III. The Storm: The Newgate Controversy (17)
Four months after Jack Sheppard began its serial run, the first part of Catherine, A Story appeared in Fraser’s, credited to the pen of ‘Ikey Solomons Esq. Jr.’ Ikey Solomons Esq. Snr. was a notorious fence based in Islington in the 1820s, and whose criminal empire made Jonathan Wild’s look like a kindergarten. The original Ikey Solomons was Jewish and is assumed to be the model for Dickens’s Fagin. Unlike his literary counterpart, the real Ikey Solomons escaped from police custody after being charged with the capital crime of receiving stolen goods, later turning up in New York (18). Catherine was based on the life of the eighteenth century murderess Catherine Hayes, lifted from one of the nastiest of the original Newgate Calendars, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register.Catherine Hayes was the wife of a London tradesman, and she plotted his murder with her lover (Thomas Wood, the lodger) and her illegitimate son (Thomas Billings). After getting Mr Hayes very drunk, the two men killed him with an axe and dismembered the body, disposing of it in a pond in Marylebone Fields except for the head, which they threw in the Thames in the hope of making identification impossible. The head turned up however, and was placed on display (first on a pole in a churchyard, and later preserved in a glass of spirits in the hope someone might recognise it). Catherine Hayes claimed her husband was in Portugal, but his friends were suspicious. Eventually Wood and Billings confessed and the trio were executed, the two men were hanged in chains and the woman was burnt at the stake at Tyburn in May 1726, as a wife killing her husband was petty treason under law. In a particularly unpleasant twist of fate, the flames caught so quickly that the executioner was not able to strangle the condemned as was customary, and the unfortunate woman was burnt alive. Catherine was the work of Thackeray, and the point of such a nasty story was to savagely shame and satirise the whole of the so-called Newgate School (in which he included Dickens) and their audience.
Generally speaking, nobody got the joke, and Catherine is most interesting as an example of Thackeray’s metamorphosis from journalist to novelist, as the narrative swings wildly between picaresque parody and outraged critical polemic:
And here, though we are only in the third chapter of this history, we feel almost sick of the characters that appear in it, and the adventures which they are called on to go through. But how can we help ourselves? The public will hear of nothing but rogues; and the only way in which poor authors, who must live, can act honestly by the public and themselves, is to paint such thieves as they are: not dandy, poetical, rosewater thieves; but real downright scoundrels, leading scroundrelly lives, drunken, profligate, dissolute, low; as scoundrels will be. They don’t quote Plato, like Eugene Aram; or live like gentlemen, and sing the pleasantest ballads in the world like Jolly Dick Turpin: or prate eternally about to kalon, like that precious canting Maltravers (19), whom we all of us have read about and pitied; or die white-washed saints, like poor ‘Biss Dadsy’ in ‘Oliver Twist’. No, my dear madam you and your daughters have no right to admire and sympathize with any such persons, fictitious or real; you ought to be made cordially to detest, scorn, loathe, abhor, and abominate all people of this kidney. Men of genius like those whose works we have above alluded to, have no business to make these characters interesting or agreeable; to be feeding your morbid fancies or indulging their own, with such monstrous food. (Thackeray, Catherine 34).
The story, not produced as a book until it appeared in the posthumous collected works of 1869, did contain some wonderful pastiches of Jack Sheppard however, anticipating ‘The Night Attack’ of the original Vanity Fair. I offer the following by way of illustrative example:
THE THAMES AT MIDNIGHT.
