‘A Wrappage of Traditions’: Scott, Ainsworth and Nineteenth Century Narratives of British National Identity

THE ENGLISH think they know who they are.  It is nowadays often remarked that the English have lost their collective sense of national identity, while devolved government has strengthened that of the Welsh, the Northern Irish and, especially, the Scots.  ‘Being English,’ begins the preface to Jeremy Paxman’s excellent study The English: A Portrait of a People, ‘used to be so easy’ (Paxman vii). Paxman’s elegant thesis begins with this perceived cultural anxiety, brought about by the end of empire, globalisation, European Union and what we might characterise as Celtic devolution, before proceeding to examine the cultural codes and traditions which, in the past, made the English English but which somehow don’t seem to work anymore.  Englishness, he eventually concludes, ‘is based on values that are so deeply embedded in the culture as to be almost unconscious’ (Paxman 265 – 266).

The Union flag is, indeed, being deconstructed – the red, white and blue of the not quite so United Kingdom has regressed to the simple red and white of the St. George cross (at least on the football terraces), we talk openly these days of the possible dissolution of the monarchy, and there was a movement a few years back to replace ‘God Save the Queen’ with the opening lines of William Blake’s epic poem Milton, the radical epigraph-turned-hymn ‘Jerusalem,’ as a new national anthem which both reaffirmed and repositioned us in relation to our own history.  Similarly, Tony Blair’s commitment to the reform of the House of Lords might well be the last battle of the English Civil War, and our Royal house, already politically powerless and exposed post-Diana as being as dysfunctional as the rest of us, if it survives at all will be running on a greatly reduced Civil List with Buckingham Palace little more than just another theme park for North American and Japanese tourists.

So saying, I don’t personally believe that at least feeling English – as opposed to Imperially British – has changed so much, nor will it ever.  (I suspect Paxman doesn’t believe so either.)  Unnecessary and unjust war, devolved government, the current Hollywood trend in rubbishing the English historically in movies such as Braveheart and Titanic, and the increasingly alarming Americanisation of English politics notwithstanding, my contention is that the English still know exactly who they are and where they come from or, as I began, we think we do.

So what do we know, or believe we know?  To return to Paxman’s conclusion, somewhere in these interesting times we retain a collective sense of national identity that is more unconscious than conscious.  But we should not overlook the fact that the unconsciousness is the realm of dreams.  It should therefore be no great revelation that national identity is most often than not the product of national myth which is, in turn, often the product of a long literary heritage.  We are not a nation of shopkeepers so much as a nation of storytellers.

What interests me is the power which such stories – such dreams – can have on a nation’s collective sense of self, such an effect indeed, that the dream more often than not becomes perceived as reality, as history.

For example, who does not know the story of King Arthur?  To any English school kid, past or present, Arthur somehow personifies everything that is noble and brave about the nation, he is the nation in fact – as Phillips and Keatman write, ‘like Britannia or John Bull, he is the warrior spirit of Britain’ (Phillips and Keatman 3). The history of Arthur is, however, while not exactly mere myth, no more than legend.  There was a Dark Age Celtic warrior called Arthur that vaguely fits the profile, but his contribution to British history is obscure to say the least.  Our Arthur is the invention of the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of Britain’) of 1135AD.  Twenty years on, the Jersey poet Wace came up with the round table; by 1170, the French poet Chrétien de Troyes has added the medieval themes of chivalry and courtly love; and by the end of the Twelfth Century, the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron had thrown the Holy Grail into the story.  Sometime around the start of the Thirteenth Century, the English priest Layamon retells the story of Arthur in English, incorporating all of the above and developing the messianic possibilities of the character – Arthur now remains in a state of suspended animation on the secret isle of Avalon, ready to rise once more.  The legend well established in the national psyche, it was the Englishman Sir Thomas Malory who produced the definitive re-telling in 1470 in his collection Le Morte Darthur (‘The Death of Arthur’), the first version to appear in print (Phillips and Keatman 9 – 10). It is this version with which, usually unconsciously, most Brits are familiar – familiar to the extent that the romance has become the reality.

Arthur’s story is a historical one, but not in the sense my countrymen and I want to believe.  Phillips and Keating read Geoffrey’s original ‘history’ as pure, Norman propaganda.  Post-1066, the now Norman monarchy rather desperately required proof of their royal right to rule.  Many among the defeated Saxon nobility could trace their lineage back to the great kings of England, such as Alfred and Edgar, while on the continent the Capetian dynasty had a strong claim to the throne.  William the Conqueror and his descendants needed a similar pedigree, and in Geoffrey’s Historia they found one.  The Norman elite could claim to share some blood with the Celtic warriors who had escaped to Normandy following the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries, and it was to these ancestors they turned in their search for legitimacy.  There was, however, no evidence whatsoever that any of these Celtic exiles could be retrospectively labeled a ‘king’ in the medieval European sense, except perhaps for the mythic warrior Arthur whose saga, as Phillips and Keatman wryly put it ‘met the needs of Norman dynastic pretensions’ (Phillips and Keatman 12). Norman King Henry I was very happy with the Historia.

