II. Vagabondiana: Jack Sheppard and Social Exploration (9)
With regard to the licentiousness of the underworld of Jack Sheppard, Keith Hollingsworth observes that Ainsworth ‘does not realize how fast times have changed’ (Hollingsworth 138). If we recall the high Victorian analysis of the pompous and patronising J. Hain Friswell, it is immediately apparent that what was seen by the new generation of writers to remain of an underworld text if the moral gaze of the author was absent was an implied endorsement of Regency values, which were now considered immoral and therefore socially dangerous. By the time of Friswell, Ainsworth had even been symbolically stripped of his status as an early Victorian:
He is, perhaps, not so much to be blamed, poor man, being a person of small attainments and not a very strong intellect, as the times in which he was born. In that yeasty and lively age, in which the results of a long war, deeds of violence at sea and on land, the press gang, cheating lawyers, bad laws, a debauched king and court, a ‘frowsy old Floribel’, had produced among the people a taste for such literature as the ‘Memoirs of Harriette Wilson’, accompanied by books less vicious only in degree, and not quite as bad in intention, such as ‘Tom and Jerry’, ‘The Corinthian Club’, and the like, – in that very lively age people required a literature that teemed with adventure and had ‘go’ in it (Friswell 258 – 259).
The personal attack had by then become a standard feature of any highbrow literary commentary on Ainsworth, but this evocation of the libertine heroes of Pierce Egan is useful. The critical habit of citing Life in London and its imitations in conjunction with Ainsworthian Newgate was a common one; Forster’s damning review of Jack Sheppard in The Examiner, for instance, suggested that public decency had not been so threatened since ‘the time of Tom and Jerry’ (Forster 1839). Interestingly, Ainsworth’s London is much closer to Egan’s than it will ever be to the version Dickens sells to Victorian society. As Deborah Nord writes of the time of Tom and Jerry:
Early Nineteenth century London was a city in transition, no longer Augustan and not yet Victorian, no longer the buoyant, bawdy city of Boswell and not yet the menacing labyrinth of the later Dickens. In the first three decades of the century, and particularly in the aftermath of Waterloo, the nation celebrated itself and its metropolis, keeping at bay an awareness of the new social realities that would ultimately dominate urban consciousness (Nord 19).
As we have seen, Ainsworth was an equally transitional writer, and his literary style is very much a product of this period of cultural flux. As such, he is inclined to look back as much, if not more, as he does forward. Hollingsworth is quite right to mark Jack Sheppard as the point where Ainsworth parts ideological company with his contemporaries, as demonstrated by the emergent critical theory of Thackeray, Dickens and their cronies; but this then begs the inevitable question, as is always the case when reading Ainsworth, of whether he had any sort of ideology at all?
Hollingsworth also reads Jack Sheppard and the initial craze among both working and middle-class audiences as symptomatic of a positive statement of cultural renewal, indicative of a new sense of optimism where the horrors of the Bloody Code were now simply the stuff of history:
The crudest terrors of Newgate, well enough remembered, could be thought of as safely in the past. Freedom and opportunity were in the air. A vast public could, at such a moment, permit itself to idolize a young thief – could see him as a victim of the old system or as a rebel against it … This general high-spirited extravagance would not have been possible twenty years earlier; its raison d’être would have been lacking twenty years later. Ainsworth provided his novel at the right time. The Sheppard mania which followed was an uncalculated, uncalculating paean to the end of the bad old days and the arrival of a time like morning. (Hollingsworth 141) (10).
In this reading, Ainsworth’s frequent comparisons between the London of Jack Sheppard in the 1720s and that of the capital in 1839 therefore act as a celebration of social progress and the end of a barbarous past. This is hardly a convincing argument. Despite a certain amount of reform of criminal law by 1840, hangings were still public and urban poverty and crime remained epidemic.
This continuing urban nightmare is clearly represented in the criminal underworld and the condemned cells of Dickens, for example, which were portrayed as contemporary and always disturbingly close:
They crossed from the Angel into St John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Copice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great, along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.
Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands (Dickens, Oliver Twist 44).
And so Oliver Twist enters London. In language that anticipates Engels’s famous description of Allen’s Court in Manchester, Oliver is Dante to the Artful Dodger’s Virgil; although what separates this inferno from the realm of the virtuous Mr Brownlow, not to mention Dickens’s bourgeois audience, is a single turn:
The coach rattled away, over nearly the same ground as that which Oliver had traversed when he first entered London in company with the Dodger; and, turning a different way when it reached the Angel at Islington, stopped at length before a neat house, in a quiet shady street near Pentonville (Dickens, Oliver Twist 59).
In the same way, the topography of Jack Sheppard’s London as described by Ainsworth is not reassuringly separated by history at all, but rather directly linked to the present:
MRS. SHEPPARD’S habitation terminated a row of old ruinous buildings, called Wheeler’s Rents; a dirty thoroughfare, part street, and part lane, running from Mint Street, through a variety of turnings, and along the brink of a deep kennel, skirted by a number of pretty and neglected gardens in the direction of Saint George’s Fields. The neighbouring houses were tenanted by the lowest order of insolvent traders, thieves, mendicants, and other worthless and nefarious characters, who fled thither to escape from their creditors, or to avoid the punishment due to their different offences; for we may observe that the Old Mint, although it had been divested of some of its privileges as a sanctuary by a recent statute passed in the reign of William the Third, still presented a safe asylum to the debtor, and even continued to do so until the middle of the reign of George the First, when the crying nature of the evil called loudly for a remedy, and another and more sweeping enactment entirely took away its immunities. In consequence of the encouragement thus offered to dishonesty, and the security afforded to crime, this quarter of the Borough of Southwark was accounted (at the period of our narrative) the grand receptacle of the superfluous villainy of the metropolis. Infested by every description of vagabond and miscreant, it was, perhaps, a few degrees worse than the rookery near Saint Giles’s and the desperate neighbourhood of Saffron Hill in our own time (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 10).
