I. ‘A sort of Hogarthian novel’
By 1838 it was all starting to unravel. Despite the consistent sales of Rookwood (which went to five editions within the first three years of publication), Ainsworth’s aristocratic lifestyle had left his private finances seriously depleted. The death of his estranged wife in early March had also plunged him back into another stressful and expensive legal battle with the Ebers family, this time over the custody of his three daughters. In September, Ainsworth wrote to Crossley, ‘I am so bothered that I hardly know which way to turn … She is giving me all the trouble she can’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, September 6, 1838). ‘She’ being Fanny’s sister Emily, who blamed Ainsworth for her sister’s untimely death and had taken the children out of school and was denying Ainsworth any access; by September she and her father had thwarted all Ainsworth’s legal attempts even to see his children and were planning to retreat to France. From the outset, Ainsworth had privately conceded from bitter experience that, ‘I doubt the possibility of my outwitting the Ebers’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, March 25, 1838). Ainsworth did not get his ‘little girls’ back until Autumn 1839, and then only after John Ebers, described by his son-in-law as ‘utterly callous,’ had got £300 out of him for two years of retrospective maintenance. Ainsworth survived during this period by borrowing money from Crossley, writing in the autumn of 1837 that:
If needful, I can obtain the advance from Bentley. But it will be attended with bother, and a humiliating sense of obligation, which I would gladly avoid … I have many other friends to whom I could apply, but you are the only person to whom I choose to be under such an obligation (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, November 5, 1837).
These problems dogged Ainsworth throughout the composition of Jack Sheppard, although S.M. Ellis, ever the Edwardian gentleman, omits the entire episode from his biography.
Ainsworth had followed Rookwood with Crichton in 1837, a more conventional historical novel charting the adventures of the dashing Scot James (‘the admirable’) Crichton at the court of Henri III of France. This project had only been a partial success. Ellis summed up Crichton thus: ‘It was a very historical romance, and the mass of erudition, the quantity of Latin, and the ultra-profuseness of detail with which it bristled, must have sadly perplexed the great bulk of its less cultured readers. Crichton never had the popular appeal of Rookwood and its successors’ (Ellis I. 319). Like Rookwood, Crichton had been very well researched and was another split text of original songs and billowing historical footnotes, which unfortunately suffered from a hasty and contrived conclusion which, wrote George J. Worth in his Twayne monograph on Ainsworth, ‘no amount of architectonic skill can conceal’ (Worth 56). With sidekicks Blount, Ogilvy and a bloody great dog, Crichton’s constant humiliation of the French would be considerably more appropriate to a text produced during the Napoleonic wars rather than in the first year of Victoria’s reign. The early chapter entitled ‘The English bull-dog’ really sets the tone, with the Englishman Blount’s seeing-off of a crowd of Sorbinists, their puny staffs no match for his absurdly phallic cudgel: ‘which was not a vine-wood staff, but a huge English crab-stick, seasoned, knotty and substantial’ (Ainsworth, Crichton 37). The character of Crichton himself was too remote, clean-cut, aristocratic, perfect and invulnerable to appeal to fans of Dick Turpin. In debt, and with his in-laws using their knowledge of his financial problems to strengthen their case for custody of his children, Ainsworth desperately needed a successful novel. With public pressure upon him to produce another Rookwood, all roads lead inexorably back to Newgate.
The first sign of Jack Sheppard comes from a letter written to James Crossley early in 1837:
I think you will be glad to hear that I propose visiting Manchester for a few days next week, when I hope to spend some pleasant hours with you … I want to consult you about my new romance which is a tale of the reign of George the first – and as that monarch cuts a conspicuous figure in the story, I shall really be thankful if you can lend me any memoirs, or other matter, relating to him, or put me in the way of finding them. My exact year is 1724. I mention this that you may just direct your thoughts to the period. It is my intention to introduce Jack Sheppard. Have you any history of Old Newgate? or any pictures of that prison. I think it scarcely likely but I must look to you for George the First. It is curious there should be so little known about his habits, manners of which are exactly what I want. But I doubt not but you will be able to afford me information. I need to write, or attempt to write, a sort of Hogarthian novel – describing London at the beginning of the eighteenth century. But all this, and a good deal more, we will talk over when we meet (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, May 29, 1837).
Until the end of the following year, the new romance is referred to under the title of Thames Darrell, being the hero of the tale, a child of noble birth adopted by Mr Wood the carpenter and named from the river from which he was rescued as a baby, having been thrown in and presumed drowned by his wicked uncle, Sir Rowland Trenchard. Dick Turpin had dominated the author’s fancy and divided the text of Rookwood, but the character of Jack Sheppard performs a total textual annexation, overwriting Thames Darrell in both central role and title. The planned historical novel on George I thus became the purest of Ainsworth’s Newgate narratives. The only royalty in Jack Sheppard are Jonathan Wild, ‘the Prince of Robbers,’ and Baptist Kettleby, the ‘Master of the Mint,’ ruler of the underworld haven of Southwark.
Only the Hogarthian aspect of the initial design remained intact, the basic plot and moral of Jack Sheppard closely following the model of Hogarth’s series of twelve engravings, Industry and Idleness (1747), both narratives charting the progress of two apprentices, one of whom pursues a life of vice, the other virtue. Ainsworth’s original manuscript even included scriptural epigraphs attached to each book, or epoch, as Hogarth had done with each of his 12 plates, but friend and colleague Rev. R.H. Barham (‘Thomas Ingoldsby’) advised him to omit these because, ‘the mixing up of sacred texts with a work of fancy will revolt many persons who would otherwise read it with pleasure, and will afford your enemies such a handle as they will not fail to use powerfully’ (qtd. in Ellis I. 375).