In terms of historical verisimilitude, all we really have is a brief reference to an ‘Arthur’ in a text produced approximately ten years earlier than the Historia, the Gesta Regum Anglorum (‘Acts of the Kings of the English’) by William of Malmesbury, a Wiltshire monk.  In William’s account, Arthur fought the advancing Angles with Ambrosiius Aurelianus, and led the British to victory in the battle of Badon c.518AD.  Geoffrey and his followers, each adding a new embellishment to the legend, and especially Malory, give the English so much more – an epic tale of temptation, fall and redemption, a messianic symbol of what is best in Englishmen.

This is exactly how these types of stories get started.  Another obvious example would be the legend of Robin Hood, the outlaw of noble birth who we know looked just like Errol Flynn but of whom virtually no trace can be found in the historical record.  What is not in dispute, however, is Robin Hood’s loud presence in popular culture from the fourteenth century onwards.  As Lady Clarinda’s asserted in Crotchet Castle, ‘history is but a tiresome thing in itself; it becomes more agreeable the more romance is mixed up with it’ (Peacock 200).

The origin of the English historical romance does not, thankfully, concern us here.  Do we date it from Malory, Thomas Nashe, Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe…?  For our purposes, it is in every way appropriate to begin with Sir Walter Scott.  The Romantic period to which Scott belongs marks the beginning of recognisably modern Britain, as much as Scott’s writing marks the start of the recognisably modern English novel (1). By Scott’s day, Industrialisation and Imperialism had rendered the mercantile and professional middle classes the ruling elite of Britain, a position they continue to occupy to date, displacing an aristocracy already laid low by Civil War and whose political power came from feudal rank and land ownership, not the means of production.  This new ruling class demanded its own art form and, in revising the previously ‘vulgar’ eighteenth century romance, Scott gave it to them.  In the Waverley novels, begun in 1814, Scott, a middle class lowland lawyer and antiquarian, created an image of Scottishness that persists, for many, to this day.  We need only examine the iconography of the electoral broadcasts of the Scottish National Party – with highland warriors with nothing worn beneath the kilt brandishing claymores to a voiceover by Sean Connery – to detect his continuing influence.  Scott himself was happy to indulge the fantasy.  Already a successful romantic poet (it was his decline in popularity that prompted him to write his first novel), Scott’s was able to indulge an expensive ambition to live the life of the Scottish laird.  He purchased the farm of Clarty Hole in 1811, where he built a stately home, a physical manifestation of his romantic imagination, which he called Abbotsford.  His historical romances rehabilitated Scotland’s reputation after the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 45, and his antiquarianism inspired the Victorian vogue for medievalism and codes of chivalry on both sides of the Tweed.  In recognition of his achievements, Scott was created baronet in 1820, and acted as the master of ceremonies for George IV’s state visit to Scotland in 1822, where the previous national stereotypes were supplanted at a stroke by the kilted Highland piper, manifested from the pages of the Waverley Novels, to the delight of the King (2). Scott’s historical accuracy, however, was often no more genuine than the spurious sporran of Rob Roy proudly on display with numerous other relics at Abbotsford.

Whether they got it or not, the elegance of Scott’s literary/historical project tended to be overlooked by his early-Victorian followers in favour of romantic antiquarianism, a trend lamented by the author of Waverley in his journal upon reading two early offerings from the next generation in 1826, Sir John Chiverton by William Harrison Ainsworth and J.P. Aston, and Brambletye House by Horace Smith. To Scott, those that follow him are merely ‘imitators,’ a term he uses repeatedly in the journal and inferior ones at that (3).

The young writer that Scott particularly had it in for was one William Harrison Ainsworth, a prolific historical novelist active between 1826 and 1882 and the subject of this present paper.  Ainsworth’s romances were hugely popular amongst the serial-reading middle classes in the 1830s and 40s, although his melodramatic excesses were a constant source of ridicule among his literary peers.  As popular fashion changed therefore, Ainsworth’s novels did not survive as canonical works of Victorian literature, but instead faded largely from critical view.  What has not faded, however, are many of the legends he inaugurated in the name of national heritage.  I have time here only to examine two such legends: that of the outlaw, and the Tower of London.

Ainsworth was what we nowadays refer to as an early-Victorian, an energetic, gregarious, enthusiastic novelist, journalist and critic who called, at least as a young man, the literary elite of London his friends.  He was a close friend of, among others too numerous to list, Dickens, Thackeray,  John Forster, George Cruikshank (with whom he collaborated closely), Bulwer-Lytton, G.P.R. James, J.G. Lockhart, Henry Colburn, Richard Bentley, D’Orsay and Lady Blessington; as a youth he hung around with Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb and Mary Shelly, also meeting Scott several times.  Like Scott, Ainsworth was an antiquarian – unlike Scott, he tended to place famous historical figures at the heart of his texts, whose literary lives then often supplanted the historical record, all the more effortlessly given the current anonymity of their author.

