, unique in the Batman mythos in that it is more concerned with Bruce Wayne than his alter ego, hence the controversial casting of the less-than-macho Michael Keaton and an almost complete abandonment of the action/adventure aspect of the comic tradition. Burton’s approach to adaptation — with the notable exception of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — recalls the Danish auteur Carl Dreyer who, in “adapting” the Gothic novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to the screen in the expressionist masterpiece Vampyr (1932) wryly credits the film as “based” on Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of supernatural stories, rather than on one particular story, creating something new out of the essence of the text in a different medium. As Dreyer wrote: “It is the director who, by his selection and linking of motifs, determines the film’s rhythm. The preparation of the scenario is therefore in the strictest sense the director’s legitimate business … Allowing others to prepare a scenario for a director is like giving a finished drawing to a painter and asking him to put in the colours” (qtd. in Prawer 138).

Although Burton’s Batman films are structured entirely around divided selves, they offer the possibility of a re-unification that is neither Gothic nor postmodern. Though Bruce battles with his shadows in the first film, he achieves a resolution denied his graphic counterpart: he kills the Joker and gets the girl, thereby overcoming his “Batman” persona (6), both plot-lines that are unthinkable in the continuing narrative of DC Batman comics, hence the well-documented criticism of Burton from Batman fans (7). In Batman Returns the romantic resolution from the previous story arc is dismissed because of Bruce’s “difficulty with duality,” yet in the film’s climax Bruce and Batman become visually and symbolically whole when Batman removes his mask and invites Catwoman to do the same, although she cannot because, “I just couldn’t live with myself.” Bruce, apparently, can, although alone. A more positive solution to this state is offered at the conclusion of Ed Wood, in which the transvestite director drives off camera to marry a woman who understands and accepts him, Burton ending the biopic before Wood’s descent into chronic alcoholism, poverty, and an early grave, much like the tragedy of Bela Lugosi. Frankenweenie has a similar conclusion, in which Sparky is accepted by the local community and finds love with a poodle with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo, while scriptwriter Michael MacDowell described Burton first full-length Gothic feature, Beetlejuice (1988), as “an optimistic film about death” (qtd. in Ferenczi 20).

Only in more recent films by Burton has a darker version of the Frankenstein/Doppelgänger myth emerged. In the critically underrated and misunderstood Planet of the Apes (2001), the Miltonic motif of God as abandoning parent central to Shelley’s original story, in which creature confronts creator as Adam does God in Book X of Paradise Lost, lacks even the ambivalent resolution of the original novel. In the Manichean frame of Planet of the Apes, the protagonist Leo denies his responsibility to the society his actions have created, turning his back on both humans and apes in pursuit of an idealized version of “home” that turns out to be hell. Given the lack of a sequel, it must be assumed that there was no escape. General Thade, who, as the direct descendant of Semos, the first ape to rebel, appears to represent Satan in a Miltonic model, is utterly triumphant.

Similarly, while fathers and sons are reconciled in Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Corpse Bride apparently goes to heaven (and everybody else to a cheery Gothic version of the Spiritualist Summerland), the nihilistic Sweeney Todd is “complete again” only with a blade in his hand. This goes beyond the cute associations often made with Edward Scissorhands (8), and his “epiphany” (from the song of the same name) is “They all deserve to die.” Sweeney’s anagnorisis is the accidental murder of his long-lost wife, and he passively surrenders his throat to the razor of his surrogate son, Toby, embracing Lucy Barker’s corpse as Mrs. Lovett burns like a fairytale witch in an oven, and his blood flows down the bake house drain into the Fleet Ditch, a notorious Victorian sewer.

Narratologically, Sweeney Todd represents Burton’s return to the nineteenth-century literary Gothic. While Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an adaptation of the “Black Operetta” (qtd. in Ferenczi 86) by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, the source is pure Victorian melodrama: Thomas Peckett Prest’s serial The String of Pearls: A Romance (1846/7), published by Edward Lloyd, the king of the “penny bloods,” and adapted for the stage as The Fiend of Fleet Street by the master of melodrama, George Dibdin Pitt in 1847. The “blood and thunder” melodramas of the Victorian stage were very successfully revived by Tod Slaughter’s theater company at the Elephant and Castle Theatre in the mid-1920s, with Slaughter playing the over-the-top villains in Maria Marten, Sweeney Todd, and Jack Sheppard. Many of these plays were cheaply produced as films by George King in the 1930s, with Slaughter reprising his stage role in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 1936. These films run parallel to the Expressionist Gothics of Universal, and are a vital link back to the Victorian stage and forward to Hammer and AIP. As Burton told Time Out: “Most musicals are camp by their very nature but the difference here was the melodrama of it, that sense of really extreme obsessive behaviour which made it feel to me much more like a silent movie with music” (Burton 2007).

Burton’s Sweeney Todd is a digital Caligari, shot on the stages at Pinewood against a CGI metropolis that merges the Victorian cityscapes of Gustav Doré’s London: A Pilgrimage (1872) with the hyper-real urban labyrinths of old school videogames like id Software’s Doom and Quake, referenced in an accelerated first-person walk through the rookeries of London to Fleet Street. The Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical is based on a stage revival by Christopher Bond written in 1973, and has a feel of Brecht and Weill. Bond incorporated plot elements of Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), in which the protagonist seeks to avenge the death of his lover, brought about by a villainous older man, resulting in a bloodbath that kills hero and villain. Todd therefore becomes a tragic hero while “Judge Turpin” is the melodramatic villain. Depp has cited Lon Chaney, Sr. and Peter Lorre in Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1835) as inspirations for his performance (Daly).

In returning to the marriage of melodrama and expressionism that epitomizes the form in both Sweeney Todd and Dark Shadows, Gothic film turns full circle in Burton at his best. This is a coherent and progressive project on the part of the director and his devoted repertory company, a kind of romantic modernism that began in earnest with Vincent, the film that charted the territory that Burton has explored ever since. All Burton’s films to date are part of the same narratological and semiotic structure, turning and turning again as Vincent and Abercrombie rise again as Victor and Sparky are (re)animated this year, and Johnny Depp inevitably becomes Barnabas Collins.

In her biography of her father, Victoria Price recalls that on the last night they spent together, “we watched a rough cut of the documentary Tim Burton had made about my father … I sat on his bed and held his hand” (Price 478). Vincent Price died the next day. Although Burton chose to let Conversations with Vincent die with him, that Price would watch the first print so near to his passing indicates the rapport between the two men, a friendship that tentatively began when Price narrated Vincent, Burton’s first professional film, and was fully realized in Price’s cinematic swansong Edward Scissorhands (1990), Burton’s fairytale Frankenstein. As Victoria wrote, “he was always grateful to Tim Burton for providing him with such a satisfying last piece of work” (Price 434).

For Gracie and Vincent


Bassil-Morozow, Helen. Tim Burton: The Monster and the Crowd. London: Routledge, 2010.

Benton, Mike. Illustrated History of Horror Comics. Dallas: Taylor, 1991.

Brooker, Will. Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Burton, Tim. Interview. Time Out (January, 2007). Available from:


(Accessed May 19, 2012).

Curtis, James. James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. Boston: Faber and Faber,


Daly, Steve. Interview. “Johnny Depp: Cutting Loose in Sweeney Todd.Entertainment

Weekly (November 3 2007). Available from:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20156283,00.html (Accessed May 19 2012).

Ferenczi, Aurélien. Masters of Cinema: Tim Burton. Trans. Trista Selous. Paris: Cahiers du

Cinéma, 2010.

Fraga, Kristian, ed. Tim Burton: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Gabler, Neal. “The Nation: The Illusion of Entertainment; Just Like a Movie, But It’s Not.”

New York Times (August 4, 2002). Available from:

just-like-a-movie-but-it-s-not.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm (Accessed April 27,


—. Walt Disney: The Biography. London: Aurum, 2007.

Gorey, Edward. Amphigorey. New York: Perigee, 1972.

Grey, Rudolph. Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Los

Angeles: Feral House, 1992.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1981.

Magliozzi, Ron, He, Jenny. Tim Burton. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009.

McMahan, Alison. The Films of Tim Burton: Animating Live Action in Contemporary

Hollywood. New York: Continuum, 2006.

Morrison, Grant. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. New York: DC

Comics, 1989.

Poe, Edgar Allan. (1840). “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, I.

Prawer, S. S. Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. New York: Da Capo, 1980.

Price, Victoria. Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1999.

Salisbury, Mark, ed. Burton on Burton. Revised edition. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.

Woods, Paul A., ed. Tim Burton: A Child’s Garden of Nightmares. 1st ed. London: Plexus,



  1. McMahan’s starting point is Neal Gabler’s New York Times article on “the illusion of entertainment.” See Gabler, “The Nation.”
  2. In the same interview, Burton also cites as childhood favorites: Scream Blacula Scream (AIP, Bob Kelljan, 1973); Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (Hammer, Roy Ward Baker, 1971); Destroy All Monsters (Toho, Ishirō Honda, 1968); Jason and the Argonauts (Columbia, Don Chaffey,1963); King Kong (RKO, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933); Godzilla (Toho, Ishirō Honda, 1954); Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, Jack Arnold, 1954); The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (Columbia, Nathan Juran, 1958); Dracula (Universal, Tod Browning, 1931); and Welcome to My Nightmare (1975), the Alice Cooper album that featured the Vincent Price monologue “The Black Widow.”
  3. AIP seem to have particularly influenced Burton’s juvenilia. Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) nods towards the “cucumber monster” of Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956) and the dentist scene in Little Shop of Horrors (1960), while Doctor of Doom (1979) casts Burton as a mad scientist and splices in an AIP closing credit. Luau (1982, co-directed by Jerry Rees) is a pastiche of the AIP Beach Party series (1963-66), in which Burton appears as a disembodied head.
  4. For an overview of EC comics, see Mike Benton’s Illustrated History of Horror Comics (1991). The short-lived Topps Chewing Gum Company Mars Attacks trading cards of 1962 had an EC aesthetic and suffered a similar fate.
  5. It is worth noting that Burton was already drawn to the rewriting of fairy tales, as well as combining narrative forms. Hansel and Gretel references Japanese monster movies, Kabuki theater, and anime, all framed by an introduction by Vincent Price. Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1986), directed by Burton for Shelly Duvall’s “Faerie Tale Theatre,” plays it straighter, although the cavern of the lamp is a masterpiece of neo-expressionist design, employing forced perspective, a tunnel of skulls, and magic lantern shadows—obviously Burton’s illustrations—painted on set walls.
  6. For Jungian readings of Batman, see Bassil-Morozow and the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison, illustrated by Dave McKean (1989).
  7. For some colorful responses from fans, see Will Brooker’s Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (2001).
  8. See Ferenczi, page 86.

Gothic Film: A Brief History

Gothic Film: A Brief History

Stephen Carver Ph.D

W. Hughes, D. Punter & A. Smith eds, Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic vols 1 & 2. (London: Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

Reproduced by permission of the editors.


Copyright © Wiley-Blackwell 2012

Gothic films are at once very easy and very difficult to categorise. Within the wider context of the “horror” genre, gothic films are linked directly to the literary gothic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, often adapting the original novels – for example: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (Germany, 1922), Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (US, 1931), and pretty much everything made by Hammer after The Curse of Frankenstein (UK, 1957).

Beyond the literal definition of gothic films as versions of gothic novels, however, there is a legion of horror films, fantasies and thrillers that have some level of gothic sensibility. Edward D. Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (US, 1959), for example, combines vampire iconography with bargain-basement science fiction, while Hitchcock’s Psycho (US, 1960) and David Fincher’s Fight Club (US, 1999) are both doppelgänger narratives.  There are Faustian allegories everywhere, with deals and demons present in, among many others, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (US, 1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (US, 1973), and Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (US, 1987).  Ridley Scott turned the gothic castle into a derelict spacecraft in Alien (US, 1979), and explored the Miltonian subtext of Frankenstein in Bladerunner (US, 1982).

Vampira (Maila Nurmi) Camps it up in Edward D. Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Vampira (Maila Nurmi) Camps it up in Edward D. Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Following a long tradition of Romantic art and literature, phantasmagoric theatre, melodrama, and Expressionism, gothic films have a recognisable mise-en-scène based around archetypal settings and characters, familiar visual signifiers and narrative codes.  The style is Otranto-esque and uncanny, and can be either period or contemporary.  There are old dark houses, sublime castles, dungeons, graveyards and secret passages.  Settings are invariably cobweb-strewn and secluded, and there is fog everywhere. Action takes place in the shadows, and soft lighting maintains misty moonlight while under-lighting distorts features.  Like gothic literature, competing frames of rational and irrational explanation are often deployed to generate tension and unease.  The unreal challenges the real, and moral boundaries are transgressed. Characters, meanwhile, conform to both Romantic and Victorian literary models.  There are final girls and sexually menacing villains, mad scientists, melodramatic heroes, doppelgängers, undead, walking dead and clowns at midnight. Shock, suspense, insanity, mystery, cruelty, sex and violence are mixed and manipulated to create an atmosphere of brooding terror.  Good gothic should be erotic and sadistic. Setting is clichéd, but somehow expected, despite being subject to parody since Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein, and Lily Munster first decorated for Halloween. Contemporary, postmodern gothic mise-en-scène is not so much Romantic or Expressionist as Hyper-real.

There has been gothic film for as long as film has existed.  Before that there was gothic theatre in the form of phantasmagorias, Grand Guignol, melodrama and magic lantern shows. Gothic, or at least horror, films tentatively began with the cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès.  In short (2 – 3 minute) films like The House of the Devil (France, 1896), Bluebeard and The Monster (France, 1903), Méliès double-exposed bats circling, ghosts and witches rising from cauldrons, gentlewomen hanging from hooks, Egyptian princes resurrecting dead lovers, bodies decaying and heads exploding. The first gothic novel to be filmed is generally considered to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by the Selig Polyscope Company (US, 1908), although La Esméralda (France, 1905) by Alice Guy-Blaché was based on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) so probably deserves the honour. The Danish company Nordisk remade Stevenson’s novel as a one-reeler a year after Selig, as well as two “premature burial” shorts, Necklace of the Dead (Denmark, 1910) and Ghosts of the Vault (Denmark, 1911). In America, Edison Studios made a 16-minute version of Frankenstein in 1910, while Carl Laemmle, founder of Universal Studios, also made Jekyll and Hyde (US, 1913). In 1915, D.W. Griffith filmed Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee” as The Avenging Consciousness, while Maurice Tourneur put Svengali on the screen in Trilby. (Prawer: 1980, 9). The gothic film had arrived.

While the new technology of silent cinema was inventing the genre in Hollywood, its narrative and visual influences remained literary, theatrical and essentially Romantic – the films compressed versions of nineteenth century gothic stage adaptations, filmed by static camera with high-key lighting.  The next innovation was dark, German and Modernist.  Expressionism sought to represent the human experience as interior and subjective. Expressionist art therefore exaggerated the symbolic and emotional, often distorting physical reality to convey individual perception.  This characteristic Modernist challenge to nineteenth century Realism in art and literature already aligned Expressionism with the fantastic, transgressive and psychological aspects of gothic discourse, while an interest in extreme existential and emotional states inevitably led to the horror film.  Expressionists celebrated the new medium as an opportunity for writers, artists and performers to collaborate. The first significant Expressionist film to explore gothic themes is The Student of Prague (Germany, 1913), a Faustian fable co-directed by Paul Wegener and Stellan Rye.  Rye died in a French prisoner of war camp in 1914, but Wegener went on to play, write and co-direct the recurring movie monster the Golem – the animated clay man of Jewish legend – in three films, most notably Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World, Germany, 1920).

1920 also saw the release of Robert Weine’s influential and often imitated Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). This milestone in gothic film was originally intended to be a satire on bourgeois hypocrisy directed by Fritz Lang.  The scriptwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, were Great War veterans, and fans of Wegener.

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) abducts Jane (Lil Dagover) in a much - replicated scene from Robert Weine's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Cesare (Conrad Veidt) abducts Jane (Lil Dagover) in a much – replicated scene from Robert Weine’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)

Two men on a park bench discussing “spirits” frame the story. The younger of the two, Francis, tells his companion of the carnival hypnotist Dr. Caligari and the zombie-like “Somnambulist,” Cesare.  Cesare (the androgynous and spidery Conrad Veidt) is displayed in a coffin-like cabinet and can predict the future. Francis’ friend Alan asks Cesare how long he will live, and is told he will die before dawn. Alan is stabbed to death that night, and although a local thug is arrested, Francis and his fiancée, Jane, suspect Cesare.  Caligari orders Cesare to kill Jane, and he enters her bedchamber through the window at night with a big knife. Caesar resists Caligari’s control and abducts Jane, carrying her across rooftops to the mountains, pursued by an angry mob. Jane is rescued, while Cesare sleepwalks on, finally falling to his death.  Francis tracks Caligari to a local asylum, where he learns that he is the Hospital Director. In the Director’s office, Francis finds a treatise on somnambulism, an ancient book documenting the killing spree of “Dr. Caligari” and “Cesare” in 1703, and a diary. The diary reveals that a “true somnambulist” has been admitted, and that to research whether or not a sleepwalker can be compelled to act against his waking will the Director “must become Caligari.”  The Director’s growing insanity is depicted by Caligari’s name appearing (animated on screen) around him as he raves. Caligari is taken away in a straightjacket, “And from that day on,” Francis concludes, “the madman has never left his cell.” The frame is then twisted, revealing that the men are in the grounds of the asylum and Francis, Jane and Cesare are all inmates. Francis is restrained, while screaming that it is not he who is insane but Caligari. The film ends with the Freudian Director explaining that now he understands Francis’ mania he can cure him.

The film’s visual style is distorted and darkly carnivalesque.  Shadows are painted onto sets, and the contorted streets, crooked houses and grotesque characters (designed by art director Hermann Warm and the painters Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig) were intended to convey the delusions of a madman.  This stylised mise-en-scène was so powerful that “Caligarism” became a synonym for Expressionism. With its innovative and atmospheric visual style, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari defined gothic cinema.  Its iconographic shockwaves can be felt throughout Hollywood, where mad scientists and beautiful girls carried into the night by pale, lanky monsters, pursued by rampaging villagers was de rigueur.

F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, Germany, 1922), is of equal stature. While Der Golem and Dr. Caligari anticipate Universal’s Frankenstein, Nosferatu is an unauthorised version of Stoker’s Dracula written by Wegener’s collaborator Henrik Galeen.  Noferatu is not as visually abstract as Caligari, but both films share Expressionist features. Murnau, another Great War veteran, used low-key lighting and deep space (positioning significant image elements both near and distant from the camera), to create depth and strong contrasts between light and shadow.  This effect was most famously realised as the shadow of the vampire, Graf Orlok, ascends the stairs to Ellen Hutter’s bedchamber during the film’s climax.  Max Shreck’s cadeverous Orlok is absurdly phallic – bald, tall, and matchstick thin, he rises from his coffin like a fascist salute or an erection, leaving us in no doubt as to the threat he represents to Ellen.  Orlok’s pointed teeth, ears and claws are rat-like, and vermin and plague follow with him.  Ellen uses her feminine wiles to trick Orlok into staying past cockcrow, and he is destroyed in the dawn sunlight.

An iconic moment in expressionist cinema: Graf Orlok (Max Schrek), represented only by his shadow, ascends the stairs to Ellen's room in the finale of Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau (1922)

An iconic moment in expressionist cinema: Graf Orlok (Max Schrek), represented only by his shadow, ascends the stairs to Ellen’s room in the finale of Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau (1922)

Florence Stoker successfully sued for copyright infringement, and Lugosi’s Dracula soon eclipsed Shreck’s Orlok.  The animalistic “Nosferatu” vampire archetype remains, however, as a contrast to the aristocratic Ruthven/Varney/Dracula model, most notably in Stephen King’s revisionist vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1975) and, more recently, Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II  (US, 2002).  Werner Herzog remade Murnau’s classic as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, West Germany, 1979) starring Klaus Kinski as “Count Dracula.” Kinski loosely reprised the role in Augusto Caminito’s Nosferatu a Venezia (Vampire in Venice, Italy, 1988).  E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Bat (US/UK, 2000) reconstructs the filming of Nosferatu, depicting Max Shreck as a real vampire.  Other key Expressionist films incorporating elements of the gothic include Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks, Germany, 1924) directed by Paul Leni, Metropolis by Fritz Lang (Germany, 1927), and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (Germany, 1932).  When the Weimar Republic fell, many Expressionist filmmakers fled to Hollywood.

The synergy of the literary gothic, stage melodrama, and Expressionism is the foundation of gothic film as it subsequently developed in Hollywood, most notably at Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures, which employed Conrad Veidt, Paul Leni, and Lon Chaney Senior, “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”  Laemmle, another German immigrant, had been a nickelodeon owner who had decided to challenge the Edison monopoly by making his own films.  Lon Chaney’s breakthrough was the sadistic MGM gangster film The Penalty (US, 1920), in which he played a double amputee crime lord who plans to have the legs of his surgeon’s future son-in-law grafted on to his stumps.  To play the insane gangster, Chaney strapped his calves to his thighs, foreshadowing the masochistic commitment to grotesque make-up that characterised his iconic performances in Universal’s silent gothic classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame (US, 1923), The Phantom of the Opera (US, 1925), and MGM’s London After Midnight  (US, 1927), the latter directed by Tod Browning. Browning and Laemmle wanted Chaney to play Dracula, but he died of lung cancer in 1930. The other notable silent Universal gothic films were both directed by Paul Leni. The Cat and the Canary (US, 1927) was an “old dark house” mystery based on the play by John Willard, and The Man Who Laughs (US, 1928) was an adaptation of Hugo’s nasty novel of 1869.  Veidt’s performance as the disfigured Gwynplaine, smile carved onto his face, inspired Bob Kane’s design of the Joker for the first issue of Batman Comics in 1940. Leni was the first choice to direct Dracula, but he died of blood poisoning in 1929.

Lon Chaney Sr as 'The Man in the Beaver Hat' from the lost classic London after Midnight, dir. Tod Browning (1927)

Lon Chaney Sr as ‘The Man in the Beaver Hat’ from the lost classic London after Midnight by Tod Browning (1927)

The deaths of Leni and Chaney ushered in a new generation of talent.  Rather than adapting the original novel, Universal’s Dracula (US, 1931) follows the 1927 Broadway hit by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderstone, the first version to be authorised by Florence Stoker. After much deliberation, the studio cast the play’s lead, the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, to reprise his role.  Although Nosferatu was mined for plot devices – for example Harker cutting his finger and Dracula reacting – Lugosi’s Byronic interpretation of the suave Carpathian aristocrat was a long way from Shreck’s repulsive Orlok and Stoker’s original. Lugosi’s Dracula has become the definitive version, and his flowing cape, magnetic charm, and sinister European accent are replicated and pastiched (or, in Gary Oldman’s case, both) across the history of gothic cinema.

'There are far worse things awaiting man than death.' The great Bela Lugosi in his signature role, Dracula (1931).

‘There are far worse things awaiting man than death.’ The great Bela Lugosi in his signature role, Dracula (1931)

Carl Dreyer’s haunting Vampyr (Germany, 1932) – loosely based on Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871) – is a near contemporary of Universal’s Dracula.  Dreyer’s film is more experimental than Browning’s, incorporating Expressionist and Surrealist techniques.  Real and unreal blur in this pale and foggy film – shadows and reflections have a life of their own, while the hero has a waking dream of burial alive.  Vampyr is the last significant Expressionist gothic to be shot in Germany.

Universal was quick to follow up the success of Dracula with Frankenstein, which was released in November 1931.  The Englishman James Whale (who had conquered the West End, Broadway and Hollywood with Journey’s End) replaced the Frenchman Robert Florey as director, casting fellow ex-patriot Boris Karloff (over Lugosi) to play the “monster.”  (Florey’s contribution to Frankenstein goes largely unacknowledged – he and Lugosi were moved to the Murders in the Rue Morgue project by Universal.)  Whale, like Florey, was heavily influenced by Expressionist cinema, while his experiences as an officer in the trenches had left him with a dark, gallows humour that, in common with his German counterparts, found a release in the gothic.  Colin Clive, the highly-strung, alcoholic lead of Journey’s End was cast as “Henry Frankenstein.”  Clive played Frankenstein as a manic iconoclast, addicted to a power that both attracts and appals him, and from which he cannot escape. “Now I know what it feels like to be god!” he shrieks, in a line hastily trimmed by Universal’s censors.  Jack Pierce’s make-up and Karloff’s interpretation of the monster as a mute and child-like grotesque defined the role for generations in the same way as Lugosi’s Dracula. Like Dracula, the film’s plot is taken from stage versions rather than the original novel – the hunchback assistant, “Fritz,” for example, is a legacy from the play Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein by Richard Brinsley Peake (1823), although the film is essentially from the 1927 play by Peggy Webling, adapted by Balderstone.  Frankenstein’s visual style blends Expressionism with conventional Hollywood gothic.  Whale was a great admirer of Leni, Wegener and Weine, and had The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari screened repeatedly during pre-production (Curtis: 1998, 149).

Dracula and Frankenstein were huge hits in a period when Hollywood was suffering from the Great Depression, and a wave of sequels and copies followed.  Browning prematurely wrecked his career by choosing art over commerce and making the quintessential American gothic film Freaks for MGM in 1932, controversially casting disabled people from sideshows rather than using costumes and makeup.  Back at Universal, Karloff starred as The Mummy in 1932, directed by German-émigré Karl Freund (who also directed Colin Clive and Peter Lorre in Mad Love, a remake of the German silent Orlacs Hände, for MGM in 1935), Lugosi starred in Murders in the Rue Morgue (US, 1932), and both appeared together in The Raven (US, 1934). Lugosi also made White Zombie for United Artists in 1932 and starred in the second Hammer film ever, The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, in 1935. Whale directed Karloff in The Old Dark House (US, 1932), and Claude Rains as The Invisible Man in 1933. Henry Hull played The Werewolf of London for Universal in 1935, while Whale, Clive and Karloff were re-united for The Bride of Frankenstein the same year. British gothic film, meanwhile, slogged along in a series of Victorian melodramas filmed by George King and starring the over-the-top Tod Slaughter, the most memorable being Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (UK, 1935), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (UK, 1936), and The Face at the Window (UK, 1939).