Industry and Idleness is Hogarth the Foundling Hospital Governor preaching a simple, pious and mercantile orthodoxy to the masses (there is none of the subtle visual symbolism of Marriage-à-la-mode here), and every event is portrayed in terms of polarised moral alternatives. The two apprentice weavers (‘Goodchild’ and ‘Tom Idle’) are shown together at their looms in the opening plate, before going their separate ways in adult life, each episode starkly contrasted. Goodchild has a broadsheet version of the story of Dick Whittington on the wall behind him, Idle has a broadsheet on Moll Flanders (1); while Goodchild goes to church, Tom Idle gambles outside in the churchyard, using a grave stone for a gaming table; Goodchild marries the master’s daughter and lives in a mansion, Idle lives with a prostitute in a rookery garret; Goodchild has an adoring wife, while Idle is ‘betray’d by his Whore’ in Plate 9, until the men meet face to face again in the tenth plate as magistrate and thief, Goodchild en route to the Guildhall and political power, Idle to Newgate then the gallows. The eleventh plate is the famous depiction of ‘The Idle ’Prentice Executed at Tyburn,’ the crowds of morbid onlookers a brutally parodic reflection of the cheering crowds at the procession in the final plate celebrating ‘The Industrious ’Prentice Lord-Mayor of London.’ This bourgeois moral fable, that honesty and hard work bring success as surely as the wages of sin are death, was designed primarily for display on workshop walls where impressionable apprentices might contemplate it at length, the scriptural quotation beneath each illustration adding the obvious dimension of a sermon.
Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard is the story of two apprentices, Thames Darrell (Goodchild) and Jack Sheppard (Tom Idle). Unlike the parallel narratives of Luke Rookwood and Dick Turpin however, the stories of Thames and Jack interact quite fluidly. The novel is divided into three books, or ‘epochs,’ each taking place in a very compressed timeframe like the acts of a play. Epoch the First, 1703, takes place in one night when the main protagonists are newborn babies, and acts as a prologue. Epoch the Second, 1715 (which begins with a chapter entitled ‘The Idle Apprentice’), takes place over a few days in June and shows the adolescent Jack’s fall from grace into the orbit of the evil thief-taker and criminal mastermind, Jonathan Wild, while Thames rather foolishly falls into the clutches of his evil uncle, Sir Rowland Trenchard, who is Wild’s silent partner. Epoch the Third, 1724, encompasses the six months leading up to Jack’s capture and execution. It opens with Jack at the height of his success as a criminal (and consequent depths of depravity), as Wild’s right hand, and the return of Thames, who escaped his uncle and fled to France where he became a prosperous merchant. Disgusted at a murder which takes place during a robbery arranged by Wild, Jack turns against him and spends much of the remainder of the narrative assisting Thames in the restoration of his family fortune, except when incarcerated, which allows Ainsworth to recreate the daring prison escapes that had guaranteed the original Jack Sheppard his place in the Newgate Calendars. Wild murders Sir Rowland and traps Jack at his mother’s graveside. Jack dies bravely on the gallows, Thames’s birthright is established and he marries his childhood sweetheart, Winifred, his old master’s daughter. We are reassured, in one of Ainsworth’s characteristic historical closures, that Wild was convicted and hanged ‘seven months afterwards, with every ignominy, at the very gibbet to which he had brought his victim’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 344).
After many delays Jack Sheppard began its serial run in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1839. Dickens’s serial Oliver Twist was at this point coming to a conclusion in the same magazine, and for four months both serials appeared concurrently. As both stories concerned young boys being drawn in to the criminal underworld while also sharing the distinctive graphics of George Cruikshank, Jack Sheppard and Oliver Twist became implicitly connected in the minds of their original and massive audience. This was compounded when Ainsworth succeeded Dickens as the editor of Bentley’s in March.
From the outset, Jack Sheppard was a great success. Immediately after the launch Ainsworth wrote to Crossley that the usually dour publisher Richard Bentley was in ‘tip-top spirits’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, January 1, 1839). In October, before its completion in Bentley’s, Jack Sheppard was issued as a novel in three volumes by Bentley, including 27 engravings by Cruikshank and a portrait of the author by R.J. Lane. Sales were enormous, initially exceeding 3,000 copies a week. Ainsworth was also rewarded by the sincerest form of flattery from the penny-a-liners: The History of Jack Sheppard (by John Williams, 1839) depicts Jack as a heroic figure who infiltrates the criminal underworld as part of a scheme to restore the rightful inheritance of Edgeworth Bess, a pure and persecuted heroine rather than an aggressive prostitute; The Eventful Life and Unparalleled Exploits of the Notorious Jack Sheppard (T. White, 1840) concentrates on the Jacobite intrigues of Mr Kneebone, cramming a brief summary of Sheppard’s career into the conclusion; and The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (G. Purkess, 1849) simply plagiarises Ainsworth (James 186 – 187).
Dickens’ Oliver Twist, published as a novel in November 1838, had always been very popular, but this year belonged to Ainsworth. ‘For a time,’ recalled Vizetelly in Glances Back, ‘Dickens’ star paled’ (qtd. in Collins 257). ‘The success of Jack is pretty certain,’ Ainsworth told Crossley in the autumn, ‘They are bringing him out in half the theatres in London’ (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, October 8, 1839). And so they were. By the end of October there were eight versions running concurrently in London. Ainsworth and Cruikshank publicly supported these unlicensed theatrical adaptations of their work, whereas Dickens, in general, loathed it when it happened to him; Forster reporting in his Life of Dickens that:
I was with him at a representation of his Oliver Twist the following month [December 1838] at the Surrey Theatre, when in the middle of the first scene he laid himself down upon the floor in a corner of the box and never rose from it until the drop-scene fell (Forster 381).