A good case in point is the eighteenth century highwayman Dick Turpin.  As with King Arthur and Robin Hood, we can still rely on the majority of English natives to have heard of this man (I have tried this in public lectures and speak from experience).  Everyone knows about the gentleman highwayman, chivalrous, sexy, a fine swordsman and a crack shot with a pistol, whose cry of ‘Stand and deliver’ set many a gentlewoman traveller’s little heart all a flutter and a tremble.  A fine horseman, on his jet black mare, Black Bess, we know that Turpin rode from London to York in a night to establish an alibi and that, finally, he died a noble, Samurai death on the gallows.  We know these things – we’ve all seen the movies.  Right?  Wrong.  The Dick Turpin that we know is, in fact, a character from Ainsworth’s first solo novel, Rookwood, A Romance, written in 1834.

Dick Turpin, ‘a sort of hero’, enters Rookwood in disguise, as is often the case with Ainsworth’s more intriguing characters (Ainsworth, Rookwood 338). Set two years before the original outlaw’s death, Rookwood introduces ‘Jack Palmer’ in a chapter entitled ‘An English Adventurer’ with an epigraph from Gay, ‘Sure the captain’s the finest gentleman on the road’ (Gay I.iv), thus ensuring that Palmer’s true identity is the worst kept secret in the novel. A drunken discussion promptly ensues between Turpin and the attorney Codicil Coates as to the gentlemanly disposition of the highwayman. Turpin argues that:

It is as necessary for a man to be a gentleman before he can turn highwayman, as it is for a doctor to have his diploma, or an attorney his certificate ¼ What are the distinguishing characteristics of a fine gentleman? Perfect knowledge of the world – perfect independence of character – notoriety – command of cash – and inordinate success with the women … As to money, he wins a purse of a hundred guineas as easily as you would the same sum from the faro table. And wherein lies the difference? Only in the name of the game … Look at a highwayman mounted on his flying steed, with his pistols in his holsters, and his mask upon his face. What can be a more gallant sight? … England, sir, has reason to be proud of her highwaymen (Ainsworth, Rookwood 52).

The author even compares Turpin to the hero of Trafalgar at one point: ‘Rash daring was the main feature of Turpin’s character. Like our great Nelson, he knew fear only by name’ (Ainsworth, Rookwood 163).

There were of course many versions of the life and legend of Dick Turpin already in place in English culture by the time of Rookwood, ranging from the official record of his pursuit, accidental capture, and trial and execution in York in 1839, to chapbook romances, Newgate Calendars, The Beggar’s Opera and a positive legion of folk songs and tall stories among the lower classes. If a fraction of the contemporary reports of Turpin’s criminal behaviour are true (particularly during his time with the ‘Gregory Gang’ in North London in the early 1830s), then the original was undoubtedly a murderous, self-serving, sadistic, petty and quite mediocre little man. As Hilary and Mary Evans begin their exploration of the cult of the highwayman (of which Dick Turpin must be the quintessential symbol in English folklore):

They robbed and raped and murdered. They lied and cheated, betrayed and deceived. When it served their purpose, they stole a man’s property, used his wife or his daughter, destroyed his home and livelihood, took his life. When they gave, it was only a bribe; when they showed consideration, it was to buy goodwill. If they claimed to have been unjustly treated by society, it was to justify themselves for flouting society’s rules; when they claimed to be revenging themselves on society for its injustice, they took their revenge on the weak and innocent more often than on those who had caused the injustice (Evans and Evans 1).

Turpin being one of the worst offenders, yet these men, along with the outlaws of the American Frontier, even in their own day, were more often than not portrayed as heroic, if not downright chivalrous. In a ballad popular around the time of his execution entitled ‘Turpin’s Appeal to the Judge’, Turpin was already being portrayed as a Robin Hood figure (another enduring fiction):

I hope, my Lord, you’ll pardon me,
I’m not the worst of men.
I the Scripture have fulfilled
though a wicked life I’ve led,
when the naked I beheld,
I’ve clothed them and fed.
Sometimes in a coat of winter’s pride,
sometimes in a russet grey,
the naked I’ve clothed, the hungry fed,
and the rich I’ve sent away (qtd. in Linebaugh 203 – 204).

Turpin’s posthumous existence is the exact opposite of Shakespeare’s much quoted maxim from Mark Antony’s eulogy to Julius Caesar that ‘The evil that men do lives after them/The good is oft interred with their bones’ (4). So strong is this perception of the gentleman of the road that the cover notes of a novelisation of a lavish London Weekend Television costume drama made in 1979 can still clam that ‘Dick Turpin is a brilliant rider and master swordsman whose belief in liberty and his own rough justice make him an outlaw in the perilous and corrupt world of eighteenth century England ¼ Turpin rides riotously for freedom on his beloved mare, Black Bess’ (Carpenter). In the series, raven-haired Richard O’Sullivan also played the role à la Robin Hood, there was even a Sheriff of Nottingham figure called Captain Spiker. The moral reversal is a common one in such fiction, in a corrupt social system the outlaw must be the honest man, the rebel, the freedom fighter and, by definition, the hero.