'Friend...?' Karloff's Monster fails to connect with Elsa Lancaster's Bride in James Whale's seminal sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

‘Friend…?’ Karloff’s Monster fails to connect with Elsa Lancaster’s Bride in James Whale’s seminal sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride of Frankenstein takes the unrealised creation of the creature’s mate from Shelley’s novel, and makes her flesh.  The film is darkly comic, and adds the “Bride” archetype so important to the popular Frankenstein myth.  The film is anachronistically framed by Elsa Lancaster playing Mary Shelley, telling Byron and Shelley what happened next. The monster has survived, and the evil Dr. Pretorius uses him to coerce Henry into replicating his original process with a female, also played by Lancaster, memorably swathed in bandages with lightening streaks in her hair. While the monster reaches towards her imploring “Friend?” the bride is horrified, and looks to Frankenstein for comfort. (This scene was re-created in Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-Animator, US, 1990.)  Things do not end well, and the monster tells Pretorius and the bride that “We belong dead,” before triggering an explosion and destroying the laboratory. Colin Clive died of tuberculosis in 1937, so Basil Rathbone took over as Son of Frankenstein in 1939, with Karloff reprising the role of monster for the final time (unless we count a cameo in the TV show Route 66), acting alongside Lugosi as “Ygor.” Whale did not direct. Universal made Dracula’s Daughter the following year, which picks up the story at the end of the original film.  Gloria Holden plays “Countess Zaleska,” and Van Sloan pops up again as Van Helsing. A series of increasingly unremarkable sequels followed, the Universal monster cycle briefly enlivened by Lon Chaney Junior’s appearance as The Wolfman in 1941. Monsters began appearing together, as in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman starring Chaney and Lugosi (US, 1943), and House of Dracula (US, 1945), which stars Chaney as the Wolfman, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, and John Carradine as Dracula. Aside from MGM, the only serious rival to Universal’s stranglehold on gothic film was RKO, which made Charles Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939, Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s atmospheric Cat People (US, 1942), and I Walked with a Zombie (US, 1943), and The Body Snatcher (based on Stevenson’s short story) starring Karloff and Lugosi in 1945. MGM also returned to the literary gothic in 1945 with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Warner Brothers introduced the arachnophobic archetype of the disembodied hand in The Beast With Five Fingers starring Peter Lorre in 1946.  Universal finally flogged their gothic franchises to death in a series of Abbott and Costello horror comedies, beginning with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (with Chaney, Lugosi and Strange) in 1948, and the clumsily named Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff in 1949. Et tut, Boris?

Post-war Hollywood fantasy focused on atomic and Cold War anxiety, while the audience demographic became more teenaged. Horror films moved towards science fiction and rock ’n’ roll in the fifties, the best of it inspired by the short-lived but hugely influential EC horror comics rather than the traditional literary gothic. The studio system also changed considerably after the war, and major studios moved away from second feature productions (which is where the Universal monsters had washed up), creating a niche for very low budget independents, most notably Roger Corman.  There is a distinctive post-war gothic style in America, but it is cheap, kitsch and comedic. American International Pictures led this new market, with titles like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (US, 1957), and The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959). Universal rolled the dice one more time in 1954 with The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Across the water, the seeds of a new English gothic were sown in Ealing Studio’s Dead of Night (UK, 1945), a portmanteau pioneer with a framing narrative, five separate gothic stories connected by a common theme, multiple directors and guest stars. In the scariest episode, Michael Redgrave plays an insane ventriloquist who believes his creepy dummy, Hugo, controls him. A decade on, Hammer Film Productions returned to the influence of Universal, and the small British company’s first gothic film was The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  This was closely followed by Dracula (UK, 1958).  Unlike Universal, Hammer focused on Victor Frankenstein rather than his creations, and Cushing’s interpretation of this role, alongside Christopher Lee’s Dracula, returns to the resonance of Karloff and Lugosi.  The gothic had come home.

The Baron (Peter Cushing) examines his creation (Christopher Lee), while Robert Urquhart looks on, in Terence Fisher's The Curse of Franstein (1957).

The Baron (Peter Cushing) examines his creation (Christopher Lee) while Robert Urquhart looks on, in Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Hammer films differ from Universal in that they are in full colour, and return the gothic to the adult realm of moral ambiguity, taboo, sexuality and violence. Cushing’s Frankenstein is not a flawed romantic lead, but a cold, obsessive and mad genius, while Lee’s sexually magnetic Dracula both seduces and repels. Visually, Hammer films are theatrical rather than Expressionist, and the influence of the Victorian stage, and the pre-war revivals of King and Slaughter, is apparent in these period dramas. Universal executives were so impressed by Hammer’s interpretations of Frankenstein and Dracula that they made their entire back-catalogue available for re-make. In its heyday in the 1960s, Hammer’s gothic output equalled that of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s. Hammer resurrected all the major gothic archetypes. In addition to six Frankenstein and eight Dracula sequels, Hammer made four “Mummy” films, including an adaptation of Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (UK, 1971), as well as the re-makes The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (UK, 1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (UK, 1961), and The Phantom of the Opera (UK, 1962). Other vampire films include: Countess Dracula (UK, 1971), based on the Elizabeth Báthory legend, the magically real Vampire Circus (UK, 1972), and the Le Fanu inspired “Karnstein Trilogy” (UK, 1970 – 1972).  Hammer also adapted two novels by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out (UK, 1968) and To the Devil a Daughter (UK, 1976).  The Gorgon (UK, 1964) and The Plague of the Zombies (UK, 1966) refined the gothic aesthetic of Lewton and Tourneur, while a string of psychological thrillers nodded towards Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hammer received the Queen’s Award for Industry in 1968, in recognition of its contribution to British film and its outstanding international success. Not since MGM’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde won two Academy awards in 1931 had gothic film achieved such establishment recognition.  Gerald Thomas also paid tribute to Hammer in Carry On Screaming (UK, 1966).

Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958).

Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

The success of Hammer resuscitated the traditional gothic.  There were domestic imitators, such as Amicus Productions, which specialised in Anglicised anthology versions of EC horror comics, and Tigon British Film Productions, which made Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General in 1968. 20th Century Fox, meanwhile, released a screen version of James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) as The Innocents in 1961, scaring the hell out of everyone.  Echoing rock ’n’ roll culture, the British had taken an American form and re-invented it.  It is therefore Hammer, rather than Universal, that inspired American International Pictures to produce a full-colour version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, directed by Roger Corman, written by Richard Matheson, and starring Vincent Price, in 1960.  AIP’s subsequent “Poe Cycle” ran to seven more films: The Pit and the Pendulum (US, 1961), The Premature Burial and Tales of Terror (US, 1962), The Raven and The Haunted Palace (US, 1963), The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia (US, 1964).  In mainland Europe, notable period gothic films include Mario Bava’s La maschera del demonio (The Mask of Satan, Italy, 1960) and I Tre volti della paura (AKA Black Sabbath, Italy, 1963), and the vampire films of French filmmaker Jean Rollin. Ado Kyrou directed Le Moine, a version of Lewis’ The Monk written by Luis Buñuel, (France/Italy/Germany, 1972), while Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (Japan, 1964), was a period gothic anthology based on the ghost stories of Lafcadio Hearn.

'We have put her living in the tomb!' The 'Gable of the Gothic,' my wife's hero, and the man we named our son after: The incomparable Vincent Price as Roderick Usher in Roger Corman's The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).

‘We have put her living in the tomb!’ The ‘Gable of the Gothic,’ my wife’s hero, and the man we named our son after: The incomparable Vincent Price as Roderick Usher in Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1960)

By the end of the Swinging Sixties, period gothic had once more declined.  Hammer’s attempts to update the form largely failed (see, for example, Dracula AD 1972), while Corman sensibly moved towards “Hell’s Angel” films, and Bava invented the “slasher” film with Reazione a catena/ (Bay of Blood AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve, Italy, 1971). The independent American New Wave, led by directors like George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, and Wes Craven also made historical gothic appear trite and dated.  It should be noted, however, that the atmospheric visual style of Night of the Living Dead  (US, 1968), and the fairytale leitmotif of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (US, 1974) still place such films within the gothic tradition.

Gothic films continue to exist, but always in the shadows cast by Expressionism, Universal and Hammer.  Literary archetypes remain, although films purporting to return to the original texts usually reproduce Universal plots. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (US, 1992), for example, is nothing of the sort, and uses the re-incarnation device from the Universal “Mummy” cycle (itself lifted from Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars).  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kenneth Branagh (US, 1994) is a mix of The Bride of Frankenstein and the NBC TV special Frankenstein: The True Story (US, 1973). Only in letting the creature speak does Branagh acknowledge the original novel.  The best literary gothic film of this period is Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (US, 1994), from the 1976 novel by Anne Rice.  Ken Russell applied his unique style to the night that Byron, Polidori, and the Shelleys decided to make up a few “ghost stories” at the Villa Diodati in Gothic (UK, 1986).

Gothic iconography remains present in many hybrid and inter-textual forms of horror.  Gothic elements are updated and alchemically blended in, for example: Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (US, 1981), Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (US, 1982), Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991), Alex Proyas’ The Crow (US, 1994), Myrick and Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (US, 1999), and a variety of controversial “slasher” and “torture porn” bloodbaths. Purists may demarcate, but the parody and pastiche of postmodernism is everywhere. Leatherface is Mr. Hyde and the Phantom of the Opera taken to their logical extremes, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers lumber around silently like Glenn Strange playing Frankenstein’s monster, and the Eastern European Otherness of Hostel (US, 2005) is straight out of Radcliffe and Lewis.

Hail to the King baby. Bruce Campbell in Sam Raimi's cult classic Evil Dead II (1987)

Bruce Campbell in Sam Raimi’s cult classic Evil Dead II (1987). Traditional Gothic archetypes combine with Grand Guignol spectacle and gallows humour. Much imitated, never bettered: ‘Hail to the King baby!’

Modern gothic films nowadays tend to be either period and/or involve classic monsters – Universal revived The Mummy franchise in 1999, while the collective monsters of Van Helsing (US, 2004) recall the Lugosi/Chaney team-ups of the late-1940s.  Vampires remain sexy, as seen in the relationship between the teenage Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, the Harry Potter of vampires, in Twilight (US, 2008). The spirit of the literary gothic is presently most realised in the supernatural fantasies of Guillermo del Toro, while Tim Burton has returned to the marriage of melodrama and Expressionism that epitomises gothic cinema.  Gothic film turns full circle in Burton at his best. Edward Scissorhands (US, 1990) is a fairytale Frankenstein, while A Nightmare Before Christmas (US, 1993) takes the format of the Rankin/Bass seasonal television special and slams it into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  In Batman Returns (US, 1992), Burton’s Gotham City is an Expressionist metropolis, its corporations controlled by the corrupt “Max Shreck.” Burton has also acknowledged his debt to Hammer in the 1999 period gothic Sleepy Hollow (Salisbury: 2006, 169 – 170), and in 2007 returned Sweeny Todd to the screen, albeit the Sondheim and Wheeler musical version.

'They all deserve to die...' Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) from the film of the same name by Tim Burton (2007).

‘They all deserve to die…’ Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) from the film of the same name by Tim Burton (2007)

At time of writing, vampires are in. Tomas Alfredson’s Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In, Sweden, 2008) has been re-made by the revived Hammer brand as Let Me In (UK/US, 2010), Burton is adapting Dan Curtis’ gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, while Breaking Dawn (the fourth instalment of The Twilight Saga) is due for release in 2011.  Gothic film, like a walled-up vampire, cannot die and continues to feed upon itself.


Benton, Mike. (1991). Horror Comics. Dallas: Taylor Publishing.

Blake, Michael (1990). Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces. New York: Vestal Press.

Chibnall, Steve & Petley, Julian. (2001). British Horror Cinema. London: Routledge.

Clover, Carol. (1992). Men, Women, and Chainsaws. London: BFI.

Curtis, James (1998). James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. Boston: Faber and Faber.

Cushing, Peter,  (1986). Peter Cushing: An Autobiography. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston. (2010). A History of Horror. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Eisner, Lotte H. (1974). The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ezra, Elizabeth. (2000). Georges Méliès: the birth of the auteur. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hantke, Steffen (ed.). (2010). American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Holte, James Craig. (1997) Dracula in the Dark: The Dracula Film Adaptations. London: Greenwood Press.

Hutchins, Peter. (1993). Hammer and Beyond: The British Horror Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hutchinson, Tom. (1974). Horror and Fantasy in the Cinema. London: Studio Vista.

Naha, Ed. (1982). The Films of Roger Corman. New York: Arco Publishing.

Newman, Kim. (1988). Nightmare Movies: Critical History of the Horror Film. London: Bloomsbury.

Newman, Kim (ed.). (1996). The BFI Companion to Horror. London: Cassell Academic.

Pirie, David. (2007). A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris and Co.

Prawer, S.S. (1980). Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rigby, Jonathan, (2000). English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema. London: Reynolds & Hearn.

Salisbury, Mark (ed.). (2006). Burton on Burton. London: Faber and Faber.

Scheunemann, Dietrich. (2006). Expressionist Film. London: Camden House.

Sinclair McKay (2007) A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films. London: Aurum Press.

Springhall, John. (1998). Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics. London: MacMillan.

Skal, David J. (1991). Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: Norton.

Skal, David J. (1993). The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. London: Penguin.

Spadoni, Robert. (2007). Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre. Berkley: University of California Press.

Underwood, Peter. (1972). Karloff. New York: Drake.

Worland, Rick (2007). The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Robert Spadoni

Writing the Underworld: Works Cited, Notes & Appendix

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy

Works Cited, Notes & Appendix

Stephen James Carver Ph.D

Copyright © Edwin Mellen Press, SJ Carver 2003, 2013


Manuscript Sources

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Autograph letters of W.H. Ainsworth to James Crossley. 11 vols. Archives Section. Local Studies Unit, Central Library, Manchester. (Accessed between June and September 1997.)

Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, January 1, 1839.

Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, March 25, 1838.

Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, May 29, 1837.

Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, November 19, 1839.

Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, November 5, 1837.

Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, October 8, 1839.

Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, September 6, 1838.

Ainsworth, letter to G.B. Davidge, October 18, 1839.

Ainsworth, letter to The Times, July 7, 1840.

Printed Sources

Ainsworth, Crichton (1837). The Original Illustrated Edition of the Novels of William Harrison Ainsworth, (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1881).

Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard. (1839). (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1881).

Ainsworth, Rookwood. (1834). (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1881).

Allen, Rick, The Moving Pageant: A Literary Sourcebook on London Street-Life, 1700-1914 (London: Routledge, 1998).

Altick, Richard D. Victorian Studies in Scarlet: Murders and Manners in the Age of Victoria. (London: Norton, 1970).

Anon.  ‘Jack Sheppard: a Romance.’ Review. Athenaeum, October 26 1839.

Anon. Review of Jack Sheppard at the Adelphi. Standard, October 29, 1839.

Anon.‘William Ainsworth and Jack Sheppard.’ Fraser’s, February, 1840

Blanchard, Samuel Laman. ‘Memoir of William Harrison Ainsworth.’ The Mirror (1842). In W.H. Ainsworth, Rookwood (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1898).

Bloom, Clive. Cult Fiction: Popular Reading and Pulp Theory (London: Macmillan, 1996).

Booth, Michael R., English Melodrama (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1965).

Collins, Philip, Dickens and Crime (London: Macmillan, 1965).

Defoe, Daniel. The True and Genuine Account of The Life and Actions of The Late Jonathan Wild, Not made up of fiction and fable, but taken from his own mouth, and collected from papers of his own writing (London: John Applebee, 1725).

—. The History of the remarkable Life of John Sheppard, containing A particular account of his many Robberies and Escapes (London: John Applebee, 1724).

Dickens, Oliver Twist. Collected Works. (London: Odhams, 1897).

—. Sketches by ‘Boz’ (1836), Collected Works. (London: Odhams, 1897).

Egan, Pierce, Life in London or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, ESQ. and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis (1821). (London: John Camden Hotten, 1869).

Ellis, S.M. William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends, 2 vols (London: John Lane, 1911).

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens (1872). London: Cecil Palmer 1928.

—. Review of Jack Sheppard. Examiner, November 3, 1839.

—. Literary Editorial. Examiner, June 28, 1840.

Friswell, J. Hain. Modern Men of Letters, Honestly Criticised (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1870).

Gatrell, V.A.C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770 – 1868 (Oxford: OUP, 1994).

Hollingsworth, Keith, The Newgate Novel 1830-47: Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens and Thackeray (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1963).

Horne, Richard Hengist. A New Spirit of the Age, 2 vols (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1844).

House, Humphry. The Dickens World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960).

James, Louis, Fiction for the Working Man 1830-50 (London: Penguin, 1973).

Low, Donald A. The Regency Underworld (London: J.M. Dent, 1982).

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. 2nd. Ed. London: National Illustrated Library, 1852.

Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Victor Neuburg (ed.) (London: Penguin, 1985).

Moore, Lucy. The Thieves’ Opera (London: Penguin, 1997)

Nord, Deborah Epstein. Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation and the City (London: Cornell University Press, 1995)

Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of the Underworld (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950).

Paulson, Ronald ed. (1965). Hogarth’s Graphical Works New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pawling Christopher ed. Popular Fiction and Social Change (London: Macmillan, 1984)

Rawlings, Philip. Drunks, Whores and Idle Apprentices, Criminal biographies of the eighteenth century (London: Routledge, 1992).

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Catherine, A Story (1840) Collected Works. (London: Caxton, 1920).

—. ‘Catherine, A Story.’ Fraser’s Magazine, February 1840.

—. ‘George Cruikshank.’ Westminster Review, June 1840.

—. ‘Going to see a man hanged’, Fraser’s, August, 1840.

—. Review of the Works of Henry Fielding, The Times, September 2 1840.

—. Vanity Fair (1848). (London: Collins, 1949)

—. The History of Pendennis (1850) Collected Works.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class (London: Pelican, 1968)

Tobias, John J. Prince of Fences: The Life and Crimes of Ikey Solomons (London: Valentine, 1974).

Uglow, Jenny. Hogarth (London: Faber and Faber, 1998)

Walkowitz, Judith R. The City of Dreadful Delight (London: Virago, 1992-4)

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (London: Penguin, 1963)

Worth, George J., William Harrison Ainsworth (New York: Twayne, 1972).


  1. In a corresponding episode in Jack Sheppard, Thames has copies of the ballads ‘St. George for England and True Protestant Gratitude, or Britain’s Thanksgiving for the First of August, being the Day of His Majesty’s Happy Accession to the Throne’ pasted to the wall, while Jack has ‘The Thief Catcher’s Prophecy’ and ‘Life and Death of the Darkman’s Budge’. Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, A Romance (1839), Works, 58-9. Thames’s Orange commitment to his religion reminds the attentive reader that the original John Sheppard was reported to be a Catholic, placing him doubly beyond the pale as both thief and idolater.
  2. See Jenny Uglow, Hogarth (London: Faber and Faber, 1998), chapter 5.
  3. A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, etc. of John Sheppard, (London: John Applebee, 1724). Sensing the market, Applebee had also published The History of the remarkable Life of John Sheppard, containing A particular account of his many Robberies and Escapes (London: John Applebee, 1724) directly after Sheppard’s first escape from Newgate. Both these pamphlets have been attributed to Defoe although there is no real supporting evidence that the two men even knew one another. In a recent biography of Jack Sheppard, the author puts Defoe and Applebee at the execution, with a hearse standing by to whisk Sheppard’s corpse away for resuscitation, a factoid of which I am more than a little sceptical. Lucy Moore, The Thieves’ Opera (London: Penguin, 1997), 224.
  4. Daniel Defoe, The True and Genuine Account of The Life and Actions of The Late Jonathan Wild, Not made up of fiction and fable, but taken from his own mouth, and collected from papers of his own writing (London: John Applebee, 1725).
  5. Another flash term for hanging was ‘The dance without music’, referring to the spastic death throes of the victim. See Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of the Underworld (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950). Like Pierce Egan, Ainsworth got his slang from ‘A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language’, which was appended to James Hardy Vaux’s Memoirs of a Transport (London, 1819), a book now considered to be one of the earliest works of Australian literature.
  6. ‘The Hospital Patient’ dies pathetically, hoping that, ‘God almighty will forgive me all the wrong I have done, and the life I have led’, and wishing that she ‘had died a child’. Dickens, Sketches by Boz (1836), Works, 155.
  7.  ‘And upon them that are left alive of you I will send a faintness into their hearts in the lands of their enemies; and the sound of a shaken leaf shall chase them; and they shall flee, as fleeing from a sword; and they shall fall when none pursueth.’
  8. ‘For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread: and the adulteress will hunt for the precious life.’
  9. J.T. Smith, Keeper of Prints in the British Museum, coined this term for his book, Vagabondiana, or The Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London, with Portraits of the Most Remarkable (London, 1817).
  10. This invites the Discipline and Punish interpretations that many disciples of Michel Foucault and followers of Hollingsworth have tended to impose upon the Newgate novel. See, for example, Juliet John, introduction, Cult Criminals: The Newgate Novels, 1830-1847, 8 vols (London: Routledge, 1998).
  11. See Chapter One of this present work.
  12. See Roger Sales, ‘Pierce Egan and the Representation of London’, Reviewing Romanticism, ed. Philip Martin and Robin Jarvis (London, Macmillan, 1992).
  13. Wild is presented as a satanic figure throughout the narrative: ‘If I am the devil’, observed Wild, ‘as some folks assert, and I myself am not unwilling to believe, you’ll find that I differ from the generally received notions of the archfiend, and faithfully execute the commands of those who confide their souls to my custody.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 107).
  14. Pitt put Sweeney Todd on the stage for the first time at the Britannia Saloon, Hoxton in The String of Pearls, or: The Fiend of Fleet Street in 1842. Pitt also produced a version of Rookwood at the Victoria Theatre in 1845.
  15. See Chapter One of this present work.
  1. This is all true (see Ellis, Uglow and Moore), although these illustrious visitors did not all turn up at once. Thornhill was Serjeant Painter to George I, and the king ordered two studies of Sheppard to be made. Thornhill’s portrait of Sheppard has not survived, but we do have a mezzotint engraving taken from the original by G. White.
  2. The best study by far of this period remains Hollingsworth’s, but John Springhall’s recent book, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics (London: Routledge, 1998) is interesting in its examination of the cyclical nature of moral panics in Britain and America from the early Victorians to date.
  3. See John J. Tobias, Prince of Fences: The Life and Crimes of Ikey Solomons (London: Valentine, 1974).
  4. This is a reference to Lytton’s novel Earnest Maltravers (1837).
  1. ‘William Ainsworth and Jack Sheppard,’ Fraser’s, February 1840, probably also written by Thackeray. The concluding critical remarks from Catherine are usually absent from the complete works but are appended to the present work.
  2. Samuel Laman Blanchard, ‘Memoir of William Harrison Ainsworth’, originally written for The Mirror in 1842 but often prefixed to Rookwood.
  3. A representative bit of flash dialogue from Jack Sheppard can be picked at random. For example: ‘“Jigger closed!” shouted a hoarse voice in reply. “All’s bowman, my covey. Fear nothing. We’ll be upon the bandogs before they can shake their trotters!”’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 17).


The original conclusion of Catherine by Thackeray

This long diatribe against Dickens and Ainsworth preceded the final paragraph of Thackeray’s original ‘Catherine, A Story’ in Fraser’s Magazine. It is not included in subsequent editions of Catherine in book form or in Thackeray’s collected works.

To begin with Mr. Dickens. No man has read that remarkable tale of Oliver Twist without being interested in poor Nancy and her murderer; and especially amused and tickled by the gambols of the Artful Dodger and his companions. The power of the writer is so amazing, that the reader at once becomes his captive, and must follow him whithersoever he leads; and to what are we led? Breathless to watch all the crimes of Fagin, tenderly to deplore the errors of Nancy, to have for Bill Sikes a kind of pity and admiration, and an absolute love for the society of the Dodger. All these heroes stepped from the novel on to the stage; and the whole London public, from peers to chimney-sweeps, were interested about a set of ruffians whose occupations are thievery, murder, and prostitution. A most agreeable set of rascals, indeed, who have their virtues, too, but not good company for any man. We had better pass them by in decent silence; for, as no writer can or dare tell the whole truth concerning them, and faithfully explain their vices, there is no need to give ex-parte statements of their virtue.

And what came of Oliver Twist? The public wanted something more extravagant still, more sympathy for thieves, and so Jack Sheppard makes his appearance. Jack and his two wives, and his faithful Blueskin, and his gin-drinking mother, that sweet Magdalen! – with what a wonderful gravity are all their adventures related, with what an honest simplicity and vigour does Jack’s biographer record his actions and virtues! We are taught to hate Wild, to be sure; but then it is because he betrays thieves, the rogue! And yet bad, ludicrous, monstrous as the idea of this book is, we read and read, and are interested, too. The author has a wondrous faith, and a most respectful notion of the vastness of his subject. There is not one particle of banter in his composition; good and bad ideas, he hatches all with the same gravity; and is just as earnest in his fine description of the storm on the Thames, and his admirable account of the escape from Newgate; as in the scenes at Whitefriars, and the conversations at Wild’s, than which nothing was ever written more curiously unnatural. We are not, however, here criticizing the novels, but simply have to speak of the Newgate part of them, which gives birth to something a great deal worse than bad taste, and familiarises the public with notions of crime. In the dreadful satire of Jonathan Wild, no reader is so dull as to make the mistake of admiring, and can overlook the grand and hearty contempt of the author for the character he has described; the bitter wit of the Beggar’s Opera, too, hits the great, by shewing their similarity with the wretches that figure in the play; and though the latter piece is so brilliant in its mask of gaiety and wit, that a very dull person may not see the dismal reality thus disguised, moral, at least, there is in the satire, for those who will take the trouble to find it. But in the sorrows of Nancy and the exploits of Sheppard, there is no such lurking moral, as far as we have been able to discover; we are asked for downright sympathy in the one case, and are called on in the second to admire the gallantry of a thief. The street-walker may be a virtuous person, and the robber as brave as Wellington; but it is better to leave them alone, and their qualities, good and bad. The pathos of the workhouse scenes in Oliver Twist, or the Fleet prison descriptions in Pickwick, is genuine and pure as much of this as you please; as tender a hand to the poor, as kindly a word to the unhappy as you will; but in the name of common sense, let us not expend our sympathies on cut-throats, and other such prodigies of evil! (Thackeray, Fraser’s 1840).

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART ONE

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART TWO

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART THREE

Writing the Underworld: Works Cited, Notes & Appendix

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART THREE

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy

Part Three:

The Storm: The Newgate Controversy

Stephen James Carver Ph.D

This is a sample chapter in three parts from the book The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth 1805 – 1882 (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003)

This extract of the book is provided in accordance with the conditions of ‘fair usage,’ and is reproduced without profit for marketing and educational purposes only, with the understanding that copyright resides with the publisher.