Here follows a description of the THAMES AT MIDNIGHT, in a fine historical style; with an account of Lambeth, Westminster, the Savoy, Baynard’s Castle, Arundel House, the Temple; of Old London Bridge, with its twenty arches, ‘on which be houses builded, so that it seemeth rather a continual street than a bridge’; of Bankside, and the ‘Globe’ and the ‘Fortune’ Theatres; of the ferries across the river, and of the pirates who infest the same – namely, tinklermen, petermen, hebbermen, trawlermen; of the fleet of barges that lay at the Savoy steps; and of the long lines of slime wherries sleeping on the river banks and basking and shining in the moonbeams. A combat on the river is described, that takes place between the crews of a tinklerman’s boat and the water-bailiff’s. Shouting his war-cry, ‘St. Mary Overy à la rescousse!’ the water-bailiff sprung at the throat of the tinklerman captain. The crews of both vessels, as if aware that the struggle of their chiefs would decide the contest, ceased hostilities, and awaited on their respective poops the issue of the death-shock. It was not long coming. ‘Yield, dog!’ said the water-bailiff. The tinklerman could not answer – for his throat was grasped too tight in the iron clench of the city champion; but drawing his snickersnee, he plunged it seven times in the bailiff’s chest: still the latter fell not. The death-rattle gurgled in the throat of his opponent; his arms fell heavily to his side. Foot to foot, each standing at the side of his boat, stood the brave men – they were both dead! ‘In the name of St. Clement Danes’, said the master, ‘ give way, my men!’ and, thrusting forward his halberd (seven feet long, richly decorated with velvet and brass nails, and having the city arms, argent, a cross gules, and in the first quarter a dagger displayed of the second), he thrust the tinkleman’s boat away from his own; and at once the bodies of the captains plunged down, down, down, down in the unfathomable waters.
After this follows another episode. Two masked ladies quarrel at the door of a tavern overlooking the Thames; they turn out to be Stella and Vanessa, who have followed Swift thither; who is in the act of reading ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ to Gay, Arbuthnot, Bolingbroke, and Pope. Two fellows are sitting shuddering under a doorway; to one of them Tom Billings flung a sixpence. He little knew that the names of those two young men were – Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage. (Thackeray, Catherine 125 – 126).
Neither do Lytton and Dickens escape unscathed. (G.W.M. Reynolds is at this point presumably not yet worthy of highbrow satire.) At its conclusion, the serial becomes a literary essay on Dickens and Ainsworth; there is also a companion article on Jack Sheppard which suggests that the novel, ‘and its manifold theatrical adaptations,’ could turn impressionable boys to a life of crime (Anon, Fraser’s 1840) (20) (See Appendix One). Although Catherine failed to find popular favour either as a satire or a Newgate novel (much to the chagrin of its author), it was to be the first shot of a very long war of words.
Thackeray’s opening salvo had as much to do with his personal dislike of Lytton and his own failure, so far, to succeed as an author while what he believed to be at worst immoral and at best stupid books for stupid people made their creators both rich and famous. There was, however, soon a concern over Newgate novels being voiced by a more impartial source. When Jack Sheppard was released as a novel in October 1839, the Athenaeum used the occasion to publish a long article on contemporary literature and the condition of England under the heading of a review of Ainsworth’s novel.
The unidentified author of the piece (although as this is effectively an editorial within a literary review, it is possible that the author may have been the Athenaeum’s editor Charles Wentworth Dilke himself) read Jack Sheppard and its like as a response to contemporary culture, and argues that a decline in national standards of taste, intellect and morality is distressingly apparent:
Should an ambassador from some far distant country arrive on our shores for the purpose of overreaching us in a convention, we know not where he could find a better clue to the infirmities of the national character, than in the columns of our book advertisements. (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).
The perceived problem being that literature no longer sets the standard, but merely reacts to the popular market: ‘in the present age … writers take their tone from the readers, instead of giving it; and in which more pains are taken to write down to the mediocrity of the purchasing multitude’ (Anon, Athenaeum 1839). The writer is here articulating a concerned response to a relatively recent development in the relationship between Art and Capital. As Raymond Williams has argued in his essay ‘The Romantic Artist,’ from the third and fourth decades of the eighteenth century there had been growing up a large new middle class reading public, the rise in which corresponds very closely with the rise of influence and power of the same class. As a result, the system of patronage had passed into subscription-publishing, and thence into general commercial publishing of the modern kind. These developments affected writers in several ways. There was an advance, for the fortunate ones, in independence and social status. The writer became a fully-fledged professional, but the change also meant that the free market now dictated a writer’s actual position in society (Williams 50).