The underworld is transcendent. Whether the correlative is the Cour des Miracles of Hugo’s fifteenth century Paris, St Giles in the age of Sheppard, Wild, Hogarth and Defoe, Saffron Hill in 1838, the urban labyrinths of Eugene Sue and G.W.M. Reynolds, the Whitechapel of Dorian Gray and Jack the Ripper, or the post-war Hackney slums of the Kray brothers, the City will always have its rookeries and thieves’ kitchens.
Ainsworth’s unfashionable representation of the underworld as both a gothic and romantic space, however, may in part be explained by his love of London, and his experience of the metropolis as a provincial émigré was totally different from that of the native Dickens. Ainsworth had arrived as an optimistic teenager in an optimistic time, not yet a decade after Waterloo. He was already a published author, comfortably off, and moving effortlessly in both professional and Bohemian social circles while chasing, albeit often ineptly, both working class and middle class women (11). There was nothing like the Marshalsea debtors’ prison or Warren’s blacking warehouse in Ainsworth’s past. Neither did he have Dickens’s front-line journalistic experience. For Ainsworth, life in London was a great adventure rather than an urban nightmare, and this enthusiasm is reflected in his writing. To understand the city of Jack Sheppard, we must thus look to Pierce Egan rather than Charles Dickens for a point of ideological correspondence.
The extraordinarily lavish popular success of Rookwood and especially Jack Sheppard in the mid to late 1830s must have reminded many of the phenomenon of Egan the Elder’s Life in London in the previous decade. Egan (1772-1849) was a sporting journalist, already known for his Boxiana, or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism (1818-24), when he began Life in London as a monthly serial in 1820, illustrated by the Cruikshank brothers, George and Isaac Robert. The work’s lengthy subtitle, The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, ESQ. and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis, signals Egan’s theme and his textual combination of two central tenets of eighteenth century London writing: the uninitiated tourist following the sophisticated guide, and the perpetuum mobile of exhilarating urban experience. ‘Seeing Life’ is the clarion call, in all its social aspects, from the aristocratic exclusivity of the assembly rooms in St James’s to the gin palaces of the East End. This is presented as a suitable sport for the young gentleman, and the city is laid out as a vast text containing all human knowledge available to those who are willing to learn how to decipher it:
Indeed, The Metropolis is a complete CYCLOPÆDIA, where every man of the most religious or moral habits, attached to any sect, may find something to please his palate, regulate his taste, suit his pocket, enlarge his mind, and make him happy and comfortable. If places of worship give any sort of character to the goodness of the Metropolis, between four and five hundred are opened for religious purposes on Sundays. In fact, every SQUARE in the Metropolis is a sort of map well worthy of exploring, if riches and titles operate as a source of curiosity to the visitor. There is not a street also in London, but what may be compared to a large or small volume of intelligence, abounding with anecdote, incident, and peculiarities. A court or alley must be obscure indeed, if it does not afford some remarks; and even the poorest cellar contains some trait or other, in unison with the manners and feelings of this great city, that may be put down in the note book, and reviewed, at an after period, with much pleasure and satisfaction.
Then, the grand object of this work is an attempt to portray what is termed ‘SEEING LIFE’ in all its various bearings upon society, from the high-mettled CORINTHIAN of St James’s, swaddled in luxury, down to the needy FLUE-FAKER of Wapping, born without a shirt, and not a bit of scran in his cup to allay his piteous cravings (Egan 512).
The ludic game is emphasised in the above introduction by the inclusion of class-specific slang terms. This is the flash language of ‘Nix My Dolls,’ and the acquirement of this (mostly) unrecorded language offers the tantalising possibility of unlocking the secrets of the urban Other. This is the Enigma code of the underworld, and was originally made fashionable by Egan, not Ainsworth:
TOM: [Introducing Jerry to Bob Logic] He is now come to see life, and rub off a little of the rust. In effecting this desirable consummation you can materially assist; under so skilful a professor of the flash as you, Bob –
JERRY: Flash! I’m at fault again, Tom.
TOM: Explain, Bob.
LOGIC: Flash, my young friend, or slang as others call it, is the classical language of the Holy Land; in other words, St Giles’s Greek.
JERRY: St Giles’s Greek; that is a language, doctor, with which I am totally unacquainted, although I was brought up at a Grammar School.
LOGIC: You are not particular in that respect; many great scholars, and better linguists than you, are quite ignorant of it, it being studied more in the Hammer Schools than the Grammar Schools. Flash, my young friend, or slang, as others call it, is a species of cant in which the knowing ones conceal their roguery from the flats; and it is one of the advantages of seeing Life in London, that you may learn to talk to a rogue in his own language, and fight him with his own weapons (qtd. in Low 119-20).
Egan’s easy-going, picaresque story, complete with long, discursive Shandyesque footnotes, bawdy illustrations and comic songs was an instantaneous success. Consequently, just like Ainsworth’s highwaymen in the 1830s, Tom and Jerry were quickly appropriated by the theatres; the above dialogue, for example, is taken from W.T. Moncrieff’s Tom and Jerry at the Adelphi. The public craze, which included six highly successful plays (including one by Egan himself) and a bevy of copycat books and serials, lasted about four years at its height, between 1820 and 1823, and Egan finished the saga with a crafty sequel in 1828. During this period in particular flash slang became common cultural currency with the fashionable set.