Copyright © Edwin Mellen Press, SJ Carver 2003, 2013

III. The Storm: The Newgate Controversy (17)


Four months after Jack Sheppard began its serial run, the first part of Catherine, A Story appeared in Fraser’s, credited to the pen of ‘Ikey Solomons Esq. Jr.’ Ikey Solomons Esq. Snr. was a notorious fence based in Islington in the 1820s, and whose criminal empire made Jonathan Wild’s look like a kindergarten. The original Ikey Solomons was Jewish and is assumed to be the model for Dickens’s Fagin. Unlike his literary counterpart, the real Ikey Solomons escaped from police custody after being charged with the capital crime of receiving stolen goods, later turning up in New York (18). Catherine was based on the life of the eighteenth century murderess Catherine Hayes, lifted from one of the nastiest of the original Newgate Calendars, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register.Catherine Hayes was the wife of a London tradesman, and she plotted his murder with her lover (Thomas Wood, the lodger) and her illegitimate son (Thomas Billings). After getting Mr Hayes very drunk, the two men killed him with an axe and dismembered the body, disposing of it in a pond in Marylebone Fields except for the head, which they threw in the Thames in the hope of making identification impossible. The head turned up however, and was placed on display (first on a pole in a churchyard, and later preserved in a glass of spirits in the hope someone might recognise it). Catherine Hayes claimed her husband was in Portugal, but his friends were suspicious. Eventually Wood and Billings confessed and the trio were executed, the two men were hanged in chains and the woman was burnt at the stake at Tyburn in May 1726, as a wife killing her husband was petty treason under law. In a particularly unpleasant twist of fate, the flames caught so quickly that the executioner was not able to strangle the condemned as was customary, and the unfortunate woman was burnt alive. Catherine was the work of Thackeray, and the point of such a nasty story was to savagely shame and satirise the whole of the so-called Newgate School (in which he included Dickens) and their audience.

A Hogarthian image disguising the sensationalism of the most ambituous of the Newgate Calendars. 'A mother presenting the Malefactor's Register to her son and tenderly entreating him to regard the instructions therein recorded.' Frontispiece to The Malefactor's Bloody Register, artist unknown (c.1779)

A Hogarthian graphic style and moral message fail to disguise the sensationalism of the most ambituous of the Newgate Calendars: ‘A mother presenting the Malefactor’s Register to her son and tenderly entreating him to regard the instructions therein recorded.’ Frontispiece to The Malefactor’s Bloody Register, artist unknown (c.1779)

Generally speaking, nobody got the joke, and Catherine is most interesting as an example of Thackeray’s metamorphosis from journalist to novelist, as the narrative swings wildly between picaresque parody and outraged critical polemic:

And here, though we are only in the third chapter of this history, we feel almost sick of the characters that appear in it, and the adventures which they are called on to go through. But how can we help ourselves? The public will hear of nothing but rogues; and the only way in which poor authors, who must live, can act honestly by the public and themselves, is to paint such thieves as they are: not dandy, poetical, rosewater thieves; but real downright scoundrels, leading scroundrelly lives, drunken, profligate, dissolute, low; as scoundrels will be. They don’t quote Plato, like Eugene Aram; or live like gentlemen, and sing the pleasantest ballads in the world like Jolly Dick Turpin: or prate eternally about to kalon, like that precious canting Maltravers (19), whom we all of us have read about and pitied; or die white-washed saints, like poor ‘Biss Dadsy’ in ‘Oliver Twist’. No, my dear madam you and your daughters have no right to admire and sympathize with any such persons, fictitious or real; you ought to be made cordially to detest, scorn, loathe, abhor, and abominate all people of this kidney. Men of genius like those whose works we have above alluded to, have no business to make these characters interesting or agreeable; to be feeding your morbid fancies or indulging their own, with such monstrous food. (Thackeray, Catherine 34).

The story, not produced as a book until it appeared in the posthumous collected works of 1869, did contain some wonderful pastiches of Jack Sheppard however, anticipating ‘The Night Attack’ of the original Vanity Fair. I offer the following by way of illustrative example:


Here follows a description of the THAMES AT MIDNIGHT, in a fine historical style; with an account of Lambeth, Westminster, the Savoy, Baynard’s Castle, Arundel House, the Temple; of Old London Bridge, with its twenty arches, ‘on which be houses builded, so that it seemeth rather a continual street than a bridge’; of Bankside, and the ‘Globe’ and the ‘Fortune’ Theatres; of the ferries across the river, and of the pirates who infest the same – namely, tinklermen, petermen, hebbermen, trawlermen; of the fleet of barges that lay at the Savoy steps; and of the long lines of slime wherries sleeping on the river banks and basking and shining in the moonbeams. A combat on the river is described, that takes place between the crews of a tinklerman’s boat and the water-bailiff’s. Shouting his war-cry, ‘St. Mary Overy à la rescousse!’ the water-bailiff sprung at the throat of the tinklerman captain. The crews of both vessels, as if aware that the struggle of their chiefs would decide the contest, ceased hostilities, and awaited on their respective poops the issue of the death-shock. It was not long coming. ‘Yield, dog!’ said the water-bailiff. The tinklerman could not answer – for his throat was grasped too tight in the iron clench of the city champion; but drawing his snickersnee, he plunged it seven times in the bailiff’s chest: still the latter fell not. The death-rattle gurgled in the throat of his opponent; his arms fell heavily to his side. Foot to foot, each standing at the side of his boat, stood the brave men – they were both dead! ‘In the name of St. Clement Danes’, said the master, ‘ give way, my men!’ and, thrusting forward his halberd (seven feet long, richly decorated with velvet and brass nails, and having the city arms, argent, a cross gules, and in the first quarter a dagger displayed of the second), he thrust the tinkleman’s boat away from his own; and at once the bodies of the captains plunged down, down, down, down in the unfathomable waters.

After this follows another episode. Two masked ladies quarrel at the door of a tavern overlooking the Thames; they turn out to be Stella and Vanessa, who have followed Swift thither; who is in the act of reading ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ to Gay, Arbuthnot, Bolingbroke, and Pope. Two fellows are sitting shuddering under a doorway; to one of them Tom Billings flung a sixpence. He little knew that the names of those two young men were – Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage. (Thackeray, Catherine 125 – 126).

Neither do Lytton and Dickens escape unscathed. (G.W.M. Reynolds is at this point presumably not yet worthy of highbrow satire.) At its conclusion, the serial becomes a literary essay on Dickens and Ainsworth; there is also a companion article on Jack Sheppard which suggests that the novel, ‘and its manifold theatrical adaptations,’ could turn impressionable boys to a life of crime (Anon, Fraser’s 1840) (20) (See Appendix One). Although Catherine failed to find popular favour either as a satire or a Newgate novel (much to the chagrin of its author), it was to be the first shot of a very long war of words.

Thackeray’s opening salvo had as much to do with his personal dislike of Lytton and his own failure, so far, to succeed as an author while what he believed to be at worst immoral and at best stupid books for stupid people made their creators both rich and famous. There was, however, soon a concern over Newgate novels being voiced by a more impartial source. When Jack Sheppard was released as a novel in October 1839, the Athenaeum used the occasion to publish a long article on contemporary literature and the condition of England under the heading of a review of Ainsworth’s novel.

The unidentified author of the piece (although as this is effectively an editorial within a literary review, it is possible that the author may have been the Athenaeum’s editor Charles Wentworth Dilke himself) read Jack Sheppard and its like as a response to contemporary culture, and argues that a decline in national standards of taste, intellect and morality is distressingly apparent:

Should an ambassador from some far distant country arrive on our shores for the purpose of overreaching us in a convention, we know not where he could find a better clue to the infirmities of the national character, than in the columns of our book advertisements. (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).

The perceived problem being that literature no longer sets the standard, but merely reacts to the popular market: ‘in the present age … writers take their tone from the readers, instead of giving it; and in which more pains are taken to write down to the mediocrity of the purchasing multitude’ (Anon, Athenaeum 1839). The writer is here articulating a concerned response to a relatively recent development in the relationship between Art and Capital. As Raymond Williams has argued in his essay ‘The Romantic Artist,’ from the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century there had been growing up a large new middle class reading public, the rise in which corresponds very closely with the rise of influence and power of the same class. As a result, the system of patronage had passed into subscription-publishing, and thence into general commercial publishing of the modern kind. These developments affected writers in several ways. There was an advance, for the fortunate ones, in independence and social status. The writer became a fully-fledged professional, but the change also meant that the free market now dictated a writer’s actual position in society (Williams 50).

Unlike later commentaries on the subject, this article is however careful to avoid abusing the individual author working under such economic circumstances, while giving no quarter with regard to his primary text:

If we consider Mr. Ainsworth in the usual light of a mere caterer for the public appetite, and as devoting his talents to a popular work either at his own or his publisher’s suggestion, we must freely admit his book to be on a level with the usual specimens of the class, and at least as good as the occasion required. It is not his fault that he has fallen upon evil days, and that, like other tradesmen, he must subordinate his own tastes to those of his customers … Jack Sheppard, then, is a bad book, and what is worse, it is a class of bad books, got up for a bad public; and it is on the last account that we select it for observation, as a specimen of one of those literary peculiarities, which we consider to be signs of the times … To relieve the tedium of an endless repetition of adventures, where each reflects its brother, and to raise the work above the level of dry extract from the Newgate Calendar, and the newspapers of the day, the hero is involved in a melo-dramatic story of motiveless crime, and impossible folly, connected with personages of high degree; and an attempt is made to invest Sheppard with good qualities, which are incompatible with his character and position (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).

The previous models of Fielding and Gay are then invoked as examples of the morally and aesthetically appropriate ways of using such material as the criminal biography. The argument remains, however, elitist:

Writings of this class, it is true, will in all ages be above the general level of the public; too superior for vulgar use, and too exalted for general taste … without a prompt and exercised intelligence in the reader, without a familiarity with the noble and the beautiful, the irony is lost, the spirit is overlooked, the Beggar’s Opera becomes a mere Tom and Jerry, and Jonathan Wild another Jack Sheppard. (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).

Note the familiar connection between Egan and Ainsworth here. Dickens is excepted from the Newgate School, but concern is expressed as to whether he might be popular for the wrong reasons, his readers excited by his ‘strong flavour’ rather than his ‘undercurrent of philosophy.’ The cultural critique becomes a review only on the final page, where a lengthy section of flash dialogue from ‘The Old Mint’ chapter of Jack Sheppard is quoted, the essay concluding with a calculated sneer: ‘Such is the “elegant and polite literature” which leads authors on their way to fortune and to fame in this the middle of the nineteenth century’ (Anon, Athenaeum 1839). This is probably the first example in print of the type of Leavisite snobbery that has generally excluded popular culture from serious literary study ever since, whereas, as Christopher Pawling wrote in his introduction to the collection Popular Fiction and Social Change: ‘if one begins to examine literature as a “communicative practice” with social and historical roots, then one cannot afford to ignore those fictional worlds which command the widest public’ (Pawling 2).

A couple of days later the Standard, a daily which reviewed plays rather than books, cites Ainsworth for criticism in an otherwise favourable notice for Buckstone’s adaptation at the Adelphi:

Most persons have heard of Captain Ainsworth’s Life and Death of Jack Sheppard, and many there are who have had sufficient pertinacity of purpose to wade through the almost endless rubbish, balderdash, twaddle, and vulgarity of which it consists (Anon, Standard 1839).

Sensing blood in the water, Forster wrote a damning review of Jack Sheppard in the Examiner the next month, despite the fact that his friendship with Ainsworth had previously been a close one. The novel was ‘in every sense of the word … bad,’ and (with reference to the mass marketing of the theatrical versions), ‘has been recommended to circulation by … disreputable means.’ Forster adds that the book could have been simply ignored and that he felt Ainsworth capable of better things, but, ‘we think the puffs even more dangerous.’ Even worse, Ainsworth had assisted Moncrieff in his adaptation of the novel at the Surrey, ‘the very worst specimen of rank garbage thus stewed up’ as Forster put it (Forster 1839). Ellis argues that this review might have more than a little to do with Forster’s idolisation of Dickens and his fury at the sales of Jack Sheppard not only exceeding but eclipsing Oliver Twist (there had also been a falling out over the editorship of Bentley’s), and there may well be more truth in this explanation than literary history allows. Hollingsworth also notes that Dickens and Forster despised Moncrieff, who had dramatised both The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby despite objections by the author. As far as Forster saw it, says Hollingsworth, ‘Ainsworth was fraternising with the enemy’ (Hollingsworth 144).

Although Ainsworth wrote to Crossley that: ‘Forster’s article has been perfectly innocuous, and has done no harm whatever here. In fact, Jack is carrying everything before him,’ he must have realised that the moral panic was escalating (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, November 19, 1839). The disturbing aspect of which was that, even though it initially did his sales more good than harm, his name was becoming increasingly linked to the debate on crime and the attendant fear of the new urban working classes. The author of the novel was becoming a convenient scapegoat for its theatrical adaptations, which were increasingly believed to be disseminating moral corruption to the masses and inciting the lower-class youth of the day to crime. Forster, for example, leading the argument by suggesting that there was a potential danger to society ‘in the adaptations of the “romance” that are alike rife in the low smoking rooms, the common barbers’ shops, the cheap reading places, the private booksellers’, and the minor theatres.’ (Forster 1839). Ainsworth’s friend Laman Blanchard later attacked this critical backlash in terms of class-based arrogance combined with a fear of the masses:

Critics, who had always a passion for heroes in fetters before, now found out that housebreakers are disreputable characters. They were in raptures with the old-established brigand still, and the freebooter of foreign extraction; they could hug Robin Hood as fondly as ever, and dwell with unhurt morals on the little peccadilloes of Rob Roy; nay, they had no objection to ride behind Turpin to York any day, and would never feel ashamed of their company; but they shook their heads at Sheppard, because low people began to run after him at the theatres; he was a housebreaker! (Blanchard xvi) (21).

As things were turning nasty, Percival Banks of Fraser’s wrote to Ainsworth to offer a favourable review of the novel as, ‘I am anxious that it should succeed, and the more especially because I find certain of the dunces and blackguards are against you’ (presumably this is as reference to Forster and Thackeray) (qtd. in Ellis I. 375). Meanwhile Punch, which later enjoyed a good humoured, tit-for-tat satirical game with Ainsworth’s Magazine, wrote a very favourable review of Jack Sheppard, saying that that ‘The pen that recorded his adventures played like a sunbeam about him’ (qtd. in Ellis I. 375). Dickens, although privately vexed at being associated with the Newgate school of writing, kept publicly silent for a couple of years before explaining his political position in the preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, as has already been discussed above.

Charles MacKay, after quoting interviews with young offenders corrupted by Newgate fiction, taken from the Sixth Report of the Inspector of Prisons for the Northern Districts of England (which singles out stories and plays about Jack Sheppard as especially pernicious), summarises the common argument thus:

In the penny theatres that abound in the poor and populous districts of London, and which are chiefly frequented by striplings of idle and dissolute habits, tales of thieves and murderers are more admired, and draw more crowded audiences, than any other species of representation. There the footpad, the burglar, and the highwayman are portrayed in their natural colours, and give pleasant lessons in crime to their delighted listeners. There the deepest tragedy and the broadest farce are represented in the career of the murderer and the thief, and are applauded in proportion to their depth and their breadth. There, whenever a crime of unusual atrocity is committed, it is bought out afresh, with all its disgusting incidents copied from the life, for the amusement of those who will one day become its imitators (MacKay 645).

He then carefully goes on to differentiate High from Low culture within the more literary ‘adventures of noted rogues,’ which are ‘delightful,’ so that the outlaw creations of Schiller, Scott and Byron may be spared any charges of the corruption of public morals.

'The Literary Gentleman,' seeks inspiration from Newgate Calendars and broadsheets in an anonymous Punch cartoon from 1842

‘The Literary Gentleman’ seeks inspiration from Newgate Calendars and broadsheets in an anonymous Punch cartoon from 1842

Probably the best known expression of such anxiety, and the belief of the bourgeois Christian reformers that the purpose of Art is to edify rather than to entertain is to be found in Mayhew writing ‘Of the Penny Gaff,’ the forerunner of the working class music hall:

In many of the thoroughfares of London there are shops which have been turned into a kind of temporary theatre (admission one penny), where dancing and singing take place every night. Rude pictures of the performers are arranged outside, to give the front a gaudy and attractive look, and at night-time coloured lamps and transparencies are displayed to draw an audience. These places are called by the costers ‘Penny Gaffs’; and on a Monday night as many as six performances will take place, each one having its two hundred visitors.

It is impossible to contemplate the ignorance and immorality of so numerous a class as that of the costermongers, without wishing to discover the cause of their degradation. Let anyone curious on this point visit one of these penny shows, and he will wonder that any trace of virtue and honesty should remain among the people. Here the stage, instead of being the means for illustrating a moral precept, is turned into a platform to teach the cruellest debauchery. The audience is usually composed of children so young, that these dens become the school-rooms where the guiding morals of life are picked up (Mayhew 36 – 37).

This so-called ‘effects’ theory of popular culture persists to this day, as a subject of serious sociological and psychological research, as well as a less balanced ‘common sense’ conviction in the cultural narratives of the tabloid press, right-wing politics, religious fundamentalism and pop psychology, all of which loudly claim that, in a variety of popular mediums and genres, correlation must prove causation. Simply put, the argument for the prosecution is that if young working class males go to penny-theatres/read penny dreadfuls/dime novels/horror and crime comics/listen to rock ‘n’ roll/punk rock/rap music/watch video nasties/play violent computer games and so forth, then these entertainments will directly influence juvenile delinquency. There are numerous cultural studies on the relationship between delinquency and popular culture. Stanley Cohen posited the ‘Deviance Amplification Spiral’ model to explain the creation of a moral panic by the media in his seminal study Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1977). In Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993) Roger Sabin offers an excellent overview of the phenomenon in his analysis of Fredric Wertham’s book on comics and juvenile delinquency The Seduction of the Innocent (1955) and the attendant moral crusade. John Sprinhall analysis the cyclical nature of these moral panics, and their apparent relationship with new technology in Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics (1998), while the definitive cultural study remains Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (1997) edited by Martin Barker and Julian Petley, which responds to Professor Elizabeth Newson’s report Video Violence and the Protection of Children (1994) commissioned by Liberal Democrat MP David Alton to support his proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill. (See also my paper ‘Weird Tales from the Vault of Fear: The EC Comics Controversy and its Legacy’ reproduced on this blog.)

Unfortunately for the beleaguered Ainsworth, this theory was considered to be borne out when on May 5, 1840 Lord William Russell was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who, it was claimed, had stated that the idea for the crime had come to him while reading Jack Sheppard. Because of the status of the victim and the alleged connection to a popular novel, this was a famous crime, and the murderer’s likeness remained at Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors well into the twentieth century, alongside Thurtell, Greenacre, Burke and Hare, Kate Webster, Jack the Ripper, and Dr Crippen. It was Courvoisier’s execution that Thackeray wrote of in ‘Going to see a man hanged.’ A working-class man had risen up against his master after reading a Newgate novel. This was unprecedented. After the killer was condemned, the Examiner returned to Forster’s original review, which had foretold such a disaster, and ran a smug editorial which again denounced Jack Sheppard:

In Courvoisier’s second confession, which we are more disposed to believe than the first, he ascribes his crimes to the perusal of that detestable book, ‘Jack Sheppard’; and certainly it is a publication calculated to familiarize the mind with cruelties and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual, or the midnight assassin’s vade-mecum, in which character we now expect to see it advertised … If ever there was a publication that deserved to be burnt by the common hangman it is ‘Jack Sheppard’ (Forster 1840).

A surviving Courvoisier broadsheet from 1840, reproduced in Richard D. Altick's Victorian Studies in Scarlet (1970)

A surviving Courvoisier broadsheet from 1840, reproduced in Richard D. Altick’s Victorian Studies in Scarlet (1970)

You couldn’t buy publicity like this. The book continued to sell, while its author became a literary pariah, blackballed at the Trinity Club and forced to withdraw from candidacy for the Athenaeum club because of the likelihood of defeat and further public humiliation. During this period, Ainsworth was editing Bentley’s, planning his own magazine with Cruikshank and carrying on the monumental task of writing two serials simultaneously, The Tower of London and Guy Fawkes; Blanchard called them the ‘twin-born romances’ (Blanchard xxvii). In consequence he did not write to Crossley between November 19, 1839 and December 7, 1840 (he often kept silent during projects, the Jack Sheppard letters are an exception), and his opinions on the Newgate controversy are therefore unknown. Only the Courvoisier accusations caused him publicly to break his silence, writing to The Times that:

I have taken means to ascertain the correctness of the report, and I find it utterly without foundation. The wretched man declared he had neither read the work in question nor made any such statement. A Collection of Trials of Noted Malefactors (probably ‘The Newgate Calendar’) had indeed fallen in his way, but the account of Jack Sheppard contained in this series had not particularly attracted his attention. I am the more anxious to contradict this false and injurious statement because a writer in The Examiner of Sunday last, without inquiring into the truth of the matter, has made it the groundwork of a most violent and libellous attack on my romance (Ainsworth, letter to The Times July 7, 1840).

But nobody believed him. The Courvoisier statement was never confirmed or disproved, although it presumably takes more than reading a novel to enable one to cut someone’s throat. That no doubt requires another type of inspiration altogether.

The eerie death mask of Francois Courvoisier, taken after his execustion in 1840 and exhibited in Madame Tussaud's 'Chamber of Horros' well into the 20th century.  As V.A.C. Gatrell reminds us its 'obscene realism' reminds us that the subjects of the Newgate Calendars and Novels, and their subsequent histories, 'once lived as we do, and then were kiled' (Gatrell 118)

The eerie death mask of Francois Courvoisier, taken after his execution by hanging in 1840 and exhibited in Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horros’ well into the 20th century. As the historian V.A.C. Gatrell rightly argues its ‘obscene realism’ reminds us that the subjects of the Newgate Calendars and Novels, and their subsequent histories, ‘once lived as we do, and then were killed’ (Gatrell 118)

After this, what was left of the Newgate novel story largely belongs to Dickens and Lytton. Ainsworth’s planned projects on the lives of Dick Turpin and Claude Duval were never, unfortunately, realised, and he prudently moved away from Newgate and into the realm of his own idiosyncratic version of historical fiction.

As Thackeray fired the first shot, it was in every way appropriate that he also fired the last. Vanity Fair (1847-8) marks the coup de grâce of the Newgate novel, with its wonderful yet throwaway pastiche of the ‘Storm Scene’ from Jack Sheppard (and most of Ainsworth’s other novels, where there is always a dramatic thunderstorm bordering on the apocalyptic somewhere in the text), and his liberal use of flash slang. ‘The Night Attack’ was originally a false beginning to Chapter Six, where the author considers whether or not he should proceed in the style of ‘the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner.’ ‘Fancy’, he finally announces, ‘this chapter having been headed …’


The night was dark and wild – the clouds black – black – ink-black. The wild wind tore the chimney-pots from the roofs of the old houses, and sent the tiles whirling and crashing through the desolate streets. No soul braved that tempest – the watchmen shrank into their boxes, whither the searching rain followed them where the crashing thunderbolt fell and destroyed them – one had so been slain opposite the Foundling. A scorched gabardine, a shivered lantern, a staff rent in twain by the flash, were all that remained of stout Will Steadfast. A hackney-coachman had been blown off his coachbox, in Southampton Row – and whither? But the whirlwind tells no tidings of its victim, save his parting scream as he is borne onwards! Horrible night! It was dark, pitch dark; no moon. No, no. No moon. Not a star. Not a little feeble, twinkling, solitary star. There had been one at early evening, but he showed his face, shuddering, for a moment in the black heaven, and then retreated back.

One, two, three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.

‘Mofy! is that your snum?’ said a voice from the area. ‘I’ll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin.’ (22)

‘Nuffle your clod, and beladle your glumbanions’, said Vizard, with a dreadful oath. ‘This way, men; if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter room, Blowser. You, Mark, to the old gaff’s mobus box! and I’, added he, in a lower but more horrible voice, ‘I will look to Amelia!’

There was a dead silence.

‘Ha!’ said Vizard, ‘was that the click of a pistol?’ (Thackeray, Vanity Fair 59).

When Thackeray revised the novel in 1853, this passage was omitted, and remained absent in all subsequent editions, the author considering it no longer relevant as a contemporary satire. By then the drop had fallen on the Newgate novel, and the bells of St Sepulchre’s had tolled for Ainsworth’s career as a serious novelist in particular; a scapegoat was obviously required and the Courvoisier case was simply too damning.

Fictional highwaymen and camp villains had not gone anywhere of course, except into the penny magazines and other working class literature where their narratives became the subject of sociological analysis rather than literary debate. Ainsworth’s outlaws, underdogs and murderous fiends similarly remained, only now they were members of the British Royal Family, as the author turned his attention towards the political history of the nation, and exchanged Newgate Gaol for the Tower of London as his gothic castle.

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART ONE

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART TWO

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART THREE

Writing the Underworld: Works Cited, Notes & Appendix

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART TWO

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy

Part Two:

Vagabondiana: Jack Sheppard and Social Exploration

Stephen James Carver Ph.D

This is a sample chapter in three parts from the book The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth 1805 – 1882 (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003)

This extract of the book is provided in accordance with the conditions of ‘fair usage,’ and is reproduced without profit for marketing and educational purposes only, with the understanding that copyright resides with the publisher.

Copyright © Edwin Mellen Press, SJ Carver 2003, 2013

II. Vagabondiana: Jack Sheppard and Social Exploration (9)


With regard to the licentiousness of the underworld of Jack Sheppard, Keith Hollingsworth observes that Ainsworth ‘does not realize how fast times have changed’ (Hollingsworth 138). If we recall the high Victorian analysis of the pompous and patronising J. Hain Friswell, it is immediately apparent that what was seen by the new generation of writers to remain of an underworld text if the moral gaze of the author was absent was an implied endorsement of Regency values, which were now considered immoral and therefore socially dangerous. By the time of Friswell, Ainsworth had even been symbolically stripped of his status as an early Victorian:

He is, perhaps, not so much to be blamed, poor man, being a person of small attainments and not a very strong intellect, as the times in which he was born. In that yeasty and lively age, in which the results of a long war, deeds of violence at sea and on land, the press gang, cheating lawyers, bad laws, a debauched king and court, a ‘frowsy old Floribel’, had produced among the people a taste for such literature as the ‘Memoirs of Harriette Wilson’, accompanied by books less vicious only in degree, and not quite as bad in intention, such as ‘Tom and Jerry’, ‘The Corinthian Club’, and the like, – in that very lively age people required a literature that teemed with adventure and had ‘go’ in it (Friswell 258 – 259).