Unlike later commentaries on the subject, this article is however careful to avoid abusing the individual author working under such economic circumstances, while giving no quarter with regard to his primary text:
If we consider Mr. Ainsworth in the usual light of a mere caterer for the public appetite, and as devoting his talents to a popular work either at his own or his publisher’s suggestion, we must freely admit his book to be on a level with the usual specimens of the class, and at least as good as the occasion required. It is not his fault that he has fallen upon evil days, and that, like other tradesmen, he must subordinate his own tastes to those of his customers … Jack Sheppard, then, is a bad book, and what is worse, it is a class of bad books, got up for a bad public; and it is on the last account that we select it for observation, as a specimen of one of those literary peculiarities, which we consider to be signs of the times … To relieve the tedium of an endless repetition of adventures, where each reflects its brother, and to raise the work above the level of dry extract from the Newgate Calendar, and the newspapers of the day, the hero is involved in a melo-dramatic story of motiveless crime, and impossible folly, connected with personages of high degree; and an attempt is made to invest Sheppard with good qualities, which are incompatible with his character and position (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).
The previous models of Fielding and Gay are then invoked as examples of the morally and aesthetically appropriate ways of using such material as the criminal biography. The argument remains, however, elitist:
Writings of this class, it is true, will in all ages be above the general level of the public; too superior for vulgar use, and too exalted for general taste … without a prompt and exercised intelligence in the reader, without a familiarity with the noble and the beautiful, the irony is lost, the spirit is overlooked, the Beggar’s Opera becomes a mere Tom and Jerry, and Jonathan Wild another Jack Sheppard. (Anon, Athenaeum 1839).
Note the familiar connection between Egan and Ainsworth here. Dickens is excepted from the Newgate School, but concern is expressed as to whether he might be popular for the wrong reasons, his readers excited by his ‘strong flavour’ rather than his ‘undercurrent of philosophy.’ The cultural critique becomes a review only on the final page, where a lengthy section of flash dialogue from ‘The Old Mint’ chapter of Jack Sheppard is quoted, the essay concluding with a calculated sneer: ‘Such is the “elegant and polite literature” which leads authors on their way to fortune and to fame in this the middle of the nineteenth century’ (Anon, Athenaeum 1839). This is probably the first example in print of the type of Leavisite snobbery that has generally excluded popular culture from serious literary study ever since, whereas, as Christopher Pawling wrote in his introduction to the collection Popular Fiction and Social Change: ‘if one begins to examine literature as a “communicative practice” with social and historical roots, then one cannot afford to ignore those fictional worlds which command the widest public’ (Pawling 2).
A couple of days later the Standard, a daily which reviewed plays rather than books, cites Ainsworth for criticism in an otherwise favourable notice for Buckstone’s adaptation at the Adelphi:
Most persons have heard of Captain Ainsworth’s Life and Death of Jack Sheppard, and many there are who have had sufficient pertinacity of purpose to wade through the almost endless rubbish, balderdash, twaddle, and vulgarity of which it consists (Anon, Standard 1839).
Sensing blood in the water, Forster wrote a damning review of Jack Sheppard in the Examiner the next month, despite the fact that his friendship with Ainsworth had previously been a close one. The novel was ‘in every sense of the word … bad,’ and (with reference to the mass marketing of the theatrical versions), ‘has been recommended to circulation by … disreputable means.’ Forster adds that the book could have been simply ignored and that he felt Ainsworth capable of better things, but, ‘we think the puffs even more dangerous.’ Even worse, Ainsworth had assisted Moncrieff in his adaptation of the novel at the Surrey, ‘the very worst specimen of rank garbage thus stewed up’ as Forster put it (Forster 1839). Ellis argues that this review might have more than a little to do with Forster’s idolisation of Dickens and his fury at the sales of Jack Sheppard not only exceeding but eclipsing Oliver Twist (there had also been a falling out over the editorship of Bentley’s), and there may well be more truth in this explanation than literary history allows. Hollingsworth also notes that Dickens and Forster despised Moncrieff, who had dramatised both The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby despite objections by the author. As far as Forster saw it, says Hollingsworth, ‘Ainsworth was fraternising with the enemy’ (Hollingsworth 144).