The later Victorians publicly denounced Egan as obscene, and his work was consigned to the same critical vacuum occupied by Ainsworth, only to be relatively recently reassessed. Deborah Nord writes of Life in London that: ‘As in contemporary collections of graphic sketches of London scenes and types, contrasts work here only inadvertently as a tool of social criticism and function primarily as a mode of entertainment and a source of delight’ (Nord 312). This is true, yet Egan’s work is also being increasingly read as a serious forerunner to that of the Victorian social investigators (12). ‘But though backward-looking in its recreational view of urban education and its often unsympathetic attitudes towards those who are “DOWN,”’ wrote Rick Allen recently, ‘this quintessentially Regency work also anticipates the Victorian vogue for exploration of the city’s lower depths and for the juxtaposition of social polarities’ (Allen 89). It is more than probable that Egan and the brothers Cruikshank did actually visit many of the places they wrote about and illustrated, the rumour about town at the time being that Egan was Logic, George Cruikshank Tom and his younger brother Jerry.
Egan at one points actually places himself in his own text, in an apology to his subscribers on failing to complete the January 1 1821 instalment in an article entitled ‘The Author in Distress’ wherein he explains that, while out on a late spree with Bob Logic at the Albany, ‘Upon turning the corner of Sydney’s Alley, into Leicester-Fields’ (somewhat the worse for the drink), ‘we were assailed by some troublesome customers, and a turn-up was the result (as the plate most accurately represents). Bob got a stinker, and poor I received a chancery-suit upon the nob’ (Egan 311). As indicated by the author, there is also an accompanying illustration with the caption, ‘Peep ’o Day Boys. A Street Row, the Author losing his “Reader,” Tom and Jerry “showing fight,” and Logic floored,’ meaning Egan was mugged and lost his journalist’s notebook.
This is hardly ‘On Duty with Inspector Field’ (and the author’s textual interaction with his own characters is positively postmodern), but there is still more than a shade here of the subsequent missionary/explorer travel narratives of Tristan, Dickens, Engels, Mayhew, and later in the century, Stead, Mearns, Booth, and Roundtree. Egan, like his more po-faced successors (who also explored the dark side of the street), still offers the opportunity for a bourgeois audience to experience the underworld voyeuristically, without ever leaving the drawing room: ‘The author, in consequence, has chosen for his readers a Camera Obscura View of London, not only from its safety, but because it is so snug, and also possessing the invaluable advantage of SEEING and not being seen’ (Egan 46). Where Egan differs is that he goes native; he talks the talk (often descending into incomprehensible flash) and he walks the walk (mixing with an underclass that delights rather than appals him), and the City is presented as the ‘young blood’s’ playground (should they dare to enter): the image most often adopted being that of a colourful theatrical performance where ‘the scene changed as often as pantomime’ (Egan 321). This is where Life in London collides with Jack Sheppard.
Ainsworth the Newgate narrator also consistently refuses to be outraged by underworld culture. Like Tom and Jerry he seeks it out, appreciating the variety and freedom that such (anti)social spaces as the ‘Flash Ken’ and the ‘Old Mint’ offer. When he tries to add a moral gloss, it is without conviction:
‘Well, I’m sure Winifred could never have loved you as well as I do’, said Mrs. Maggot.
‘You!’ cried Jack, scornfully. ‘Do you compare love – a love all may purchase – with hers? No one has ever loved me.’
‘Except me, dear’, insinuated Edgeworth Bess. ‘I’ve been always true to you.’
‘Peace!’ retorted Jack, with increased bitterness. ‘I’m your dupe no longer.’
‘What the devil’s in the wind now, captain?’ cried Blueskin, in astonishment.
‘I’ll tell you’, replied Jack with forced calmness. ‘Within the last few minutes, all my guilty life has passed before me. Nine years ago, I was honest – was happy. Nine years ago, I worked in this very house – had a kind indulgent master, whom I robbed – twice robbed, at your instigation, villain; a mistress whom you have murdered; a companion, whose friendship I have for ever forfeited; a mother, whose heart I have wellnigh broken! In this room was my ruin begun: in this room it should be ended.’
‘Come, come, don’t take on thus, captain’, cried Blueskin, rising, and walking towards him. ‘If any one’s to blame, it’s me. I’m ready to bear it all.’
‘Can you make me honest?’ cried Jack. ‘Can you make me other than a condemned felon? Can you make me not Jack Sheppard?’
‘No’, replied Blueskin; ‘and I wouldn’t if I could.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 257.)
Neither, of course, would Ainsworth. Jack may claim, rather erroneously, that ‘Mrs. Wood struck me a blow which made me a robber,’ extol the virtues of the chaste Winifred Wood over the loose morals of his two lovers, and blame Jonathan Wild for his descent into crime, but both he and his author often fail to convince. From the outset it was made very plain that not only was Jack bad to the bone, but that life in the Old Mint was much more exciting than it could ever possibly be in Mr Wood’s workshop in Drury Lane; a suspicion confirmed as soon as he (and the reader) meets the girls of the ‘Flash Ken’.
Given the charges levelled at this text by the self-appointed guardians of public decency, it demands to be noted, however, that the adult Jack Sheppard has a more complex personality than Dick Turpin, within Ainsworth’s universe at any rate. In Jack Sheppard, Thames Darrell, Jack’s best friend and effectively adopted brother, is perfectly good while Jonathan Wild, the grotesque, gothic, melodramatic villain is perfectly evil. Jack inhabits an ambivalent moral space between the two (much as he moves between the alternate lifestyles offered by Drury Lane and Southwark), somewhere between the sacred and the profane.