The personal attack had by then become a standard feature of any highbrow literary commentary on Ainsworth, but this evocation of the libertine heroes of Pierce Egan is useful. The critical habit of citing Life in London and its imitations in conjunction with Ainsworthian Newgate was a common one; Forster’s damning review of Jack Sheppard in The Examiner, for instance, suggested that public decency had not been so threatened since ‘the time of Tom and Jerry’ (Forster 1839). Interestingly, Ainsworth’s London is much closer to Egan’s than it will ever be to the version Dickens sells to Victorian society. As Deborah Nord writes of the time of Tom and Jerry:

Early Nineteenth century London was a city in transition, no longer Augustan and not yet Victorian, no longer the buoyant, bawdy city of Boswell and not yet the menacing labyrinth of the later Dickens. In the first three decades of the century, and particularly in the aftermath of Waterloo, the nation celebrated itself and its metropolis, keeping at bay an awareness of the new social realities that would ultimately dominate urban consciousness (Nord 19).

As we have seen, Ainsworth was an equally transitional writer, and his literary style is very much a product of this period of cultural flux. As such, he is inclined to look back as much, if not more, as he does forward. Hollingsworth is quite right to mark Jack Sheppard as the point where Ainsworth parts ideological company with his contemporaries, as demonstrated by the emergent critical theory of Thackeray, Dickens and their cronies; but this then begs the inevitable question, as is always the case when reading Ainsworth, of whether he had any sort of ideology at all?

Hollingsworth also reads Jack Sheppard and the initial craze among both working and middle-class audiences as symptomatic of a positive statement of cultural renewal, indicative of a new sense of optimism where the horrors of the Bloody Code were now simply the stuff of history:

The crudest terrors of Newgate, well enough remembered, could be thought of as safely in the past. Freedom and opportunity were in the air. A vast public could, at such a moment, permit itself to idolize a young thief – could see him as a victim of the old system or as a rebel against it … This general high-spirited extravagance would not have been possible twenty years earlier; its raison d’être would have been lacking twenty years later. Ainsworth provided his novel at the right time. The Sheppard mania which followed was an uncalculated, uncalculating paean to the end of the bad old days and the arrival of a time like morning. (Hollingsworth 141) (10).

In this reading, Ainsworth’s frequent comparisons between the London of Jack Sheppard in the 1720s and that of the capital in 1839 therefore act as a celebration of social progress and the end of a barbarous past. This is hardly a convincing argument. Despite a certain amount of reform of criminal law by 1840, hangings were still public and urban poverty and crime remained epidemic.

This continuing urban nightmare is clearly represented in the criminal underworld and the condemned cells of Dickens, for example, which were portrayed as contemporary and always disturbingly close:

They crossed from the Angel into St John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Copice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great, along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.

Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands (Dickens, Oliver Twist 44).

And so Oliver Twist enters London. In language that anticipates Engels’s famous description of Allen’s Court in Manchester, Oliver is Dante to the Artful Dodger’s Virgil; although what separates this inferno from the realm of the virtuous Mr Brownlow, not to mention Dickens’s bourgeois audience, is a single turn:

The coach rattled away, over nearly the same ground as that which Oliver had traversed when he first entered London in company with the Dodger; and, turning a different way when it reached the Angel at Islington, stopped at length before a neat house, in a quiet shady street near Pentonville (Dickens, Oliver Twist 59).

In the same way, the topography of Jack Sheppard’s London as described by Ainsworth is not reassuringly separated by history at all, but rather directly linked to the present:

MRS. SHEPPARD’S habitation terminated a row of old ruinous buildings, called Wheeler’s Rents; a dirty thoroughfare, part street, and part lane, running from Mint Street, through a variety of turnings, and along the brink of a deep kennel, skirted by a number of pretty and neglected gardens in the direction of Saint George’s Fields. The neighbouring houses were tenanted by the lowest order of insolvent traders, thieves, mendicants, and other worthless and nefarious characters, who fled thither to escape from their creditors, or to avoid the punishment due to their different offences; for we may observe that the Old Mint, although it had been divested of some of its privileges as a sanctuary by a recent statute passed in the reign of William the Third, still presented a safe asylum to the debtor, and even continued to do so until the middle of the reign of George the First, when the crying nature of the evil called loudly for a remedy, and another and more sweeping enactment entirely took away its immunities. In consequence of the encouragement thus offered to dishonesty, and the security afforded to crime, this quarter of the Borough of Southwark was accounted (at the period of our narrative) the grand receptacle of the superfluous villainy of the metropolis. Infested by every description of vagabond and miscreant, it was, perhaps, a few degrees worse than the rookery near Saint Giles’s and the desperate neighbourhood of Saffron Hill in our own time (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 10).

The underworld is transcendent. Whether the correlative is the Cour des Miracles of Hugo’s fifteenth century Paris, St Giles in the age of Sheppard, Wild, Hogarth and Defoe, Saffron Hill in 1838, the urban labyrinths of Eugene Sue and G.W.M. Reynolds, the Whitechapel of Dorian Gray and Jack the Ripper, or the post-war Hackney slums of the Kray brothers, the City will always have its rookeries and thieves’ kitchens.

Ainsworth’s unfashionable representation of the underworld as both a gothic and romantic space, however, may in part be explained by his love of London, and his experience of the metropolis as a provincial émigré was totally different from that of the native Dickens. Ainsworth had arrived as an optimistic teenager in an optimistic time, not yet a decade after Waterloo. He was already a published author, comfortably off, and moving effortlessly in both professional and Bohemian social circles while chasing, albeit often ineptly, both working class and middle class women (11). There was nothing like the Marshalsea debtors’ prison or Warren’s blacking warehouse in Ainsworth’s past. Neither did he have Dickens’s front-line journalistic experience. For Ainsworth, life in London was a great adventure rather than an urban nightmare, and this enthusiasm is reflected in his writing. To understand the city of Jack Sheppard, we must thus look to Pierce Egan rather than Charles Dickens for a point of ideological correspondence.

The extraordinarily lavish popular success of Rookwood and especially Jack Sheppard in the mid to late 1830s must have reminded many of the phenomenon of Egan the Elder’s Life in London in the previous decade. Egan (1772-1849) was a sporting journalist, already known for his Boxiana, or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism (1818-24), when he began Life in London as a monthly serial in 1820, illustrated by the Cruikshank brothers, George and Isaac Robert. The work’s lengthy subtitle, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, ESQ. and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis, signals Egan’s theme and his textual combination of two central tenets of eighteenth century London writing: the uninitiated tourist following the sophisticated guide, and the perpetuum mobile of exhilarating urban experience. ‘Seeing Life’ is the clarion call, in all its social aspects, from the aristocratic exclusivity of the assembly rooms in St James’s to the gin palaces of the East End. This is presented as a suitable sport for the young gentleman, and the city is laid out as a vast text containing all human knowledge available to those who are willing to learn how to decipher it:

Indeed, The Metropolis is a complete CYCLOPÆDIA, where every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable. If places of worship give any sort of character to the goodness of the Metropolis, between four and five hundred are opened for religious purposes on Sundays. In fact, every SQUARE in the Metropolis is a sort of map well worthy of exploring, if riches and titles operate as a source of curiosity to the visitor. There is not a street also in London, but what may be compared to a large or small volume of intelligence, abounding with anecdote, incident, and peculiarities. A court or alley must be obscure indeed, if it does not afford some remarks; and even the poorest cellar contains some trait or other, in unison with the manners and feelings of this great city, that may be put down in the note book, and reviewed, at an after period, with much pleasure and satisfaction.

Then, the grand object of this work is an attempt to portray what is termed ‘SEEING LIFE’ in all its various bearings upon society, from the high-mettled CORINTHIAN of St James’s, swaddled in luxury, down to the needy FLUE-FAKER of Wapping, born without a shirt, and not a bit of scran in his cup to allay his piteous cravings (Egan 512).

'Tom getting the best of a Charley' (a night watchman) by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, from Life in London by Pierce Egan (1821)

‘Tom getting the best of a Charley’ (a night watchman) by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, from Life in London by Pierce Egan (1821)

The ludic game is emphasised in the above introduction by the inclusion of class-specific slang terms. This is the flash language of ‘Nix My Dolls,’ and the acquirement of this (mostly) unrecorded language offers the tantalising possibility of unlocking the secrets of the urban Other. This is the Enigma code of the underworld, and was originally made fashionable by Egan, not Ainsworth:

TOM: [Introducing Jerry to Bob Logic] He is now come to see life, and rub off a little of the rust. In effecting this desirable consummation you can materially assist; under so skilful a professor of the flash as you, Bob –

JERRY: Flash! I’m at fault again, Tom.

TOM: Explain, Bob.

LOGIC: Flash, my young friend, or slang as others call it, is the classical language of the Holy Land; in other words, St Giles’s Greek.

JERRY: St Giles’s Greek; that is a language, doctor, with which I am totally unacquainted, although I was brought up at a Grammar School.

LOGIC: You are not particular in that respect; many great scholars, and better linguists than you, are quite ignorant of it, it being studied more in the Hammer Schools than the Grammar Schools. Flash, my young friend, or slang, as others call it, is a species of cant in which the knowing ones conceal their roguery from the flats; and it is one of the advantages of seeing Life in London, that you may learn to talk to a rogue in his own language, and fight him with his own weapons (qtd. in Low 119-20).

Egan’s easy-going, picaresque story, complete with long, discursive Shandyesque footnotes, bawdy illustrations and comic songs was an instantaneous success. Consequently, just like Ainsworth’s highwaymen in the 1830s, Tom and Jerry were quickly appropriated by the theatres; the above dialogue, for example, is taken from W.T. Moncrieff’s Tom and Jerry at the Adelphi. The public craze, which included six highly successful plays (including one by Egan himself) and a bevy of copycat books and serials, lasted about four years at its height, between 1820 and 1823, and Egan finished the saga with a crafty sequel in 1828. During this period in particular flash slang became common cultural currency with the fashionable set.

The later Victorians publicly denounced Egan as obscene, and his work was consigned to the same critical vacuum occupied by Ainsworth, only to be relatively recently reassessed. Deborah Nord writes of Life in London that: ‘As in contemporary collections of graphic sketches of London scenes and types, contrasts work here only inadvertently as a tool of social criticism and function primarily as a mode of entertainment and a source of delight’ (Nord 312). This is true, yet Egan’s work is also being increasingly read as a serious forerunner to that of the Victorian social investigators (12). ‘But though backward-looking in its recreational view of urban education and its often unsympathetic attitudes towards those who are “DOWN,”’ wrote Rick Allen recently, ‘this quintessentially Regency work also anticipates the Victorian vogue for exploration of the city’s lower depths and for the juxtaposition of social polarities’ (Allen 89). It is more than probable that Egan and the brothers Cruikshank did actually visit many of the places they wrote about and illustrated, the rumour about town at the time being that Egan was Logic, George Cruikshank Tom and his younger brother Jerry.

Egan at one points actually places himself in his own text, in an apology to his subscribers on failing to complete the January 1 1821 instalment in an article entitled ‘The Author in Distress’ wherein he explains that, while out on a late spree with Bob Logic at the Albany, ‘Upon turning the corner of Sydney’s Alley, into Leicester-Fields’ (somewhat the worse for the drink), ‘we were assailed by some troublesome customers, and a turn-up was the result (as the plate most accurately represents). Bob got a stinker, and poor I received a chancery-suit upon the nob’ (Egan 311). As indicated by the author, there is also an accompanying illustration with the caption, ‘Peep ’o Day Boys. A Street Row, the Author losing his “Reader,” Tom and Jerry “showing fight,” and Logic floored,’ meaning Egan was mugged and lost his journalist’s notebook.

‘Peep ’o Day Boys. A Street Row, the Author losing his “Reader,” Tom and Jerry “showing fight,” and Logic floored' by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, from Life in London by Pierce Egan (1821)

‘Peep ’o Day Boys. A Street Row, the Author losing his “Reader,” Tom and Jerry “showing fight,” and Logic floored’ by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, from Life in London by Pierce Egan (1821)

This is hardly ‘On Duty with Inspector Field’ (and the author’s textual interaction with his own characters is positively postmodern), but there is still more than a shade here of the subsequent missionary/explorer travel narratives of Tristan, Dickens, Engels, Mayhew, and later in the century, Stead, Mearns, Booth, and Roundtree. Egan, like his more po-faced successors (who also explored the dark side of the street), still offers the opportunity for a bourgeois audience to experience the underworld voyeuristically, without ever leaving the drawing room: ‘The author, in consequence, has chosen for his readers a Camera Obscura View of London, not only from its safety, but because it is so snug, and also possessing the invaluable advantage of SEEING and not being seen’ (Egan 46). Where Egan differs is that he goes native; he talks the talk (often descending into incomprehensible flash) and he walks the walk (mixing with an underclass that delights rather than appals him), and the City is presented as the ‘young blood’s’ playground (should they dare to enter): the image most often adopted being that of a colourful theatrical performance where ‘the scene changed as often as pantomime’ (Egan 321). This is where Life in London collides with Jack Sheppard.

Ainsworth the Newgate narrator also consistently refuses to be outraged by underworld culture. Like Tom and Jerry he seeks it out, appreciating the variety and freedom that such (anti)social spaces as the ‘Flash Ken’ and the ‘Old Mint’ offer. When he tries to add a moral gloss, it is without conviction:

‘Well, I’m sure Winifred could never have loved you as well as I do’, said Mrs. Maggot.

You!’ cried Jack, scornfully. ‘Do you compare love – a love all may purchase – with hers? No one has ever loved me.’

‘Except me, dear’, insinuated Edgeworth Bess. ‘I’ve been always true to you.’

‘Peace!’ retorted Jack, with increased bitterness. ‘I’m your dupe no longer.’

‘What the devil’s in the wind now, captain?’ cried Blueskin, in astonishment.

‘I’ll tell you’, replied Jack with forced calmness. ‘Within the last few minutes, all my guilty life has passed before me. Nine years ago, I was honest – was happy. Nine years ago, I worked in this very house – had a kind indulgent master, whom I robbed – twice robbed, at your instigation, villain; a mistress whom you have murdered; a companion, whose friendship I have for ever forfeited; a mother, whose heart I have wellnigh broken! In this room was my ruin begun: in this room it should be ended.’

‘Come, come, don’t take on thus, captain’, cried Blueskin, rising, and walking towards him. ‘If any one’s to blame, it’s me. I’m ready to bear it all.’

‘Can you make me honest?’ cried Jack. ‘Can you make me other than a condemned felon? Can you make me not Jack Sheppard?’

‘No’, replied Blueskin; ‘and I wouldn’t if I could.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 257.)

Neither, of course, would Ainsworth. Jack may claim, rather erroneously, that ‘Mrs. Wood struck me a blow which made me a robber,’ extol the virtues of the chaste Winifred Wood over the loose morals of his two lovers, and blame Jonathan Wild for his descent into crime, but both he and his author often fail to convince. From the outset it was made very plain that not only was Jack bad to the bone, but that life in the Old Mint was much more exciting than it could ever possibly be in Mr Wood’s workshop in Drury Lane; a suspicion confirmed as soon as he (and the reader) meets the girls of the ‘Flash Ken’.

Given the charges levelled at this text by the self-appointed guardians of public decency, it demands to be noted, however, that the adult Jack Sheppard has a more complex personality than Dick Turpin, within Ainsworth’s universe at any rate. In Jack Sheppard, Thames Darrell, Jack’s best friend and effectively adopted brother, is perfectly good while Jonathan Wild, the grotesque, gothic, melodramatic villain is perfectly evil. Jack inhabits an ambivalent moral space between the two (much as he moves between the alternate lifestyles offered by Drury Lane and Southwark), somewhere between the sacred and the profane.

Although the third epoch in particular dwells upon the heroic dimensions of Jack’s character, there is a moral ambivalence present that distances Ainsworth’s Sheppard from both the Turpin of Rookwood, who may be brave but is also unrepentant, morally one-dimensional and fundamentally hedonistic, and Lytton’s Paul Clifford, who is too good to be true and spends much of his time wracked with guilt. The novelist’s challenge is to produce a sympathetic criminal, but it apparently cannot be done with any sense of realism, as we have seen from the rhetoric of Paul Clifford and the antics of Dick Turpin. When Dickens dismisses such things as ‘canterings on moonlit heaths’ in his preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist (an obvious criticism of Ainsworth), he does not allow that the occupants of his version of Saffron Hill behave in much the same way as those of Ainsworth’s Southwark: drinking, smoking, lying, stealing, whoring and killing. The moonlit heath is much more a piece of scenery from Rookwood than Jack Sheppard.

Unlike the outlaw of Rookwood, the process by which Jack is drawn into the criminal underworld is enacted within the text. Directly after the episode in which Jack loses his physical innocence, the satanic Jonathan Wild claims Jack and, by implication, his immortal soul, in a suitably symbolic fashion by inciting the youth to pick a pocket in Willesden Church in sight of his mother, who is among the congregation: ‘Your son has committed a robbery – here – in these holy walls – he is mine – mine for ever!’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 145) (13). Forever? Perhaps not. Jack’s deal with the devil is by no means set, and that is the substance of his ambivalent role within the text. He is much more psychologically complex than his counterpart in Rookwood, and is socially trapped between two worlds: torn apart between guilt over the insanity and eventual suicide of his mother; his loyalty to his adopted family and his love for Thames and Winifred; the power which Wild has over him; his honourable criminal associates (especially Blueskin); his two lovers, whom he alternately lusts after and despises; and his desire to leave his illegal lifestyle behind against a passion for easy cash, wine, women and loose living. In his more sober moments, however, Jack is both embittered and repentant, but it would seem that this is the only escape he is not capable of performing: ‘I’m tired of the life I’m leading,’ Jack tells Wild during an argument, ‘I shall quit it and go abroad’ (following Paul Clifford, perhaps); ‘Dare to disobey … neglect my orders, and I will hang you’ is the reply (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 183). The conflict can only be resolved by his execution.

'Jack Sheppard committing a robbery in Willesden Church' by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘Jack Sheppard committing a robbery in Willesden Church’ by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

Having assisted Thames to his birthright and rejected Wild, Jack finally reaches a state of emotional equanimity on the road to Tyburn, although there is a suggestion even then that his criminal notoriety also still appeals:

He looked around, and as he heard that deafening shout as he felt the influence of those thousand eyes fixed upon him – as he listened to the cheers, all his misgivings if he had any – vanished, and he felt more as if he were marching to a triumph, than proceeding to a shameful death (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 338).

His last words, before ‘he was launched into eternity,’ according to Ainsworth, are ‘My poor mother! I shall soon join her!’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 343). If Jack is indeed to join his mother, then Ainsworth at least allows the fated figure spiritual redemption and resurrection to the life eternal. This is similarly presented as a consolation to the death of Lady Jane Grey in The Tower of London and the principal cast of The Lancashire Witches. No-one, apparently, goes to hell except the villains.

Like Jack in the ‘Flash Ken’ however, the author is easily diverted from his moral purpose. Ainsworth takes great care in contrasting the two brothers, ostensibly appearing to follow closely Hogarth’s original narrative from Industry and Idleness. Thames is the conventional hero (another Ranulph Rookwood), but Ainsworth’s sympathies again return to the criminal, despite the moral fable he is supposedly writing. When the young Jack is described, along with his collection of pulp Newgate paraphernalia, he gleefully grants his audience a sign of what they may expect; here, thank the Lord, or at least the omnipotent narrator, is another Dick Turpin:

In Darrell’s open features, frankness and honour were written in legible characters; while, in Jack’s physiognomy, cunning and knavery were as strongly imprinted … The expression pervading the countenance of the one was vulgarity; of the other, that which is rarely found, except in persons of high birth  (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 59).

'The name on the beam' by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘The name on the beam’ by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

In addition to this reference to the physiognomy of the criminal type and the clue regarding Thames’s true social origins, there are also his patriotic hymns in sight of Jack’s Newgate Calendars (ironically confirming the argument later used against Ainsworth that such literature corrupts).

The point well made, Ainsworth proceeds unequivocally to take the side of the boy who is, by implication, of low birth for the remainder of the novel because, as his readers already know (or believe that they know) from such sources as Rookwood and Life in London, it is this class of society that has all the fun:

‘It is’, said LOGIC to TOM, ‘I am quite satisfied in my mind, the LOWER ORDERS of society who really ENJOY themselves. They eat with a good appetite, hunger being the sauce; they drink with a zest, in being thirsty from their exertions, and not nice in their beverage; and as to dress, it is not an object of serious consideration with them. Their minds are daily occupied with work, which they quit with the intention of enjoying themselves, and ENJOYMENT is the result; not like the rich, who are out night after night to kill TIME, and, what is worse, dissatisfied with almost everything that crosses their path from the dullness of repetition.’ ‘There is too much truth about your argument, I must admit’, replied the CORINTHIAN; ‘and among all the scenes that we have witnessed together, where the LOWER ORDERS have been taking their pleasure, I confess they have appeared ALL HAPPINESS. I am sorry I cannot say as much for the higher ranks of society.’ (Egan, 320 – 321).

This is of course the type of sentiment that later made William Acton’s medical text Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects of 1857 a bestseller amongst the middle classes. Bob Logic is here reacting to the most important ‘Flash Ken’ in Egan’s text, the ‘All-Max’ in East Smithfield (which Egan contrasts with the high citadel of Regency power, Almack’s of St James’s, which Jerry finds less interesting than its shadow and Bob Logic avoids altogether). Like the pub in the Old Mint in Southwark, the appeal is in the social freedom; gender, race and class are meaningless here, being all part of the same merry dance:

ALL-MAX was compared by the sailors, something after the old adage of ‘any port in a storm.’ It required no patronage; – a card of admission was not necessary; – no inquiries were made; – and every cove that put in his appearance was quite welcome; colour or country considered no obstacle; and dress and ADDRESS completely out of the question. Ceremonies were not in use, and, therefore, no struggle took place at ALL-MAX for the master of them. The parties paired off according to fancy; the eye was pleased in the choice, and nothing thought of about birth and distinction. All was happiness, every body free and easy, and freedom of expression allowed to the very echo. The group motley indeed; – Lascars, blacks, jack tars, coal-heavers, dustmen, women of colour, old and young, and a sprinkling of the remnants of once fine girls, &c., were all jigging together, provided the teazer of the catgut was not bilked of his duce (Egan 320).

'Lowest "Life in London" - Tom, Jerry & Logic among the unsophisticated sons & daughters of nature at "All Max" in the east' by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, from Life in London by Pierce Egan (1821)

‘Lowest “Life in London” – Tom, Jerry & Logic among the unsophisticated sons & daughters of nature at “All Max” in the east’ by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, from Life in London by Pierce Egan (1821)

Ainsworth’s den of thieves is admittedly less Utopian than this, and is class-exclusive. When Egan’s trio enters the All-Max the music stops like a scene from an Italian Western (there are assumed to be ‘beaks’), until a young tart reassures the clientele (in flash, naturally), that, ‘the gemmen had only dropped in for to have a bit of a spree.’Ainsworth’s ken portrays the underworld as a separate society that strangely mimics the codes of the conventional and the law-abiding, like Milton’s conception of heaven and hell, and where strangers, pretenders and defectors (like Mrs Sheppard) are never welcome.

There is, for example, a hierarchy of thieves, with urchins at the bottom and highwaymen at the top:

Nor was Jack by any means the only stripling in the room. Not far from him was a knot of lads drinking, swearing, and playing at dice as eagerly and as skilfully as any of the older hands. Near to these hopeful youths sat a fence, or receiver, bargaining with a clouter, or pickpocket, for a suit – or, to speak in more intelligible language, a watch and seals, two cloaks, commonly called watchcases, and a wedge-lobb, otherwise known as a silver snuff box. Next to the receiver was a gang of housebreakers; laughing over their exploits, and planning fresh depredations; and next to the housebreakers came two gallant-looking gentlemen in long periwigs and riding-dresses, and equipped in all other respects for the road, with a roast fowl and a bottle of wine before them  (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 141).

This subculture remains however, as it does in Egan, exotic, particularly sexually. Like Jack Sheppard, Bob Logic has a woman in each arm; in both cases the characters are playing MacHeath, as Egan makes explicit:

LOGIC (as the Plate represents) … was listening to the jargon of Black Sall, who was seated on his right knee, and very liberally treating the Oxonian with repeated chaste salutes: whilst Flashy NANCE (who had gamoned more seamen out of their vills and power than the ingenuity or palaver of twenty of the most knowing of the frail sisterhood could effect), was occupying LOGIC’S left knee, with her arm round his neck, laughing at the chaffing of the ‘lady in black’, as she termed her, and also trying to engage the attention of LOGIC, who had just desired HAWTHORN to behold the ‘fields of Temptation’ by which he was surrounded, and chanting, like a second Macheath:

How happy could I be with either,

Were t’other dear charmer away;

But while you both mug me together,

You’ll make me a spooney (Hiccoughing), I say. (Egan, 323 – 324).

This is a flash pastiche of Air XXXV of The Beggar’s Opera, where MacHeath sings: How happy could I be with either/Were t’other dear charmer away!/But while you thus tease me together,/To neither a word will I say. Logic’s final lines translate as ‘But while you both smother me together/you’ll make me all soppy I say!’ (A dirty double entendre based around the fact that Logic gets the hiccups when he’s drunk, and in anticipation of his departure upstairs with both women shortly thereafter.) Logic is crossing many more social boundaries than Jack, however. Jack, his father’s son, belongs in this environment and is seen to be returning home (escaping from the straight world), while Logic is a bourgeois tourist dallying outside his own class and racial group. He surrenders to the place completely and disappears into the kaleidoscopic background:

Our heroes had kept it up so gaily in dancing, drinking, &c., that the friend of the CORINTHIAN thought it was time to be missing: but, on mustering the TRIO, LOGIC was not to be found. A jack tar, about three sheets in the wind, who had been keeping up the shindy the whole of the evening with them, laughing, asked if it was the gentleman in the green barnacles their honours wanted, as it was very likely he had taken a voyage to Africa, in the Sally, or else he was out on a cruise with the Flashy Nance; but he would have him beware of squalls, as they were not very sound in their rigging! It was considered useless to look after LOGIC, and a rattler was immediately ordered to the door; when JERRY, TOM, and his friend, bid adieu to ALL-MAX  (Egan, 324 – 325).

What is certain is that both Egan’s and Ainsworth’s characters are all members of the same cast in the same theatre. The City is the drama: a tragi-comic, bawdy, burlesque of a production, and the readers its audience.