Ainsworth, on the other hand, endorsed J.T. Haines’s version of Jack Sheppard at the Royal Surrey Theatre while Cruikshank acted as an adviser to the set designers and makers. The author’s letter to the manager G.B. Davidge praising the production was printed on all programmes and daily newspaper advertisements (for which he received a one-off royalty payment of £20, the only money he ever made directly from any of these dramas although several were still running when he died):
Sir, – Having, in compliance with your request, witnessed your Rehearsal, and perused the Drama founded on JACK SHEPPARD, in preparation at the Surrey Theatre, I am satisfied it will furnish a complete representation of the Principal Scenes of the Romance; and have, therefore, no hesitation in giving my entire sanction to the performance. The fact of the whole of the Scenery having been superintended by Mr. George Cruikshank, must be a sufficient guarantee to the Public for its excellence and accuracy (Ainsworth, letter to G.B. Davidge, October 18, 1839).
He also furnished W.T. Moncrieff of the Victoria Theatre with an advance copy of the final instalment of the serial for his scriptwriters.
By far the best loved of all the Jack Sheppard plays was J.B. Buckstone’s version at the Adelphi Theatre starring the legendary Mrs Keeley (Mary Anne Goward) in the title role. What made ‘Bucky’s’ production different was his astute inclusion of many of the flash songs from Rookwood. Each performance concluded with a raucous encore of ‘Nix My Dolly, Pals’ by the full cast and the audience, led by Jack, Blueskin (played by the equally famous Paul Bedford), Poll Maggot and Edgeworth Bess (the very lovely Mrs Nailer and Miss Campbell), which had been set to music by G.H. Rodwell, operatic composer and proprietor of the Adelphi. Sir Theodore Martin (‘Bon Gaultier’) later wrote of this period:
Nix My Dolly travelled everywhere, and made the patter of thieves and burglars ‘familiar in our mouths as household words’. It deafened us in the streets, where it was so popular with the organ-grinders and German bands as Sullivan’s brightest melodies ever were in later day. It clanged at midday from the steeple of St. Giles, the Edinburgh Cathedral (A fact. That such a subject for cathedral chimes, and in Scotland, too, could ever have been chosen will scarcely be believed. But my astonished ears often heard it.); it was whistled by every dirty guttersnipe, and chanted in drawing-rooms by fair lips, little knowing the meaning of the words they sang (qtd. in Ellis I. 366).
A century after the inglorious death of the original, the name of Jack Sheppard had again become iconic.
In his own day John ‘Jack’ Sheppard had achieved a certain notoriety, not for his crimes (which were unremarkable acts of burglary around Holborn in the early 1720s), but for his increasingly ingenious and cheeky prison escapes. He even broke out of the condemned hold at Newgate and, when recaptured, he was placed in a fortified room in the heart of the gaol known as the ‘Castle,’ chained hand and foot with 300 pound iron fetters, and attached to the stone floor with an iron staple just to be on the safe side. Here he held court like a celebrity in a theatrical Green Room. Hogarth himself was one of the crowds of gentry who paid the turnkeys 1s 6d to visit Jack Sheppard in the Castle at Newgate in 1724, by now famous for his previous escapes, as well as his open defiance of the thief-taker Jonathan Wild. Hogarth’s father-in-law, Sir James Thornhill, also visited Sheppard, and painted a portrait of him that looked more like that of an early Romantic poet than a house-breaker. Ainsworth dramatises the scene with a broad wink to his more culturally literate audience in his chapter ‘How Jack’s portrait was painted,’ placing Thornhill, Hogarth and Gay together, thereby suggesting that Jack inspired both The Beggar’s Opera and Industry and Idleness, which, at least in the latter case, was probably true (2). When Jack became tired of all this attention, he escaped again. Unfortunately, young Jack wasn’t very bright when it came to keeping out of prison, and he was recaptured, dead drunk, in an ale house on Newgate Street, still within sight of the prison. He was hanged at Tyburn on November 23, 1724, aged 22. He did not die well. Being small in stature, the drop did not break his neck and the real Jack Sheppard took an agonisingly long time to strangle under his own bodyweight.
Half a dozen or so biographies of Sheppard were in circulation by the day of his execution (as well as numerous broadsheets, ballads and a couple of plays), including two pamphlets often attributed to Defoe, which became, and remain, the principal sources on Sheppard for later writers (3). As Ainsworth suggested, Sheppard’s story also seems likely to have inspired John Gay’s famous comic operetta: MacHeath, like Sheppard, having two lovers, while Mr Peachum is undoubtedly modelled on Jonathan Wild, of whom Defoe also wrote a short biography after his execution the following year (4). It has also been suggested, by Lucy Moore most recently, that the Sheppard story was the inspiration for Industry and Idleness, but this is less likely, generic parables of fallen apprentices being by then very common (Moore 35). Hogarth in fact based his narrative upon The London Merchant, a popular play by George Lillo first performed in 1731.
The fame of the real Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild was an early example of a media-generated fad however, and they were soon forgotten. By the time Fielding resurrected the satirical Jonathan Wild/Robert Walpole comparison from The Beggar’s Opera in the third volume of his Miscellanies in 1743 it was already a cliché. The popularity of Ainsworth’s character and his theatrical clones, seemed to transcend that of the original: after they read the novel, theatregoers could actually sing along with Jack, Blueskin, and pretty Poll and Bess, weep with Jack as he hugged the earth of his mother’s grave, and cheer with a mixture of horror and delight when an angry mob set Jonathan Wild’s house ablaze. As Keith Hollingsworth perfectly put it: ‘Sheppard was not simply a sensation in fiction, but an extra-literary popular phenomenon’ (Hollingsworth 140). Even the famous letters sent to the Kansas City Star by the notorious outlaws of the American west Frank and Jesse James were signed ‘Jack Sheppard’ (Bloom 86). This phenomenon was to be a problematic one for Ainsworth, as his character stepped from the pages of the essentially bourgeois novel (at £1. 5s a copy), and onto the boards of the working class penny gaffs.