Although the third epoch in particular dwells upon the heroic dimensions of Jack’s character, there is a moral ambivalence present that distances Ainsworth’s Sheppard from both the Turpin of Rookwood, who may be brave but is also unrepentant, morally one-dimensional and fundamentally hedonistic, and Lytton’s Paul Clifford, who is too good to be true and spends much of his time wracked with guilt. The novelist’s challenge is to produce a sympathetic criminal, but it apparently cannot be done with any sense of realism, as we have seen from the rhetoric of Paul Clifford and the antics of Dick Turpin. When Dickens dismisses such things as ‘canterings on moonlit heaths’ in his preface to the 1841 edition of Oliver Twist (an obvious criticism of Ainsworth), he does not allow that the occupants of his version of Saffron Hill behave in much the same way as those of Ainsworth’s Southwark: drinking, smoking, lying, stealing, whoring and killing. The moonlit heath is much more a piece of scenery from Rookwood than Jack Sheppard.
Unlike the outlaw of Rookwood, the process by which Jack is drawn into the criminal underworld is enacted within the text. Directly after the episode in which Jack loses his physical innocence, the satanic Jonathan Wild claims Jack and, by implication, his immortal soul, in a suitably symbolic fashion by inciting the youth to pick a pocket in Willesden Church in sight of his mother, who is among the congregation: ‘Your son has committed a robbery – here – in these holy walls – he is mine – mine for ever!’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 145) (13). Forever? Perhaps not. Jack’s deal with the devil is by no means set, and that is the substance of his ambivalent role within the text. He is much more psychologically complex than his counterpart in Rookwood, and is socially trapped between two worlds: torn apart between guilt over the insanity and eventual suicide of his mother; his loyalty to his adopted family and his love for Thames and Winifred; the power which Wild has over him; his honourable criminal associates (especially Blueskin); his two lovers, whom he alternately lusts after and despises; and his desire to leave his illegal lifestyle behind against a passion for easy cash, wine, women and loose living. In his more sober moments, however, Jack is both embittered and repentant, but it would seem that this is the only escape he is not capable of performing: ‘I’m tired of the life I’m leading,’ Jack tells Wild during an argument, ‘I shall quit it and go abroad’ (following Paul Clifford, perhaps); ‘Dare to disobey … neglect my orders, and I will hang you’ is the reply (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 183). The conflict can only be resolved by his execution.
Having assisted Thames to his birthright and rejected Wild, Jack finally reaches a state of emotional equanimity on the road to Tyburn, although there is a suggestion even then that his criminal notoriety also still appeals:
He looked around, and as he heard that deafening shout as he felt the influence of those thousand eyes fixed upon him – as he listened to the cheers, all his misgivings if he had any – vanished, and he felt more as if he were marching to a triumph, than proceeding to a shameful death (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 338).
His last words, before ‘he was launched into eternity,’ according to Ainsworth, are ‘My poor mother! I shall soon join her!’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 343). If Jack is indeed to join his mother, then Ainsworth at least allows the fated figure spiritual redemption and resurrection to the life eternal. This is similarly presented as a consolation to the death of Lady Jane Grey in The Tower of London and the principal cast of The Lancashire Witches. No-one, apparently, goes to hell except the villains.
Like Jack in the ‘Flash Ken’ however, the author is easily diverted from his moral purpose. Ainsworth takes great care in contrasting the two brothers, ostensibly appearing to follow closely Hogarth’s original narrative from Industry and Idleness. Thames is the conventional hero (another Ranulph Rookwood), but Ainsworth’s sympathies again return to the criminal, despite the moral fable he is supposedly writing. When the young Jack is described, along with his collection of pulp Newgate paraphernalia, he gleefully grants his audience a sign of what they may expect; here, thank the Lord, or at least the omnipotent narrator, is another Dick Turpin:
In Darrell’s open features, frankness and honour were written in legible characters; while, in Jack’s physiognomy, cunning and knavery were as strongly imprinted … The expression pervading the countenance of the one was vulgarity; of the other, that which is rarely found, except in persons of high birth (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 59).
In addition to this reference to the physiognomy of the criminal type and the clue regarding Thames’s true social origins, there are also his patriotic hymns in sight of Jack’s Newgate Calendars (ironically confirming the argument later used against Ainsworth that such literature corrupts).
The point well made, Ainsworth proceeds unequivocally to take the side of the boy who is, by implication, of low birth for the remainder of the novel because, as his readers already know (or believe that they know) from such sources as Rookwood and Life in London, it is this class of society that has all the fun:
‘It is’, said LOGIC to TOM, ‘I am quite satisfied in my mind, the LOWER ORDERS of society who really ENJOY themselves. They eat with a good appetite, hunger being the sauce; they drink with a zest, in being thirsty from their exertions, and not nice in their beverage; and as to dress, it is not an object of serious consideration with them. Their minds are daily occupied with work, which they quit with the intention of enjoying themselves, and ENJOYMENT is the result; not like the rich, who are out night after night to kill TIME, and, what is worse, dissatisfied with almost everything that crosses their path from the dullness of repetition.’ ‘There is too much truth about your argument, I must admit’, replied the CORINTHIAN; ‘and among all the scenes that we have witnessed together, where the LOWER ORDERS have been taking their pleasure, I confess they have appeared ALL HAPPINESS. I am sorry I cannot say as much for the higher ranks of society.’ (Egan, 320 – 321).
This is of course the type of sentiment that later made William Acton’s medical text Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects of 1857 a bestseller amongst the middle classes. Bob Logic is here reacting to the most important ‘Flash Ken’ in Egan’s text, the ‘All-Max’ in East Smithfield (which Egan contrasts with the high citadel of Regency power, Almack’s of St James’s, which Jerry finds less interesting than its shadow and Bob Logic avoids altogether). Like the pub in the Old Mint in Southwark, the appeal is in the social freedom; gender, race and class are meaningless here, being all part of the same merry dance:
ALL-MAX was compared by the sailors, something after the old adage of ‘any port in a storm.’ It required no patronage; – a card of admission was not necessary; – no inquiries were made; – and every cove that put in his appearance was quite welcome; colour or country considered no obstacle; and dress and ADDRESS completely out of the question. Ceremonies were not in use, and, therefore, no struggle took place at ALL-MAX for the master of them. The parties paired off according to fancy; the eye was pleased in the choice, and nothing thought of about birth and distinction. All was happiness, every body free and easy, and freedom of expression allowed to the very echo. The group motley indeed; – Lascars, blacks, jack tars, coal-heavers, dustmen, women of colour, old and young, and a sprinkling of the remnants of once fine girls, &c., were all jigging together, provided the teazer of the catgut was not bilked of his duce (Egan 320).