Although Ainsworth wrote to Crossley that: ‘Forster’s article has been perfectly innocuous, and has done no harm whatever here. In fact, Jack is carrying everything before him,’ he must have realised that the moral panic was escalating (Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, November 19, 1839). The disturbing aspect of which was that, even though it initially did his sales more good than harm, his name was becoming increasingly linked to the debate on crime and the attendant fear of the new urban working classes. The author of the novel was becoming a convenient scapegoat for its theatrical adaptations, which were increasingly believed to be disseminating moral corruption to the masses and inciting the lower-class youth of the day to crime. Forster, for example, leading the argument by suggesting that there was a potential danger to society ‘in the adaptations of the “romance” that are alike rife in the low smoking rooms, the common barbers’ shops, the cheap reading places, the private booksellers’, and the minor theatres.’ (Forster 1839). Ainsworth’s friend Laman Blanchard later attacked this critical backlash in terms of class-based arrogance combined with a fear of the masses:
Critics, who had always a passion for heroes in fetters before, now found out that housebreakers are disreputable characters. They were in raptures with the old-established brigand still, and the freebooter of foreign extraction; they could hug Robin Hood as fondly as ever, and dwell with unhurt morals on the little peccadilloes of Rob Roy; nay, they had no objection to ride behind Turpin to York any day, and would never feel ashamed of their company; but they shook their heads at Sheppard, because low people began to run after him at the theatres; he was a housebreaker! (Blanchard xvi) (21).
As things were turning nasty, Percival Banks of Fraser’s wrote to Ainsworth to offer a favourable review of the novel as, ‘I am anxious that it should succeed, and the more especially because I find certain of the dunces and blackguards are against you’ (presumably this is as reference to Forster and Thackeray) (qtd. in Ellis I. 375). Meanwhile Punch, which later enjoyed a good humoured, tit-for-tat satirical game with Ainsworth’s Magazine, wrote a very favourable review of Jack Sheppard, saying that that ‘The pen that recorded his adventures played like a sunbeam about him’ (qtd. in Ellis I. 375). Dickens, although privately vexed at being associated with the Newgate school of writing, kept publicly silent for a couple of years before explaining his political position in the preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist, as has already been discussed above.
Charles MacKay, after quoting interviews with young offenders corrupted by Newgate fiction, taken from the Sixth Report of the Inspector of Prisons for the Northern Districts of England (which singles out stories and plays about Jack Sheppard as especially pernicious), summarises the common argument thus:
In the penny theatres that abound in the poor and populous districts of London, and which are chiefly frequented by striplings of idle and dissolute habits, tales of thieves and murderers are more admired, and draw more crowded audiences, than any other species of representation. There the footpad, the burglar, and the highwayman are portrayed in their natural colours, and give pleasant lessons in crime to their delighted listeners. There the deepest tragedy and the broadest farce are represented in the career of the murderer and the thief, and are applauded in proportion to their depth and their breadth. There, whenever a crime of unusual atrocity is committed, it is bought out afresh, with all its disgusting incidents copied from the life, for the amusement of those who will one day become its imitators (MacKay 645).
He then carefully goes on to differentiate High from Low culture within the more literary ‘adventures of noted rogues,’ which are ‘delightful,’ so that the outlaw creations of Schiller, Scott and Byron may be spared any charges of the corruption of public morals.
Probably the best known expression of such anxiety, and the belief of the bourgeois Christian reformers that the purpose of Art is to edify rather than to entertain is to be found in Mayhew writing ‘Of the Penny Gaff,’ the forerunner of the working class music hall:
In many of the thoroughfares of London there are shops which have been turned into a kind of temporary theatre (admission one penny), where dancing and singing take place every night. Rude pictures of the performers are arranged outside, to give the front a gaudy and attractive look, and at night-time coloured lamps and transparencies are displayed to draw an audience. These places are called by the costers ‘Penny Gaffs’; and on a Monday night as many as six performances will take place, each one having its two hundred visitors.