S.M. Ellis argued that a story based upon such a model as Hogarth’s was ‘absolutely moral’ by definition, being ‘simply a prose version of that famous series of pictures by the greatest of moralists’ (Ellis I. 373 – 374). While Ellis’s intention to defend his subject against decades of ridiculous critical condemnation is laudable, this correlation is misleading, despite Ainsworth’s obvious use of Industry and Idleness. Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard may begin and end as an apparently direct copy of a character from Hogarth’s Moralities, but the author refuses to contain him within such a basic role, the simple dialectics of Hogarth in moral mode actually having more in common with the two-dimensional, cardboard characterisations of Rookwood than the more complex emotional motivations explored in Jack Sheppard.
In the post-Paul Clifford period, Hogarth was habitually evoked by commentators as a benchmark for what had come to be known as the ‘Newgate School’ of novelists. Like Thackeray’s ambivalent appeals to Fielding however, Victorian sensibilities fostered an unstable relationship with the great Georgian satirist and moralist, agreeing with the message but having a mixed emotional response to the method. For example, R.H. Horne compared the art of his friend Charles Dickens to that of Hogarth in A New Spirit of the Age:
The tragic force, and deep moral warnings, contained in several of the finest works of Hogarth, have been fully recognized by a few great writers, but are not yet recognized sufficiently by the popular sense. But even some of his pictures, which are deservedly among the least popular, from the revolting nature of their subject or treatment, do yet, for the most part, contain manifestations of his great genius. Of this class are the pictures on the ‘Progress of Cruelty:’ – but who will deny the terrific truth of the last but one of the series. The cruel boy, grown up to cruel manhood, has murdered his mistress, apparently to avoid the trouble attending her being about to become a mother. He has cut her throat at night in a church-yard, and seemingly to have become suddenly paralysed at the completeness of his own deed, which he was too brutally stupid to comprehend till it was really done, two watchmen have arrested him. There lies his victim – motionless, extinct, quite passed away out of the scene, out of the world. Her white visage is a mere wan case that has opened, and the soul has utterly left it. No remains even of bodily pain are traceable, but rather in its vacuity a suggestion of the last nervous consciousness that her life of misery should be ended. The graves, the tombstones, the old church walls are alive and ejaculatory with horror – the man alone stands petrific. There is no bold Turpin, or Jack Sheppard-ing to carry the thing off heroically. Stony-jointed and stupefied, the murderer stands between the two watchmen, who grasp him with a horror which is the mixed effect of his own upon them, and of their scared discovery of the lifeless object before them. It is plain that if the murderer had been a flash Newgate Calendar hero, he could have burst away from them in a moment. But this would not have answered the purpose of the moralist (Horne I. 10 – 11).
Horne then marks the ‘point where the comparison with him and Dickens stops.’ Although Horne’s argument is essentially one of realism over what he views as the cheap, immature romanticism of Ainsworth, he cannot allow that Hogarth’s ends necessarily justify his means; he therefore immediately adds that: ‘In dealing with repulsive characters and actions, the former sometimes does so in a repulsive manner, not artistically justifiable by any means.’ Dickens, conversely, has the ‘good taste’ never to allow himself to pollute a text or offend his audience with an unnecessarily ‘gross expression or unredeemed action’. This, claims Horne, is the cause of Dickens’s ‘universal popularity’ (Horne I. 11 – 12). A similar thesis can be found in an article on Newgate writing in the Athenaeum, but with the cynical suggestion that his popularity comes from a mis-reading which favours sensationalism over moral philosophy:
In thus introducing Mr. Dickens’s name, we are far from classing him with his imitators, or ranging his works with the Factory Boys and the Jack Sheppards, – in external appearance so similar. If Boz has depicted scenes of hardened vice, and displayed the peculiar phases of degradation which poverty impresses on the human character under the combinations of a defective civilization, he is guided in his career by a high moral object; and in tracing what is most loathsome and repulsive, he contrives to enlist the best feelings of our nature in his cause, and to engage his readers in the consideration of what lies below the surface. In this respect he approaches his great predecessors, Fielding and Gay; for, though he proceeds by a different path, he arrives at the same end; and, instead of sullying the mind of an intelligent reader, he leaves him wiser and better for the perusal of his tale. But this is precisely the excellence which we suspect the readers of Boz most frequently overlook; and we are certain that it is far less the under-current of philosophy which has sold his book, than the strong flavour of the medium, in which he has disguised the bitterness of its taste (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).
The Hogarth illustration to which Horne refers is the penultimate plate of Four Stages of Cruelty (1751, immediately following the popular prints Beer Street and Gin Lane), ‘Cruelty in Perfection.’ It is a nasty picture. The previous two prints show the unloved and unrestrained St Giles pauper Tom Nero maltreating animals as man and boy, and now he has killed his pregnant lover, Ann Gill, a maidservant who had stolen from her mistress at his demand. A kneeling watchman holds a note towards us written by the victim, wherein her conflict between her affection for her employer and her loyalty to her lover is recorded: ‘and my Conscience flied in my face as often as I think of wronging her, yet I am bound body and soul to do as you would have me do.’ Her throat is cut so deeply that her head is almost severed and her left hand is almost cut off at the wrist, a presumably defensive wound, but she still points towards her fallen hand luggage, a box containing the Book of Common Prayer and a treatise entitled ‘GOD’S Revenge against Murder.’ In the final print, Tom Nero is not shown at the gallows like Tom Idle but instead on the dissection table, his mutilated body replacing that of the woman from the previous image (their physical poses are almost identical), the artist playing upon one of the commonest fears of the criminal. There is an awful sense of consciousness in Hogarth’s depiction of the corpse, his mouth open in a mute scream of agony as one surgeon disembowels him while another probes the delicate sinews of his ankles and a third removes his eyes. A figure of obvious authority sits in a throne-like chair directing the operation. He is presumably a chief surgeon but in fact looks most like a judge; like God Himself he looks down from above, suggesting the moral as well as the physical deconstruction of the subject. Beneath the table a dog feeds upon the heart of the corpse. This is ‘The Reward of Cruelty,’ and it’s unremittingly appalling to behold.