Where Ainsworth differs from Egan is in his sense of the underworld as a gothic space. For Egan it is the jungle of the dandy on safari, the ‘sport in view’ (Egan 46). Egan was a sports writer, Ainsworth fundamentally a gothic novelist. This can be seen in Ainsworth’s presentation of Newgate itself: London’s most infamous lock-up, named from the medieval city’s fifth gate in the Temple Bar, on which site originally, and later traditionally, stood the county gaol for London and Middlesex. Ainsworth understood and creatively exploited the cultural resonance of such an institution, and characteristically described it by combing the codes of the folk narrative, the antiquarian and the gothic:

At the beginning of the twelfth century – whether in the reign of Henry the First or Stephen is uncertain – a fifth gate was added to the four principal entrances of the city of London; then, it is almost needless to say, surrounded by ramparts, moats, and other defences. This gate, called Newgate, ‘as being latelier builded than the rest’, continued, for upwards of three hundred years, to be used as a place of imprisonment for felons and trespassers; at the end of which time, having grown old, ruinous, and ‘horribly loathsome’, it was rebuilt and enlarged by the executors of the renowned Sir Richard Whittington, the Lord Mayor of London (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 217 – 218).

The above extracted from the introductory paragraph of an entire chapter devoted to the history of the prison in the third book of Jack Sheppard, where the influence of the mythic yet historical Dick Whittington is ascribed to a building that is both an ancient monument and a ‘horribly loathsome’ gothic dungeon. This is recognisably the device that informs the complete construction of later works, The Tower of London (1840) and Old St. Paul’s (1841), becoming something of an authorial trademark thereafter, the titles of Ainsworth’s histories often taking the names of historic buildings. The topography of Jack Sheppard is bolder, taking in much of Georgian London. The ‘Old Newgate’ chapter is therefore immediately preceded by a similar account of the London Bethlehem Hospital entitled ‘Old Bedlam’, being a Hogarthian tableau vivant (as this novel so often is), a history and a horror show:

Old Bethlehem, or Bedlam – every trace of which has been swept away, and the hospital for lunatics removed to Saint George’s field – was a vast and magnificent structure … and as Jack passed, he could not help glancing at the wretched inmates. Here was a poor half-naked creature, with a straw crown on his head, and a wooden sceptre in his hand, seated on the ground with all the dignity of a monarch on his throne. There was a mad musician, seemingly rapt in admiration of the notes he was extracting from a child’s violin. Here was a terrific figure gnashing his teeth, and howling like a wild beast; – there a lover, with hands clasped together, and eyes turned passionately upwards. In this cell was a huntsman, who had fractured his skull while hunting, and was perpetually hallooing after the hounds; – in that, the most melancholy of all, the grinning gibbering lunatic, the realization of ‘moody madness, laughing wild.’ Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 212).

This is of course a pretty fair representation of the eighth plate of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (1733-34), the mock monarch, musician, lover and lunatic of the engraving are all present, and the reader is therefore placed in the subjective position of the young ladies of fashion from Hogarth’s original who are there, we must assume, for an afternoon’s amusement.

William Hogarth, A Rake's Progress Plate 8 'In the Madhouse' (1735)

William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress Plate 8, ‘In the Madhouse’ (1735)

Tom and Jerry also visit Newgate; it being the intention of Jerry, and his author, ‘not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London’ (Egan 315). Egan knows his audience will not let him avoid the place, but he cannot quite handle it, being somewhat torn between his essentially upbeat approach to the sport of seeing and his own basic humanity when confronted with an execution. Like Thackeray, he turns away. First words fail him: ‘It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the PEN nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice’, then he rejects the situation and returns his characters to the colourful ebb and flow of the City:

Our heroes were offered a complete view of the prison from the top of it; but this offer was declined, in consequence of TOM’S urging the want of time, on account of having some business to transact in the City. The TRIO hastily quitted the gloomy falls of Newgate, once more to join the busy hum and life of society (Egan 317).

Just this once, Egan has strayed too close to the reality of the underworld for comfort. You can feel his relief as he ‘hastily’ gets his actors away from somewhere where they have no right to be in the first place.

'Symptoms of the finish of 'Some sorts of life' in London. Tom, Jerry and Logic, in the press yard at Newgate' by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, Life in London (1821)

‘Symptoms of the finish of ‘Some sorts of life’ in London. Tom, Jerry and Logic, in the press yard at Newgate’ by George and Isaac Robert Cruikshank, from Life in London by Pierce Egan (1821)

Ainsworth’s character are, of course, quite at home in this brutal penal environment. Jonathan Wild actually lives in a house in the Old Bailey. Because Ainsworth utilises both gothic and theatrical space, he turns the historical figure of Jonathan Wild into the quintessential villain of a gothic melodrama.

Ainsworth’s Wild anticipates the later villains of the penny dreadfuls and the mid nineteenth century gothic melodramas penned, at their best, by James Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest and printed and produced by the likes of the notorious Edward Lloyd and George Dibdin Pitt (14). It would be fun to proclaim Ainsworth’s Wild as the missing link between the eighteenth century gothic villain, such as Radcliffe’s Montoni, and the outrageously camp creations of Rymer and Prest in the 1840s and 50s, like Sweeney Todd from The String of Pearls and Mr Dalton from Tom Taylor’s The Ticket of Leave Man (1863), who is a gentleman and philanthropist by day but by night is a thief and assassin known only as ‘The Tiger.’ Wild is, however, predated by the bloodthirsty pirate villains of the nautical melodramas of the 1820s and early 1830s, such as Black Ralph from The Dream at Sea and The Red Rover from the play of the same name (although none of the above is as sadistic as Wild). Ainsworth, however, had been refining this type of character ever since his early melodrama Ghiotto; or Treason Discovered (1821) (15). These characters do, however, share a common raison d’être, as explained by one of their number in the following comic monologue by Jerome K. Jerome:

I will, at great expense and inconvenience to myself, murder the good old man, get the hero accused of the crime, and make love to his wife while he is in prison. It will be a risky and laborious business for me, from beginning to end, and can bring me no practical advantage whatever. The girl will call me insulting names, when I pay her a visit, and will push me violently in the chest when I get near her; her golden-haired infant will say I am a bad man, and may even refuse to kiss me. The comic man will cover me with humorous opprobrium; and the villagers will get a day off, and hang about the village pub and hoot me. Everybody will see through my villainy, and I shall be nabbed in the end. I always am. But it is no matter. I will be a villain, ha, ha! (qtd. in Booth 20 – 22).

Try this model on any melodramatic villain, including those from contemporary cinema. It always fits.

Quite mad, Wild is also physically grotesque; deconstructed by his violent life he proudly bears the marks of scores of dirty fights just as a Prussian officer treasures his duelling scars. He seems obsessed with recalling his nasty adventures, each wound a memory, as if his body itself is a gothic text:

‘I have had a good many desperate engagements in my time, and have generally come off victorious. I bear the marks of some of them about me still’, he continued, taking off his wig, and laying bare a bald skull, covered with cicatrices and plates of silver. ‘This gash’, he added, pointing to one of the larger scars, ‘was a wipe from the hanger of Tom Thurland, whom I apprehended for the murder of Mrs. Knap. This wedge of silver’, pointing to another, ‘which would mend a coffeepot, serves to stop up a breach made by Will Colthurst, who robbed Mr. Hearl on Hounslow-Heath. I secured the dog after he had wounded me … Not a scar but has its history … The hardest bout I ever had was with a woman – Sally Wells, who was afterwards lagged for shoplifting. She attacked me with a carving-knife, and, when I had disarmed her, the jade bit off a couple of fingers from my left hand.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 101-102).

'Jack Sheppard's irons knocked off in the Stone Hall at Newgate' (Jonathan Wild is depicted on the left) by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘Jack Sheppard’s irons knocked off in the Stone Hall at Newgate’ (Jonathan Wild is depicted on the left) by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

This mangled appearance reflects a similarly warped internal state of emotional and spiritual corruption. Wild’s interest in Jack is part of an obsessive vendetta which he is continuing, beyond the grave, with his father, Tom Sheppard, the man who took the girl he loved, Jack’s mother. Wild the collector even has the head of Tom Sheppard on display. Ainsworth makes the character marginally more sinister than his original counterpart (who was undoubtedly a vicious piece of work in his own right) by giving him a private collection of such grisly artefacts, being an external record of his hieroglyphic scars. As Sir Rowland is left alone to explore casually Wild’s study, he gradually becomes aware of the horrific nature of the ornaments on display. That such a vicious man as Trenchard is shocked by such macabre trophies demonstrates how far Wild has gone down the left-hand path:

At first glance, he imagined he must have stumbled upon a museum of rarities, there were so many glass cases, so many open cabinets, ranged against the walls; but the next convinced him that if Jonathan was a virtuoso, his tastes did not run in ordinary channels. Trenchard was tempted to examine the contents of some of these cases, but a closer inspection made him recoil from them in disgust. In the one he approached was gathered together a vast assortment of weapons, each of which, as appeared from the ticket attached to it, had been used as an instrument of destruction. On this side was a razor with which a son had murdered his father; the blade notched, the haft crusted with blood: on that, a bar of iron, bent, and partly broken, with which a husband had beaten out his wife’s brains … Every gibbet at Tyburn and Hounslow appeared to have been plundered of its charnel spoil to enrich the adjoining cabinet, so well was it stored with skulls and bones, all purporting to be the relics of highwaymen famous in their day (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 149).

The necrophiliac Wild is consequently the enemy of Ainsworth’s more decent criminals; even after death he detains them, particularly Ainsworth’s favourites – highwaymen. The horror of this scene reaches its climax with the suggestion that the observer may one day become part of the exhibit: ‘So, you’re admiring my cabinet, Sir Rowland’, he remarked, with a sinister smile; ‘it is generally admired; and, sometimes by parties who afterwards contribute to the collection themselves, – ha! ha!’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 150). Like Sweeney Todd, Wild considers himself an artist. (Coincidentally, the skeleton of the actual Jonathan Wild can still be viewed today in the Huntarian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.) Sir Rowland is in the lair then of a psychopathic killer (rather than the entrepreneur who Defoe almost seemed to admire). He is later murdered by Wild, in probably the most violent scene in the novel, his bloated corpse eventually reappearing not as a trophy but as the evidence which convicts Wild of murder.

Despite the lack of a camp villain in Life in London, what unites Egan the contemporary social explorer with Ainsworth the underworld historian is their approach to the lower-class individual. The ‘low life’ as seen by Egan and Ainsworth are flamboyant, colourful characters (including the bad guys), with equally flamboyant and colourful names and occupations. In the All-Max episode, for example, Corinthian Tom asks the ‘covess of the ken’ (Mrs Mace, the landlady, whose name is ‘robbery’ in ‘the flash tongue’) to name the dancers for him:

Vy, Sir’, replied Mrs Mace, ‘that are black voman, who you sees dancing with nasty Bob, the coal-vhipper, is called African Sall, because she comes from foreign parts; and that little mungo in the corner, holding his arms out, is her child; yet I doesn’t think as how, for all that, SALL has got any husband: but, La! sir, it’s a poor heart that never rejoices, an’t it, sir?’ (Egan 24).

From Ainsworth, we similarly know the names and histories of even his most incidental characters. In Rookwood, every one of the ‘Canting Crew’ has his or her own biography, as do the ‘Minters’ of Jack Sheppard. He also dwells with interest on the celebrity of Jack Sheppard in the Castle of Newgate, where beau monde meets demi monde:

The door of the Castle was opened by Austin, who, with a look of unusual interest and importance announced to the prisoner that four gentlemen were shortly coming up with the governor to see him – ‘four such gentlemen’, he added, in a tone meant to impress his auditor with a due sense of the honour attended him, ‘as you don’t meet every day.’

‘Is Mr. Wood among them?’ asked Jack, eagerly.

‘Mr Wood! – no’, replied the turnkey. ‘Do you think I’d take the trouble to announce him? These are persons of consequence, I tell you.’

‘Who are they?’ inquired Sheppard.

‘Why, first’, rejoined Austin, ‘there’s Sir James Thornhill, historical painter to his Majesty, and the greatest artist of the day…’

‘I’ve heard of him’, replied Jack, impatiently. ‘Who are the others?’

‘Let me see. There’s a friend of Sir James – a young man, an engraver of masquerade tickets and caricatures – his name, I believe, is Hogarth. Then, there’s Mr. Gay, the poet, who wrote the “Captives” … And, lastly, there’s Mr. Figg, the noted prize-fighter…’

‘Figg’s an old friend of mine’, rejoined Jack; ‘he was my instructor in the small sword and back sword exercise. I’m glad he’s come to see me.’

‘You don’t inquire what brings Sir James Thornhill here?’ said Austin.

‘Curiosity, I suppose’, returned Jack, carelessly.

‘No such thing’, rejoined the jailer; ‘he’s coming on business.’

‘On what business, in the name of wonder?’ asked Sheppard.

To paint your portrait,” answered the jailer.

‘My portrait!’ echoed Jack.

‘By desire of his Majesty’, said the jailer, consequentially. ‘He has heard of your wonderful escapes, and wishes to see what you’re like. There’s a feather in your cap! No housebreaker was ever so highly honoured before.’

‘And have my escapes really made so much noise as to reach the ear of royalty?’ mused Jack. ‘I have done nothing – nothing to what I could do – what I will do!’

‘You’ve done quite enough’, rejoined Austin; ‘more than you’ll ever do again.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 279 – 280) (16).

'The Portrait' by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘The Portrait’ by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

Admittedly Sheppard is here being turned into a subject of passive observation, albeit from the royal box, but he is being offered immortality by the King through Thornhill’s portrait and, although the painting has since been lost, again through Ainsworth’s novel. Ainsworth also continues the allegiance between the ‘bucks’ and the ‘bruisers’ by introducing another ‘low-life’ character, James Figg the boxer, who is closely associated with Jack. In Egan and Ainsworth, to be ‘down-and-out’ can be ‘down-and-in’ (they tend to ignore the poor, honest workers), and the bare-knuckle fighter and the daring criminal people with whom to be seen.

This risqué sense of underworld chic is not carried over into the discourse of the Victorian social explorers. To them, the demi-monde became the simply demographic. There was no room for the individual in the rhetoric of the new select committees, journalists, sociologists and moral crusaders. As Judith Walkowitz writes:

Whereas Regency dandies of the 1820s like Pierce Egan’s characters, Tom and Jerry, had experienced the streets of London as a playground for the upper classes, and interpreted street sights and characters as passing shows, engaged urban investigators of the mid-and late-Victorian era roamed the city with more earnest (if still voyeuristic) intent to explain and resolve social problems. Frederick Engels, Charles Dickens, and Henry Mayhew were the most distinguished among the throng of missionaries and explorers, men who tried to read the ‘illegible’ city, transforming what appeared to be a chaotic, haphazard environment into a social text that was ‘integrated, knowable, and ordered’. To realize their subject, their travel narratives incorporated a mixture of fact and fancy: a melange of moralised and religious sentiment, imperialist rhetoric, dramatized characterization, graphic descriptions of poverty, and statistics culled from Parliamentary Blue Books (Walkowitz 18).

As Ainsworth’s description of the Old Mint in Southwark acknowledged, the urban rookeries had not gone anywhere; if anything, they had become much worse than they had ever been in the eighteenth century. The mid nineteenth century saw the first demonstrable evidence of England’s transition from an essentially rural to an urban society, a situation unprecedented in global history, and with the rise of industrialisation the exodus of the rural poor to the expanding cities was accompanied by rapid population growth. This was the age of Mary Barton rather than Jack Sheppard, and the emergence of the new industrial working class, a culturally displaced group with, seemingly, no identifiably traditional norms and values, confused, appalled and sometimes terrified the middle-class commentators. As W. Cooke Taylor wrote, for example, in his Notes of a Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire (1842):

As a stranger passes through masses of human beings which have accumulated round the mills and print works … he cannot contemplate these ‘crowded hives’ without feelings of anxiety and apprehension amounting to dismay. The population, like the system to which it belongs, is NEW; but it is hourly increasing in breadth and strength. It is an aggregate of masses, our conceptions of which clothe themselves in terms that express something portentous and fearful … as of the slow rising and gradual swelling of an ocean which must, at some future and no distant time, bear all the elements of society aloft upon its bosom, and float them Heaven knows whither. There are mighty energies slumbering in these masses … The manufacturing population is not new in its formation alone: it is new in its habits of thought and action, which have been formed by the circumstances of its condition, with little instruction, and less guidance, from external sources, these men have speedily laid aside all their old habits and associations (qtd. in Thompson 208-209).

(The above being a description of Ainsworth’s home town of Manchester in 1842.) The distinctive faces of the pantomime dance are now rewritten as an amorphous ‘mass,’ with differentiated individuals no longer in view. The City is a ‘hive’ not a pantomime, and the population an insect collective, only much bigger.

In this new climate of fear and curiosity, the criminal class becomes a problem in need of a solution, with research becoming quantitative and statistical.  By the time Henry Mayhew and his associates were compiling the seminal Morning Chronicle study London Labour and the London Poor, this was how the underworld and its inhabitants were being reported:

Mr Thomas Narrill, a sergeant of the Bristol Police, was asked – ‘What proportion of the vagrants do you think are thieves, that make it a point to take anything for which they find a convenient opportunity?’ ‘We have found it so invariably.’ ‘Have you ever seen the children who go about as vagrants turn afterwards from vagrancy to common thieving – thieving wholly or chiefly?’ ‘We have found it several times.’ ‘Therefore the suppression of vagrancy or mendicity would be to that extent the suppression of juvenile delinquency?’ ‘Yes, of course.’

Mr J. Perry, another witness states: ‘I believe vagrancy to be the first step towards the committal of a felony, and I am supported in that belief by the number of juvenile vagrants who are brought before the magistrates as thieves.’

An officer, appointed specially to take measures against vagrancy in Manchester, was asked, ‘Does your experience enable you to state that the large proportion of vagrants are thieves too, whenever they come in the way of thieving?’ ‘Yes, and I should call the larger proportion there thieves.’ ‘Then, from what you have observed of them, would you say that the suppression of vagrancy would go a great way to the suppression of a great quantity of depredation?’ ‘I am sure of it.’

The same valuable Report furnishes us with a table of the numbers and character of the known depredators and suspected persons frequenting five of the principal towns; from which it appears that in these towns alone there are 28,706 persons of known bad character. According to the average proportion of these to the population, there will be in the other large towns nearly 32,000 persons of a similar character, and upwards of 69,000 of such persons dispersed through the rest of the country. Adding these together, we shall have as many as 130,000 persons of known bad character living in England and Wales, without the walls of the prisons. These, according to the last census, are 19,888, which, added to the 130,000 above enumerated, gives within a fraction of 150,000 individuals for the entire criminal population of the country (Mayhew, 380 – 381).

And what, wondered the police, journalists, politicians, churchmen and academics, might be the cause of such ‘juvenile delinquency’? Soon, the microscopic gaze turned toward the popular culture of the masses, and in particular towards the criminal romances playing night and day in the cheap theatres. Ainsworth, father of Turpin and Sheppard reborn, did not initially realise how much trouble he was in. As his approach to criminal biography, and his own private life, demonstrates, he was always something of an innocent, despite his liberal use of trapdoors and stage blood.

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART ONE

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART TWO

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART THREE

Writing the Underworld: Works Cited, Notes & Appendix

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART ONE

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy

Part One:

‘A sort of Hogarthian novel’

Stephen James Carver Ph.D

This is a sample chapter in three parts from the book The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth 1805 – 1882 (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003)

This extract of the book is provided in accordance with the conditions of ‘fair usage,’ and is reproduced without profit for marketing and educational purposes only, with the understanding that copyright resides with the publisher.

Copyright © Edwin Mellen Press, SJ Carver 2003, 2013

I. ‘A sort of Hogarthian novel’


By 1838 it was all starting to unravel. Despite the consistent sales of Rookwood (which went to five editions within the first three years of publication), Ainsworth’s aristocratic lifestyle had left his private finances seriously depleted. The death of his estranged wife in early March had also plunged him back into another stressful and expensive legal battle with the Ebers family, this time over the custody of his three daughters. In September, Ainsworth wrote to Crossley, ‘I am so bothered that I hardly know which way to turn … She is giving me all the trouble she can’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, September 6, 1838). ‘She’ being Fanny’s sister Emily, who blamed Ainsworth for her sister’s untimely death and had taken the children out of school and was denying Ainsworth any access; by September she and her father had thwarted all Ainsworth’s legal attempts even to see his children and were planning to retreat to France. From the outset, Ainsworth had privately conceded from bitter experience that, ‘I doubt the possibility of my outwitting the Ebers’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, March 25, 1838).  Ainsworth did not get his ‘little girls’ back until Autumn 1839, and then only after John Ebers, described by his son-in-law as ‘utterly callous,’ had got £300 out of him for two years of retrospective maintenance. Ainsworth survived during this period by borrowing money from Crossley, writing in the autumn of 1837 that:

If needful, I can obtain the advance from Bentley. But it will be attended with bother, and a humiliating sense of obligation, which I would gladly avoid … I have many other friends to whom I could apply, but you are the only person to whom I choose to be under such an obligation (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, November 5, 1837).

These problems dogged Ainsworth throughout the composition of Jack Sheppard, although S.M. Ellis, ever the Edwardian gentleman, omits the entire episode from his biography.

Ainsworth had followed Rookwood with Crichton in 1837, a more conventional historical novel charting the adventures of the dashing Scot James (‘the admirable’) Crichton at the court of Henri III of France. This project had only been a partial success. Ellis summed up Crichton thus: ‘It was a very historical romance, and the mass of erudition, the quantity of Latin, and the ultra-profuseness of detail with which it bristled, must have sadly perplexed the great bulk of its less cultured readers. Crichton never had the popular appeal of Rookwood and its successors’ (Ellis I. 319). Like Rookwood, Crichton had been very well researched and was another split text of original songs and billowing historical footnotes, which unfortunately suffered from a hasty and contrived conclusion which, wrote George J. Worth in his Twayne monograph on Ainsworth, ‘no amount of architectonic skill can conceal’ (Worth 56). With sidekicks Blount, Ogilvy and a bloody great dog, Crichton’s constant humiliation of the French would be considerably more appropriate to a text produced during the Napoleonic wars rather than in the first year of Victoria’s reign. The early chapter entitled ‘The English bull-dog’ really sets the tone, with the Englishman Blount’s seeing-off of a crowd of Sorbinists, their puny staffs no match for his absurdly phallic cudgel: ‘which was not a vine-wood staff, but a huge English crab-stick, seasoned, knotty and substantial’ (Ainsworth, Crichton 37). The character of Crichton himself was too remote, clean-cut, aristocratic, perfect and invulnerable to appeal to fans of Dick Turpin. In debt, and with his in-laws using their knowledge of his financial problems to strengthen their case for custody of his children, Ainsworth desperately needed a successful novel. With public pressure upon him to produce another Rookwood, all roads lead inexorably back to Newgate.

'The Conflict with the Students' by Hablot K. Browne ('PHIZ') from Critchton by W.H. Ainsworth (1837)

‘The Conflict with the Students’ by ‘Phiz’ (Hablot K. Browne) from Crichton by W.H. Ainsworth (1837)

The first sign of Jack Sheppard comes from a letter written to James Crossley early in 1837:

I think you will be glad to hear that I propose visiting Manchester for a few days next week, when I hope to spend some pleasant hours with you … I want to consult you about my new romance which is a tale of the reign of George the first – and as that monarch cuts a conspicuous figure in the story, I shall really be thankful if you can lend me any memoirs, or other matter, relating to him, or put me in the way of finding them. My exact year is 1724. I mention this that you may just direct your thoughts to the period. It is my intention to introduce Jack Sheppard. Have you any history of Old Newgate? or any pictures of that prison. I think it scarcely likely but I must look to you for George the First. It is curious there should be so little known about his habits, manners of which are exactly what I want. But I doubt not but you will be able to afford me information. I need to write, or attempt to write, a sort of Hogarthian novel – describing London at the beginning of the eighteenth century. But all this, and a good deal more, we will talk over when we meet (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, May 29, 1837).

Until the end of the following year, the new romance is referred to under the title of Thames Darrell, being the hero of the tale, a child of noble birth adopted by Mr Wood the carpenter and named from the river from which he was rescued as a baby, having been thrown in and presumed drowned by his wicked uncle, Sir Rowland Trenchard. Dick Turpin had dominated the author’s fancy and divided the text of Rookwood, but the character of Jack Sheppard performs a total textual annexation, overwriting Thames Darrell in both central role and title. The planned historical novel on George I thus became the purest of Ainsworth’s Newgate narratives. The only royalty in Jack Sheppard are Jonathan Wild, ‘the Prince of Robbers,’ and Baptist Kettleby, the ‘Master of the Mint,’ ruler of the underworld haven of Southwark.

Only the Hogarthian aspect of the initial design remained intact, the basic plot and moral of Jack Sheppard closely following the model of Hogarth’s series of twelve engravings, Industry and Idleness (1747), both narratives charting the progress of two apprentices, one of whom pursues a life of vice, the other virtue. Ainsworth’s original manuscript even included scriptural epigraphs attached to each book, or epoch, as Hogarth had done with each of his 12 plates, but friend and colleague Rev. R.H. Barham (‘Thomas Ingoldsby’) advised him to omit these because, ‘the mixing up of sacred texts with a work of fancy will revolt many persons who would otherwise read it with pleasure, and will afford your enemies such a handle as they will not fail to use powerfully’ (qtd. in Ellis I. 375).

Industry and Idleness is Hogarth the Foundling Hospital Governor preaching a simple, pious and mercantile orthodoxy to the masses (there is none of the subtle visual symbolism of Marriage-à-la-mode here), and every event is portrayed in terms of polarised moral alternatives. The two apprentice weavers (‘Goodchild’ and ‘Tom Idle’) are shown together at their looms in the opening plate, before going their separate ways in adult life, each episode starkly contrasted. Goodchild has a broadsheet version of the story of Dick Whittington on the wall behind him, Idle has a broadsheet on Moll Flanders (1); while Goodchild goes to church, Tom Idle gambles outside in the churchyard, using a grave stone for a gaming table; Goodchild marries the master’s daughter and lives in a mansion, Idle lives with a prostitute in a rookery garret; Goodchild has an adoring wife, while Idle is ‘betray’d by his Whore’ in Plate 9, until the men meet face to face again in the tenth plate as magistrate and thief, Goodchild en route to the Guildhall and political power, Idle to Newgate then the gallows. The eleventh plate is the famous depiction of ‘The Idle ’Prentice Executed at Tyburn,’ the crowds of morbid onlookers a brutally parodic reflection of the cheering crowds at the procession in the final plate celebrating ‘The Industrious ’Prentice Lord-Mayor of London.’ This bourgeois moral fable, that honesty and hard work bring success as surely as the wages of sin are death, was designed primarily for display on workshop walls where impressionable apprentices might contemplate it at length, the scriptural quotation beneath each illustration adding the obvious dimension of a sermon.