Ainsworth’s den of thieves is admittedly less Utopian than this, and is class-exclusive. When Egan’s trio enters the All-Max the music stops like a scene from an Italian Western (there are assumed to be ‘beaks’), until a young tart reassures the clientele (in flash, naturally), that, ‘the gemmen had only dropped in for to have a bit of a spree.’Ainsworth’s ken portrays the underworld as a separate society that strangely mimics the codes of the conventional and the law-abiding, like Milton’s conception of heaven and hell, and where strangers, pretenders and defectors (like Mrs Sheppard) are never welcome.
There is, for example, a hierarchy of thieves, with urchins at the bottom and highwaymen at the top:
Nor was Jack by any means the only stripling in the room. Not far from him was a knot of lads drinking, swearing, and playing at dice as eagerly and as skilfully as any of the older hands. Near to these hopeful youths sat a fence, or receiver, bargaining with a clouter, or pickpocket, for a suit – or, to speak in more intelligible language, a watch and seals, two cloaks, commonly called watchcases, and a wedge-lobb, otherwise known as a silver snuff box. Next to the receiver was a gang of housebreakers; laughing over their exploits, and planning fresh depredations; and next to the housebreakers came two gallant-looking gentlemen in long periwigs and riding-dresses, and equipped in all other respects for the road, with a roast fowl and a bottle of wine before them (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 141).
This subculture remains however, as it does in Egan, exotic, particularly sexually. Like Jack Sheppard, Bob Logic has a woman in each arm; in both cases the characters are playing MacHeath, as Egan makes explicit:
LOGIC (as the Plate represents) … was listening to the jargon of Black Sall, who was seated on his right knee, and very liberally treating the Oxonian with repeated chaste salutes: whilst Flashy NANCE (who had gamoned more seamen out of their vills and power than the ingenuity or palaver of twenty of the most knowing of the frail sisterhood could effect), was occupying LOGIC’S left knee, with her arm round his neck, laughing at the chaffing of the ‘lady in black’, as she termed her, and also trying to engage the attention of LOGIC, who had just desired HAWTHORN to behold the ‘fields of Temptation’ by which he was surrounded, and chanting, like a second Macheath:
How happy could I be with either,
Were t’other dear charmer away;
But while you both mug me together,
You’ll make me a spooney (Hiccoughing), I say. (Egan, 323 – 324).
This is a flash pastiche of Air XXXV of The Beggar’s Opera, where MacHeath sings: How happy could I be with either/Were t’other dear charmer away!/But while you thus tease me together,/To neither a word will I say. Logic’s final lines translate as ‘But while you both smother me together/you’ll make me all soppy I say!’ (A dirty double entendre based around the fact that Logic gets the hiccups when he’s drunk, and in anticipation of his departure upstairs with both women shortly thereafter.) Logic is crossing many more social boundaries than Jack, however. Jack, his father’s son, belongs in this environment and is seen to be returning home (escaping from the straight world), while Logic is a bourgeois tourist dallying outside his own class and racial group. He surrenders to the place completely and disappears into the kaleidoscopic background:
Our heroes had kept it up so gaily in dancing, drinking, &c., that the friend of the CORINTHIAN thought it was time to be missing: but, on mustering the TRIO, LOGIC was not to be found. A jack tar, about three sheets in the wind, who had been keeping up the shindy the whole of the evening with them, laughing, asked if it was the gentleman in the green barnacles their honours wanted, as it was very likely he had taken a voyage to Africa, in the Sally, or else he was out on a cruise with the Flashy Nance; but he would have him beware of squalls, as they were not very sound in their rigging! It was considered useless to look after LOGIC, and a rattler was immediately ordered to the door; when JERRY, TOM, and his friend, bid adieu to ALL-MAX (Egan, 324 – 325).
What is certain is that both Egan’s and Ainsworth’s characters are all members of the same cast in the same theatre. The City is the drama: a tragi-comic, bawdy, burlesque of a production, and the readers its audience.
Where Ainsworth differs from Egan is in his sense of the underworld as a gothic space. For Egan it is the jungle of the dandy on safari, the ‘sport in view’ (Egan 46). Egan was a sports writer, Ainsworth fundamentally a gothic novelist. This can be seen in Ainsworth’s presentation of Newgate itself: London’s most infamous lock-up, named from the medieval city’s fifth gate in the Temple Bar, on which site originally, and later traditionally, stood the county gaol for London and Middlesex. Ainsworth understood and creatively exploited the cultural resonance of such an institution, and characteristically described it by combing the codes of the folk narrative, the antiquarian and the gothic:
At the beginning of the twelfth century – whether in the reign of Henry the First or Stephen is uncertain – a fifth gate was added to the four principal entrances of the city of London; then, it is almost needless to say, surrounded by ramparts, moats, and other defences. This gate, called Newgate, ‘as being latelier builded than the rest’, continued, for upwards of three hundred years, to be used as a place of imprisonment for felons and trespassers; at the end of which time, having grown old, ruinous, and ‘horribly loathsome’, it was rebuilt and enlarged by the executors of the renowned Sir Richard Whittington, the Lord Mayor of London (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 217 – 218).