The destruction of the fallen woman is also a powerful and recurring image in Dickens’s work; he was still shocking audiences with his public reading of ‘The Death of Nancy’ when he died. But both this episode in Oliver Twist and its forerunner in Sketches by Boz, ‘The Hospital Patient,’ are careful to avoid the naked, human brutality of Hogarth, even though the story is the same as that of ‘Cruelty in Perfection,’ in which the victim remains pitifully loyal to the man who will ultimately kill her. Although the simple allegory of Hogarth is delivered with the most microscopic realism, Dickens steers away from the violence at the last moment, leaving the death blow to his readers’ imagination, while the final prayer of his Magdalene is a moment of melodrama:
She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief – Rose Maylie’s own – and holding it up, in her folded hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.
It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out the sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down (Dickens Oliver Twist 268).
There is no gothic or Newgate sensationalism here, but little realism either. In a Times review of a new edition of the Works of Henry Fielding Thackeray had similarly written that:
The world does not now tolerate such satire as that of Hogarth and Fielding, and the world no doubt is right in a great part of its squeamishness; for it is good to pretend to the virtue of chastity even though we do not possess it; nay, the very restraint which the hypocrisy lays on a man, is not unapt, in some instances, to profit him … The same vice exists, only we don’t speak about it; the same things are done, but we don’t call them by their names. Here lies the chief immorality of Fielding, as we take it … It is wise that the public modesty should be as prudish as it is; that writers should be forced to chasten their humour, and when it would play with points of life and character which are essentially immoral, that they should be compelled, by the general outcry of incensed public propriety, to be silent altogether (Thackeray, The Times 1840).
But, ‘Fielding’s men and Hogarth’s are Dickens’ and Cruikshank’s, drawn with ten times more skill and force, only the latter humorists dare not talk of what the elder discussed honestly’ (Thackeray, The Times 1840). Thackeray, Horne and the Athenaeum would appear to concur, yet the former’s references to ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘honesty’ perhaps betray an uncertain desire to return to a freedom of expression now subservient to public morality. A more confident statement appears in the preface to The History of Pendennis: ‘Since the author of “Tom Jones” was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him, and give him a certain conventional simper’ (Thackeray, preface to Pendennis).
Although Thackeray, unlike Dickens, appeared to feel this lack, he did not break these new Victorian taboos of representation. Ainsworth did, and this was what he really meant by a ‘sort of Hogarthian novel’. This was the creation of a Hogarthian mise en scène, where it was not the moral message of The Rake’s Progress, Industry and Idleness, The Four Stages of Cruelty, Gin Lane and so forth that Ainsworth took from Hogarth, but his grotesque realism, a form of representation which could be allied with Ainsworth’s use of the gothic to graphically portray an English urban environment that was dark, mysterious, and threatening, yet also strangely erotic.
This project was perfectly complemented by the art of George Cruikshank, whose style (and, after he signed the pledge, sanctimony) was deeply inspired by Hogarth. In a critical review of Cruikshank, wrote that, ‘With regard to the modern romance of “Jack Sheppard” … it seems to us that Mr. Cruikshank really created the tale, and that Mr. Ainsworth, as it were, only put words to it’ (Thackeray, Westminster Review 1840). The Athenaeum similarly wrote of Jack Sheppard that, ‘it [is] doubtful whether the plates were etched for the book, or the book written to illustrate the plates,’ but for a different reason to Thackeray:
In these graphic representations are embodied all the inherent coarseness and vulgarity of the subject; and all the horrible and (it is not too strong to say) unnatural excitement which a public, too prudish to relish humour, and too blasé to endure true pathos, requires to keep alive and awaken sensation (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).
Not only is Thackeray’s statement somewhat hypocritical, given his sustained attack on the Newgate school in general and on Ainsworth in particular, but it also misses the point that Cruikshank’s illustrations (many of which have been razored out of first editions and framed by collectors who apparently agree with Thackeray), and Ainsworth’s prose are interdependent textual components. This was understood from the first by the theatrical producers who framed the action with stage sets based on Cruikshank’s engravings. The Hogarthian text demands to be a graphic novel, and Cruikshank’s final set of engravings, depicting Jack’s two escapes from Newgate and his execution, are sequenced like a comic strip, and presented as a series of linear, narrative panels rather than as conventional, single page illustrations.
The text is also graphically violent, with the extravagant, gothic death scenes of Rookwood being replaced by an unsettling, Hogarthian realism:
‘Spare me!’ he groaned, looking upwards. ‘Spare me!’
Jonathan, however, instead of answering him, searched for his knife, with the intention of severing his wrist. But not finding it, he had again recourse to the bludgeon, and began beating the hand fixed on the upper rail, until by smashing the fingers, he forced it to relinquish its hold. He then stamped upon the hand on the lower banister, until that also relaxed its grip.
Sir Rowland then fell.
A hollow plunge, echoed and re-echoed by the walls, marked his descent into the water.
‘Give me the link’, cried Jonathan.
Holding down the light, he perceived that the wounded man had risen to the surface, and was trying to clamber up the slippery sides of the well.
‘Shoot him! Shoot him! Put him out of hish mishery’, cried the Jew.