‘Turpin was the hero of my boyhood’, the Ainsworth later admitted, continuing:

I had always a strange passion for highwaymen, and have listened by the hour to their exploits, as narrated by my father, and especially to those of ‘Dauntless Dick’, that ‘chief minion of the moon’ (5). One of Turpin’s adventures in particular, the ride to Hough Green, which took deep hold of my fancy, I have recorded in song. When a boy, I have often lingered by the side of the deep old road where this robbery was committed, to cast wistful glances into its mysterious windings; and when night deepened the shadows of the trees, have urged my horse on his journey, from a vague apprehension of a visit from the ghostly highwayman. And then there was the Bollin, with its shelvy banks, which Turpin cleared at a bound; the broad meadows over which he winged his flight; the pleasant bowling-green of the pleasant old inn at Hough, where he produced his watch to the Cheshire squires, with whom he was upon terms of intimacy; all brought something of the gallant robber to mind. No wonder, in after years, in selecting a highwayman for a character in a tale, I should choose my old favourite, Dick Turpin (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood) (6).

Note the romantic fascination of the language, which is at times almost reverential as befitting a description of such superhuman feats as the non-stop ride to Hough Green (which becomes the Ride to York in Rookwood and popular history). The avenue of trees gives the young rider the creeps, but his glances are ‘wistful’ ones for an age now past; having not been blessed with a vision, Ainsworth had to resurrect Turpin himself. The commercial success of Rookwood had much to do with this appeal to the imagined freedom of an earlier age. With this creation, or recreation, of the famous Georgian outlaw, Ainsworth was the catalyst for a whole new style of picaresque narrative. Although his contribution to the Newgate genre of the nineteenth century – named after the notorious London prison – was not the first (Bulwer-Lytton had published the Godwinian highwayman romp Paul Clifford in 1830), it was, and is, Ainsworth’s romantic version of the outlaw that endures in the popular imagination (7).

Given Ainsworth’s own romantic associations with the gentlemen of the road and the popular impact and critical uproar engendered by Bulwer-Lytton’s development of the Newgate novel, fictionalising, (and ultimately mythologising), Turpin was an astute piece of cultural response. The image rather than the man was already well established in the public psyche, and had been since Turpin had been active a century previously. Turpin’s own biography, in comparison with his written resurrections, demonstrates the transition from fact to fiction to fiction-as-fact that characterises Ainsworth’s response to history and the popular response to Ainsworth. Although trawling the eighteenth century gave the Victorians many exotic criminals to play with, outlaws and anti-heroes such as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Claude Duval, Turpin’s name remains synonymous with the received image of the highwayman, the English counterpart of the Scottish Highlander, the European brigand and the ancestor of the American outlaws of the ‘Wild West.’ Unlike the doomed Jacobite heroes of Scott, however, the English Highwayman is, with the exception of Bulwer-Lytton’s politically radical Paul Clifford, apolitical and in this sense his closest correlative remains the heavily fictionalised Western outlaw, both wildcards in an increasingly stable economic hierarchy, both rebels upon a stolen horse. Like the Hollywood adaptations of dime novel frontier Westerns, the twentieth century version of Turpin, (much filmed, and generally played by cowboy stars including Tom Mix himself), is the Victorian version of the Georgian broadsheet and chapbook versions of a rather sordid reality, a kind of fantasy simulacra recreating a past that never actually existed.

Turpin’s career in actuality was brief and violent and the circumstances of his capture depressingly stupid. Turpin was a house-breaker, known for demanding valuables with menaces, a horse-thief, a murderer and, on occasion, a highwayman. Hiding out in Yorkshire, after the murder of Thomas Morris, servant and innocent bystander, in Epping Forest, Turpin posed as a butcher under the pseudonym of John Palmer, travelling to Lincolnshire frequently to steal horses. His disguise well in place, he often joined local gentlemen on hunting and shooting parties, and was apprehended after drunkenly shooting a chicken in the yard of his local public house after returning from one of these expeditions. When one of his companions admonished him, Turpin is said to have calmly re-loaded and then threatened to shoot him as well if he did not shut up. Annoyed at this totally unexpected raspberry, the gentleman informed the landlord and Turpin was arrested and imprisoned. After approximately four months of investigation into the business and character of ‘John Palmer,’ his identity was discovered by accident and Turpin was hanged at York on April 10, 1739.

Contemporary reports of the behaviour of the crowd at the execution suggest, even allowing for broadsheet invention and exaggeration, that Turpin already had the status of a working class folk hero, one of their own; even if every account is a fiction, the consistency of reports of flamboyance and bravery at the gallows indicates what the general public were willing, and in fact wanted, to believe. The Newgate Calendar, among other accounts, describes Turpin’s corpse being borne through the streets like a martyred saint before being buried in lime to render it useless for surgical dissection (Wilkinson 154).

Although originally intended as a secondary character in Rookwood, the ghost of Dick Turpin had seized the imagination of the author to the extent that:

The Ride to York was completed in one day and one night … Well do I remember the fever into which I was thrown during the time of composition. My pen literally scoured over the pages. So thoroughly did I identify myself with the flying highwayman, that, once started, I found it impossible to halt. Animated by kindred enthusiasm, I cleared every obstacle in my path with as much facility as Turpin disposed of the impediments that beset his flight. In his company, I mounted the hill-side, dashed through the bustling village, swept over the desolate heath, threaded the silent street, plunged into the eddying stream, and kept an onward course, without pause, without hindrance, without fatigue. With him I shouted, sang, laughed, exulted, wept. Nor did I retire to rest till, in imagination, I heard the bell of York Minster toll forth the knell of poor Black Bess (Ainsworth, preface to Rookwood) (8).