William Hogarth, 'Industry and Idleness' Plate 1, 'The Fellow 'Prentices at their Looms' (1747)

William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness Plate 1, ‘The Fellow ‘Prentices at their Looms’ (1747)

William Hogarth, 'Industry and Idleness' PLATE 11 'The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn' (1747)

William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness Plate 11 ‘The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn’ (1747)

Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard is the story of two apprentices, Thames Darrell (Goodchild) and Jack Sheppard (Tom Idle). Unlike the parallel narratives of Luke Rookwood and Dick Turpin however, the stories of Thames and Jack interact quite fluidly. The novel is divided into three books, or ‘epochs,’ each taking place in a very compressed timeframe like the acts of a play. Epoch the First, 1703, takes place in one night when the main protagonists are newborn babies, and acts as a prologue. Epoch the Second, 1715 (which begins with a chapter entitled ‘The Idle Apprentice’), takes place over a few days in June and shows the adolescent Jack’s fall from grace into the orbit of the evil thief-taker and criminal mastermind, Jonathan Wild, while Thames rather foolishly falls into the clutches of his evil uncle, Sir Rowland Trenchard, who is Wild’s silent partner. Epoch the Third, 1724, encompasses the six months leading up to Jack’s capture and execution. It opens with Jack at the height of his success as a criminal (and consequent depths of depravity), as Wild’s right hand, and the return of Thames, who escaped his uncle and fled to France where he became a prosperous merchant. Disgusted at a murder which takes place during a robbery arranged by Wild, Jack turns against him and spends much of the remainder of the narrative assisting Thames in the restoration of his family fortune, except when incarcerated, which allows Ainsworth to recreate the daring prison escapes that had guaranteed the original Jack Sheppard his place in the Newgate Calendars. Wild murders Sir Rowland and traps Jack at his mother’s graveside. Jack dies bravely on the gallows, Thames’s birthright is established and he marries his childhood sweetheart, Winifred, his old master’s daughter. We are reassured, in one of Ainsworth’s characteristic historical closures, that Wild was convicted and hanged ‘seven months afterwards, with every ignominy, at the very gibbet to which he had brought his victim’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 344).

After many delays Jack Sheppard began its serial run in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1839. Dickens’s serial Oliver Twist was at this point coming to a conclusion in the same magazine, and for four months both serials appeared concurrently. As both stories concerned young boys being drawn in to the criminal underworld while also sharing the distinctive graphics of George Cruikshank, Jack Sheppard and Oliver Twist became implicitly connected in the minds of their original and massive audience. This was compounded when Ainsworth succeeded Dickens as the editor of Bentley’s in March.

From the outset, Jack Sheppard was a great success. Immediately after the launch Ainsworth wrote to Crossley that the usually dour publisher Richard Bentley was in ‘tip-top spirits’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, January 1, 1839). In October, before its completion in Bentley’s, Jack Sheppard was issued as a novel in three volumes by Bentley, including 27 engravings by Cruikshank and a portrait of the author by R.J. Lane. Sales were enormous, initially exceeding 3,000 copies a week. Ainsworth was also rewarded by the sincerest form of flattery from the penny-a-liners: The History of Jack Sheppard (by John Williams, 1839) depicts Jack as a heroic figure who infiltrates the criminal underworld as part of a scheme to restore the rightful inheritance of Edgeworth Bess, a pure and persecuted heroine rather than an aggressive prostitute; The Eventful Life and Unparalleled Exploits of the Notorious Jack Sheppard (T. White, 1840) concentrates on the Jacobite intrigues of Mr Kneebone, cramming a brief summary of Sheppard’s career into the conclusion; and The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (G. Purkess, 1849) simply plagiarises Ainsworth (James 186 – 187).

Engraving of Ainsworth (aged 34) from the First Edition of Jack Sheppard, taken from an original portrait by R.J. Lane (1839),

Engraving of Ainsworth (aged 34) from the First Edition of Jack Sheppard, taken from an original portrait by R.J. Lane (1839)

Dickens’ Oliver Twist, published as a novel in November 1838, had always been very popular, but this year belonged to Ainsworth. ‘For a time,’ recalled Vizetelly in Glances Back, ‘Dickens’ star paled’ (qtd. in Collins 257). ‘The success of Jack is pretty certain,’ Ainsworth told Crossley in the autumn, ‘They are bringing him out in half the theatres in London’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, October 8, 1839). And so they were. By the end of October there were eight versions running concurrently in London. Ainsworth and Cruikshank publicly supported these unlicensed theatrical adaptations of their work, whereas Dickens, in general, loathed it when it happened to him; Forster reporting in his Life of Dickens that:

I was with him at a representation of his Oliver Twist the following month [December 1838] at the Surrey Theatre, when in the middle of the first scene he laid himself down upon the floor in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell (Forster 381).

Ainsworth, on the other hand, endorsed J.T. Haines’s version of Jack Sheppard at the Royal Surrey Theatre while Cruikshank acted as an adviser to the set designers and makers. The author’s letter to the manager G.B. Davidge praising the production was printed on all programmes and daily newspaper advertisements (for which he received a one-off royalty payment of £20, the only money he ever made directly from any of these dramas although several were still running when he died):

Sir, – Having, in compliance with your request, witnessed your Rehearsal, and perused the Drama founded on JACK SHEPPARD, in preparation at the Surrey Theatre, I am satisfied it will furnish a complete representation of the Principal Scenes of the Romance; and have, therefore, no hesitation in giving my entire sanction to the performance. The fact of the whole of the Scenery having been superintended by Mr. George Cruikshank, must be a sufficient guarantee to the Public for its excellence and accuracy (Ainsworth, letter to G.B. Davidge, October 18, 1839).

He also furnished W.T. Moncrieff of the Victoria Theatre with an advance copy of the final instalment of the serial for his scriptwriters.

By far the best loved of all the Jack Sheppard plays was J.B. Buckstone’s version at the Adelphi Theatre starring the legendary Mrs Keeley (Mary Anne Goward) in the title role. What made ‘Bucky’s’ production different was his astute inclusion of many of the flash songs from Rookwood. Each performance concluded with a raucous encore of ‘Nix My Dolly, Pals’ by the full cast and the audience, led by Jack, Blueskin (played by the equally famous Paul Bedford), Poll Maggot and Edgeworth Bess (the very lovely Mrs Nailer and Miss Campbell), which had been set to music by G.H. Rodwell, operatic composer and proprietor of the Adelphi. Sir Theodore Martin (‘Bon Gaultier’) later wrote of this period:

Nix My Dolly travelled everywhere, and made the patter of thieves and burglars ‘familiar in our mouths as household words’. It deafened us in the streets, where it was so popular with the organ-grinders and German bands as Sullivan’s brightest melodies ever were in later day. It clanged at midday from the steeple of St. Giles, the Edinburgh Cathedral (A fact. That such a subject for cathedral chimes, and in Scotland, too, could ever have been chosen will scarcely be believed. But my astonished ears often heard it.); it was whistled by every dirty guttersnipe, and chanted in drawing-rooms by fair lips, little knowing the meaning of the words they sang (qtd. in Ellis I. 366).

Mrs. Keeley (Mary Anne Goward) as Jack Sheppard from Buckstone's adaptation at the Adelphi (1839). Artist unidentified but probably drawn by George Cruikshank

Mrs. Keeley (Mary Anne Goward) as Jack Sheppard from Buckstone’s adaptation at the Adelphi (1839). Artist unidentified but probably George Cruikshank

A century after the inglorious death of the original, the name of Jack Sheppard had again become iconic.

In his own day John ‘Jack’ Sheppard had achieved a certain notoriety, not for his crimes (which were unremarkable acts of burglary around Holborn in the early 1720s), but for his increasingly ingenious and cheeky prison escapes. He even broke out of the condemned hold at Newgate and, when recaptured, he was placed in a fortified room in the heart of the gaol known as the ‘Castle,’ chained hand and foot with 300 pound iron fetters, and attached to the stone floor with an iron staple just to be on the safe side. Here he held court like a celebrity in a theatrical Green Room. Hogarth himself was one of the crowds of gentry who paid the turnkeys 1s 6d to visit Jack Sheppard in the Castle at Newgate in 1724, by now famous for his previous escapes, as well as his open defiance of the thief-taker Jonathan Wild. Hogarth’s father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill, also visited Sheppard, and painted a portrait of him that looked more like that of an early Romantic poet than a house-breaker. Ainsworth dramatises the scene with a broad wink to his more culturally literate audience in his chapter ‘How Jack’s portrait was painted,’ placing Thornhill, Hogarth and Gay together, thereby suggesting that Jack inspired both The Beggar’s Opera and Industry and Idleness, which, at least in the latter case, was probably true (2). When Jack became tired of all this attention, he escaped again. Unfortunately, young Jack wasn’t very bright when it came to keeping out of prison, and he was recaptured, dead drunk, in an ale house on Newgate Street, still within sight of the prison. He was hanged at Tyburn on November 23, 1724, aged 22. He did not die well. Being small in stature, the drop did not break his neck and the real Jack Sheppard took an agonisingly long time to strangle under his own bodyweight.

Eighteenth Century Reproduction of the Lost Portrait of Jack Sheppard in the condemned hold at Newgate by Sir James Thawnhill

Eighteenth Century Reproduction of the lost portrait of Jack Sheppard in the condemned hold at Newgate by Sir James Thornhill

Half a dozen or so biographies of Sheppard were in circulation by the day of his execution (as well as numerous broadsheets, ballads and a couple of plays), including two pamphlets often attributed to Defoe, which became, and remain, the principal sources on Sheppard for later writers (3). As Ainsworth suggested, Sheppard’s story also seems likely to have inspired John Gay’s famous comic operetta: MacHeath, like Sheppard, having two lovers, while Mr Peachum is undoubtedly modelled on Jonathan Wild, of whom Defoe also wrote a short biography after his execution the following year (4). It has also been suggested, by Lucy Moore most recently, that the Sheppard story was the inspiration for Industry and Idleness, but this is less likely, generic parables of fallen apprentices being by then very common (Moore 35). Hogarth in fact based his narrative upon The London Merchant, a popular play by George Lillo first performed in 1731.

The fame of the real Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild was an early example of a media-generated fad however, and they were soon forgotten. By the time Fielding resurrected the satirical Jonathan Wild/Robert Walpole comparison from The Beggar’s Opera in the third volume of his Miscellanies in 1743 it was already a cliché. The popularity of Ainsworth’s character and his theatrical clones, seemed to transcend that of the original: after they read the novel, theatregoers could actually sing along with Jack, Blueskin, and pretty Poll and Bess, weep with Jack as he hugged the earth of his mother’s grave, and cheer with a mixture of horror and delight when an angry mob set Jonathan Wild’s house ablaze. As Keith Hollingsworth perfectly put it: ‘Sheppard was not simply a sensation in fiction, but an extra-literary popular phenomenon’ (Hollingsworth 140). Even the famous letters sent to the Kansas City Star by the notorious outlaws of the American west Frank and Jesse James were signed ‘Jack Sheppard’ (Bloom 86). This phenomenon was to be a problematic one for Ainsworth, as his character stepped from the pages of the essentially bourgeois novel (at £1. 5s a copy), and onto the boards of the working class penny gaffs.

S.M. Ellis argued that a story based upon such a model as Hogarth’s was ‘absolutely moral’ by definition, being ‘simply a prose version of that famous series of pictures by the greatest of moralists’ (Ellis I. 373 – 374). While Ellis’s intention to defend his subject against decades of ridiculous critical condemnation is laudable, this correlation is misleading, despite Ainsworth’s obvious use of Industry and Idleness. Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard may begin and end as an apparently direct copy of a character from Hogarth’s Moralities, but the author refuses to contain him within such a basic role, the simple dialectics of Hogarth in moral mode actually having more in common with the two-dimensional, cardboard characterisations of Rookwood than the more complex emotional motivations explored in Jack Sheppard.

In the post-Paul Clifford period, Hogarth was habitually evoked by commentators as a benchmark for what had come to be known as the ‘Newgate School’ of novelists. Like Thackeray’s ambivalent appeals to Fielding however, Victorian sensibilities fostered an unstable relationship with the great Georgian satirist and moralist, agreeing with the message but having a mixed emotional response to the method. For example, R.H. Horne compared the art of his friend Charles Dickens to that of Hogarth in A New Spirit of the Age:

The tragic force, and deep moral warnings, contained in several of the finest works of Hogarth, have been fully recognized by a few great writers, but are not yet recognized sufficiently by the popular sense. But even some of his pictures, which are deservedly among the least popular, from the revolting nature of their subject or treatment, do yet, for the most part, contain manifestations of his great genius. Of this class are the pictures on the ‘Progress of Cruelty:’ – but who will deny the terrific truth of the last but one of the series. The cruel boy, grown up to cruel manhood, has murdered his mistress, apparently to avoid the trouble attending her being about to become a mother. He has cut her throat at night in a church-yard, and seemingly to have become suddenly paralysed at the completeness of his own deed, which he was too brutally stupid to comprehend till it was really done, two watchmen have arrested him. There lies his victim – motionless, extinct, quite passed away out of the scene, out of the world. Her white visage is a mere wan case that has opened, and the soul has utterly left it. No remains even of bodily pain are traceable, but rather in its vacuity a suggestion of the last nervous consciousness that her life of misery should be ended. The graves, the tombstones, the old church walls are alive and ejaculatory with horror – the man alone stands petrific. There is no bold Turpin, or Jack Sheppard-ing to carry the thing off heroically. Stony-jointed and stupefied, the murderer stands between the two watchmen, who grasp him with a horror which is the mixed effect of his own upon them, and of their scared discovery of the lifeless object before them. It is plain that if the murderer had been a flash Newgate Calendar hero, he could have burst away from them in a moment. But this would not have answered the purpose of the moralist (Horne I. 10 – 11).

Horne then marks the ‘point where the comparison with him and Dickens stops.’ Although Horne’s argument is essentially one of realism over what he views as the cheap, immature romanticism of Ainsworth, he cannot allow that Hogarth’s ends necessarily justify his means; he therefore immediately adds that: ‘In dealing with repulsive characters and actions, the former sometimes does so in a repulsive manner, not artistically justifiable by any means.’ Dickens, conversely, has the ‘good taste’ never to allow himself to pollute a text or offend his audience with an unnecessarily ‘gross expression or unredeemed action’. This, claims Horne, is the cause of Dickens’s ‘universal popularity’ (Horne I. 11 – 12). A similar thesis can be found in an article on Newgate writing in the Athenaeum, but with the cynical suggestion that his popularity comes from a mis-reading which favours sensationalism over moral philosophy:

In thus introducing Mr. Dickens’s name, we are far from classing him with his imitators, or ranging his works with the Factory Boys and the Jack Sheppards, – in external appearance so similar. If Boz has depicted scenes of hardened vice, and displayed the peculiar phases of degradation which poverty impresses on the human character under the combinations of a defective civilization, he is guided in his career by a high moral object; and in tracing what is most loathsome and repulsive, he contrives to enlist the best feelings of our nature in his cause, and to engage his readers in the consideration of what lies below the surface. In this respect he approaches his great predecessors, Fielding and Gay; for, though he proceeds by a different path, he arrives at the same end; and, instead of sullying the mind of an intelligent reader, he leaves him wiser and better for the perusal of his tale. But this is precisely the excellence which we suspect the readers of Boz most frequently overlook; and we are certain that it is far less the under-current of philosophy which has sold his book, than the strong flavour of the medium, in which he has disguised the bitterness of its taste (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).

The Hogarth illustration to which Horne refers is the penultimate plate of Four Stages of Cruelty (1751, immediately following the popular prints Beer Street and Gin Lane), ‘Cruelty in Perfection.’ It is a nasty picture. The previous two prints show the unloved and unrestrained St Giles pauper Tom Nero maltreating animals as man and boy, and now he has killed his pregnant lover, Ann Gill, a maidservant who had stolen from her mistress at his demand. A kneeling watchman holds a note towards us written by the victim, wherein her conflict between her affection for her employer and her loyalty to her lover is recorded: ‘and my Conscience flied in my face as often as I think of wronging her, yet I am bound body and soul to do as you would have me do.’ Her throat is cut so deeply that her head is almost severed and her left hand is almost cut off at the wrist, a presumably defensive wound, but she still points towards her fallen hand luggage, a box containing the Book of Common Prayer and a treatise entitled ‘GOD’S Revenge against Murder.’ In the final print, Tom Nero is not shown at the gallows like Tom Idle but instead on the dissection table, his mutilated body replacing that of the woman from the previous image (their physical poses are almost identical), the artist playing upon one of the commonest fears of the criminal. There is an awful sense of consciousness in Hogarth’s depiction of the corpse, his mouth open in a mute scream of agony as one surgeon disembowels him while another probes the delicate sinews of his ankles and a third removes his eyes. A figure of obvious authority sits in a throne-like chair directing the operation. He is presumably a chief surgeon but in fact looks most like a judge; like God Himself he looks down from above, suggesting the moral as well as the physical deconstruction of the subject. Beneath the table a dog feeds upon the heart of the corpse. This is ‘The Reward of Cruelty,’ and it’s unremittingly appalling to behold.

William Hogarth, 'The Progress of Cruelty' Plate 4, 'Cruelty in Perfection'

William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty Plate 3, ‘Cruelty in Perfection’ (1751)

William Hogarth, 'The Progress of Cruelty' Plate 4, 'The Reward of Cruelty'

William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty Plate 4, ‘The Reward of Cruelty’ (1751)

The destruction of the fallen woman is also a powerful and recurring image in Dickens’s work; he was still shocking audiences with his public reading of ‘The Death of Nancy’ when he died. But both this episode in Oliver Twist and its forerunner in Sketches by Boz, ‘The Hospital Patient,’ are careful to avoid the naked, human brutality of Hogarth, even though the story is the same as that of ‘Cruelty in Perfection,’ in which the victim remains pitifully loyal to the man who will ultimately kill her. Although the simple allegory of Hogarth is delivered with the most microscopic realism, Dickens steers away from the violence at the last moment, leaving the death blow to his readers’ imagination, while the final prayer of his Magdalene is a moment of melodrama:

She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief – Rose Maylie’s own – and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.

It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down (Dickens Oliver Twist 268).

There is no gothic or Newgate sensationalism here, but little realism either. In a Times review of a new edition of the Works of Henry Fielding Thackeray had similarly written that:

The world does not now tolerate such satire as that of Hogarth and Fielding, and the world no doubt is right in a great part of its squeamishness; for it is good to pretend to the virtue of chastity even though we do not possess it; nay, the very restraint which the hypocrisy lays on a man, is not unapt, in some instances, to profit him … The same vice exists, only we don’t speak about it; the same things are done, but we don’t call them by their names. Here lies the chief immorality of Fielding, as we take it … It is wise that the public modesty should be as prudish as it is; that writers should be forced to chasten their humour, and when it would play with points of life and character which are essentially immoral, that they should be compelled, by the general outcry of incensed public propriety, to be silent altogether (Thackeray, The Times 1840).

But, ‘Fielding’s men and Hogarth’s are Dickens’ and Cruikshank’s, drawn with ten times more skill and force, only the latter humorists dare not talk of what the elder discussed honestly’ (Thackeray, The Times 1840). Thackeray, Horne and the Athenaeum would appear to concur, yet the former’s references to ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘honesty’ perhaps betray an uncertain desire to return to a freedom of expression now subservient to public morality. A more confident statement appears in the preface to The History of Pendennis: ‘Since the author of “Tom Jones” was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him, and give him a certain conventional simper’ (Thackeray, preface to Pendennis).

Although Thackeray, unlike Dickens, appeared to feel this lack, he did not break these new Victorian taboos of representation. Ainsworth did, and this was what he really meant by a ‘sort of Hogarthian novel’. This was the creation of a Hogarthian mise en scène, where it was not the moral message of The Rake’s Progress, Industry and Idleness, The Four Stages of Cruelty, Gin Lane and so forth that Ainsworth took from Hogarth, but his grotesque realism, a form of representation which could be allied with Ainsworth’s use of the gothic to graphically portray an English urban environment that was dark, mysterious, and threatening, yet also strangely erotic.

This project was perfectly complemented by the art of George Cruikshank, whose style (and, after he signed the pledge, sanctimony) was deeply inspired by Hogarth. In a critical review of Cruikshank, wrote that, ‘With regard to the modern romance of “Jack Sheppard” … it seems to us that Mr. Cruikshank really created the tale, and that Mr. Ainsworth, as it were, only put words to it’ (Thackeray, Westminster Review 1840). The Athenaeum similarly wrote of Jack Sheppard that, ‘it [is] doubtful whether the plates were etched for the book, or the book written to illustrate the plates,’ but for a different reason to Thackeray:

In these graphic representations are embodied all the inherent coarseness and vulgarity of the subject; and all the horrible and (it is not too strong to say) unnatural excitement which a public, too prudish to relish humour, and too blasé to endure true pathos, requires to keep alive and awaken sensation (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).

Not only is Thackeray’s statement somewhat hypocritical, given his sustained attack on the Newgate school in general and on Ainsworth in particular, but it also misses the point that Cruikshank’s illustrations (many of which have been razored out of first editions and framed by collectors who apparently agree with Thackeray), and Ainsworth’s prose are interdependent textual components. This was understood from the first by the theatrical producers who framed the action with stage sets based on Cruikshank’s engravings. The Hogarthian text demands to be a graphic novel, and Cruikshank’s final set of engravings, depicting Jack’s two escapes from Newgate and his execution, are sequenced like a comic strip, and presented as a series of linear, narrative panels rather than as conventional, single page illustrations. 

'The Escape No. 2' by George Cruikshand, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘The Escape No. 2′ by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

The text is also graphically violent, with the extravagant, gothic death scenes of Rookwood being replaced by an unsettling, Hogarthian realism:

‘Spare me!’ he groaned, looking upwards. ‘Spare me!’

Jonathan, however, instead of answering him, searched for his knife, with the intention of severing his wrist. But not finding it, he had again recourse to the bludgeon, and began beating the hand fixed on the upper rail, until by smashing the fingers, he forced it to relinquish its hold. He then stamped upon the hand on the lower banister, until that also relaxed its grip.

Sir Rowland then fell.

A hollow plunge, echoed and re-echoed by the walls, marked his descent into the water.

‘Give me the link’, cried Jonathan.

Holding down the light, he perceived that the wounded man had risen to the surface, and was trying to clamber up the slippery sides of the well.

‘Shoot him! Shoot him! Put him out of hish mishery’, cried the Jew.

‘What’s the use of wasting a shot?’ rejoined Jonathan, savagely. ‘He can’t get out.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 249).

'Jonathan Wild throwing Sir Rowland Trenchard down the well-hole' by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘Jonathan Wild throwing Sir Rowland Trenchard down the well-hole’ by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

 Ainsworth and Cruikshank returned to the period of the gruesome Georgians in every respect, taking precisely those features of the social commentary of Defoe, the picaresque literature of Fielding, and the art of Hogarth, that the Victorians had so carefully edited out.

Humphry House has written, for example, that the underworld environment that Oliver Twist found himself in would have been, in reality, ‘drenched in sex’ (House 217), which it cannot ever possibly be in a Dickensian text. Thackeray had used a similar argument to attack Dickens for his unrealistic portrayal of Nancy in his Fraser’s article ‘Going to see a man hanged’:

Boz, who knows life well, knows that his Miss Nancy is the most unreal fantastical personage possible; no more like a thief’s mistress than one of Gessner’s shepherdesses resembles a real country wench. He dare not tell the truth concerning such young ladies. They have, no doubt, virtues like other human creatures; nay, their position engenders virtues that are not called into exercise among other women. But on these an honest painter of human nature has no right to dwell; not being able to paint the whole portrait, he has no right to present one or two favourable points as characterising the whole: and therefore, in fact, had better leave the picture alone altogether (Thackeray, Fraser’s 1840).

This is of course another manifestation of Thackeray’s public modesty argument, a Gordian proposition, apparently calling for a literary realism denuded first of any subject which might cause offence to the public morals. In his preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, Dickens responded to such criticisms by arguing that he wished to ‘dim the false glitter’ of the Newgate romance by ‘showing it in its unattractive and repulsive truth,’ however:

No less consulting my own taste, than the manners of the age, I endeavoured, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspects, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could possibly offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds. In the case of the girl, in particular, I kept this constantly in view (Dickens, preface to Oliver Twist).

Dickens describes Nancy as a ‘prostitute’ in the preface to the third edition of Oliver Twist, but he never calls her such in the main text. In the same way, the dialogue is suitably tidied up for the polite ear: ‘He [Bill Sikes] then, in cant terms, with which his whole conversation was plentifully besprinkled, but which would be quite unintelligible if they were recorded here, demanded a glass of liquor’ (Dickens, Oliver Twist 137). Dickens wanted completely to reject the flash anti-language of ‘Nix My Dolls’ which, as Martin had reported, was on everybody’s lips by the end of 1839, whether they understood the lyrics or not:

In a box of the stone jug I was born,

Of a hempen widow the kid forlorn,

Fake away.

And my father, as I’ve heard say,

Fake away.

Was a merchant of capers gay,

Who cut his last fling with great applause,

Nix my doll pals, fake away (Ainsworth, ‘Jerry Juniper’s Chant,’ Rookwood 117).

Which can be translated (or more appropriately perhaps decoded, given its presentation as a secret language) as:

I was born in a prison cell,

My mother was the widow of a hanged man,

Carry on stealing.

And my father, as I’ve been told,

Carry on stealing.

Was an excellent dancer,

Whose last dance was bravely done from the end of a rope (5),

Never mind my friends, carry on stealing.

This was exactly the type of thing that Thackeray objected to as both a glorification of criminal behaviour and linguistic vulgarity, and from which Dickens wished to dissociate his self:

I have read of thieves by the score; seductive fellows (amiable for the most part), faultless in dress, plump in pocket, choice in horse-flesh, bold in bearing, fortunate in gallantry, great at a song, a bottle, a pack of cards or dice-box, and fit companions for the bravest. But I had never met (except in HOGARTH) with the miserable reality (Dickens, preface to Oliver Twist).

Dickens’s appeal to Hogarth in this statement is the opposite to that of Ainsworth: Dickens admired Hogarth’s realism, Ainsworth, apparently, his sensationalism.

As Ainsworth’s purpose is not that of the moralist or reformer, Jack Sheppard is free of the propaganda of Oliver Twist just as Rookwood had avoided the politics of Paul Clifford. In consequence, the similarities of theme and characterisation between Sheppard and Twist only serve to make the contrasts between them more apparent, ultimately to the professional detriment of Ainsworth. This is particularly evident in the authors’ different presentations of underclass women.