It is impossible to contemplate the ignorance and immorality of so numerous a class as that of the costermongers, without wishing to discover the cause of their degradation. Let anyone curious on this point visit one of these penny shows, and he will wonder that any trace of virtue and honesty should remain among the people. Here the stage, instead of being the means for illustrating a moral precept, is turned into a platform to teach the cruellest debauchery. The audience is usually composed of children so young, that these dens become the school-rooms where the guiding morals of life are picked up (Mayhew 36 – 37).
This so-called ‘effects’ theory of popular culture persists to this day, as a subject of serious sociological and psychological research, as well as a less balanced ‘common sense’ conviction in the cultural narratives of the tabloid press, right-wing politics, religious fundamentalism and pop psychology, all of which loudly claim that, in a variety of popular mediums and genres, correlation must prove causation. Simply put, the argument for the prosecution is that if young working class males go to penny-theatres/read penny dreadfuls/dime novels/horror and crime comics/listen to rock ‘n’ roll/punk rock/rap music/watch video nasties/play violent computer games and so forth, then these entertainments will directly influence juvenile delinquency. There are numerous cultural studies on the relationship between delinquency and popular culture. Stanley Cohen posited the ‘Deviance Amplification Spiral’ model to explain the creation of a moral panic by the media in his seminal study Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1977). In Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993) Roger Sabin offers an excellent overview of the phenomenon in his analysis of Fredric Wertham’s book on comics and juvenile delinquency The Seduction of the Innocent (1955) and the attendant moral crusade. John Sprinhall analysis the cyclical nature of these moral panics, and their apparent relationship with new technology in Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics (1998), while the definitive cultural study remains Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (1997) edited by Martin Barker and Julian Petley, which responds to Professor Elizabeth Newson’s report Video Violence and the Protection of Children (1994) commissioned by Liberal Democrat MP David Alton to support his proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill. (See also my paper ‘Weird Tales from the Vault of Fear: The EC Comics Controversy and its Legacy’ reproduced on this blog.)
Unfortunately for the beleaguered Ainsworth, this theory was considered to be borne out when on May 5, 1840 Lord William Russell was murdered by his valet, François Courvoisier, who, it was claimed, had stated that the idea for the crime had come to him while reading Jack Sheppard. Because of the status of the victim and the alleged connection to a popular novel, this was a famous crime, and the murderer’s likeness remained at Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors well into the twentieth century, alongside Thurtell, Greenacre, Burke and Hare, Kate Webster, Jack the Ripper, and Dr Crippen. It was Courvoisier’s execution that Thackeray wrote of in ‘Going to see a man hanged.’ A working-class man had risen up against his master after reading a Newgate novel. This was unprecedented. After the killer was condemned, the Examiner returned to Forster’s original review, which had foretold such a disaster, and ran a smug editorial which again denounced Jack Sheppard:
In Courvoisier’s second confession, which we are more disposed to believe than the first, he ascribes his crimes to the perusal of that detestable book, ‘Jack Sheppard’; and certainly it is a publication calculated to familiarize the mind with cruelties and to serve as the cut-throat’s manual, or the midnight assassin’s vade-mecum, in which character we now expect to see it advertised … If ever there was a publication that deserved to be burnt by the common hangman it is ‘Jack Sheppard’ (Forster 1840).