Ainsworth’s passion for his subject is still apparent in this preface added 14 years after Rookwood was first published.  Ainsworth’s initial enthusiasm had been infectious, and an eighteenth century, chapbook fascination with outlaws that had lain dormant since the days of Defoe became a national craze once more; a fashion that even crossed the boundaries of social class for a time. As Charles Mackay complained in 1841:

Turpin’s fame is unknown to no portion of the male population of England after they have attained the age of ten. His wondrous ride from London to York has endeared him to the imagination of millions; his cruelty in placing an old woman upon a fire, to force her to tell him where she had hidden her money, is regarded as a good joke; and his proud bearing upon the scaffold is looked upon as a virtuous action (Mackay 634).

As previously noted, Ainsworth was certainly not the first to engage with writing the underworld or to fictionalise notorious criminals.  What is interesting about Ainsworth’s interpretation is the immense popular impact it achieved on publication, the cult that grew around his image of the highwayman, and the attendant moral panic that eventually, inevitably followed. Martin and Aytoun’s Bon Gaultier Ballads capture the criminal romance craze perfectly, for example, in an outrageous parody of Wordsworth’s address to Milton:

Turpin, thou should’st be living at this hour: England hath need of thee.

Great men have been among us – names that lend a lustre to our calling – better none: Maclaine, Duval, Dick Turpin, Barrington, Blueskin and others, who called Sheppard friend (Martin and Aytoun 21).

Like Arthur, Turpin is not dead but sleepeth.

Ainsworth returned once more to the Newgate Calendars in 1839, and the career of Dick Turpin’s near-contemporaries Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild. Jack Sheppard began its serial run in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1839.  Dickens’ serial Oliver Twist was at this point coming to a conclusion in the same magazine, and for four months both appeared together.  As both stories concerned young boys being drawn in to the criminal underworld and shared the graphics of George Cruikshank they became implicitly connected in the minds of their original and massive audience, compounded when Ainsworth succeeded Dickens as the editor of Bentley’s in March. In October, before its completion in Bentley’s, Jack Sheppard was issued as a novel in three volumes by Bentley.  Sales were enormous, initially exceeding three thousand copies a week, eclipsing those of Oliver Twist; by the end of October there were eight theatrical versions running concurrently in London – Ainsworth’s Sheppard quickly becoming as iconic as his Dick Turpin.

In his own day the original 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 a poet than a house-breaker. 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 a small man, the drop did not break his neck and he took a long time to strangle under his own body weight.

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 (9). His story also seems likely to have inspired Gay’s opera: 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 (10). It has also been suggested, by Lucy Moore most recently, that the Sheppard story was the inspiration for Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, but this is less likely, generic parables of fallen apprentices being by then very common (Moore 35) (11).

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 Jonathan Wild/Robert Walpole comparison of Gay’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, theatre-goers 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.

Led by an attack in the Examiner written by John Forster, the ‘Newgate Controversy,’ a moral panic, exploded like a hand grenade among the literary elite. The work of Ainsworth, Bulwer-Lytton and even Dickens were savaged by the press.  Particular concern was expressed over the cheap, theatrical adaptations of their stories (of which they had no control), and the possible influences of such productions on fundamentally urban working-class audiences. The Athenaeum also published a long article on contemporary literature and the condition of England under the heading of a review of Ainsworth’s novel. ‘All the Chartists in the land,’ wrote Mary Russell Mitford, ‘are less dangerous than this nightmare of a book’ (qtd. In Ellis vol. I 376). 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.  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 its original review, which foretold such a disaster and ran a smug editorial which again denounced Jack Sheppard, declaring that, ‘If ever there was a publication that deserved to be burnt by the common hangman it is Jack Sheppard’ (Forster 402). This is an early example of what is nowadays referred to as the ‘Effects Theory’ of popular culture.  You couldn’t buy publicity like this.  The book continued to sell, while its author became a literary pariah, black-balled at the Trinity Club and forced to withdraw from candidacy for the Athenaeum club because of the likelihood of defeat and further public humiliation.

Dickens, meanwhile, was furious at being included in the Newgate school, privately writing to R.H. Horne in February 1840:

I am by some jolter-headed enemies most unjustly and untruly charged with having written a book after Mr. Ainsworth’s fashion. Unto these jolter-heads and their intensely concentrated humbug, I shall take an early opportunity of temperately replying. If this opportunity had presented itself and I had made this vindication, I could have no objection to set my hand to what I know to be true concerning the late lamented John Sheppard, but I feel a great repugnance to do so now, lest it should seem an ungenerous and unmanly way of disavowing any sympathy with that school, and a means of shielding myself (qtd. in House and Story vol I. 20).