'Jack Sheppard tricking Shotbolt the Gaoler' (as his two lovers look on) by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘Jack Sheppard tricking Shotbolt the Gaoler’ (as his two lovers look on) by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

Whereas Nancy, in the tradition of Hogarth’s Ann Gill, is presented as a victim, the young whores of Jack Sheppard are sexually predatory, as hard as coffin nails, and utterly unrepentant. In the crucial scene in ‘The Flash Ken’ (an underworld gin palace), the young Jack Sheppard is seduced into a life of vice by Blueskin (Edward Blake, another historical figure), an accomplice of his late father, Tom Sheppard the executed thief, and two legendary Newgate Calendar prostitutes, Edgeworth Bess (Elizabeth Lyon) and Mistress Poll Maggot, while his horrified mother looks on helplessly. Although the following chapter charts Jack’s fall from grace under the temptation of the satanic Jonathan Wild, ‘The Flash Ken’ episode is the more powerful, the prelapsarian Jack succumbing to the charms of not one but two Eves before he makes his pact with the devil. The scene may also be usefully compared not only to Dickens’ cautious portrayal of Nancy but to scenes where Oliver and other orphans are drawn into ‘the trade’ by the crafty indoctrination of Fagin and the menaces of Sikes. Ainsworth begins by foregrounding the sexual nature of the seduction:

The agonized mother could scarcely repress a scream at the spectacle that met her gaze. There sat Jack, evidently in the last stage of intoxication, with his collar opened, his dress disarranged, a pipe in his mouth, a bowl of punch and a half-emptied rummer before him – there he sat, receiving and returning, or rather attempting to return – for he was almost past consciousness – the blandishments of a couple of females, one of whom had passed her arm round his neck, while the other leaned over the back of his chair, and appeared from her gestures to be whispering soft nonsense into his ear.

Both these ladies possessed considerable personal attractions. The younger of the two, who was seated next to Jack, and seemed to monopolize his attention, could not be more than seventeen, though her person had all the maturity of twenty. She had delicate oval features; light, laughing blue eyes, a pretty nez retroussé, – why have we not the term, since we have the best specimens of the feature? – teeth of pearly whiteness, and a brilliant complexion, set off by rich auburn hair, a very white neck and shoulders – the latter, perhaps, a trifle too much exposed. The name of this damsel was Edgeworth Bess … The other bona roba, known amongst her companions as Mistress Poll Maggot, was a beauty on a much larger scale – in fact, a perfect Amazon. Nevertheless, though nearly six feet high, and correspondingly proportioned, she was a model of symmetry, and boasted, with the frame of a Thalestris or a Trulla, the regular lineaments of the Medicean Venus. A man’s laced hat – whether adopted from the caprice of the moment, or habitually worn, we are unable to state – cocked knowingly on her head, harmonized with her masculine appearance. Mrs. Maggot, as well as her companion, Edgeworth Bess, was showily dressed; nor did either of them disdain the aid supposed to be lent to a fair skin by the contents of the patch-box. On an empty cask, which served him for a chair, and opposite Jack Sheppard, whose rapid progress in depravity afforded him the highest satisfaction, sat Blueskin, encouraging the two women in their odious task, and plying his victim with the glass as often as he deemed it expedient to do so. By this time, he had apparently accomplished all he desired; for moving the bottle out of Jack’s reach, he appropriated it entirely to his own use, leaving the devoted lad to the care of the females (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 140-141).

The gaze of Jack’s mother serves as an externalisation of his moral conscience. Although the author describes the seduction of the innocent Jack as an ‘odious task,’ it is an offhand reference and he overlooks the more sinister implications of the scene by dwelling instead on the smouldering sexuality of the ménage à trois.

'Jack Sheppard escaping from the condemed hold in Newgate' (aided by Edgeworth Bess and Poll Maggot) by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

‘Jack Sheppard escaping from the condemed hold in Newgate’ (aided by Edgeworth Bess and Poll Maggot) by George Cruikshank, from Jack Sheppard by W.H. Ainsworth (1839)

Like the bite of the vampire, the pens of Hogarth and Ainsworth both eroticise women. Despite his moral purpose, Hogarth’s prostitutes have little in common with the penitent, melodramatic Magdalenes of Dickens (6), the helpless, exploited, and anonymous female victims of ‘The Finishes’ as described in Flora Tristan’s proto-feminist London Journal (1840), or the pitiful grotesques of Mrs Gaskell’s ‘Condition of England’ novels. Although the role of the whore in Industry and Idleness, like machinations of Poll and Bess in Jack Sheppard, is notionally similarly ‘odious,’ the former’s visual representation remains earthy, sexually alluring, and empowered, despite the attendant moral message. She is first shown in bed with Tom Idle in Plate 7, ‘The Idle ’Prentice Return’d from Sea, and in a Garret with a Common Prostitute,’ examining an item of presumably stolen jewellery, and again in Plate 9, ‘The Idle ’Prentice betray’d by his Whore and taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice.’ Here Hogarth follows the common model of Eve seducing Adam. This was a standard episode in contemporary criminal biography. The eighteenth century author of The History of the remarkable Life of John Sheppard (probably Defoe) writes, for example, that the young Jack was a good journeyman carpenter and: ‘had the Character of a very sober and orderly Boy’ before ‘he commenced a fatal Acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise call’d, Edgeworth Bess Now was laid the Foundation of his Ruin’ (qtd. in Rawlings 49). Similarly, Defoe’s Account of the Life of Jonathan Wild depicts the young Wild as an honest tradesman imprisoned for a minor debt, meeting ‘a jade of some fame’ called Mary Milliner and learning a new trade from her: ‘a more than common intimacy soon grew between them. Insomuch that she began to teach him a great many new, and to him unknown ways of getting money, and brought him into her own gang’ (Defoe, An Account of the Life of Jonathan Wild, 231). Notably, Mrs Milliner is in charge of a gang at this point, and Wild goes on to share power with her until leaving to establish his own gang. They remain on amiable terms like the business people that they were: ‘the other trade [prostitution and extortion] was carried on with mutual assistance, as well as to mutual advantage, for some time’ (Defoe, An Account of the Life of Jonathan Wild, 232). In Industry and Idleness Plate 7 Hogarth paraphrases Leviticus 26:36, ‘The sound of a shaken leaf shall chase him’ (7), showing the spiritual weakness of Tom Idle, who awakes in a state of some shock in the squalid surroundings, we assume after a night of hard drinking has rendered him insensible and, therefore, powerless. When the woman (always defined only by her profession and simply designated as ‘common prostitute’ and ‘whore’) sells him out for financial self-interest in Plate 9 the artist offers the punch line of Proverbs 6:26, ‘The adulteress will hunt for the precious life’ (8). In both plates she is shown décolleté and, as with a figure in a vanity panting, the male viewer is allowed to stand in judgement while also taking pleasure from the sight of the woman’s youth and nakedness.

William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness Plate 7, 'The Idle 'Prentic return'd from Sea, & in a Garret with a common prostitute' (1747)

William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness Plate 7, ‘The Idle ‘Prentic return’d from Sea, & in a Garret with a common prostitute’ (1747)

William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness Plate 9 'The Idle 'Prenice betray'd by his Whore, & taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice' (1747)

William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness Plate 9 ‘The Idle ‘Prentice betray’d by his Whore, & taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice’ (1747)

In his description of the two prostitutes (as well as Cruikshank’s accompanying illustrations), Ainsworth revels in their beauty (which he equates with the classical), and their unabashed sexuality, comparing the different physiques of the two, their clothes and their behaviour as they indulge in very public sexual foreplay with Jack. As a powerplay, both women are stronger than the inebriated Jack (who can neither stand or even speak properly) and Blueskin, who merely watches. The real struggle is with Mrs Sheppard, who was once as they are now (which both Blueskin and Poll enjoy reminding her), but has now, as an older and reformed woman, lost both her sexual power and matriarchal, criminal authority. The confrontation between the three women is nonetheless a violent one, even though Mrs Sheppard cannot possibly win, as the struggle for Jack’s soul is enacted:

Amid this varied throng – varied in appearance, but alike in character – one object alone, we have said, riveted Mrs. Sheppard’s attention and no sooner did she in some degree recover from the shock occasioned by the sight of her son’s debased condition, than, regardless of any other consideration except his instant removal from the contaminating society by which he was surrounded, and utterly forgetting the more cautious plan she meant to have adopted, she rushed into the room and summoned him to follow her.

‘Halloa!’ cried Jack, looking round, and trying to fix his inebriate gaze upon the speaker, ‘who’s that?’

‘Your mother’, replied Mrs. Sheppard. ‘Come home directly, sir.’

‘Mother be —-!’ returned Jack. ‘Who is it, Bess?’

‘How should I know?’ replied Edgeworth Bess. ‘But if it is your mother, send her about her business.’

‘That I will’, replied Jack, ‘in the twinkling of a bedpost.’

‘Glad to see you once more in the Mint, Mrs. Sheppard’, roared Blueskin, who anticipated some fun. ‘Come and sit down by me.’

‘Take a glass of gin, ma’am’, cried Poll Maggot, holding up a bottle of spirit; ‘it used to be your favourite liquor I’ve heard.’

‘Jack, my love’, cried Mrs. Sheppard, disregarding the taunt, ‘come away.’

‘Not I’, replied Jack; ‘I’m too comfortable where I am. Be off!’

‘Jack!’ exclaimed his unhappy parent.

‘Mr. Sheppard, if you please, ma’am’, interrupted the lad; ‘I allow nobody to call me Jack. Do I, Bess, eh?’

‘Nobody whatever, love’, replied Edgeworth Bess; ‘nobody but me, dear.’

‘And me’, insinuated Mrs. Maggot. ‘My little fancy man’s quite as fond of me as of you, Bess. Ain’t you, Jacky darling?’

‘Not quite, Poll’, returned Mr. Sheppard; ‘but I love you next to her, and both of you better than her’, pointing with the pipe to his mother.

‘Oh, heavens!’ cried Mrs. Sheppard.

‘Bravo!’ shouted Blueskin. ‘Tom Sheppard never said a better thing than that ho! ho!’

‘Jack’, cried his mother, wringing her hands in distraction, ‘you’ll break my heart!’

‘Poh! poh!’ returned her son; ‘women don’t so easily break their hearts. Do they, Bess?’

‘Certainly not’, replied the young lady appealed to, ‘especially about their sons.’

‘Wretch!’ cried Mrs. Sheppard, bitterly.

‘I say’, retorted Edgeworth Bess, with a very unfeminine imprecation, ‘I shan’t stand any more of that nonsense. What do you mean by calling me wretch, madam?’ she added; marching up to Mrs. Sheppard, and regarding her with an insolent and threatening glance.

‘Yes – what do you mean, ma’am?’ added Jack, staggering after her.

‘Come with me, my love, come – come’, cried his mother, seizing his hand, and endeavouring to force him away.

‘He shan’t go’, cried Edgeworth Bess, holding him by the other hand. ‘Here, Poll, help me!’

Thus exhorted, Mrs. Maggot lent her powerful aid, and between the two, Jack was speedily relieved from all fears of being carried off against his will. Not content with this exhibition of her prowess, the Amazon lifted him up as easily as if he had been an infant, and placed him upon her shoulders; to the infinite delight of the company, and the increased distress of his mother.

‘Now, let’s see who’ll dare to take him down’, she cried.

‘Nobody shall’, cried Mr. Sheppard from his elevated position. ‘I’m my own master now, and I’ll do as I please. I’ll turn cracksman, like my father – rob old Wood – he has chests full of money, and I know where they’re kept – I’ll rob him, and give the swag to you, Poll’ ¼ his wretched mother, in spite of her passionate supplications and resistance, was, by Blueskin’s command, forcibly ejected from the house, and driven out of the Mint (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 141-143).

We can see and feel here Jack’s separation from his mother and her moral value system. By degrees, the prostitutes take over Mrs Sheppard’s role as Jack’s mother. First they both appropriate his mother’s pet name, while Jack continually appeals to the authority of his new lover (‘Who is it, Bess?/Do I, Bess?/Do they, Bess?’), while rejecting his mother. He loves Bess the most, then Poll, and his mother not at all. Eventually, after a physical tug of war where mother and lovers take an arm each, Jack regresses to the point that the masculine Mrs Maggot lifts him up ‘as easily as if he had been an infant,’ while he babbles a promise to steal for her alone, as if she were his fence, or even pimp. Bess, meanwhile, shows how easily she can change from relaxed and sensual (feminine) to threatening (masculine) when Mrs Sheppard finally returns an insult to which Bess responds with a ‘very unfeminine imprecation.’ In the underworld (whether Defoe’s, Hogarth’s or Ainsworth’s version), gender roles are reversed rendering women dominant and men subservient.

To the male moralist, such female empowerment can lead only to temptation and sin, and such an argument thus supports the subjugation of women. Deborah Nord sees Dickens’s early depiction of prostitutes as a: ‘proto-Victorian middle-class vision that overcomes an unsettling and threatening female sexuality by casting women as victims’ (Nord 72). Ainsworth, by contrast, leaves the women in command. The territoriality of Bess and Poll is assured when Mrs Sheppard is thrown out of the borough completely, leaving the two women free to consummate and complete their seduction of the adolescent boy, possibly together. Stripping the scenario of a moral interpretation has rendered it pornographic, something that was often potentially present in Hogarth yet never overtly developed.

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART ONE

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART TWO

Writing the Underworld: Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Controversy – PART THREE

Writing the Underworld: Works Cited, Notes & Appendix

‘Addicted to the Supernatural’: Spiritualism and Self-Satire in Le Fanu’s All in the Dark

‘Addicted to the Supernatural’: Spiritualism and Self-Satire in Le Fanu’s All in the Dark

Stephen James Carver Ph.D

G.W. Crawford, Jim Rockhill, and Brian J. Showers eds, Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu  (New York: Hippocampus, 2011)

Reproduced by kind permission of the editors and publishers.


Copyright © SJ Carver 2011, 2013

The cover to Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu

The cover to Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu

In the spring of 1848, the Fox family of Hydesville, a desolate New York hamlet, was nightly plagued by disembodied knocking. Events escalated on the evening of March 31, when John and Margaret Fox heard loud noises emanating from the room above in which their children, Katherine and Margaretta, were sleeping. This time the mysterious sounds appeared to indicate intelligence, apparently interacting with Katherine. When the child snapped her fingers or clapped her hands the entity, which she called ‘Mr. Splitfoot,’ would rap back in reply. Mrs. Fox bravely attempted to make contact, while her husband went for help. That night, a group of frightened neighbours watched Mrs. Fox communicate with the ‘spirit’ in the upstairs room, which knocked with such violence that one eyewitness, William Duesler, recorded that he ‘felt the bedstead jar when the sound was produced’ (qtd. in Capron and Barron 15). As the presence could only affirm, deny and enumerate, Mrs. Fox asked a series of speculative questions to determine its identity and intent. This séance revealed that the ghost was benign, and that of a murdered peddler (1).

In the heavily evangelized ‘burned-over district’ of Upstate New York, news travelled fast. Older brother David Fox soon devised a laborious alphabetical method of communicating with spirits (the forerunner of Elijah Bond’s ‘Ouija Board’), while older sister Mrs. Leah Fish began to market the family’s clairvoyance. This notoriety was greatly enhanced by the recent publication of Andrew Jackson Davis’ The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and A Voice to Mankind, in which the ‘Poughkeepsie Seer’ prophesized that ‘the truth that spirits commune … will ere long present itself in the form of a living demonstration’ (Davis v. I 675 – 676).  The Fox sisters demonstrated and, initially supported by radical New York Quakers, their ‘Spiritualism’ quickly became a national sensation. Frank Podmore, of the Society for Psychical Research, estimated that there were over a hundred practicing mediums in New York alone by 1850 (Podmore v. I 183), while Augustus de Morgan likened the spread of mediums to smallpox (qtd. in Brandon 43).

Like many British intellectuals, de Morgan was converted by the Boston medium Mrs. Maria B. Hayden, who performed séances in London in 1853 at a guinea-a-head. Mrs. Hayden brought the new and widely reported ‘faith’ to the United Kingdom, and she was soon followed by even more flamboyant mediums, most notably Daniel Dunglas Home. Despite sceptical voices, including Dickens (who denounced Hayden in Household Words), the fundamentally optimistic, pseudo-religious theatricality of Spiritualism found easy purchase in the Victorian psyche. But as tables tapped and tilted across fashionable Europe, one particular expert in the supernatural had had quite enough.

In the words of M.R. James, the Victorian gothic writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu ‘stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories’ (James vii). Dickens was an avid reader, and he also sought the Irish author’s advice on ‘spectral illusions’ (Gates 109). The symbolic and allegorical application of Swedenborgianism in much of Le Fanu’s writing indicated a sophisticated approach to the concept of life after death in reality and literature that Dickens greatly respected. Le Fanu’s supernaturalism was complex, a combination and deconstruction of the discourses of his core Huguenot values, radical Romantic philosophy, Enlightenment science, and the literary gothic tradition. It is therefore hardly surprising that the master of the supernatural should find the contemporary craze for Spiritualism trivial, if not downright annoying. Following Browning’s lead in ‘Mr. Sludge, “The Medium”’ (1864), Le Fanu set out to address the effects of ‘that foolish spiritrapping’ in his 1866 serial All in the Dark (Le Fanu 18) (2).

All in the Dark was serialized in the Dublin University Magazine from February to June 1866, sitting between Guy Deverell (1865) and The Tenants of Malory (1867). It was published by Richard Bentley in two volumes – rather than the more usual ‘three-decker’ format – and was not a commercial success, leading the author to confess to George Bentley that ‘I am half sorry I wrote “All in the Dark” with my own name to it’ (qtd. in McCormack 233). In an apparent stylistic digression, All in the Dark is an easy going Victorian romance. There is no intrigue, no torture, no suicides, libertines, mad governesses, mysterious rooms, and definitely no foul play. Instead, a young bourgeois Everyman must conquer financial insecurity and the English class system to win the hand of a lady.

There are, however, ghosts.

Le Fanu critics generally disregard All in the Dark. Nelson Browne dismisses it as ‘the history of a village wooing,’ adding that it ‘provides little to attract the general reader’ (Browne 56 – 57). Le Fanu’s biographer W.J. McCormack similarly describes it as ‘a colourless tale of village wooings,’ and finds it ‘universally disappointing’ (McCormack 232), while Norman Donaldson takes a hacking swing, asserting that ‘The consensus declares it to be the poorest of Le Fanu’s novels’ (Donaldson x).

This common, indifferent critique could, however, indicate a contextual misinterpretation. If anything, All in the Dark initially suffered from a branding problem, representing, as it did, a radical change of style on the part of the author of Uncle Silas, and one with which his public were not in tune. ‘I am now quite convinced it is a great disadvantage to give the public something quite different from what your antecedents had led them to expect from you,’ Le Fanu told Bentley, adding ‘although it may be better’ (qtd. in McCormack 233). The popular historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth had similarly suffered at the hands of his own author function a few years previously with his semi-autobiographical serial The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe (1852). A contemporary setting combined with a satiric deconstruction of his more familiar gothic style found no favour with his fans, and Ainsworth was forced to abandon his new style in favour of the formulaic romances that fed his family (Carver 346 – 347). Only Nicholas Rance seems to get the point regarding All in the Dark, placing the quirky novel within a ‘contemporary extra-literary debate’ concerning ghosts and the latest religious import from America. All in the Dark, argues Rance, is a ‘squib on spiritualism’ (Rance 60 – 61).

All in the Dark is no mere squib however. It is much more complex than the critical heritage allows. It is, indeed, a satire, and it enables Le Fanu to express his opinions on a credulous bourgeoisie ‘addicted to the supernatural’ (Le Fanu 37). In addition, the text also, rather more slyly, interrogates its author’s own work and the genre which it defines. All in the Dark is a Northanger Abbey for the Victorian gothic, but it is a parody that did not, apparently, suit the times, when ghost stories were voraciously consumed, and hauntings were reported in the press like any other news story. On closer reading, however, All in the Dark is at once both a gothic comedy and a serious cultural critique.

All in the Dark is abstractly narrated in the first person by an unidentified cousin of the protagonist, the orphan William Maubray. Maubray is at Cambridge, and is supported by his aunt, Miss Dinah Perfect of Gilroyd Hall, Saxton. Saxton is a real village in North Yorkshire, although the affected naming of the ‘Hall,’ in fact ‘an old red-brick house of moderate dimensions’ (Le Fanu 1), suggests either a Victorian bourgeois modernisation of the more traditional gothic space, or a downright pastiche. The Perfects are a once great but now waning bloodline, usurped by the Trevors of Revington who are, in turn, not as landed as they once were either. In a motif common to Le Fanu, both families can be read as symbols of the dying caste of the Protestant Anglo-Irish, while the setting resembles Southern Ireland over Northern England.

Maubray is in love with the rather frosty Violet Darkwell, Dinah’s other ward, but as a penniless student he cannot propose marriage. Violet, meanwhile, has attracted the attention of the wealthy Vane Trevor, and Dinah is hopeful of a union.  The novel’s principle proairetics therefore concern Maubray’s attempts to undermine Trevor, gain an independent income, and win Violet. This is the ‘village wooing,’ and is a pretty standard ‘rags to riches’ romance. Maubray eventually gets the girl, inherits Gilroyd, and gains a title. But the text is doubled. There is a parallel narrative inverting and subverting the realist.

Setting the scene for a contemporary gothic burlesque, the narrator describes the story as a ‘romance of the shrubbery’ in gentle suburban mockery of Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest (1791) (Le Fanu 44). He also cites The Monk by Mathew Lewis (1796), comically comparing the cadaverous Dinah to the ‘apparition of the Bleeding Nun’ (Le Fanu 27). In an Austenesque move, intertext combines with subtext in the relationship between Maubray and his aunt and her relationship with ‘those wonderful queer books from America’ (Le Fanu 37):

It was about this period, as we all remember, that hats began to turn and heads with them, and tables approved themselves the most intelligent of quadrupeds; chests of drawers and other grave pieces of furniture babbled of family secrets, and houses resounded with those creaks and cracks with which Bacon, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron communicated their several inspirations in detestable grammar, to all who pleased to consult them.

Aunt Dinah was charmed. Her rapid genius loved a short-cut, and here was, by something better than a post office, a direct gossiping intimacy opened between her and the people on t’other side of the Styx. She ran into this as into her other whimsies might and main, with all her heart and soul. She spent money very wildly, for her, upon the gospels of the new religion, with which the transatlantic press was teeming (Le Fanu 5 – 6).

Aunt Dinah has become a Spiritualist, and while Maubray privately considers this to be ‘All bosh and nonsense’ (Le Fanu 19) he is, however, a consumer of gothic narrative (no doubt including the work of Le Fanu):

The student, as I have said, had a sort of liking for the supernatural, and although now and then he had experienced a qualm in his solitary college chamber at dead of night, when, as he read a well-authenticated horror, the old press creaked suddenly, or the door of the inner-room swung slowly open of itself, it yet was ‘a pleasing terror’ that thrilled him (Le Fanu 40) (3).

This sensibility drives the ambivalently supernatural dimension of the plot, while also foregrounding the narratological receptivity of Victorian culture for the occult through their familiarity with the discourse of the literary gothic.

Dinah’s head, we are told, is ‘full of the fancies and terrors of a certain American tome,’ that is identified as the eight-volume Revelations of Elihu Bung, the Pennsylvanian Prophet (Le Fanu 5). This would appear to be a lampoon of Andrew Jackson Davis, while also an amalgam of American Spiritualist literature in general. If Le Fanu had a particular target in mind for ‘Elihu Bung’ it was probably Daniel Dunglas Home (1833 – 1886). Home was a Scottish émigré settled in Connecticut who went on to become, in the words of historian Ruth Brandon, ‘probably the most famous name in Spiritualism’ (Brandon 52). Home had followed Maria Hayden to England in 1855, and conducted hundreds of séances, attracting the endorsement of some very public figures, including Robert Owen, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, James John Garth Wilkinson (who edited Swedenborg), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Home was a natural showman, and was reported to levitate as well as communicate with spirits. He never charged his clients a fee – instead he accepted their ‘hospitality.’ Robert Browning detested Home, and based ‘Mr Sludge’ upon him, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described him as ‘a very great man’ (qtd. in Stashower 92).

Unlike Browning, Le Fanu is not so much interested in mediums as their influence on amateurs and dedicated followers of fashion. Dinah is doing it herself, in common with many Victorians who were following the advice of publications like the weekly magazine The Spiritualist, which suggested that:

Inquirers into Spiritualism should begin by forming spirit circles in their own homes, with no Spiritualist or professional medium present.  Should no results be obtained on the first occasion, try again with other sitters.  One or more persons possessing medial powers without knowing it are to be found in nearly every household (qtd. in Brandon 43).

In an insightful critique of the ‘effects theory’ of popular culture, Dinah’s irritating but essentially harmless beliefs become destructive when she believes her spirit guide, ‘Henbane,’ to have prognosticated her doom.

In popular history and, indeed, contemporary Spiritualism, ‘spirit guides’ are often associated with Blavatsky and Olcott’s Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875, but they have in fact been around much longer. ‘Henbane’ – literally a ruinous and/or poisonous chicken – indicates Le Fanu’s awareness that mediums claimed to pierce the veil via an intermediary, a ‘control’ or ‘spirit’ guide, a benevolent and sociable spirit who would facilitate introductions, locate, and steer dead relatives to séances. The fashion was for Native American guides, and this probably originated from the Shaker sects, many of whom believed that ‘Indian’ spirits visited them. The Shakers eagerly embraced Spiritualism while, ironically, their established belief in clairvoyance may well have influenced the Fox family.  It could also be conjectured that Fenimore Cooper may well have had some influence, Last of the Mohicans (1826) being one of the most widely read American novels of the nineteenth century (4).

Dinah’s absolute certainty that ‘“By half-past twelve o’clock to-morrow night I shall be dead!”’ leads her friend and physician Dr. Drake to diagnose ‘hysteria’ (Le Fanu 14, 24). While the narrator equally treats Dinah as basically delusional, he does note the psychology of fear and its very real effects on behaviour. ‘There seemed something real and grisly in Aunt Dinah’s terror,’ which ‘a little infected’ everyone at Gilroyd (Le Fanu 24). This is a serious point, although handled with humour, while still teasing the reader with supernatural semiotics. Gothic becomes slapstick when Dinah and Drake blunder into each other in the darkened drawing room, each taking the other to be the spirit guide: ‘Tall and thin, and quite unrecognisable by him, was the white figure at the door, with a taper elevated above its head, and which whispered with a horrid distinctness the word “Henbane!”’ (Le Fanu 29).