‘What’s the use of wasting a shot?’ rejoined Jonathan, savagely. ‘He can’t get out.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 249).
Ainsworth and Cruikshank returned to the period of the gruesome Georgians in every respect, taking precisely those features of the social commentary of Defoe, the picaresque literature of Fielding, and the art of Hogarth, that the Victorians had so carefully edited out.
Humphry House has written, for example, that the underworld environment that Oliver Twist found himself in would have been, in reality, ‘drenched in sex’ (House 217), which it cannot ever possibly be in a Dickensian text. Thackeray had used a similar argument to attack Dickens for his unrealistic portrayal of Nancy in his Fraser’s article ‘Going to see a man hanged’:
Boz, who knows life well, knows that his Miss Nancy is the most unreal fantastical personage possible; no more like a thief’s mistress than one of Gessner’s shepherdesses resembles a real country wench. He dare not tell the truth concerning such young ladies. They have, no doubt, virtues like other human creatures; nay, their position engenders virtues that are not called into exercise among other women. But on these an honest painter of human nature has no right to dwell; not being able to paint the whole portrait, he has no right to present one or two favourable points as characterising the whole: and therefore, in fact, had better leave the picture alone altogether (Thackeray, Fraser’s 1840).
This is of course another manifestation of Thackeray’s public modesty argument, a Gordian proposition, apparently calling for a literary realism denuded first of any subject which might cause offence to the public morals. In his preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, Dickens responded to such criticisms by arguing that he wished to ‘dim the false glitter’ of the Newgate romance by ‘showing it in its unattractive and repulsive truth,’ however:
No less consulting my own taste, than the manners of the age, I endeavoured, while I painted it in all its fallen and degraded aspects, to banish from the lips of the lowest character I introduced, any expression that could possibly offend; and rather to lead to the unavoidable inference that its existence was of the most debased and vicious kind, than to prove it elaborately by words and deeds. In the case of the girl, in particular, I kept this constantly in view (Dickens, preface to Oliver Twist).
Dickens describes Nancy as a ‘prostitute’ in the preface to the third edition of Oliver Twist, but he never calls her such in the main text. In the same way, the dialogue is suitably tidied up for the polite ear: ‘He [Bill Sikes] then, in cant terms, with which his whole conversation was plentifully besprinkled, but which would be quite unintelligible if they were recorded here, demanded a glass of liquor’ (Dickens, Oliver Twist 137). Dickens wanted completely to reject the flash anti-language of ‘Nix My Dolls’ which, as Martin had reported, was on everybody’s lips by the end of 1839, whether they understood the lyrics or not:
In a box of the stone jug I was born,
Of a hempen widow the kid forlorn,
And my father, as I’ve heard say,
Was a merchant of capers gay,
Who cut his last fling with great applause,
Nix my doll pals, fake away (Ainsworth, ‘Jerry Juniper’s Chant,’ Rookwood 117).
Which can be translated (or more appropriately perhaps decoded, given its presentation as a secret language) as:
I was born in a prison cell,
My mother was the widow of a hanged man,
Carry on stealing.
And my father, as I’ve been told,
Carry on stealing.
Was an excellent dancer,
Whose last dance was bravely done from the end of a rope (5),
Never mind my friends, carry on stealing.
This was exactly the type of thing that Thackeray objected to as both a glorification of criminal behaviour and linguistic vulgarity, and from which Dickens wished to dissociate his self:
I have read of thieves by the score; seductive fellows (amiable for the most part), faultless in dress, plump in pocket, choice in horse-flesh, bold in bearing, fortunate in gallantry, great at a song, a bottle, a pack of cards or dice-box, and fit companions for the bravest. But I had never met (except in HOGARTH) with the miserable reality (Dickens, preface to Oliver Twist).
Dickens’s appeal to Hogarth in this statement is the opposite to that of Ainsworth: Dickens admired Hogarth’s realism, Ainsworth, apparently, his sensationalism.
As Ainsworth’s purpose is not that of the moralist or reformer, Jack Sheppard is free of the propaganda of Oliver Twist just as Rookwood had avoided the politics of Paul Clifford. In consequence, the similarities of theme and characterisation between Sheppard and Twist only serve to make the contrasts between them more apparent, ultimately to the professional detriment of Ainsworth. This is particularly evident in the authors’ different presentations of underclass women.
Whereas Nancy, in the tradition of Hogarth’s Ann Gill, is presented as a victim, the young whores of Jack Sheppard are sexually predatory, as hard as coffin nails, and utterly unrepentant. In the crucial scene in ‘The Flash Ken’ (an underworld gin palace), the young Jack Sheppard is seduced into a life of vice by Blueskin (Edward Blake, another historical figure), an accomplice of his late father, Tom Sheppard the executed thief, and two legendary Newgate Calendar prostitutes, Edgeworth Bess (Elizabeth Lyon) and Mistress Poll Maggot, while his horrified mother looks on helplessly. Although the following chapter charts Jack’s fall from grace under the temptation of the satanic Jonathan Wild, ‘The Flash Ken’ episode is the more powerful, the prelapsarian Jack succumbing to the charms of not one but two Eves before he makes his pact with the devil. The scene may also be usefully compared not only to Dickens’ cautious portrayal of Nancy but to scenes where Oliver and other orphans are drawn into ‘the trade’ by the crafty indoctrination of Fagin and the menaces of Sikes. Ainsworth begins by foregrounding the sexual nature of the seduction:
The agonized mother could scarcely repress a scream at the spectacle that met her gaze. There sat Jack, evidently in the last stage of intoxication, with his collar opened, his dress disarranged, a pipe in his mouth, a bowl of punch and a half-emptied rummer before him – there he sat, receiving and returning, or rather attempting to return – for he was almost past consciousness – the blandishments of a couple of females, one of whom had passed her arm round his neck, while the other leaned over the back of his chair, and appeared from her gestures to be whispering soft nonsense into his ear.