He had not worked so hard and come so far to see his career destroyed by scandal.  Dickens distanced himself from his old friend Ainsworth privately and publicly, adding a preface to the third edition of Oliver Twist in 1841 denouncing criminal romance and making a case for his own social realism by comparison (he also discreetly removed a footnote praising Rookwood from subsequent editions of Sketches by Boz).  A generation later, the accepted effect of Jack Sheppard made Ainsworth an easy target for petulant literary criticism, and the unquestioned nature of such attacks go a long way to explaining his unwarranted and current exclusion from the Victorian literary canon.

The reanimated highwaymen, meanwhile, were not going anywhere. Theatrical adaptations of the Turpin and Sheppard stories were still being produced until the end of the nineteenth century (12), before the characters rode to Hollywood in the twentieth.  Dick Turpin, still the famous name in this dynamic duo, has been played on the big screen by Golden Age Hollywood cowboy stars Matheson Lang in 1922, Tom Mix in 1925 and Victor McLaglen in 1933; also Louis Hayward in 1951, David Weston (for Disney) in 1965 and Sid James (Carry On Dick) in 1974. More recently, Jake Scott’s film Plunkett and Macleane (1999), starring Johnny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle, combined the sensibilities of Carry on Dick with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid while obviously taking as its inspiration the historical partnership of Dick Turpin and fellow highwayman Tom King (13). Most recently, our heroes, albeit updated, have returned to source in the quirky, Cockney gangster movies of Guy Ritchie.  These thieves and bad guys are simply part of our common cultural currency – wherefore, otherwise, ‘Stand and Deliver’ (1981) by Adam and the Ants? (14) Real live gangsters, meanwhile, such as the recently-deceased Reggie Kray or his equally popular contemporary ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser are as iconic as The Beatles.

Down, but not yet out, Ainsworth took over the editorship of Bentley’s from Dickens in March 1839, and began the simultaneous  serial publication of two historical romances, Guy Fawkes and The Tower of London in 1840, abandoning the underworld gothic at which he was so adept, and setting the tone for the rest of his career as a novelist.

The Tower of London is pretty representative of everything that followed. The novel is chiefly concerned with the political plots and counter-plots to gain control of England after the death of Edward VI: the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey, the coronation of Mary I, her marriage to Philip of Spain and the restoration of the Catholic faith in England, along with Sir Thomas Wyatt’s failed insurrection. The luckless life of Lady Jane gives the novel its temporal frame.  Ainsworth begins with her entry to the Tower as Queen on 10 July 1553, and ends with her execution on 12 February the following year.  This allows the author the use of two coronations, a royal wedding, several executions and a siege without recourse to undue invention as, he explains in his original preface, he was ‘Desirous of exhibiting the Tower in its triple light of a palace, a prison, and a fortress’ (Ainsworth, preface to The Tower of London). In a model at least partially inspired by Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831) the Tower itself is the focal-point of the narrative, a controlling metaphor for the nation’s history:

‘There you behold the Tower of London’, said Winwike, pointing downwards.

‘And there I read the history of England’, replied Renard.

‘If it is written in those towers it is a dark and bloody history’, replied the warder (Ainsworth, The Tower of London 128).

History is not only written but can be revealed in the gothic architecture of the pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses, and clerestory windows of the ancient fortress, originally built by William the Conqueror and a millennium-old symbol of the English Crown.

The minute particulars of the Tower’s architecture and history were obsessively researched by both Ainsworth and Cruikshank.  As the author constructed a parallel narrative of  romance and antiquarian detail, the artist produced forty atmospheric engravings of events in the story and a further fifty-eight woodcuts devoted to purely architectural features, while both pestered The Governor of the Tower and the Keeper of  the Regalia to visit areas that were then closed to the public while researching.  Fact and fiction were then skilfully blended, resulting in a cohesive whole so complete in detail that its reputation as an authority on the history of the Tower endured as late as the 1950s. The Tower of London is, for example, quoted as a work of reference in A Pageant of History: The Reigns of our Kings and Queens, Famous People and Events in our History. This glossy, patriotic book was a standard history text for every schoolchild in post-war Britain (15). The Tower of London is also equipped with a full index.

When Edmund Swifte, Keeper of the Crown Jewels, wrote an account of an experience of a haunting in the Tower in Notes and Queries, a page reference to Ainsworth’s description of the Anne Boleyn room and Cruikshank’s accompanying illustration is immediately given, ‘For an accurate picture of the locus in quo my scene is laid’ (Swifte). As A.L. Rowse noted in The Tower of London in the History of the Nation:

It was this work that formed the impression of the Tower in most people’s minds throughout the Victorian Age, as it did mine as a schoolboy in remote Cornwall early this century (Rowse 250).

This was both Ainsworth’s purpose and achievement. When he began his work, the Tower was an abandoned garrison, closed in most part to the public and mutilated by modern alteration in some areas while practically falling down in others:

One important object the author would fain hope his labours may achieve. This is the introduction of the public to some parts of the fortress at present closed to them. There seems no reason why admission should not be given, under certain restrictions, to that unequalled specimen of Norman architecture … They [the rooms and buildings of the Tower] are the property of the nation, and should be open to national inspection (Ainsworth, preface to The Tower of London).