The above extracted from the introductory paragraph of an entire chapter devoted to the history of the prison in the third book of Jack Sheppard, where the influence of the mythic yet historical Dick Whittington is ascribed to a building that is both an ancient monument and a ‘horribly loathsome’ gothic dungeon. This is recognisably the device that informs the complete construction of later works, The Tower of London (1840) and Old St. Paul’s (1841), becoming something of an authorial trademark thereafter, the titles of Ainsworth’s histories often taking the names of historic buildings. The topography of Jack Sheppard is bolder, taking in much of Georgian London. The ‘Old Newgate’ chapter is therefore immediately preceded by a similar account of the London Bethlehem Hospital entitled ‘Old Bedlam’, being a Hogarthian tableau vivant (as this novel so often is), a history and a horror show:
Old Bethlehem, or Bedlam – every trace of which has been swept away, and the hospital for lunatics removed to Saint George’s field – was a vast and magnificent structure … and as Jack passed, he could not help glancing at the wretched inmates. Here was a poor half-naked creature, with a straw crown on his head, and a wooden sceptre in his hand, seated on the ground with all the dignity of a monarch on his throne. There was a mad musician, seemingly rapt in admiration of the notes he was extracting from a child’s violin. Here was a terrific figure gnashing his teeth, and howling like a wild beast; – there a lover, with hands clasped together, and eyes turned passionately upwards. In this cell was a huntsman, who had fractured his skull while hunting, and was perpetually hallooing after the hounds; – in that, the most melancholy of all, the grinning gibbering lunatic, the realization of ‘moody madness, laughing wild.’ Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 212).
This is of course a pretty fair representation of the eighth plate of Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (1733-34), the mock monarch, musician, lover and lunatic of the engraving are all present, and the reader is therefore placed in the subjective position of the young ladies of fashion from Hogarth’s original who are there, we must assume, for an afternoon’s amusement.
Tom and Jerry also visit Newgate; it being the intention of Jerry, and his author, ‘not to neglect visiting any place that might afford him information during his stay in London’ (Egan 315). Egan knows his audience will not let him avoid the place, but he cannot quite handle it, being somewhat torn between his essentially upbeat approach to the sport of seeing and his own basic humanity when confronted with an execution. Like Thackeray, he turns away. First words fail him: ‘It is a truly afflicting scene; and neither the PEN nor the PENCIL, however directed by talent, can do it adequate justice’, then he rejects the situation and returns his characters to the colourful ebb and flow of the City:
Our heroes were offered a complete view of the prison from the top of it; but this offer was declined, in consequence of TOM’S urging the want of time, on account of having some business to transact in the City. The TRIO hastily quitted the gloomy falls of Newgate, once more to join the busy hum and life of society (Egan 317).
Just this once, Egan has strayed too close to the reality of the underworld for comfort. You can feel his relief as he ‘hastily’ gets his actors away from somewhere where they have no right to be in the first place.
Ainsworth’s character are, of course, quite at home in this brutal penal environment. Jonathan Wild actually lives in a house in the Old Bailey. Because Ainsworth utilises both gothic and theatrical space, he turns the historical figure of Jonathan Wild into the quintessential villain of a gothic melodrama.
Ainsworth’s Wild anticipates the later villains of the penny dreadfuls and the mid nineteenth century gothic melodramas penned, at their best, by James Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest and printed and produced by the likes of the notorious Edward Lloyd and George Dibdin Pitt (14). It would be fun to proclaim Ainsworth’s Wild as the missing link between the eighteenth century gothic villain, such as Radcliffe’s Montoni, and the outrageously camp creations of Rymer and Prest in the 1840s and 50s, like Sweeney Todd from The String of Pearls and Mr Dalton from Tom Taylor’s The Ticket of Leave Man (1863), who is a gentleman and philanthropist by day but by night is a thief and assassin known only as ‘The Tiger.’ Wild is, however, predated by the bloodthirsty pirate villains of the nautical melodramas of the 1820s and early 1830s, such as Black Ralph from The Dream at Sea and The Red Rover from the play of the same name (although none of the above is as sadistic as Wild). Ainsworth, however, had been refining this type of character ever since his early melodrama Ghiotto; or Treason Discovered (1821) (15). These characters do, however, share a common raison d’être, as explained by one of their number in the following comic monologue by Jerome K. Jerome:
I will, at great expense and inconvenience to myself, murder the good old man, get the hero accused of the crime, and make love to his wife while he is in prison. It will be a risky and laborious business for me, from beginning to end, and can bring me no practical advantage whatever. The girl will call me insulting names, when I pay her a visit, and will push me violently in the chest when I get near her; her golden-haired infant will say I am a bad man, and may even refuse to kiss me. The comic man will cover me with humorous opprobrium; and the villagers will get a day off, and hang about the village pub and hoot me. Everybody will see through my villainy, and I shall be nabbed in the end. I always am. But it is no matter. I will be a villain, ha, ha! (qtd. in Booth 20 – 22).
Try this model on any melodramatic villain, including those from contemporary cinema. It always fits.
Quite mad, Wild is also physically grotesque; deconstructed by his violent life he proudly bears the marks of scores of dirty fights just as a Prussian officer treasures his duelling scars. He seems obsessed with recalling his nasty adventures, each wound a memory, as if his body itself is a gothic text:
‘I have had a good many desperate engagements in my time, and have generally come off victorious. I bear the marks of some of them about me still’, he continued, taking off his wig, and laying bare a bald skull, covered with cicatrices and plates of silver. ‘This gash’, he added, pointing to one of the larger scars, ‘was a wipe from the hanger of Tom Thurland, whom I apprehended for the murder of Mrs. Knap. This wedge of silver’, pointing to another, ‘which would mend a coffeepot, serves to stop up a breach made by Will Colthurst, who robbed Mr. Hearl on Hounslow-Heath. I secured the dog after he had wounded me … Not a scar but has its history … The hardest bout I ever had was with a woman – Sally Wells, who was afterwards lagged for shoplifting. She attacked me with a carving-knife, and, when I had disarmed her, the jade bit off a couple of fingers from my left hand.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 101-102).