Both these ladies possessed considerable personal attractions. The younger of the two, who was seated next to Jack, and seemed to monopolize his attention, could not be more than seventeen, though her person had all the maturity of twenty. She had delicate oval features; light, laughing blue eyes, a pretty nez retroussé, – why have we not the term, since we have the best specimens of the feature? – teeth of pearly whiteness, and a brilliant complexion, set off by rich auburn hair, a very white neck and shoulders – the latter, perhaps, a trifle too much exposed. The name of this damsel was Edgeworth Bess … The other bona roba, known amongst her companions as Mistress Poll Maggot, was a beauty on a much larger scale – in fact, a perfect Amazon. Nevertheless, though nearly six feet high, and correspondingly proportioned, she was a model of symmetry, and boasted, with the frame of a Thalestris or a Trulla, the regular lineaments of the Medicean Venus. A man’s laced hat – whether adopted from the caprice of the moment, or habitually worn, we are unable to state – cocked knowingly on her head, harmonized with her masculine appearance. Mrs. Maggot, as well as her companion, Edgeworth Bess, was showily dressed; nor did either of them disdain the aid supposed to be lent to a fair skin by the contents of the patch-box. On an empty cask, which served him for a chair, and opposite Jack Sheppard, whose rapid progress in depravity afforded him the highest satisfaction, sat Blueskin, encouraging the two women in their odious task, and plying his victim with the glass as often as he deemed it expedient to do so. By this time, he had apparently accomplished all he desired; for moving the bottle out of Jack’s reach, he appropriated it entirely to his own use, leaving the devoted lad to the care of the females (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 140-141).
The gaze of Jack’s mother serves as an externalisation of his moral conscience. Although the author describes the seduction of the innocent Jack as an ‘odious task,’ it is an offhand reference and he overlooks the more sinister implications of the scene by dwelling instead on the smouldering sexuality of the ménage à trois.
Like the bite of the vampire, the pens of Hogarth and Ainsworth both eroticise women. Despite his moral purpose, Hogarth’s prostitutes have little in common with the penitent, melodramatic Magdalenes of Dickens (6), the helpless, exploited, and anonymous female victims of ‘The Finishes’ as described in Flora Tristan’s proto-feminist London Journal (1840), or the pitiful grotesques of Mrs Gaskell’s ‘Condition of England’ novels. Although the role of the whore in Industry and Idleness, like machinations of Poll and Bess in Jack Sheppard, is notionally similarly ‘odious,’ the former’s visual representation remains earthy, sexually alluring, and empowered, despite the attendant moral message. She is first shown in bed with Tom Idle in Plate 7, ‘The Idle ’Prentice Return’d from Sea, and in a Garret with a Common Prostitute,’ examining an item of presumably stolen jewellery, and again in Plate 9, ‘The Idle ’Prentice betray’d by his Whore and taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice.’ Here Hogarth follows the common model of Eve seducing Adam. This was a standard episode in contemporary criminal biography. The eighteenth century author of The History of the remarkable Life of John Sheppard (probably Defoe) writes, for example, that the young Jack was a good journeyman carpenter and: ‘had the Character of a very sober and orderly Boy’ before ‘he commenced a fatal Acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise call’d, Edgeworth Bess … Now was laid the Foundation of his Ruin’ (qtd. in Rawlings 49). Similarly, Defoe’s Account of the Life of Jonathan Wild depicts the young Wild as an honest tradesman imprisoned for a minor debt, meeting ‘a jade of some fame’ called Mary Milliner and learning a new trade from her: ‘a more than common intimacy soon grew between them. Insomuch that she began to teach him a great many new, and to him unknown ways of getting money, and brought him into her own gang’ (Defoe, An Account of the Life of Jonathan Wild, 231). Notably, Mrs Milliner is in charge of a gang at this point, and Wild goes on to share power with her until leaving to establish his own gang. They remain on amiable terms like the business people that they were: ‘the other trade [prostitution and extortion] was carried on with mutual assistance, as well as to mutual advantage, for some time’ (Defoe, An Account of the Life of Jonathan Wild, 232). In Industry and Idleness Plate 7 Hogarth paraphrases Leviticus 26:36, ‘The sound of a shaken leaf shall chase him’ (7), showing the spiritual weakness of Tom Idle, who awakes in a state of some shock in the squalid surroundings, we assume after a night of hard drinking has rendered him insensible and, therefore, powerless. When the woman (always defined only by her profession and simply designated as ‘common prostitute’ and ‘whore’) sells him out for financial self-interest in Plate 9 the artist offers the punch line of Proverbs 6:26, ‘The adulteress will hunt for the precious life’ (8). In both plates she is shown décolleté and, as with a figure in a vanity panting, the male viewer is allowed to stand in judgement while also taking pleasure from the sight of the woman’s youth and nakedness.
In his description of the two prostitutes (as well as Cruikshank’s accompanying illustrations), Ainsworth revels in their beauty (which he equates with the classical), and their unabashed sexuality, comparing the different physiques of the two, their clothes and their behaviour as they indulge in very public sexual foreplay with Jack. As a powerplay, both women are stronger than the inebriated Jack (who can neither stand or even speak properly) and Blueskin, who merely watches. The real struggle is with Mrs Sheppard, who was once as they are now (which both Blueskin and Poll enjoy reminding her), but has now, as an older and reformed woman, lost both her sexual power and matriarchal, criminal authority. The confrontation between the three women is nonetheless a violent one, even though Mrs Sheppard cannot possibly win, as the struggle for Jack’s soul is enacted:
Amid this varied throng – varied in appearance, but alike in character – one object alone, we have said, riveted Mrs. Sheppard’s attention and no sooner did she in some degree recover from the shock occasioned by the sight of her son’s debased condition, than, regardless of any other consideration except his instant removal from the contaminating society by which he was surrounded, and utterly forgetting the more cautious plan she meant to have adopted, she rushed into the room and summoned him to follow her.