Sales were enormous and as the romance progressed, month by month, thousands of people visited the monument to trace the places and events depicted by Ainsworth’s words and Cruikshank’s pictures. When the authorial voice lamented the presence of the recently-built Grand Storehouse in Book II  – ‘that frightful structure … We trust to see it raised to the ground’ (Ainsworth, The Tower of London 137) – persons unknown obligingly torched it the following year. Fortunately this time the blame did not fall upon the author. With the exception of the storehouse, demolition ceased and the Tower was restored as one of the first Victorian museums and as a patriotic symbol in the national psyche at the dawning of the new age of Victoria. The novel was therefore extravagantly dedicated to the queen: ‘Finally, beseeching God to bless these realms, and its ever precious jewel, our gracious QUEEN VICTORIA, and the infant princess newly given to us; to save them as the apple of His eye; and to protect them with the target of His power against all ill’ (Ainsworth, preface to The Tower of London) (16).

Simply put, the Tower of London as we know it, with the ravens, beefeaters, crown jewels and tourists is still standing because Ainsworth wrote it that persuasively.

A stream of increasingly unremarkable historical romances followed, but taken together, this body of work comprises a history of the English monarchy from Henry VIII to George III. In such texts we can find commonly accepted historical ‘facts’ too numerous to mention here, such as, by way of illustrative example, the alchemical activities of Dr. John Dee, the exploits of James ‘The Admirable’ Crichton, and the haunting of Windsor Forest by Herne the Hunter.  Ainsworth also loved to make historic monuments ‘characters’ in his texts, writing novels with titles such as Old St. Paul’s (1841) and Windsor Castle (1843).  In The Historical Novel and Popular Politics, Nicholas Rance rather uncharitably describes The Tower of London, as an ‘incongruous merging of historical romance and guide book’ (Rance 41). As these works became increasingly peripheral to English fiction they remained popular in the United States (although unlicensed editions meant that the author never saw a penny), as the following piece of surviving fan mail demonstrates:

Permit me, as a stranger to you, to express the pleasure with which I have read the very excellent series of historical romances by which you have so admirably illustrated many of the localities and edifices of England, together with the manners, customs, and superstitions of their most interesting epochs … I am an American residing in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, The United States, visiting England for the first time … In my visits to Windsor Castle and the Tower of London, your volumes … were my companions, and vastly enhanced the pleasure of the visits (Latrobe, 1871).

Ainsworth can be seen here to be part of what is nowadays referred to as the ‘heritage industry’. This may also explain why the only academic work specifically on Ainsworth – other than my own – produced to date has come from North America in the form of a handful of unpublished doctoral dissertations all written in the early 1950s, one more in 1968, and George J. Worth’s sympathetic monograph in the Twayne English Authors series in 1972. By this point only scholars in America would consider Ainsworth worthy of inclusion in a series devoted to prominent English authors – the country of his birth had long since rejected and then forgotten him.

We have however, and this is my rather simple point I suppose, assimilated his stories as part of our cultural heritage and national identity.  The Victorians took from Ainsworth a new historicism befitting their imperious sense of collective self, much as the Norman conquerors had done with Geoffrey of Monmouth.  The author himself was soon discarded, but his stories endure, all the stronger for the lack of an identifiable creator.  As Scott had offered a new and romanticised version of Scotland, Ainsworth, more than any of his contemporary writers and historians (even Dickens), had re-presented and, in fact, exported English heritage.  In the limited, but hopefully representative examples offered herein, we can see the two paradoxical gifts that Ainsworth has bequeathed us.  On the one hand, there is the highwayman image of the rebel and the individualist, so central to our little island nation, which lives still in the hearts of Hells Angels, all our strange rock ‘n’ rollers, and Euro-skeptics, and on the other there is a reverence for monumental, establishment tradition.  In terms of author-function however, the former has cancelled out the latter, leaving Ainsworth invisible, yet his narratives somehow eternal.  This is why, in the words of Kellow Chesney, ‘much of the fascination of the Victorian age derives from its strange familiarity’ (Chesney 1). Their myths are still our myths.

There is obviously much more to be said, but not today.  Highlanders, highwaymen and bloody towers do not alone a nation make.  Given more space we might consider the literary and paraliterary re-telling of great Victorian military disasters for example, such as Tennyson’s take on the charge of the Light Brigade, Kipling’s praise of noble self sacrifice on the decks of the Birkenhead, and their relationship to the rhetoric, past and present, of the Battle of Britain.  Yet all of this, and more, my countrymen and I carry with us.  Not from school, cinema, or television, or directed reading but as part of some great, shared cultural consciousness, forever reforming to assimilate new events within the established ideological framework of our Englishness.  What continues to fascinate me as a writer though is that what we believe, usually without question, to be some innate, historically verifiable set of facts that define us as a race is constructed of nothing more than words, stories, indeed, re-worked and re-written within the last two centuries.  Perhaps national identity, in the end, is rightly or wrongly based upon not looking too closely, especially at our heroes.  In Carlyle’s terms, we remain armour-plated against a reality that is often anonymous, overwhelming, violent, randomly unjust and downright sordid: ‘Hardened round us, encasing wholly every notion we form, is a wrappage of traditions, hearsays, mere words’ (Carlyle 1). This is the strength of the English, it is also our weakness, but dreams, on the whole, are nicer than nightmares.