This mangled appearance reflects a similarly warped internal state of emotional and spiritual corruption. Wild’s interest in Jack is part of an obsessive vendetta which he is continuing, beyond the grave, with his father, Tom Sheppard, the man who took the girl he loved, Jack’s mother. Wild the collector even has the head of Tom Sheppard on display. Ainsworth makes the character marginally more sinister than his original counterpart (who was undoubtedly a vicious piece of work in his own right) by giving him a private collection of such grisly artefacts, being an external record of his hieroglyphic scars. As Sir Rowland is left alone to explore casually Wild’s study, he gradually becomes aware of the horrific nature of the ornaments on display. That such a vicious man as Trenchard is shocked by such macabre trophies demonstrates how far Wild has gone down the left-hand path:
At first glance, he imagined he must have stumbled upon a museum of rarities, there were so many glass cases, so many open cabinets, ranged against the walls; but the next convinced him that if Jonathan was a virtuoso, his tastes did not run in ordinary channels. Trenchard was tempted to examine the contents of some of these cases, but a closer inspection made him recoil from them in disgust. In the one he approached was gathered together a vast assortment of weapons, each of which, as appeared from the ticket attached to it, had been used as an instrument of destruction. On this side was a razor with which a son had murdered his father; the blade notched, the haft crusted with blood: on that, a bar of iron, bent, and partly broken, with which a husband had beaten out his wife’s brains … Every gibbet at Tyburn and Hounslow appeared to have been plundered of its charnel spoil to enrich the adjoining cabinet, so well was it stored with skulls and bones, all purporting to be the relics of highwaymen famous in their day (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 149).
The necrophiliac Wild is consequently the enemy of Ainsworth’s more decent criminals; even after death he detains them, particularly Ainsworth’s favourites – highwaymen. The horror of this scene reaches its climax with the suggestion that the observer may one day become part of the exhibit: ‘So, you’re admiring my cabinet, Sir Rowland’, he remarked, with a sinister smile; ‘it is generally admired; and, sometimes by parties who afterwards contribute to the collection themselves, – ha! ha!’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, 150). Like Sweeney Todd, Wild considers himself an artist. (Coincidentally, the skeleton of the actual Jonathan Wild can still be viewed today in the Huntarian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.) Sir Rowland is in the lair then of a psychopathic killer (rather than the entrepreneur who Defoe almost seemed to admire). He is later murdered by Wild, in probably the most violent scene in the novel, his bloated corpse eventually reappearing not as a trophy but as the evidence which convicts Wild of murder.
Despite the lack of a camp villain in Life in London, what unites Egan the contemporary social explorer with Ainsworth the underworld historian is their approach to the lower-class individual. The ‘low life’ as seen by Egan and Ainsworth are flamboyant, colourful characters (including the bad guys), with equally flamboyant and colourful names and occupations. In the All-Max episode, for example, Corinthian Tom asks the ‘covess of the ken’ (Mrs Mace, the landlady, whose name is ‘robbery’ in ‘the flash tongue’) to name the dancers for him:
‘Vy, Sir’, replied Mrs Mace, ‘that are black voman, who you sees dancing with nasty Bob, the coal-vhipper, is called African Sall, because she comes from foreign parts; and that little mungo in the corner, holding his arms out, is her child; yet I doesn’t think as how, for all that, SALL has got any husband: but, La! sir, it’s a poor heart that never rejoices, an’t it, sir?’ (Egan 24).
From Ainsworth, we similarly know the names and histories of even his most incidental characters. In Rookwood, every one of the ‘Canting Crew’ has his or her own biography, as do the ‘Minters’ of Jack Sheppard. He also dwells with interest on the celebrity of Jack Sheppard in the Castle of Newgate, where beau monde meets demi monde:
The door of the Castle was opened by Austin, who, with a look of unusual interest and importance announced to the prisoner that four gentlemen were shortly coming up with the governor to see him – ‘four such gentlemen’, he added, in a tone meant to impress his auditor with a due sense of the honour attended him, ‘as you don’t meet every day.’
‘Is Mr. Wood among them?’ asked Jack, eagerly.
‘Mr Wood! – no’, replied the turnkey. ‘Do you think I’d take the trouble to announce him? These are persons of consequence, I tell you.’
‘Who are they?’ inquired Sheppard.
‘Why, first’, rejoined Austin, ‘there’s Sir James Thornhill, historical painter to his Majesty, and the greatest artist of the day…’
‘I’ve heard of him’, replied Jack, impatiently. ‘Who are the others?’
‘Let me see. There’s a friend of Sir James – a young man, an engraver of masquerade tickets and caricatures – his name, I believe, is Hogarth. Then, there’s Mr. Gay, the poet, who wrote the “Captives” … And, lastly, there’s Mr. Figg, the noted prize-fighter…’
‘Figg’s an old friend of mine’, rejoined Jack; ‘he was my instructor in the small sword and back sword exercise. I’m glad he’s come to see me.’
‘You don’t inquire what brings Sir James Thornhill here?’ said Austin.
‘Curiosity, I suppose’, returned Jack, carelessly.
‘No such thing’, rejoined the jailer; ‘he’s coming on business.’
‘On what business, in the name of wonder?’ asked Sheppard.
To paint your portrait,” answered the jailer.
‘My portrait!’ echoed Jack.
