In a preface added to Rookwood for the edition of 1849, Ainsworth describes in some detail the construction of his famous romance (1). Like his first novel Sir John Chiverton (1826, written in collaboration with J.P. Aston), the inspiration for Rookwood came initially from the gothic charge which the author associated with an ancient building:
During a visit to Chesterfield, in the autumn of the year 1831, I first conceived the notion of writing this story. Wishing to describe, somewhat minutely, the trim gardens, the picturesque domains, the rook-haunted groves, the gloomy chambers, and gloomier galleries, of an ancient Hall with which I was acquainted. I resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe (which had always inexpressible charms for me), substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle, and the brigand of the great mistress of Romance (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood).
The ‘ancient Hall’ was Cuckfield Place, Sussex (once apparently described by Percy Shelley as looking ‘like bits of Mrs. Radcliffe’), home of the Rev. William Sergison, a client from Ainsworth’s legal practice who had become a close friend. The Gunpowder Plotters of 1605 had also included Ambrose Rookwood, signalling that Ainsworth’s House of Rookwood is one of England’s old Roman Catholic families.
In a continuation of the project experimentally begun in Sir John Chiverton, the gothic was coming home. The Rookwood preface is Ainsworth’s formal statement of what he calls ‘the design of Romance’ as he claims to have perceived the form when he wrote Rookwood, and his own work in relation to it. He makes the gothic transition implicit in his opening paragraph, explains the cultural and symbolic codes attached to the legend of Dick Turpin and the poetic possibilities of underworld slang (a feature of European romance, whereas ‘We, on the contrary, have scarcely any slang songs of merit’), and admits that he had ‘an eye rather to the reader’s amusement than his edification.’ Most importantly:
The chief object I had in view in making the present essay, was to see how the infusion of a warmer and more genial current into the veins of old Romance would succeed in reviving her fluttering and feeble pulse (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood).
He then suggests that the development of the romance has proved him correct, and that he may claim a certain amount of credit for this revival:
The attempt has succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectation. Romance, if I am not mistaken, is destined shortly to undergo an important change. Modified by the German and French writers – by Hoffmann, Tieck, Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, and Paul Lacroix (le Bibliophile Jacob) – the structure commenced in our own land by Horace Walpole, Monk Lewis, Mrs. Radcliffe, and Maturin, but left imperfect and inharmonious, requires, now that the rubbish which choked up its approach is removed, only the hand of the skilful architect to its entire renovation and perfection (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood).
What is most interesting here is that Scott is omitted, and that Ainsworth looks to the Europeans rather than to the English, with the only exception being a final acknowledgement of the original gothic novelists of the past. The ‘important change’ was that the romance had become the novel. This is of course Ian Duncan’s thesis, which begins with an example of Boz the entertainer of the 1830s hailed as Mr Dickens ‘the national writer’ in a banquet in his honour held in Birmingham in 1853, whereas the novel, he explains: ‘was scarcely regarded as “Literature” at the beginning of the century’ (Duncan 12). By 1849, English fiction was dominated by the rising generation of Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës, Disraeli, and Mrs Gaskell, with an increasing move towards realism and the concerns of the condition of England question. Ainsworth’s romances, by comparison, were fast becoming out of step with a Victorian era within which he seems never to have been completely comfortable. The late-1840s also saw the end of the historical romance’s domination of the market. In 1848 Lytton, that reliable barometer of public tastes, published his last contribution to the genre, Harold. The author of The Tower of London could, however, still quite legitimately claim some allegiance with the author of The Count of Monte Cristo (but hardly with the author of La Comédie humaine) and their mutual literary forefathers of the romantic agony.
In April 1834 however, no-one had ever read anything quite like Rookwood and its publication in three volumes by Richard Bentley launched Ainsworth into literary celebrity with the speed of Black Bess clearing a turnstile gate on the Great North Road. For a reading public that was mourning the passing of Scott and weary of ‘Tales of Fashionable Life’, Rookwood was a revelation: a chaotic, wild and energetic narrative which combined claustrophobic, charnel-house gothic horror with the romance and adventure of the outlaw and the open road, accompanied by a bevy of wonderfully morbid ballads and cheerful drinking songs. The effect on both consumers and critics was electric. Within a couple of weeks of publication, Ainsworth wrote to Crossley that:
The book is doing famously well here – making, in fact, quite a sensation. It has been praised in quarters of which you can have no idea – for instance, by Sir James Scarlett (2) and Lord Durham (3). I have also received a most flattering letter from Bulwer-Lytton, and it has been the means of introducing me to Lady Blessington and her soirées. In fact, as Byron says, I went to bed unknown, arose, and found myself famous. Bentley has already begun to speak of a second edition – he wants to advertise in all the papers … ‘The English Victor Hugo’ has already appeared as a paragraph (Ainsworth 1834).
‘The English Victor Hugo’ is an indication of the vacuum left by the death of Scott two years previously, a situation that Bentley understood and was able to exploit successfully. Dickens was still far from qualifying as a novelist and was virtually unknown, and Lytton had made too many enemies. Fraser’s, for example, took the opportunity to support their man while also using the review to attack Lytton. Thackeray disliked what he considered to be Lytton’s pompous and over-ornamental style, while Maginn simply hated him (4): ‘With Mr. Ainsworth all is natural, free, and joyous: with Mr. Bulwer all is forced, constrained and cold. Ainsworth is always thinking of – or rather with his hero: Bulwer is always thinking of himself.’ Ainsworth’s songs were quoted at length and hailed as the most original feature of the book, towering in standard over the efforts of Lytton in Paul Clifford because Lytton had ‘no sense of humour’ (Anon. 724) (5). In the following number, Ainsworth’s portrait (the first of many by Daniel Maclise) appeared in Fraser’s ‘Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters’ (No. 50), the subject splendidly vain in the outré attire of the dandy of the D’Orsay period, clutching a riding whip and flanked by images of the highwayman, his hair a mass of curls and no doubt sticky with macassar oil. The accompanying caption, written by Maginn himself, wittily remarked that:
We have not the pleasure of being acquainted with Mrs. Ainsworth, but we are sincerely sorry for her – we deeply commiserate her case. You see what a pretty fellow THE young Novelist of the Season is; how exactly, in fact, he resembles one of the most classically handsome and brilliant of the established lady-killers ¼ if he escapes scot-free during the first month of the blaze of his romance, he is a lucky as well as a well-grown lad (Maginn and Maclise 1834).