This scene is a subversion of Le Fanu’s familiar gothic application of chiaroscuro (a Renaissance term for light modelling in painting), as a textual metaphor and narratological device that, as Victor Sage describes, ‘dominates the twilight world in which his characters live’ (Sage 118). The effect is multi-layered. There is suspense, and the familiar competing frames of explanation that characterize a gothic narrative. In Sage’s terms, this is also a ‘transgressive’ moment,’ an ‘epiphany of darkness’ when ‘an older universe of “superstition” and barbarity rushes momentarily into the vacuum left by civilized, “modern,” reasonable doubt’ (Sage 4). Le Fanu’s gothic is replete with such moments, only here it is mise-en-scènically closer to Laurel and Hardy’s Habeas Corpus (1928) than the ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’ (1839).

We are constantly wrong-footed by Le Fanu. The arrival of Dr. Drake and his weird sister immediately suggests a creepy charlatan and his accomplice – in the manner of ‘Mr Sludge’ – or, at the very least, fellow readers of The Spiritualist. Le Fanu toys with us until the first séance, where Dr. Drake appears to be working the room in a form familiar to Victorian sceptics, as well as viewers of Most Haunted:

All being prepared, fingers extended, company intent, Aunt Dinah propounded the first question –

“Is there any spirit present?”

There was a long wait and no rejoinder.

“Didn’t you hear something?” inquired the doctor. William shook his head.

“I thought I felt it,” persisted the doctor. “What do you say, Ma’am?” addressing himself to Winnie, who looked, after her wont, towards her mistress for help.

“Did you feel anything?” demanded Miss Perfect, sharply.

“Nothing but a little wind like on the back of my head, as I think,” replied Winnie, driven to the wall

“Wind on her head! That’s odd,” said Miss Perfect … “very odd!” (Le Fanu 31) (5)

The question is put again, and answered by an upward heave of the table. ‘“Tilt, Ma’am,”’ triumphantly exclaims Winnie (the maid), while Drake gives Maubray’s foot a conspiratorial squeeze (Le Fanu 32).

Maubray doesn’t quite get it yet, and throughout the séance he performs a textual function not unlike Alcibiades’ sneezing fit in Plato’s Symposium. At the beginning of the candle-lit proceedings – as prescribed by Elihu Bung and which Dinah is taking terribly seriously – Maubray ‘exploded into something so like a laugh, though he tried to pass it off for a cough’ (Le Fanu 30). Maubray’s inability to disguise his giggles by noisily clearing his throat, constantly undermine the solemnity of the occasion to the point of farce. Drake is playing a more sophisticated game, which Maubray fails to understand, and the farce is increased by his attempts to subvert Drake’s subversion by refuting every supernatural communication the doctor fakes in order to cure Dinah’s death wish (another Le Fanu leitmotif). Dinah, meanwhile, tries to keep up. The scene is a masterpiece of comic timing, worthy of the author’s great uncle, Richard Brinsley Sheridan:

“Doctor Drake was changing his position just at the moment, and I perceived no other motion in the table nothing but the little push he gave it,” answered William.

“Oh, pooh! yes, of course, there was that,” said the doctor a little crossly; “but I meant a sort of a start – a crack like, in the leaf of the table.”

“I felt nothing of the kind,” said William Maubray.

The doctor looked disgusted, and leaning back took a large pinch of snuff. There was a silence. Aunt Dinah’s lips were closed with a thoughtful frown as she looked down upon the top of the table. (Le Fanu 32).

Drake finally manages to ‘excommunicate’ Maubray by recalling that he might have read somewhere that the spirits avoid unbelievers. With Maubray banished, the increasingly exasperated Drake asks Henbane ‘“Is her [Dinah’s] death to take place at the time then appointed?”’ He manufactures a response to his own question with such enthusiasm that he fires the table across the room, along with his slipper.  Dinah lets this go, but then disallows the goal on a technicality:

“That’s a tilt,” said the doctor, “that means no – a very emphatic tilt.”

“I think it was a jump,” said my aunt, sadly.

“No, Ma’am, no – a tilt, a tilt, I’ll take my oath. Besides a jump has no meaning,” urged he with energy.

“Pardon me: when a question is received with marked impatience a jump is no unfrequent consequence.”

“Oh, ho!” groaned the doctor reflectively. “Then it counts for nothing.”

“Nothing,” said Miss Perfect in a low tone. “Winnie, get the table up again” (Le Fanu 35).

Drake then proposes lexicographical communication, and manages to spell out ‘A-D-J-O-U-R-N-E-D,’ gilding the lily by adding ‘S-I-N-E D-I-E’ and almost spoiling everything:

“It ends with die?” said my poor aunt, faintly.

Sine die, Ma’am. It means indefinitely, Ma’am; your death is postponed without a day named – for ever, Ma’am! It’s all over; and I’m very happy it has ended so. What a marvellous thing, Ma’am – give her some more water, please – those manifestations are. I hope, Ma’am, your mind is quite relieved perfectly, Ma’am.”

Miss Dinah Perfect was taken with a violent shivering, in which her very teeth chattered. Then she cried, and then she laughed; and finally Doctor Drake administered some of his ammonia and valerian, and she became, at last, composed (Le Fanu 36).

The doctor’s relief is palpable – it is almost as if he looks furtively out of the text, catches the reader’s eye and delivers a pantomime wink.

Dinah, meanwhile, who ‘notwithstanding her necromancy, was a well-intending, pious Churchwoman,’ opens the Book of Kings and leads the group in prayer (Le Fanu 36). Throughout the novel, Dinah swayeth and wavereth between the Bible and Elihu Bung, the discourses of Christianity and Spiritualism wrestling for supremacy rather than synergy. In the second act crisis, when she disinherits Maubray, Dinah significantly reads from both texts for guidance, but places Elihu Bung on top of the pile.

Drake does wink, in fact, at Maubray, but the young man is beginning to take Spiritualism quite seriously because of its shared codes with the literary gothic: ‘“And you are convinced it’s true?” urged William, who, like other young men who sit up late, and read wild books, and drink strong coffee, was, under the rose, addicted to the supernatural’ (Le Fanu 37). Maubray wants to believe. He also, we are later told, ‘drew altogether upon the circulating library for his wisdom’ (Le Fanu 53). Drake’s response is, however, noncommittal, diplomatic and pragmatic: “Why, you see, as Shakespeare says, there are more bubbles between heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the philosophers … I wish to live at peace with my neighbours; and I’d advise you to think over this subject, old fellow, and not to tease the old lady up stairs about it’ (Le Fanu 38). Drake’s doctrine of tolerance could be the moral of the story, were Le Fanu not teasing so mercilessly.

Drake’s reverse psychology ultimately backfires however, as Dinah feels her beliefs to be vindicated and continues to consult Henbane on all matters. This leads to a rift with Maubray, when he refuses to follow Henbane’s pronouncement that he must enter the Church in order to satisfy a clause in an obscure family will that would grant him an income of fifteen hundred a year (Le Fanu’s standard way of evaluating social rank). It is difficult not to read Maubray’s horror as an indictment of all who use religion for profit, such as, for example, fake mediums: ‘“to go into the Church without any kind of suitability, is a tremendous thing, for mere gain, a dreadful kind of sin”’ (Le Fanu 104). This conflict pushes Maubray away from Gilroyd and into a Sheridanesque comic ‘double’ plot in which he works as a private tutor under an assumed name, and is mistakenly taken to be an aristocrat incognito by his employers, who try to marry off their daughter.

Regarding the supernatural, however, the impressionable Maubray continues to swing between incredulity and credulity in much the same way that his aunt oscillates between religions. This is a subtle and textured textual dialectic that encompasses Enlightenment Reason versus Romantic superstition, Anglo-Irish Protestantism against both Catholicism and nouveau-American Evangelism, novel and anti-novel (Realist versus Gothic), and the contemporary scientific debate on the nature of apparitions.

Moving from the comedy of the séance, Le Fanu puts Maubray through three major supernatural experiences at Gilroyd. Unlike the séance, these scenes are gothic and narratologically unstable, the style returning to that of The Purcell Papers – ‘I am now going to relate a very extraordinary incident,’ the narrator explains, ‘but upon my honour the narrative is true’:

He thought that he heard a heavy tread traverse the room over his head; he heard the same slow and ponderous step descend the narrow back stair, that was separated from him only by the wall at the back of his bed. He knew intuitively that the person thus approaching came in quest of him, and he lay expecting, in a state of unaccountable terror. The handle of his door turned … then the door swung slowly open, and in the deep shadow, a figure of gigantic stature entered, paused beside his bed, and seized his wrist with a tremendous gripe (Le Fanu 41).

This is episode is left tantalizingly unresolved while Maubray falls in love with Violet, tangles with Vane Trevor, and falls out with his aunt. The apparition returns towards the end of the story, after Dinah and Maubray are reconciled. The frame is the same as the first ‘vision,’ the narrator prefacing with ‘again he had a dream so strange that I must relate it.’ This time the apparition is Dinah’s ‘double,’ balefully moaning ‘“Oh, my God! William, I’m dead – don’t let me go!”’ (Le Fanu 272). As before, Maubray ‘distinctly felt the grasp of a cold hand upon his wrist’ which ‘vanished as he recovered the full possession of his waking faculties, leaving, however, its impression there’ (Le Fanu 275). The style of the classic Le Fanu ghost story is unmistakable – narrative frames of explanation compete while mise-en-scène is eerie and unsettling. There is no apparent trace of humour.

To contemporary Victorian readers, however, this scene would be familiar to the point of cliché. As Srdjan Smajić notes: ‘By the 1860s the strategy of providing suggestive evidence in support of the ghost-seers vision, yet leaving the question of the ghost’s existence undecided, was familiar and predictable – and open to parody’ (Smajić 53). This can be seen, for example, in the article ‘The Latest Thing in Ghosts,’ which appeared in Once a Week in 1862. (Once a Week was published by Bradbury and Evans, who also owned Punch.) Taking his lead from Poe’s ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’ (1840), the anonymous author (6) offers a creative writing master class on the genre, positing the following scenario as a springboard:

The ghost of a relative appears before you one night … The exact time of the visitation is 12.45 a.m. … When you can articulate, you gasp out, “Why, George! What is the meaning of this? How did you get here?”  The spirit shakes its head solemnly … rises from the sofa, gazing at you fixedly all the time, and disappears.  Now, if you understand ghosts – as everyone ought to by this time – you grieve for your friend at once, and prepare your mourning (Anon 102).

Poor old George, of course, dies on the stroke of 12.45 a.m. In this context, the supernatural components of All in the Dark are intentionally contrived to surreal and ridiculous proportions – the haunting is, in fact, hyper-real.

Following the rules, Dinah dies (of natural causes), shortly after the manifestation of her double. With a gallows humour that characterizes the narrative, Winnie is moved to comment that her mistress makes ‘“a very pretty corpse”’ (Le Fanu 297). The narrator then reveals himself again, in a Purcellesque prelude to the final act, adopting a legalistic, evidentiary perspective in the manner of the ipisissima verba that frame many of the Purcell and Hesselius stories:

I come now to some incidents, the relation of which partakes, I can’t deny, of the marvellous. I can, however, vouch for the literal truth of the narrative; so can William Maubray; so can my excellent friend Doctor Wagget; so also can my friend Doctor Drake, a shrewd and sceptical physician, all thoroughly cognizant of the facts. If, therefore, anything related in the course of the next two or three chapters should appear to you wholly incredible, I beg that you will not ascribe the prodigious character of the narrative to any moral laxities on the part of the writer (Le Fanu 319) (7).

Maubray is, again, haunted, although in an epistemological lampoon of gothic ambivalence that anticipates ‘Green Tea’ (1869), he wonders if ‘all the strong tea he had drunk with old Winnie that night helped to make him nervous’ (Le Fanu 325). Most notably, this episode plays with Poe, following, and sometimes paraphrasing, ‘The Raven’ (1845) as the increasingly nervous Maubray attempts to rationalize the phenomena that torment him. There is also a dash of Lewis Carroll:

“Oh! I see; nothing but the shadow, as I move the candle. Yes, only that and nothing more … The fire’s gone out; the room is cooling, and the wood of that ridiculous cabinet is contracting. What can it do but crack? I think I’m growing as mad as – ” he was on the point of saying “as poor Aunt Dinah,” but something restrained him, and he respectfully substituted “as a March hare” (Le Fanu 325 – 326).

In a room locked from the inside, Maubray awakes to find a boot he left outside the previous night placed upon his aunt’s final letter like an ominous paperweight. He reads the sign in the context of the Gothic/Spiritualist zeitgeist: ‘Here was a symbol such as he could not fail to interpret. The heel of his boot on the warnings and entreaties of his poor dead aunt! Could anything be more expressive?’ (Le Fanu 330). In the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round, Dickens will make a similar semiotic move in ‘The Signalman.’

As Gilroyd is ‘a haunted house, and he the sport of a spirit,’ Maubray turns to the Church for answers, seeking the advice of the Anglican rector, Dr. Wagget (Le Fanu 335) (8). Wagget’s opinion of ‘that spiritualism’ alchemically blends Enlightenment moral rationalism with a tacit admission that the Reformed Church relies as much on the supernatural as any other religion. On one hand he rejects the occult as dangerous, if not downright Satanic, while on t’other he keeps his metaphysical options open:

“I don’t say there’s nothing in it … there may be a great deal – in fact, a great deal too much – but take it what way we may, to my mind, it is too like what Scripture deals with as witchcraft to be tampered with. If there be no familiar spirit, it’s nothing, and if there be what is it? … nothing would induce me to sit at a séance. I should as soon think of praying to the devil … The spirit world is veiled from us … and we have no right to lift that veil; few do with impunity” (Le Fanu 299 – 300).

What is it indeed? Here, Dr. Wagget apparently serves a similar textual function to Le Fanu’s Father Purcell. As Sage has convincingly argued, the motives of the framing narrative of The Purcell Papers, in particular the priest’s commitment to accuracy, ‘are evidently not just scientific or a form of disinterested post-Enlightenment anthropology: they are magical and sublime and they involve evidences of the resurrection from the dead’ (Sage 13). Having delivered his warning to the curious, Wagget’s enthusiasm for ghost stories therefore gets the better of him:

“Ha! It is the very best case I ever heard of or read. Everyone knows, in fact, there have been such things. I believe in apparitions. I don’t put them in my sermons, though, because so many people don’t, and it weakens one’s influence to run unnecessarily into disputed subjects” (Le Fanu 332).

He finally compromises both belief-systems by concluding that: ‘“If these things be, they form part of the great scheme of nature, and any evil that may befall you in consequence is as much a subject for legitimate prayer as sickness or any other affliction”’ (Le Fanu 332). As it was in nineteenth century culture as a whole, the subject of apparitions remains, thus, unresolved, the position of the Church ambivalent.

By 1866, this was hardly a new debate. As Smajić has argued, an essentially Positivist discourse that ‘ghost sightings can effectively be explained in physiological terms, namely as optical illusions’ runs through Victorian culture, its origins in literature and science. Smajić traces this back to George Berkeley’s An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), and cites Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830), and physicist Sir David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832) as influential ‘ghost-debunking works’ (Smajić 4) (9). When the narrator of Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’ shows the haunted railwayman that ‘this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight … originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye’ he is indicating an awareness of the on-going scientific debate (Dickens 23).

The influence of Scott’s theory of the supernatural cannot be over-stated, and was certainly still common cultural currency in the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Mackay, for example, still cites Scott’s Letters on Demonology at length when providing examples of spurious ‘haunted houses’ in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds (1852) – ghosts being, of course, very popular delusions just then. Scott was concerned with the emotional effects of apparently (though ultimately explicable) ‘preternatural’ experiences on character. As he wrote in his review of Frankenstein for Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

the author’s principal object … is less to produce an effect by means of the marvels of the narrations, than to open new trains and channels of thought, by placing men in supposed situations of an extraordinary and preternatural character, and then describing the mode of feeling and conduct which they are most likely to adopt (Scott, ‘Remarks on Frankenstein’ 613).

The reference to ‘supposed situations’ signals the final removal of the fantastic from the gothic discourse as far as Scott is concerned, and informs much of his admiration for Radcliffe rather than Walpole or Lewis: ‘A principal characteristic of Mrs Radcliffe’s romances,’ he later wrote in the ‘Prefatory Memoir’ to The Novels of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe (1824), ‘ is the rule which the author imposed upon herself, that all the circumstances of her narrative, however mysterious, and apparently superhuman, were to be accounted for on natural principles, at the winding up of the story’ (Scott ‘Prefatory Memoir of the Life of the Author’ xxiv). Scott then applied this rationalisation of the supernatural to supposedly ‘real’ hauntings and apparitions in his Letters on Demonology. ‘Even Sir Walter Scott is turned renegade,’ James Hogg complained in ‘The Mysterious Bride,’ as ‘a great number of people now-a-days are beginning broadly to insinuate that there are no such things as ghosts’ (Hogg 943).

Le Fanu’s resolves Maubray’s haunting by calling the Ghostbusters. Drake and Wagget keep watch while Maubray retires. They polish off a bottle of Old Tom (lightly sweetened gin) – offering another layer of possible explanation for what follows – and Drake nods off, while Wagget significantly expounds on ‘the precise point on which two early heresies differed’ (Le Fanu 340). As fire, candles and Wagget dim, a sudden noise is heard, and: ‘On turning in the direction of the noise, the clergyman saw a gaunt figure in white gliding from the room’ (Le Fanu 341). The rector is ‘awfully frightened’ and subsequently refrains from visiting Gilroyd after nightfall (Le Fanu 348). The doctor is, however, made of sterner stuff and once more stands vigil. When the ghost once more appears, he gives chase.

George Henry Lewes went beyond Victorian optics and Scott’s epistemology, and took a semiotic approach to apparitions.  ‘When a man avers that he has “seen a ghost,”’ he argued, ‘he is passing far beyond the limits of visible facts, into that of inference. He saw something which he supposed to be a ghost’ (Lewes 383). Structurally speaking, the ghost, like the sign, is arbitrary, its meaning established through collective cultural connections. The revenant is an ancient cross-cultural myth and a gothic archetype. As noted recently in Tod Williams’ movie Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), for example, when people encounter the unexplained they frequently ‘go straight to ghosts.’ The chain of inference, in fact, would seem to have no end. The ‘Hammersmith Ghost’ of 1803, for example, turned out to be a cobbler with a grudge dressed in a sheet. Thomas Milward, a local bricklayer, was mistaken for the apparition by an amateur ghost breaker and shot. Milward’s corpse was taken to the Black Lion Pub, which is widely reported to be haunted by him to this day (Anon, ‘The Strange Case of the Hammersmith Ghost,’ par. 4 – 6).

D.D. Home was never exposed, and the debate regarding the veracity of his powers remains ongoing, although the published diaries of Viscount Adare, Experiences in Spiritualism with Mr. D.D. Home (1869), unintentionally reveal him to be dominating and manipulative, while his converts appear complete fantasists. Forty years after the Hydesville events, Maggie Fox confessed that she and Katie had contrived the mysterious noises using their feet and apples on strings. This statement was quoted at length by R. B. Davenport in The Death-Blow to Spiritualism (1888), but by then it was too late. Boston millionaire Marcellus Seth Ayer had founded The Working Union of Progressive Spiritualists in 1883, and the alcoholic Maggie was quickly discredited by the new church. Jack the Ripper was getting all the press anyway.

The Gilroyd apparition was, in fact, William Maubray, somnambulist, clad in bed sheets and nightshirt, the hand that gripped him his own. Dr. Drake had solved the mystery, testing his hypothesis and facilitating a cure through shock treatment: he woke up the ‘ghost.’ Maubray also finds a final written statement from his aunt, in which she renounces Spiritualism and resolves to ‘make for future the Bible my only guide’ (Le Fanu 353). The Reverend Dr. Wagget provides the moral to the story: ‘“If apparitions be permitted, they are no more supernatural than water-spouts and other phenomena of rare occurrence, but, ipso facto, natural”’ (Le Fanu 355). The family is no longer ‘in the dark.’

Le Fanu died fifteen years before Maggie Fox recanted, which is a pity, as he would no doubt have found her confession hilarious. All in the Dark takes ghosts out of the gothic and into the real world of charlatan celebrities and their credulous converts. At a deeper level, Le Fanu also explores the narrative form itself, his own work in relation to it, and the borderlands between faith, fact, and fiction.  Autobiographically speaking, Maubray’s financial insecurity mirrors Le Fanu’s own, and before the deus ex machina of the inherited title, he considers writing with an insight that suggests the voice of the author over his character:

Literary work, the ambition of so many, not a wise one perhaps for those who have any other path before them, but to which men will devote themselves, as to a perverse marriage, contrary to other men’s warnings, and even to their own legible experiences of life in a dream (Le Fanu 244).

There is also an echo of the mature author in Dr. Wagget, a complex man who loves to hear and tell ghost stories (10). James Joyce similarly dramatized – and satirized – himself in youth (Stephen Dedalus) and middle age (Bloom) in Ulysses (1922) (11). Narratologically, Le Fanu is also following the inward turn of the nineteenth century gothic, in which, as Rosemary Jackson demonstrates, ‘there is a gradual transition from the marvelous to the uncanny’ (Jackson 24).  The gothic fictions of De Quincey, Poe, and Le Fanu all progressively make the psychological move, in a transitioning cultural paradigm where the supernatural is giving way to the natural but is not yet fully displaced.

McCormack reads All in the Dark as a failed attempt at ‘bourgeois realism,’ arguing that the author was ‘ill-suited’ to adopt the ‘new style’ to which this novel allegedly aspires (McCormack 232). Yet this would be a paradigm shifting without a clutch. Le Fanu knows exactly what he is doing. He is satirising the supernatural, and using the narrative codes against themselves, just as the discourses of science, religion, fantasy and realism are colliding in the public arena. All in the Dark catches the epistemological crisis of mid-Victorian culture perfectly, and is as much a part of Le Fanu’s elegant gothic project as The Purcell Papers and In a Glass Darkly.

For Gracie


Adare, Viscount (Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin). Experiences in Spiritualism with Mr. D.D. Home. London: Thomas Scott, 1869.

Anon. ‘The Latest Thing in Ghosts.’ Once a Week: An Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Art, Science & Popular Information, 6 (June 1862) pp. 99 – 103.

Anon. ‘The Strange Case of the Hammersmith Ghost.’ Real British Ghosts. Available from: http://www.real-british-ghosts.com/hammersmith-ghost.html (Accessed January 14, 2011).

Brandon, Ruth. The Spiritualists. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.

Browne, Nelson. Sheridan Le Fanu. London: Arthur Barker, 1951.

Browning, Robert. ‘Mr. Sludge, “The Medium.”’ Dramatis Personae. London: Chapman and Hall, 1864.

Capron, E.W. and Barron, H.D. Explanation of the Mysterious Communion with Spirits. New York: Auburn, 1850.

Carver, Stephen. The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist: William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805 – 1882. New York: Edwin Mellen, 2003.

Davenport, Rueben Briggs. The Death-Blow to Spiritualism. New York: C.W. Dillingham Co, 1888.

Davis, Andrew Jackson. The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and A Voice to Mankind. 3 Vols. Boston: Colby & Rich, 1847.

Dickens, Charles. ‘The Signalman.’ Mugby Junction, The Extra Christmas Number of All the Year Round. London: Chapman & Hall, 1866.

Donaldson, Norman. ‘Introduction to the Dover Edition.’ In J. Sheridan Le Fanu, The Rose and The Key. New York: Dover, 1982.

Gates, Barbara T. Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories. Princeton: University Press, 1988.

Hogg, James. ‘The Mysterious Bride.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, XXVIII (174), (December 1830) pp. 943 – 950.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1981.

James, M.R. ‘Prologue.’ In J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery. London: G. Bell, 1923.

Le Fanu, J.S. All in the Dark. London: Downey & Co, 1898.

Lewes, George Henry. ‘Seeing is Believing.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, LXXXVIII (540), (July 1860) pp. 381 – 395.

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. 2nd. Ed. London: National Illustrated Library, 1852.

McCormack, W.J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Paranormal Activity 2. Dir. Tod Williams. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Podmore, Frank. Modern Spiritualism. 2 Vols. London: Methuen, 1902.

Rance, Nicholas. Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists. London: Macmillan, 1991.

Sage, Victor. Le Fanu’s Gothic: The Rhetoric of Darkness. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Scott, Walter. ‘Remarks on Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, 1818.’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine I (2), (March 1818) pp. 613 – 620.
Scott, Walter. ‘Prefatory Memoir of the Life of the Author.’ The Novels of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe. London: Hurst, Robinson & Co, 1824 pp. i – xxxix.

Scott, Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. London: Routledge, 1884.

Smajić, Srdjan. Ghost-Seers, Detectives, and Spiritualists. Cambridge: University Press, 2010.

Stashower, Daniel. Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. London: Penguin, 1999.

Stefanidakis, Rev. Simeon. ‘The Hydesville Events, March 31, 1848.’ Available from: First Spiritual Temple http://www.fst.org/spirit4.htm (Accessed January 5, 2011).


  1. The Rev. Simeon Stefanidakis of the First Spiritual Temple cites a signed affidavit written by Mrs. Fox on April 4, 1848, in ‘The Hydesville Events, March 31, 1848.’ This may originate from interviews conducted by a Mr. E. Lewis of New York, who published a pamphlet on the phenomenon within days of its occurrence.
  2. All in the Dark is not an easy novel to locate, so I am working from the single volume Downey & Co edition of 1898.
  3. ‘A pleasing terror’ is a phrase nowadays attributed to M.R. James, and is the title of the Ash Tree edition of his complete supernatural writings. It is quoted from James’ article ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’ published in The Bookman in December 1929. Le Fanu is paraphrasing Byron: ‘thy breakers – they to me/Were a delight; and if the freshening sea/Made them a terror – ’twas a pleasing fear’ (‘The Dark Blue Sea,’ Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage).
  4. James Fenimore Cooper regularly attended Leah Fox’s New York séances, as did Washington Irving and Henry Longfellow.
  5. The Spiritualist also advised that a cool breeze was often the first sign of a presence at a séance.
  6. Possibly ‘Charles Felix,’ recently identified as Charles Warren Adams.
  7. See Sage (2004), Chapter One, for a detailed analysis of Father Purcell’s rhetorical strategies.
  8. In the majority of supernatural narratives, haunted protagonists invariably turn to priests rather than Anglican ministers like Dr. Wagget. This is a deeply embedded cultural code signifying Catholicism and, therefore, superstition. See, for example, William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist (1971), and Jay Anson, The Amityville Horror (1977).
  9. Brewster attended one of D.D. Home’s London séances, and was not impressed.
  10. McCormack also makes some biographical connections worth pursuing, but not the ones I identify (McCormack 232 – 233).
  11. The ‘dirty deed’ in ‘Phornix’ and ‘Fiendish’ (Phoenix) Park that underpins Finnegans Wake is also intertextually related to Le Fanu’s novel The House by the Churchyard (1863).