You couldn’t buy publicity like this. The book continued to sell, while its author became a literary pariah, blackballed at the Trinity Club and forced to withdraw from candidacy for the Athenaeum club because of the likelihood of defeat and further public humiliation. During this period, Ainsworth was editing Bentley’s, planning his own magazine with Cruikshank and carrying on the monumental task of writing two serials simultaneously, The Tower of London and Guy Fawkes; Blanchard called them the ‘twin-born romances’ (Blanchard xxvii). In consequence he did not write to Crossley between November 19, 1839 and December 7, 1840 (he often kept silent during projects, the Jack Sheppard letters are an exception), and his opinions on the Newgate controversy are therefore unknown. Only the Courvoisier accusations caused him publicly to break his silence, writing to The Times that:
I have taken means to ascertain the correctness of the report, and I find it utterly without foundation. The wretched man declared he had neither read the work in question nor made any such statement. A Collection of Trials of Noted Malefactors (probably ‘The Newgate Calendar’) had indeed fallen in his way, but the account of Jack Sheppard contained in this series had not particularly attracted his attention. I am the more anxious to contradict this false and injurious statement because a writer in The Examiner of Sunday last, without inquiring into the truth of the matter, has made it the groundwork of a most violent and libellous attack on my romance (Ainsworth, letter to The Times July 7, 1840).
But nobody believed him. The Courvoisier statement was never confirmed or disproved, although it presumably takes more than reading a novel to enable one to cut someone’s throat. That no doubt requires another type of inspiration altogether.
After this, what was left of the Newgate novel story largely belongs to Dickens and Lytton. Ainsworth’s planned projects on the lives of Dick Turpin and Claude Duval were never, unfortunately, realised, and he prudently moved away from Newgate and into the realm of his own idiosyncratic version of historical fiction.
As Thackeray fired the first shot, it was in every way appropriate that he also fired the last. Vanity Fair (1847-8) marks the coup de grâce of the Newgate novel, with its wonderful yet throwaway pastiche of the ‘Storm Scene’ from Jack Sheppard (and most of Ainsworth’s other novels, where there is always a dramatic thunderstorm bordering on the apocalyptic somewhere in the text), and his liberal use of flash slang. ‘The Night Attack’ was originally a false beginning to Chapter Six, where the author considers whether or not he should proceed in the style of ‘the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner.’ ‘Fancy’, he finally announces, ‘this chapter having been headed …’
THE NIGHT ATTACK
The night was dark and wild – the clouds black – black – ink-black. The wild wind tore the chimney-pots from the roofs of the old houses, and sent the tiles whirling and crashing through the desolate streets. No soul braved that tempest – the watchmen shrank into their boxes, whither the searching rain followed them where the crashing thunderbolt fell and destroyed them – one had so been slain opposite the Foundling. A scorched gabardine, a shivered lantern, a staff rent in twain by the flash, were all that remained of stout Will Steadfast. A hackney-coachman had been blown off his coachbox, in Southampton Row – and whither? But the whirlwind tells no tidings of its victim, save his parting scream as he is borne onwards! Horrible night! It was dark, pitch dark; no moon. No, no. No moon. Not a star. Not a little feeble, twinkling, solitary star. There had been one at early evening, but he showed his face, shuddering, for a moment in the black heaven, and then retreated back.
One, two, three! It is the signal that Black Vizard had agreed on.
‘Mofy! is that your snum?’ said a voice from the area. ‘I’ll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin.’ (22)
‘Nuffle your clod, and beladle your glumbanions’, said Vizard, with a dreadful oath. ‘This way, men; if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter room, Blowser. You, Mark, to the old gaff’s mobus box! and I’, added he, in a lower but more horrible voice, ‘I will look to Amelia!’
There was a dead silence.
‘Ha!’ said Vizard, ‘was that the click of a pistol?’ (Thackeray, Vanity Fair 59).
When Thackeray revised the novel in 1853, this passage was omitted, and remained absent in all subsequent editions, the author considering it no longer relevant as a contemporary satire. By then the drop had fallen on the Newgate novel, and the bells of St Sepulchre’s had tolled for Ainsworth’s career as a serious novelist in particular; a scapegoat was obviously required and the Courvoisier case was simply too damning.
Fictional highwaymen and camp villains had not gone anywhere of course, except into the penny magazines and other working class literature where their narratives became the subject of sociological analysis rather than literary debate. Ainsworth’s outlaws, underdogs and murderous fiends similarly remained, only now they were members of the British Royal Family, as the author turned his attention towards the political history of the nation, and exchanged Newgate Gaol for the Tower of London as his gothic castle.
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