This was rather closer to the mark than even Maginn probably intended. Fanny did not participate at all in the social whirl that now surrounded her husband. As he had written to Crossley, an introduction from Lytton had gained him entrance to the inner circle of one of the most colourful women of the Regency, Lady Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, whose all-male literary soirées at Seamore Place, Park Lane, were legendary. Ainsworth, as can be seen from contemporary portraits, strongly resembled D’Orsay and Miladi adored him, once famously placing herself on a hearthrug between D’Orsay (her step-son and, it was rumoured, her lover) and Ainsworth and declaring that she was flanked by the ‘two handsomest men in London’ (6). Never fully recovered from the successive births of her three children, exhausted by the legal battles between her husband and her father and humiliated by the former’s public flirtations with Lady Blessington, Ainsworth’s new-found fame seemed only to alienate his wife from him further, and Fanny left to return to her family home in 1835. Her husband moved to Kensal Lodge and, until the end of the decade, was at the heart of literary London; the Lodge ever after known as the site of the most extravagant parties, each guest list an honour-roll of the most distinguished writers, thinkers and politicians of the day. This then was the house that Dick built.
Rookwood was one of the most successful novels of the nineteenth century. The fact that it has now been largely forgotten is in part an indication of the dynamic nature of literary production during this period, the star of 1834-5, Ainsworth, being rapidly eclipsed by Dickens in 1836. Chronologically, it exists exactly between the death of Scott and the emergence of Dickens the novelist. Stylistically, Rookwood is a wonderfully enthusiastic amalgam: blending gothic with Newgate, historical romance with underworld anti-heroes, ‘flash’ dialogue and song, all luridly illustrated by George Cruikshank (7). This was what made Rookwood such a novelty in 1834 although, in many ways, the parts could be said to be greater than the whole. The Turpin narrative, for example, the most popular component of the book, was completely peripheral to the rest of the plot and Book IV, ‘The Ride to York’, was often published separately.
Sir Walter Scott was by now two years dead, having left no apparent successor. If we recall Ainsworth’s preface and then consider Ainsworth’s gothic juvenilia and the shocking, rather than suspense-laden narrative of Rookwood, then dramatically (or rather melodramatically), the novel is much more of a homage to Walpole and Lewis than to Radcliffe and Scott, given Ainsworth’s approach to the supernatural and his unrestrained narrative pace. Rookwood has a discreet relationship with the work of ‘the great mistress of Romance’ (as it does with Scott’s novels), although Ainsworth does resurrect the standard signifiers of the eighteenth century gothic romance: ancient houses with polluted and disconnected genealogies; lost and disguised relatives; slimy subterranean passageways; incest; necrophilia; revenge; sexual tension; physical and psychological violence; and the ambivalent uncanny. These features are combined with, as the author states, an English setting in the year 1737. Here, the generic hybridisation of the text becomes apparent: Rookwood is also a historical romance. Because of this, the accusations of imitation tend to rise like angry bats from the pages of Scott’s journal. The usual dismissal of Rookwood is, to return to Ainsworth’s preface, that ‘substituting’ is the operative word for his project to drag the gothic novel into an English setting. Keith Hollingsworth writes, for example, that Rookwood contains, ‘probably no single item of originality’ (Hollingsworth 99). The decaying estate of Rookwood recalls Scott’s Ravenswood from The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and Rookwood’s principal proairetic, the conflict between two half-brothers over the family inheritance and the hand of the fair Miss Mowbray, is also the plot of Scott’s St. Ronan’s Well (1823). This may ostensibly appear rather damning evidence for the prosecution, but there is a rewriting of Scott taking place within Rookwood that has little to do with superficial similarities or downright plagiarism. Such a direct connection with Scott at such a charged historical moment offers an opportunity to examine the whole relationship between the gothic and the historical romance. The difference between the style of Ainsworth and Scott in Rookwood signals an interesting struggle for the control and direction of the gothic narrative in the nineteenth century.
According to legend, whenever a branch falls from an ancient lime-tree in the grounds of Rookwood Place, a death in the family is sure to follow. Under such ominous circumstances, Sir Piers Rookwood, lord of the manor, dies suddenly, leaving his wife and two sons, one legitimate and one not, to battle over the inheritance against a backdrop of plots, counter-plots, supernatural events, ill omens and ancient prophecy. Rookwood opens in the family vault, which sets the tone for the majority of the novel. By the coffin of his mother Susan, Luke Bradley is told by his grandfather, Peter Bradley (the deranged sexton), that he is the son and heir of the recently deceased Sir Piers Rookwood. Peter hints that Susan did not die of natural causes and at that moment her coffin falls from its shelf. In a fit of grief, Luke takes the hand of his dead mother, which comes away in his own, revealing a wedding ring. Luke realises he is not illegitimate and resolves to claim his inheritance as Luke Rookwood, eldest son of Sir Piers, unaware that this entire episode has just been craftily orchestrated by his grandfather. Luke’s rival is his half-brother Ranulph, whose mother, the dowager Lady Maud Rookwood, is as scheming and manipulative as the sexton. Another ancient prophecy foretells that two distant branches of the family will unite and control everything. The key to this eventuality appears to be the beautiful Eleanor Mowbray, Ranulph’s cousin and the heir of his grandfather Sir Reginald Rookwood. Eleanor loves Ranulph, but Luke becomes obsessed with her (as Peter Bradley hoped), and rejects his gypsy lover, Sybil Lovel, in order to pursue Eleanor, whom he intends to force into marriage. With the help of the highwayman Dick Turpin (8), Luke almost succeeds but is tricked into marrying Sybil instead of Eleanor, who has been drugged and spirited away to a gypsy encampment. Sybil frees Eleanor and commits suicide, and Luke is killed by Sybil’s grandmother Barbara, who sends him a lock of Sybil’s hair laced with poison. Peter Bradley, now revealed as the long-lost brother of Sir Reginald, Alan Rookwood, and Lady Rookwood finally confront each other in the family vault but, ‘some secret machinery’ entombs then alive while they fight. Ranulph and Eleanor survive and are married. Bizarrely enough, the principal plot co-ordinates of disputed inheritance, Cain and Abel, mysterious, manipulative and disguised relatives and the marital sleight of hand in order to gain property are all, as Hollingsworth has noted, the same as those of Scott’s St. Ronan’s Well.