‘Halloa!’ cried Jack, looking round, and trying to fix his inebriate gaze upon the speaker, ‘who’s that?’
‘Your mother’, replied Mrs. Sheppard. ‘Come home directly, sir.’
‘Mother be —-!’ returned Jack. ‘Who is it, Bess?’
‘How should I know?’ replied Edgeworth Bess. ‘But if it is your mother, send her about her business.’
‘That I will’, replied Jack, ‘in the twinkling of a bedpost.’
‘Glad to see you once more in the Mint, Mrs. Sheppard’, roared Blueskin, who anticipated some fun. ‘Come and sit down by me.’
‘Take a glass of gin, ma’am’, cried Poll Maggot, holding up a bottle of spirit; ‘it used to be your favourite liquor I’ve heard.’
‘Jack, my love’, cried Mrs. Sheppard, disregarding the taunt, ‘come away.’
‘Not I’, replied Jack; ‘I’m too comfortable where I am. Be off!’
‘Jack!’ exclaimed his unhappy parent.
‘Mr. Sheppard, if you please, ma’am’, interrupted the lad; ‘I allow nobody to call me Jack. Do I, Bess, eh?’
‘Nobody whatever, love’, replied Edgeworth Bess; ‘nobody but me, dear.’
‘And me’, insinuated Mrs. Maggot. ‘My little fancy man’s quite as fond of me as of you, Bess. Ain’t you, Jacky darling?’
‘Not quite, Poll’, returned Mr. Sheppard; ‘but I love you next to her, and both of you better than her’, pointing with the pipe to his mother.
‘Oh, heavens!’ cried Mrs. Sheppard.
‘Bravo!’ shouted Blueskin. ‘Tom Sheppard never said a better thing than that ho! ho!’
‘Jack’, cried his mother, wringing her hands in distraction, ‘you’ll break my heart!’
‘Poh! poh!’ returned her son; ‘women don’t so easily break their hearts. Do they, Bess?’
‘Certainly not’, replied the young lady appealed to, ‘especially about their sons.’
‘Wretch!’ cried Mrs. Sheppard, bitterly.
‘I say’, retorted Edgeworth Bess, with a very unfeminine imprecation, ‘I shan’t stand any more of that nonsense. What do you mean by calling me wretch, madam?’ she added; marching up to Mrs. Sheppard, and regarding her with an insolent and threatening glance.
‘Yes – what do you mean, ma’am?’ added Jack, staggering after her.
‘Come with me, my love, come – come’, cried his mother, seizing his hand, and endeavouring to force him away.
‘He shan’t go’, cried Edgeworth Bess, holding him by the other hand. ‘Here, Poll, help me!’
Thus exhorted, Mrs. Maggot lent her powerful aid, and between the two, Jack was speedily relieved from all fears of being carried off against his will. Not content with this exhibition of her prowess, the Amazon lifted him up as easily as if he had been an infant, and placed him upon her shoulders; to the infinite delight of the company, and the increased distress of his mother.
‘Now, let’s see who’ll dare to take him down’, she cried.
‘Nobody shall’, cried Mr. Sheppard from his elevated position. ‘I’m my own master now, and I’ll do as I please. I’ll turn cracksman, like my father – rob old Wood – he has chests full of money, and I know where they’re kept – I’ll rob him, and give the swag to you, Poll’ ¼ his wretched mother, in spite of her passionate supplications and resistance, was, by Blueskin’s command, forcibly ejected from the house, and driven out of the Mint (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 141-143).
We can see and feel here Jack’s separation from his mother and her moral value system. By degrees, the prostitutes take over Mrs Sheppard’s role as Jack’s mother. First they both appropriate his mother’s pet name, while Jack continually appeals to the authority of his new lover (‘Who is it, Bess?/Do I, Bess?/Do they, Bess?’), while rejecting his mother. He loves Bess the most, then Poll, and his mother not at all. Eventually, after a physical tug of war where mother and lovers take an arm each, Jack regresses to the point that the masculine Mrs Maggot lifts him up ‘as easily as if he had been an infant,’ while he babbles a promise to steal for her alone, as if she were his fence, or even pimp. Bess, meanwhile, shows how easily she can change from relaxed and sensual (feminine) to threatening (masculine) when Mrs Sheppard finally returns an insult to which Bess responds with a ‘very unfeminine imprecation.’ In the underworld (whether Defoe’s, Hogarth’s or Ainsworth’s version), gender roles are reversed rendering women dominant and men subservient.
To the male moralist, such female empowerment can lead only to temptation and sin, and such an argument thus supports the subjugation of women. Deborah Nord sees Dickens’s early depiction of prostitutes as a: ‘proto-Victorian middle-class vision that overcomes an unsettling and threatening female sexuality by casting women as victims’ (Nord 72). Ainsworth, by contrast, leaves the women in command. The territoriality of Bess and Poll is assured when Mrs Sheppard is thrown out of the borough completely, leaving the two women free to consummate and complete their seduction of the adolescent boy, possibly together. Stripping the scenario of a moral interpretation has rendered it pornographic, something that was often potentially present in Hogarth yet never overtly developed.
This is a sample chapter in three parts from the book The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth 1805 – 1882 (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003)
This extract of the book is provided in accordance with the conditions of ‘fair usage,’ and is reproduced without profit for marketing and educational purposes only, with the understanding that copyright resides with the publisher.
Copyright © Edwin Mellen Press, SJ Carver 2003, 2013
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