Ainsworth, William Harrison. Rookwood, A Romance (1834). Collected Works. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1880.

Ainsworth. The Tower of London, A Historical Romance (1840). Collected Works. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1880.

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

Bon Gaultier (Sir Theodore Martin & Professor William Edmondstoune Aytoun), ‘Illustrations of the Thieves’ Literature – No. 1, Flowers of Hemp, or, the Newgate Garland’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, April 1841: 215-23.

Browning, Gareth and Purton, Rowland W. A Pageant of History: The Reigns of our Kings and Queens, Famous People and Events in our History. London: Collins, 1958.

Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841). London: Chapman & Hall, 1895.

Carpenter, Richard. Dick Turpin. London: Fontana, 1979.

Chesney, Kellow. The Victorian Underworld. London: Penguin 1970.

Dickens, Charles. Letter to R.H. Horne, February 1840, The Letters of Charles Dickens, Madeline House and Graham Storey (eds), vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Ellis, S.M. William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends, vol 1. London: John Lane, 1911.

Evans, Hilary and Evans, Mary. Hero on a Stolen Horse: The highwayman, and his brothers-in-arms the bandit and the bushranger. London: Frederick Muller, 1977.

Forster, John. Literary Editorial. Examiner, June 28 1840.

Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera (1728). London: Penguin, 1986.

Hollingsworth, Keith. The Newgate Novel 183047: Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens and Thackeray. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1963.

Latrobe, Benjamin H. letter to Ainsworth, November 30 1871. James Crossley Papers, (Archives Section, Local Studies Unit), Central Library, Manchester.

Linebaugh, Peter. The London Hanged, Crime and Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin, 1992.

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

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

Paxman, Jeremy. The English: A Portrait of a People. London: Penguin 1999.

Peacock, Thomas Love. Crotchet Castle (1831). London: Penguin, 1969.

Phillips, Graham and Keatman, Martin. King Arthur: The True Story. London: Century Random House, 1992.

Rance, Nicholas. The Historical Novel and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century England. London: Vision, 1975.

Rowse, A.L. The Tower of London in the History of the Nation. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972.

Scott, Sir Walter. Journal entry, October 18 1826, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, ed. W.E.K. Anderson. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Swifte, Edmund Lenthal. ‘The Reply to the Question “Is there not a ghost story connected with the Tower of London?”’ Notes and Queries, September 8 1860.

Wilkinson, George Theodore. The Newgate Calendar. London, Panther, 1968.


  1. See Ian Duncan, Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992).
  2. See Hugh Trevor-Roper’s excellent essay, ‘The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland’, The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989).
  3. See Sir Walter Scott, journal entry, October 18 1826, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, ed. W.E.K. Anderson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).
  4. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar III.ii.
  5. ‘Let us be Diana’s foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon.’ Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, I.ii. 28. This would make Ainsworth’s highwayman a Falstaff figure.
  6. Written in 1849, after the Newgate Controversy had permanently undermined his literary reputation, Ainsworth refuses to go with the flow and preach about the moral dangers of rendering outlaws heroic in works of fiction.
  7. Rookwood is not a pure Newgate novel – the text is a transitional one blending at least three potentially sympathetic genre styles of the previous generation of literature.
  8. ‘The Ride to York’ is approximately 35,000 words.
  9. 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 (Moore 224).
  10. 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, 1725).
  11. See Moore, 35. Hogarth in fact based his narrative upon The London Merchant, a popular play by George Lillo first performed in 1731.
  12. See the memoirs of H. Chance Newton, Crime and the Drama or, Dark Deeds Dramatised (London: Stanley Paul & Co, 1927).
  13. Sources from the anonymous authors of Newgate Calendars to cultural historians such as Hilary and Mary Evans agree that this business arrangement, begun when Turpin attempted to rob King, was terminated when he accidentally shot his partner in crime during a scuffle with the landlord of the Green Man inn, Epping, over a stolen horse. King survived for a week and sang like a canary.
  14. Thinking of Adam and the Ants, Johnny Depp’s outrageous Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) is merely Dick Turpin by other means.
  15. Gareth Browning, Rowland W. Purton et al., A Pageant of History: The Reigns of our Kings and Queens, Famous People and Events in our History (London: Collins, 1958).
  16.  The ‘infant princess’ being Victoria, the Princess Royal and later mother of Wilhelm II, the German Kaiser.

Paper originally presented at the Language and Nationhood International Conference, Universiti Kebangsaan, Malaysia, December, 2003. Subsequently published in Ganakumaran Subramaniam, Ismaznizam J. Azyze, Shahizah Ismail Hamdan, & Ruzy Suliza Hashim eds Nationhood and Literature: Expressions of Realities (Selangor: PPB & Linguistik, 2005)

Copyright © SJ Carver 2001, 2013

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