St. Ronan’s Well is a comedy of manners, as the author put it a ‘celebrare domestica facta’, written ‘from the hope of rivalling the many formidable competitors who have already won deserved honours in this department’ (Scott, Introduction to St. Ronan’s Well iv). Note that those who are not ‘imitators’ are ‘competitors’. The first volume is an Austenesque, satirical examination of the social dynamics of society folk at the spa of St Ronan’s, punctuated by the appearance and then disappearance of the enigmatic traveller Francis Tyrrel. It is eventually revealed in the second volume that Tyrrel has returned to thwart the diabolical schemes of his half-brother, Valentine Bulmer: usurper of the title Earl of Etherington and destroyer of Tyrrel’s once-betrothed, Clara Mowbray, whom Bulmer had tricked into marriage some years previously. These highly complex issues are resolved surprisingly tragically with the death of both villain and victim, and Tyrrel’s retirement to a Moravian mission, his title and estates unclaimed. The novel was not a success. Scott himself conceded that St. Ronan’s Well was not received with much critical enthusiasm ‘on the southern side of the Tweed’ (Scott, Introduction to St. Ronan’s Well x). Rookwood which, as we have noted, was a critical success at least in its own day, is not so much a copy of Scott’s earlier novel as its negative image. When Scott is light, Ainsworth is dark and, crucially, apparently devoid of any identifiable moral centre, the author’s praise for the most part being reserved for the completely unrepentant figure of the highwayman Dick Turpin.
The motivations of Scott’s characters are generally either honour or profit. Tyrrel cannot court the now unbalanced Clara because she is already married, albeit by virtue of subterfuge (Bulmer pretended to be Tyrrel as Sybil impersonated Eleanor), but he does not desire vengeance and has little interest in his inheritance, merely wishing to protect Clara from any further psychological molestation. Bulmer regrets his youthful transgression; but he is on the brink of ruin and needs to be seen publicly to marry Clara to gain another estate as laid down in the conditions of a family will. Squire Mowbray distrusts Bulmer but is in his debt and therefore unable to hinder his designs upon his sister, although it is Mowbray who kills Bulmer in a duel at the novel’s conclusion, the rules of gentlemanly combat being correctly observed. All of these events are witnessed, and to a certain extent controlled, by the bombastic Mr Touchwood, a disguised yet fundamentally sympathetic relative. The protagonists of Rookwood, conversely, exist in a fallen state which they all acknowledge quite prosaically; as the sexton observes:
‘When did a great man’s heir feel sympathy for his decease? When did his widow mourn? When doth any man regret his fellow? Never! He rejoiceth – he maketh glad in his inmost heart – he cannot help it – it is nature. We all pray for – we all delight in each other’s destruction. We were created to do so; or why else should we act thus? I never wept for any man’s death, but I have often laughed’ (Ainsworth 90).
In this Hobbesian universe, the only honour is among thieves – ‘Or where else should you seek it?’ says Turpin in Rookwood ‘for it has left all other classes of society’ (Ainsworth 135) – and dark fate dominates all. In such a damned and deterministic environment the primary male players are generally controlled by a will to power comprising, in roughly equal measure, lust, greed and obsessive fantasies of elaborate revenge. In characters such as Luke Bradley and his manipulative grandfather, the disguised sexton, Alan Rookwood (a dark shadow of Touchwood), betrayed and banished by his brother half a century previously, we have the satanic dialectic of power, desire and predestination that was at the heart of the gothic from Walpole’s Manfred onwards and downwards.
Ainsworth’s early presentation of Luke is as a brooding, romantic hero: brave, athletic and handsome, unjustly disinherited and in pursuit of his rightful title. This is, of course, a common enough plot device. Luke in fact bears the mark of Cain. As the author explains in his preface:
One wholesome moral, however, may, I trust, be gathered from the perusal of this Tale; namely, that, without due governance of the passions, high aspirations and generous emotions will little avail their possessor. The impersonations of the Tempter, the Tempted, and the Better Influence, may be respectively discovered, by those who care to cull the honey from the flower, in the Sexton, in Luke, and in Sybil (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood).
Luke is in fact the doppelgänger of his half-brother, the whiter-than-white Ranulph, another pretender to the mantle of hero; Luke is Ranulph’s Other, in a symbolic relationship not unlike that which exists between Ainsworth and Dickens in English literature: ‘We are both the slaves of fate’, he tells his brother, over the laid-out corpse of their father (Rookwood is certainly one of Ainsworth’s most necrophiliac texts, which again sets his style against that of Scott’s), ‘You have received your summons hither – I have had mine. Your father’s ghost called you; my mother’s spectral hand beckoned me’ (Ainsworth 81).
As with most good villains, Luke’s character has more dramatic range than Ranulph’s, allowing for a certain unpredictability of action, if not downright ambivalence (like Turpin, who he is siding with in a scrap is often unclear). The reader’s expectation, however, that Luke will not live to see the last page while Ranulph will win the day, get the girl and inherit the estate is never really in question after Book III, Chapter Six, when he first sees Eleanor and promptly falls completely into the sexton’s trap. His grandfather’s endless recourse to prophecy plays upon Luke’s desire for power:
‘And who is Eleanor Mowbray?’ asked Luke, breaking the silence.
‘Your cousin. On the mother’s side a Rookwood. ’Tis therefore I would urge your union with her. There is a prophecy relating to your house, which seems as though it would be fulfilled in your person and in hers:
‘Their application to yourself and Eleanor Mowbray is unquestionable’, replied the sexton.
‘It would seem so, indeed’, rejoined Luke; and he again sank into abstraction, from which the sexton did not care to arouse him (Ainsworth 132, author’s original font) (9).
Nonetheless, Luke’s fatal flaw remains his lust; a lust for power and property, for revenge in the name of his dead mother, but mostly for Eleanor’s pale, bourgeois beauty. Were he to accept his social position in life, which of course he can’t, he could have married his gypsy lover Sybil and frolicked about like George Borrow in Mumpers’ Dingle without any need for magic, murder and monomania (10).
This is where Ainsworth cuts the mooring line with Scott. Scott is concerned not with evil, violence or the supernatural but in the emotional effect which such experience has on the individual. As he wrote in his Remarks on Frankenstein:
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, Blackwood’s 613).
Here Scott shows his allegiance to Radcliffe who, through the sublime, suspense and deferred desire elevated anxiety, as Ian Duncan has written, to a ‘metaphysical state’ (Duncan 47). Scott attempts this technique, for example, in his gothic short story ‘The Tapestried Chamber’ (1829), where it is not the apparition of Lord Woodville’s ‘wretched ancestress’ that is of importance but the reaction of the seasoned campaigner General Browne to his night in the haunted room. Here it was no more necessary to show the ghost than it was for Edward Waverley to witness the Battle of Culloden Moor. The origin of this device is of course the Black Veil incident in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). The reference to ‘supposed situations’ signals the final removal of the fantastic from the gothic discourse and informs much of Scott’s admiration for Radcliffe rather than Walpole or Lewis:
A principal characteristic of Mrs Radcliffe’s romances, 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 xxiv).
Scott has turned the gothic to his own ideal here. The historical romance and the gothic are actually performing the same function, at least after the removal of any unpleasantness. Scott’s analysis of the direction of the nineteenth century novel is really quite brilliant, anticipating the inward turn towards psychological exploration that would characterise the Victorian realist novel and which, behind the veil, the later Victorian gothic would parallel. What is missing from Scott’s gothic-as-historical model is the supernatural dimension, as if appealing to the famous words of Henry Tilney: ‘Remember that we are English, that we are Christians!’ (Austen 199). It is useful to note here the similarities between Scott’s beliefs regarding gothic fiction and Lukács’s hugely influential work on the historical novel; compare Scott’s statement on the supernatural to Lukács on the historical:
What matters … in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in these events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality (Lukács 42).
Lukács’s partisan criticism (which often denies a work of literature’s relationship to other works of literature in favour of his politics, and which shows his contempt for the gothic romance, Otranto in particular, as an inferior ancestor of Scott’s innovations) remains a powerful argument. Scott undoubtedly represents a major break with the eighteenth century novel, yet was this as emphatic as strict Lukácsians would have us believe?
Ainsworth, on the other hand, returns to the earlier form and engages more directly with the supernatural and the literalisation of prophecy and imagination in the tradition of Walpole; in effect, he breaks from Scott. In this respect, the House of Rookwood is not dissimilar to The Castle of Otranto. Manfred, prince of Otranto, has a ‘dread of seeing accomplished’ an ancient and highly literal prophecy:
That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it (Walpole 51, author’s original italics).
Shortly thereafter, Walpole renders this augury in actuality; leaving Manfred stunned by the physicality of that which should live only in the imagination and, at the same time, irredeemably committed to the predicted course that will destroy himself and his House:
He fixed his eyes on what he wished in vain to believe a vision; and seemed less attentive to his loss, than buried in meditation on the stupendous object that had occasioned it. He touched, he examined the fatal casque; nor could even the bleeding mangled remains of the young prince divert the eyes of Manfred from the portent before him (Walpole 58).
It is a similar reading of visions, omens and uncanny events that determines the direction of Rookwood’s narrative and its central characters, whether good, bad or indifferent. As with Otranto, Rookwood opens with an ancient prophecy:
‘Is it possible you have never heard of the ominous Lime-tree, [the sexton tells Luke] and the fatal bough? Why, ’tis a common tale hereabouts, and has been for centuries … That tree is, in some mysterious manner, connected with the family of Rookwood, and immediately previous to the death of one of that line, a branch is sure to be shed from the parent stem, prognosticating his doom’ (Ainsworth 4).
This is also an early indication of Ainsworth’s attraction to the device of prophecy as tragic inevitability which later became central to his historical romances (11), whereby action is predetermined rather than dictated by rational consequence and the mechanisms of probability that we associate with Scott. Similarly, the struggle between Luke and his half-brother Ranulph Rookwood over the unfortunate Miss Eleanor Mowbray is engendered by the sexton’s recourse to the prophecy that, ‘The Rook that with Rook mates shall hold him possest’, (the sexton, as always, playing chess with people rather than pieces). Bulmer’s reasons for marrying Clara in St. Ronan’s Well are purely commercial, the ruling being legal rather than ominous, although the desired outcome is the same as Luke’s:
‘Mr S. Mowbray of Nettlewood’s last will and testament, by which I saw, to my astonishment and alarm, that a large and fair estate was bequeathed to the eldest son and heir of the Earl of Etherington, on condition of his forming a matrimonial alliance with a lady of the house of Mowbray, of St Ronan’s’ (Scott, St. Ronan’s Well 111).
The rational has again replaced the unreal with a kind of ironic materialism, although the effects appear ostensibly to be similar to those of Rookwood.
It is through the patriarchal manipulation of Clara Mowbray that St. Ronan’s Well could be argued to utilise a gothic archetype, albeit concealed within a novel of social manners. Such is also the case in Rookwood. Both novels, although Rookwood probably more so, represent a partial retelling of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho but where the sensibility of the gothic heroine is not explored. Equally, the possibility of rape and murder that threatens Emily in Udolpho actually happens to Clara (although codified as a forced marriage and a melancholy death), and very nearly happens to Eleanor, in both cases motivated by the (gothic) compulsion of external pressure becoming private psychopathology. Luke Bradley is driven by his grandfather’s desire for revenge on his brother’s House and his descendants (Alan Rookwood’s obsessions now being imposed on the next generation), and Tyrrel and Bulmer are locked in a terminal embrace because of the twisted legacy of their father and his brother. The women remain passive recipients of all this violence, completely marginalised while boys will be boys. In common with Udolpho, nonetheless, Rookwood and St. Ronan’s Well dramatise their heroines’ descent into the madness of others’ design; to enter Rookwood is to enter Udolpho, where visions are made flesh but also where escape and rescue are at least possible, but for Scott’s heroine the fall has occurred before the present narrative and she is, therefore, already beyond redemption according to the rules of gender and society, and therefore as doomed as damned:
She started at these words with a faint scream; for slowly, and with a feeble hand, the curtains of the bed opposite to the side at which Cargill sat, were opened, and the figure of Clara Mowbray, her clothes and long hair drenched and dripping with rain, stood in the opening by the bedside. The dying woman sat upright, her eyes starting from their sockets, her lips quivering, her face pale, her emaciated hands grasping the bed-clothes, as if to support herself, and looking as much aghast as if her confession had called up the apparition of her betrayed friend.
‘Hannah Irwin’, said Clara, with her usual sweetness of tone, ‘my early friend – my unprovoked enemy! – Betake thee to Him who hath pardon for us all, and betake thee with confidence – for I pardon you as freely as if you had never wronged me – as freely as I desire my own pardon. – Farewell – Farewell!’ (Scott, St. Ronan’s Well 342).
This defused gothic moment (heralding Clara’s textual execution) is also about as far as Scott is willing to go, the apparition resolved into the unfortunate but still breathing figure of his heroine. In Rookwood, by comparison, Ainsworth is more apt to push the boundaries of acceptable taste and decency with his gothic bodies:
The Knight of Malta advanced towards the altar. The torch-light reddened upon the huge stone pillars. It fell upon the shrine, and upon the ghastly countenance of Sybil, who stood beside it. Suddenly, as the light approached her, an object, hitherto hidden from view, was revealed. Sybil uttered a prolonged and fearful shriek; the Knight recoiled likewise in horror; and a simultaneous cry of astonishment burst from the lips of the foremost of the group. All crowded forward, and universal consternation prevailed amongst the assemblage. Each one gazed at his neighbour, anxious to learn the occasion of this tumult, and vague fears were communicated to those behind, from the terrified glances which were the only answers returned by their comrades in front.
‘Who has dared to bring that body here?’ demanded Barbara, in a tone in which anger struggled with apprehension, pointing at the same time to the ghastly corpse of a female, with streaming hair, at the altar’s feet. ‘Who has dared to do this, I say? Quick! Remove it. What do you stare at? Cravens! Is this the first time you have looked upon a corpse, that you should shrink aghast that you tremble before it? It is a clod – ay, less than a clod. A way with it! Away, I say.’
‘Touch it not’, cried Luke, lifting a cloud of black hair from off the features; ‘it is my mother’s body’ (Ainsworth 213 – 214).
In common with James Hogg, Ainsworth seems fascinated by dead bodies and employs them to outrageous effect. This was once so with Scott the romantic poet, but never Scott the novelist.
With regard to their living heroines however, Udolpho and Rookwood ephemerally converge to the exclusion of Scott, as Radcliffe and Ainsworth both thrust their heroines into this imaginary realm of the gothic narrative, to emerge reasonably unscathed in the rational world at the conclusion of their bizarre adventures. Their tormentors, once so apparently powerful, now have no influence or agency at all:
Montoni, too, often rose to her fancy, such as she had seen him in his days of triumph, bold, spirited and commanding; such also as she had since beheld him in his days of vengeance; and now, only a few short months had passed – and he had no longer the power, or the will to afflict; – he had become a clod of earth, and his life was vanquished like a shadow! (Radcliffe 580).
Equally, as Eleanor’s brother tells her before her idyllic marriage to Ranulph at the conclusion of Rookwood, ‘all your misfortunes will have occurred before marriage’, and:
[A]s in a simple state, after the completion of the sacred rites, the youthful pair walked, arm in arm, amongst their thronging and admiring tenants towards the Hall, many a fervent prayer was breathed that the curse of the House of Rookwood might be averted from their heads; and, not to leave a doubt upon the subject, we can add that these aspirations were not in vain, but that the day, which dawned so brightly, was one of serene and unclouded happiness to its close (Ainsworth 329 – 330).
Paradoxically perhaps, it is only Clara, whose experiences never venture outside those of reasoned, if nasty, reality that has to be sacrificed; such is the concession the author must make to reality if fantasy (in this case the fantasy of a happy ending) is to be denied. Scott has taken a gothic plot yet rejected the gothic; if the disadvantages are not to apply then neither must the advantages.
Although Ainsworth was an enormous admirer of Scott, Rookwood can still be read as an act of almost Oedipal rebellion against him; and, thus reacting against his literary parent, where else could he go but to the values of the grandparents? Ainsworth identified an annexation of the gothic by the historical novel, and rather playfully stole it back again. This remained true of his later work, where the fundamentally historical novels he produced after the moral panic and concerted critical attacks of the Newgate controversy still made enormous use of gothic atmosphere, in violent and uncanny gestures that could occur at any time in the course of a narrative. Andrew Sanders has written that Ainsworth’s novels, ‘reveal that, unlike most other Victorian writers, he has learnt very little indeed from Sir Walter Scott’ (Sanders 33), yet this lazy critical tendency to classify Ainsworth as a slavish, but inferior follower of Scott the romantic novelist takes little account of the legacy of Scott the Romantic poet. There is a certain voyeurism in Rookwood that indicates that its author had certainly learnt something from Marmion if not Waverley.
In a somewhat ironic parallel, Scott’s wonderful early romantic, narrative poems have become almost as marginalised in literary study as Ainsworth’s novels, lingering, just, into twentieth century classrooms but generally ignored in the revival of interest in Scott outside Scotland that occurred in the 1970s; Robin Mayhead wrote in 1973 that:
Scott’s poetry is harder to recommend today than any other branch of his work. The temptation virtually to ignore it is strong. One may make out a seemingly convincing case for relatively weak novels, can make them sound in some way interesting, even though the actual reading of them will show up the case as an exercise in special pleading. The less desirable kind of Scott Revival criticism, indeed, fails in precisely that way. But with the poetry it is quite different. Whereas the not particularly scrupulous account of a poor novel may suggest that the book has a thematic interest, often of a sociological type, constituting a claim for it to be read, Scott’s poetry contains very little that can be made to sound inviting (Mayhead 111) (12).
In looking for a gothic antecedence that might be somehow more appropriate in connecting Scott with Ainsworth, Scott’s poetry suddenly sounds very inviting indeed.
By way of illustrative example, there is a ballad by Scott inspired by his work on Matthew Lewis’s ‘hobgoblin repast’ Tales of Wonder (1801), entitled ‘Glenfinlas: or, Lord Ronald’s Coronach’ (1802), which spins a yarn worthy of Bill Gaines’s Tales from the Crypt comics or Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy (13). A ‘coronach’ is a lamentation for a dead warrior sung by a clan elder, and this one concerns two Highland hunters, passing their night in a secluded hut in ‘grey Glenfinlas’ deepest nook’. Lord Ronald likes to drink and make merry, while his companion Moy is of a more sombre nature, being cursed with second sight and mourning his dead lover, Morna. Ronald’s lover, Mary, is very much alive, and he leaves the hut for a clandestine meeting, never to return. Only his hounds come back, howling ‘in melancholy sound.’ Alone on the increasingly wild night, Moy plays his Jew’s harp until his dogs growl and he hears footsteps outside, then:
And by the watch-fire’s glimmering light,
Close by the minstrel’s side was seen
An huntress maid, in beauty bright,
All dropping wet her robes of green.
All dropping wet her garments seem;
Chill’d was her cheek, her bosom bare,
As, bending o’er the dying gleam,
She wrung the moisture from her hair. (Scott, ‘Glenfinlas’ 153 – 160).
This voluptuous vision claims to be the daughter of the Lord of Glengyle, and is searching for her lost sister in the storm. She tries every womanly wile to seduce Moy and lead him outside to protect her from ‘shrieking ghosts’, questioning his masculinity when he repeatedly declines. Moy responds with a muddle of magic and Christian incantations, playing a strain ‘consecrated to the Virgin Mary’, and thereby compelling the visitor to reveal her true form:
Tall wax’d the Spirit’s altering form,
Till to the roof her stature grew;
Then, mingling with the rising storm,
With one wild yell away she flew. (Scott, ‘Glenfinlas’ 225 – 228) (14).
The storm becomes a whirlwind, ‘But not a lock of Moy’s loose hair/Was waxed by wind, or wet by dew.’ In this supernatural tempest, from which the pious Moy is protected by his faith, it is not rain that is falling upon Glenfinlas:
The voice of thunder shook the wood,
As ceased the more than mortal yell;
And, spattering foul, a shower of blood
Upon the hissing firebrands fell.
Next dropp’d from high a mangled arm;
The fingers strain’d an half-drawn blade:
And last, the life-blood streaming warm,
Torn from the trunk, a gasping head (Scott, ‘Glenfinlas’ 237 – 244).
Lord Ronald has returned, at least what’s left of him.
Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808), Scott’s most famous poem and a pre-Byronic epic of passion, betrayal and death, is equally extreme. There is a fascination with torture and violence here which has been totally excised from the bard’s prose of later years, even those novels which employ many of the devices of the gothic melodrama such as the Tales of My Landlord. Unlike ‘Glenfinlas’, Marmion makes little use of the supernatural (15), yet the poet does linger on the horror of the death of Constance de Beverley, an Inquisitional torture worthy of Lewis’s The Monk, but not Radcliffe’s The Italian:
And now that blind old Abbot rose,
To speak the Chapter’s doom,
On those the wall was to enclose,
Alive, within the tomb (Scott, Marmion II. XXV).
Scott had written about the Inquisition at length in the seventh of his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft of 1830 – which David Punter describes quite properly as ‘also a compendium of themes and images used by gothic writers’ (Punter I.141) – and his punishment of Constance, a nun who has broken her vows for love, recalls the punishment of Agnes de Medina, a nun who has broken her vows for love in The Monk:
St. Clare’s rules are severe: But grown antiquated and neglected, many of late years have either been forgotten, or changed by universal consent into milder punishments. The penance, adjudged to the crime of Agnes, was most cruel, most inhuman! The Law had been long exploded: Alas! It still existed, and the revengeful Prioress now determined to revive it. This law decreed, that the Offender should be plunged into a private dungeon, expressly constituted to hide from the world for ever the Victim of Cruelty and tyrannic superstition (Lewis 351)
Constance is obsessed with the King’s (fictitious) favourite Marmion, and follows him disguised as a page (another plot device favoured by both Lewis and Ainsworth). In his pursuit of the beautiful Lady Clare, who is already betrothed to Sir Ralph de Wilton, Marmion enlists the help of Constance to accuse Sir Ralph falsely of treason. Constance foolishly hopes to regain her lover by helping him, but is betrayed and returned to her convent where she is walled up alive. So pitiful are her cries that her executioners flee from the scene, ordering the chapel bells to toll long and loud, ostensibly to mark the passing of a soul into the afterlife but actually to drown out the horrific screams of the dying woman. This terrible sound of frustration and despair enshrouds the entire landscape, even making the hair of the most powerful highland animals stand on end:
And hundred winding steps convey
That conclave to the upper day;
But, ere they breathed the fresher air,
They heard the shriekings of despair,
And many a stifled groan:
With speed their upward way they take,
(Such speed as age and fear can make,)
And cross’d themselves for terror’s sake,
As hurrying, tottering on:
Even in the vesper’s heavenly tone,
They seem’d to hear a dying groan,
And bade the passing knell to toll
For welfare of a parting soul.
Slow o’er the midnight wave it swung,
Northumbrian rocks in answer rung;
To Warkworth cell the echoes roll’d,
His beads the wakeful hermit told,
The Bamborough peasant raised his head,
But slept ere half a prayer he said;
So far was heard the mighty knell,
The stag sprung up on Cheviot Fell,
Spread his broad nostril to the wind,
Listed before, aside, behind,
Then couch’d him down beside the hind,
And quaked among the mountain fern,
To hear that sound so dull and stern (Scott, Marmion II. XXXIII).
Scott the historical novelist would defend such an episode as a matter of antiquarian verisimilitude, but here the theme is employed exactly as it was by the eighteenth century gothic novelists. The ‘tyrannic superstition’ of medieval European Catholicism, the perfect gothic Other of Great British Protestant rationalism, while simultaneously playing upon a titillating, sadistic fascination with horror and violence, will always sell, from gothic novels in the eighteenth century to contemporary horror movies and video games.
Ainsworth similarly exploits such horror at the conclusion of Rookwood, when the sexton/Alan Rookwood is accidentally locked within the vault where the story began. Only Luke knows his whereabouts and as he waits for his grandson he becomes increasingly frantic. We know, however, that Luke will never come. He is already dead. With a precision worthy of the best of Blackwood’s, the author then minutely documents the stages of such a disgusting death, from panic to ineffectual escape attempts, to hallucinations, despair, starvation and, finally, death. It should also be noted that this process is presented as Alan’s ‘fate’, suspending any possibility of rescue and replacing any remaining drama with a grinding inevitability:
Alan now abandoned himself wholly to despair … His fate was sealed. Death awaited him. He must anticipate his slow but inevitable stroke, enduring all the grinding horrors of starvation. The contemplation of such an end was madness … Terrors of a new kind now assailed him. The dead, he fancied, were bursting from their coffins, and he peopled the darkness with grisly phantoms. They were around about him on each side, whirling and rustling, gibbering, groaning, shrieking, laughing, and lamenting. He was stunned, stifled. The air seemed to grow suffocating, pestilential; the wild laughter was redoubled; the horrible troop assailed him; they dragged him along the tomb, and amid their howls he fell, and became insensible … He arose. He rushed towards the door; he knocked against it with his knuckles till the blood streamed from them; he scratched against it with his nails till they were torn off by the roots. With insane fury he hurled himself against the iron frame; it was in vain … Physical suffering now began to take the place of his mental tortures. Parched and consumed with a fierce internal fever, he was approached by an unappeasable thirst … He licked the humid floor; he sought to imbibe the nitrous drops from the walls; but, instead of allaying his thirst, they increased it … Nor were the pangs of hunger wanting. He had to endure all the horrors of famine, as well as the agonies of quenchless thirst.
In this dreadful state three days and nights passed over Alan’s fated head. Nor night nor day had he … Each hour added to his suffering, and brought with it no relief. During this period of prolonged misery reason often tottered on her throne. He dragged coffins from their recesses, hurled them upon the ground, striving to break them open and drag forth their loathsome contents. Upon other occasions he would weep bitterly and wildly; and once – only once – did he attempt to pray; but he started from his knees with an echo of infernal laughter, as he deemed, ringing in his ears … At length he became sensible of his approaching dissolution ¼ Gathering together his remaining strength, he dragged himself towards the niche wherein his brother, Sir Reginald Rookwood, was deposited, and placing his hand upon the coffin, solemnly exclaimed, ‘My curse – my dying curse – be upon thee evermore!’
Falling with his face upon the coffin, Alan instantly expired. In this attitude his remains were discovered (Ainsworth 335 – 336).
Lady Rookwood has already been crushed to death inside a stone sarcophagus. The ‘infernal laughter’ may indeed by demonic, or the ghost of Alan’s brother, or Alan himself; unusually for Ainsworth, the supernatural element of Rookwood is relatively ambiguous. Unlike Radcliffe, he does however prefer competing frames of explanation to any ultimate rational clarification. Like the death of Constance in Marmion, the sexton’s demise is dwelled upon to a disturbingly meticulous extent. Both authors seem to be enjoying themselves, reminding one with a knowing smile of a tapestry representing Matthew 2:16 hanging in Rookwood Hall, being:
The record of the patience and industry of a certain Dame Dorothy Rookwood, who flourished some centuries ago, and whose skilful needle had illustrated the slaughter of the Innocents, with a severity of gusto, and sanguinary minuteness of detail, truly surprising in a lady so amiable as she was represented to have been (Ainsworth 71).
Contemporary reviewers understood best what was going on in Rookwood, specifically that the text should not be taken too seriously (which is also an often misunderstood rule of horror movies and other extreme cinema). Fraser’s, for example, was in no doubt as to the author’s position in the literary hierarchy, punning on Southey’s epithet, ‘the Lake Poet’, and on the pre-Romantic graveyard poets, Parnell, Young, Blair and Gray:
Our Regina takes still a quasi-maternal interest in this young author … That face (with figure to correspond) sold five hundred extra copies of our magazine two years ago (16) … We know not whether he has yet determined what school of poetry he intends to patronize … we think he has a decided vocation for the ‘sepulchral’: his immortal ballad of The Old Oak Coffin … revealed in him the existence of a power akin to that of Ezekiel, and was, in sooth, as glorious a vision of dry bones as we can recollect just now. Southey has chosen a domicile on the margin of his favourite lakes to enact the genius loci: it is not without reason that Ainsworth has latterly selected a rural residence close by the grand necropolis (17) on the Harrow Road: if ‘the cemetery company’s directors’ have any brains they will vote him £500 a year and create him laureate of the graveyard, with the grass of the enclosed grounds in fee-simple to his Pegasus (18) for ever (Anon. 1836) (19).
The Old Oak Coffin is one of 30 original songs sung by characters in the novel (a mixture of morbid, prophetic ballads sung mostly by the sexton or the gypsy priestess, and rollicking, trolloping tub-thumpers in praise of famous robbers, usually belted out by a half-drunk Dick Turpin or the very drunk ‘Canting Crew’, the male gypsy outlaws), which add to the general air of a chaotic stage production that characterises Rookwood; The Beggar’s Opera is certainly a model, in parallel with a wonderfully bizarre gothic musical accompaniment, to which the reviewer wryly alludes. To Thackeray, the likely author of the Fraser’s review (not yet outraged by the Newgate novel craze that was to follow), Ainsworth was the ultimate graveyard poet, his Muse feeding upon the grass that grew over, and was consequently fertilised by, the bodies of the dead. In Rookwood, Ainsworth pursued a renewed romantic intensity that Scott had flirted with as a poet until supplanted by the superiority of Byron, and in doing so produced a narrative that was in many ways more gothic than the Gothic.
Ainsworth, William Harrison. Rookwood, A Romance. (1834). Collected Works. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1880.
Ainsworth. Letter to James Crossley, May 6 1834. Autograph letters of W.H. Ainsworth to James Crossley, 11 vols, Archives Section. Local Studies Unit, Central Library, Manchester).
Anon. ‘High Ways and Low Ways; or Ainsworth’s Dictionary, with Notes by Turpin.’ Fraser’s, IX, June 1834, 724-8.
Anon. ‘Another Caw from the Rookwood. Turpin out again.’ Review of Rookwood, 4th edn, Fraser’s, March 1836.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. (1818). London: Penguin, 1988.
Duncan, Ian. Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel. Cambridge: University Press, 1992.
Edinburgh Magazine I (2), (March 1818) pp. 613 – 620.
Ellis, S.M. William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends. 2 vols. London: John Lane, 1911.
Hollingsworth, Keith. The Newgate Novel 1830-1847. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963.
Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. (1796). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Lukács, Georg. The Historical Novel. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell trans. London: Merlin Press, 1962.
Maginn, William, and Maclise, Daniel. ‘Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters’ (No. 50) Fraser’s, X, July 1834.
Mayhead, Robin. Walter Scott. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
Punter, David, The Literature of Terror, A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day, 2nd edn, 2 vols. London: Longman, 1996.
Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. (1794). Oxford: University Press, 1970.
Sanders, Andrew. The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840–1880. London: Macmillan, 1978.
Scott, Sir Walter. ‘Remarks on Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, 1818.’ Blackwood’s
—.‘The Tapestried Chamber.’ (1829). In Cox, M. & Gilbert, R.A. eds. English Ghost Stories. Oxford: University Press, 1989.
—. ‘Prefatory Memoir of the Life of the Author.’ The Novels of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe. London: Hurst, Robinson & Co, 1824 pp. i – xxxix.
—. St. Ronan’s Well. Waverley Novels. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1832.
—. ‘Glenfinlas: or, Lord Ronald’s Coronach’ (1802). The Poetical Works. London: Macmillan, 1928.
—. Marmion (1808). The Poetical Works. London: Macmillan, 1928.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto (1764). In Fairclough, P. Ed. Three Gothic Novels. London: Penguin, 1968.
- It would be digressive, if not downright foolish, to attempt a detailed exploration of Scott and the gothic here. This I leave to Fiona Robertson’s excellent study Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). I am principally concerned with Ainsworth’s relationship with Scott. Robertson’s opening chapter on what she calls the ‘Healthy Text’ is worth noting in particular, however, in conjunction with my thoughts on the ‘transitional’ and contemporary critical readings of Ainsworth where his work is assessed and defined negatively against that of Scott.
- The Attorney General.
- British Ambassador to St Petersburg.
- Lytton had savagely caricatured Maginn in Paul Clifford, basing the drunken criminal and intellectual charlatan MacGrawler upon Fraser’s first editor.
- ‘High Ways and Low Ways; or Ainsworth’s Dictionary, with Notes by Turpin’, Fraser’s, IX, June 1834, 724-8. Ellis believed this to be written by Thackeray, but in a reference to the piece in a letter to John Macrone dated June 2 1836 regarding his next novel, Crichton, Ainsworth attributes it to John ‘Jack’ Churchill, who had apparently also offered to ‘Fraserize’ Crichton.
- See Michael Sadleir, Blessington – D’Orsay: A Masquerade (London: Constable, 1933).
- The first edition was unillustrated, although Edward Hull produced a collection of six prints depicting scenes from Turpin’s ride to York (London, Colnaghi, 1834). Cruikshank produced a set of engravings for the fourth edition (London, John Macrone, 1835), inaugurating a very fruitful period of collaborative projects with Ainsworth. In all, Cruikshank illustrated Rookwood (1835 edition), Jack Sheppard (1839), The Tower of London (1840), Guy Fawkes (1840), The Miser’s Daughter (1842), Windsor Castle (1843) and Saint James’s (1844).
- The author might have initially planned a relationship between these characters akin to that of Francis Osbaldistone and Robert Roy MacGregor in Scott’s Rob Roy (1817).
- Prophesy appears in original font. Ainsworth, Rookwood, 132.
- George Borrow’s Lavengro; The Scholar – The Gypsy – The Priest (London: John Murray, 1851) is very much the opposite of Luke.
- This is explored in Chapters Four and Five of this present work.
- Robin Mayhead, Walter Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973), 111. Mayhead prefers the poetry of introductory epistles to the six cantos to Marmion itself.
- A trilogy of kinetic American horror movies produced between 1982 and 1992 directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bruce Campbell, the first two of which involve a group of lost hikers under siege by demons in a solitary woodland cabin. The video release of the original movie spent several years on the UK Obscene Publications List and was one of the high-profile ‘video nasties’.
- A similar episode occurs in Ching Siu-Tung’s hugely influential genre movie A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), when siren-like ghosts are repelled by Buddhist incantations.
- Although Constance has a prophetic vision of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in canto II XXXI, just before her gruesome execution is carried out which, under the circumstances, sounds like a curse.
- An allusion to Maclise’s portrait in the ‘Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters’, Fraser’s, X, July 1834.
- Kensal Green Cemetery, where Ainsworth, his mother and brother were eventually buried.
- In Greek myth, the Hippocrene spring on Mount Helicon, the home of the Muses, originally sprung from the touch of the winged horse’s hoof, Pegasus thereafter being associated with the Muses and therefore creativity. Although Pegasus ascended to heaven, his rider Bellerophon fell to earth and was permanently crippled. It is possible that Thackeray also had this image wryly in mind regarding Ainsworth by 1836. If not, he would have it soon enough.
- ‘Another Caw from the Rookwood. Turpin out again’, rev. Rookwood, 4th edn, Fraser’s, March 1836. Probably written by Thackeray.
On the Wizard of the North and his ‘imitators.’
Here are the complete entries from Scott’s journal:
October 17. Read over Sir John Chiverton and Brambletye House – novels in what I may surely claim as the stile
‘Which I was born to introduce –
Refined it first, and showd its use.’
They are both clever books; one in imitation of the days of chivalry; the other (by Horace Smith, one of the authors of the Rejected Addresses) dated in the time of the Civil Wars, and introducing historical characters. I read both with great interest during the journey.
I am something like Captain Bobadil who trained up a hundred gentlemen to fight very nearly, if not altogether, as well as myself. And so far I am convinced of this, that I believe were I to publish Canongate Chronicles without my name (nomme de guerre, I mean) the event would be a corollary to the fable of the peasant who made the real pig squeak against the imitator, while the sapient audience hissed the poor grunter as if inferior to the biped in his own language. The peasant could, indeed, confute the long-eared multitude by showing piggy; but were I to fail as a knight with a white and maiden shield, and then vindicate my claim to attention by putting ‘By the Author of Waverley’ in the title, my good friend Publicum would defend itself by stating I had tilted so ill, that my course had not the least resemblance to my former doings, when indisputably I bore away the garland. Therefore I am as firmly and resolutely determined that I will tilt under my own cognizance. The hazard, indeed, remains of being beaten. But there is a prejudice (not an undue one neither) in favour of original patentee; and Joe Manton’s name has borne out many a sorry gun-barrel. More of this to-morrow.
October 18. – I take up again my remarks on imitations. I am sure I mean the gentlemen no wrong by calling them so, and heartily wish they had followd a better model; but it serves to show me veluti in speculo my own errors, or, if you will, those of the style. ( Note: ‘Just as in a mirror my own errors, or, if you will, those of the genre.’) One advantage, I think, I still have over all of them. They may do their fooling with better grace; but I, like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, do it more natural. They have read old books and consult antiquarian collections to get their information; I write because I have long since read such works, and possess, thanks to a strong memory, the information which they have to seek for. This leads to a dragging-in historical details by head and shoulders, so that the interest of the main piece is lost in minute descriptions of events which do not effect its progress. Perhaps I have sind in this way myself – indeed, I am but too conscious of having considered the plot only as what Bayes calls the means of bringing in fine things; so that in respect to the descriptions, it resembled the string of the showman’s box, which he pulls to show in succession Kings, Queens, the Battle of Waterloo, Bonaparte at Saint Helena, Newmarket Races, and White-headed Bob floored by Jemmy from town. All this I may have done, but I have repented of it; and in my better efforts, while I conducted my story through the agency of historical personages and by connecting it with historical incidents, I have endeavoured to weave them pretty closely together, and in future I will study this more. Must not let the background eclipse the principal figures – the frame overpower the picture.
Another thing in my favour is, that my contemporaries steal too openly.
Mr. Smith has inserted in Brambletye House whole pages from Defoe’s Fire and Plague of London.
‘Steal! Foh! A fico for the phrase –
Convey, the wise it call!’
When I convey an incident or so, I am [at] as much pains to avoid detection as if the offence could be indicated in literal fact at the Old Bailey.
But leaving this, hard pressed as I am by these imitators, who must put the thing out of fashion at last, I consider, like a fox at his last shifts, whether there be a way to dodge them, some new device to throw them off, and have a mile or two of free ground, while I have legs and wind left to use it. There is one way to give novelty: to depend for success on the interest of a well-contrived story. But woe’s me! That requires thought, consideration, – the writing out a regular plan or plot – above all the adhering to [one] – which I can never do, for the ideas arise as I write, and bear such a disproportioned extent to that which each occupied at the first concoction, that (cocksnowns!) I shall never be able to take the trouble; and yet to make the world stare, and gain a new march ahead of them all!!! Well, something we still will do.
‘Liberty’s in every blow;
Let us do or die!’
From Scott’s journal, 1826. J.G. Tait and W.M. Parker, eds, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, (Edinburgh, 1947).
Previously unpublished, paper originally presented at the Legacies of Walpole: The Gothic After Otranto, International Gothic Association Conference, St. Mary’s University College, Strawberry Hill, July, 1997
Copyright © SJ Carver 1997, 2013