‘By desire of his Majesty’, said the jailer, consequentially. ‘He has heard of your wonderful escapes, and wishes to see what you’re like. There’s a feather in your cap! No housebreaker was ever so highly honoured before.’
‘And have my escapes really made so much noise as to reach the ear of royalty?’ mused Jack. ‘I have done nothing – nothing to what I could do – what I will do!’
‘You’ve done quite enough’, rejoined Austin; ‘more than you’ll ever do again.’ (Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard 279 – 280) (16).
Admittedly Sheppard is here being turned into a subject of passive observation, albeit from the royal box, but he is being offered immortality by the King through Thornhill’s portrait and, although the painting has since been lost, again through Ainsworth’s novel. Ainsworth also continues the allegiance between the ‘bucks’ and the ‘bruisers’ by introducing another ‘low-life’ character, James Figg the boxer, who is closely associated with Jack. In Egan and Ainsworth, to be ‘down-and-out’ can be ‘down-and-in’ (they tend to ignore the poor, honest workers), and the bare-knuckle fighter and the daring criminal people with whom to be seen.
This risqué sense of underworld chic is not carried over into the discourse of the Victorian social explorers. To them, the demi-monde became the simply demographic. There was no room for the individual in the rhetoric of the new select committees, journalists, sociologists and moral crusaders. As Judith Walkowitz writes:
Whereas Regency dandies of the 1820s like Pierce Egan’s characters, Tom and Jerry, had experienced the streets of London as a playground for the upper classes, and interpreted street sights and characters as passing shows, engaged urban investigators of the mid-and late-Victorian era roamed the city with more earnest (if still voyeuristic) intent to explain and resolve social problems. Frederick Engels, Charles Dickens, and Henry Mayhew were the most distinguished among the throng of missionaries and explorers, men who tried to read the ‘illegible’ city, transforming what appeared to be a chaotic, haphazard environment into a social text that was ‘integrated, knowable, and ordered’. To realize their subject, their travel narratives incorporated a mixture of fact and fancy: a melange of moralised and religious sentiment, imperialist rhetoric, dramatized characterization, graphic descriptions of poverty, and statistics culled from Parliamentary Blue Books (Walkowitz 18).
As Ainsworth’s description of the Old Mint in Southwark acknowledged, the urban rookeries had not gone anywhere; if anything, they had become much worse than they had ever been in the eighteenth century. The mid nineteenth century saw the first demonstrable evidence of England’s transition from an essentially rural to an urban society, a situation unprecedented in global history, and with the rise of industrialisation the exodus of the rural poor to the expanding cities was accompanied by rapid population growth. This was the age of Mary Barton rather than Jack Sheppard, and the emergence of the new industrial working class, a culturally displaced group with, seemingly, no identifiably traditional norms and values, confused, appalled and sometimes terrified the middle-class commentators. As W. Cooke Taylor wrote, for example, in his Notes of a Tour in the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire (1842):
As a stranger passes through masses of human beings which have accumulated round the mills and print works … he cannot contemplate these ‘crowded hives’ without feelings of anxiety and apprehension amounting to dismay. The population, like the system to which it belongs, is NEW; but it is hourly increasing in breadth and strength. It is an aggregate of masses, our conceptions of which clothe themselves in terms that express something portentous and fearful … as of the slow rising and gradual swelling of an ocean which must, at some future and no distant time, bear all the elements of society aloft upon its bosom, and float them Heaven knows whither. There are mighty energies slumbering in these masses … The manufacturing population is not new in its formation alone: it is new in its habits of thought and action, which have been formed by the circumstances of its condition, with little instruction, and less guidance, from external sources, these men have speedily laid aside all their old habits and associations (qtd. in Thompson 208-209).
(The above being a description of Ainsworth’s home town of Manchester in 1842.) The distinctive faces of the pantomime dance are now rewritten as an amorphous ‘mass,’ with differentiated individuals no longer in view. The City is a ‘hive’ not a pantomime, and the population an insect collective, only much bigger.
In this new climate of fear and curiosity, the criminal class becomes a problem in need of a solution, with research becoming quantitative and statistical. By the time Henry Mayhew and his associates were compiling the seminal Morning Chronicle study London Labour and the London Poor, this was how the underworld and its inhabitants were being reported:
Mr Thomas Narrill, a sergeant of the Bristol Police, was asked – ‘What proportion of the vagrants do you think are thieves, that make it a point to take anything for which they find a convenient opportunity?’ ‘We have found it so invariably.’ ‘Have you ever seen the children who go about as vagrants turn afterwards from vagrancy to common thieving – thieving wholly or chiefly?’ ‘We have found it several times.’ ‘Therefore the suppression of vagrancy or mendicity would be to that extent the suppression of juvenile delinquency?’ ‘Yes, of course.’
Mr J. Perry, another witness states: ‘I believe vagrancy to be the first step towards the committal of a felony, and I am supported in that belief by the number of juvenile vagrants who are brought before the magistrates as thieves.’
An officer, appointed specially to take measures against vagrancy in Manchester, was asked, ‘Does your experience enable you to state that the large proportion of vagrants are thieves too, whenever they come in the way of thieving?’ ‘Yes, and I should call the larger proportion there thieves.’ ‘Then, from what you have observed of them, would you say that the suppression of vagrancy would go a great way to the suppression of a great quantity of depredation?’ ‘I am sure of it.’
The same valuable Report furnishes us with a table of the numbers and character of the known depredators and suspected persons frequenting five of the principal towns; from which it appears that in these towns alone there are 28,706 persons of known bad character. According to the average proportion of these to the population, there will be in the other large towns nearly 32,000 persons of a similar character, and upwards of 69,000 of such persons dispersed through the rest of the country. Adding these together, we shall have as many as 130,000 persons of known bad character living in England and Wales, without the walls of the prisons. These, according to the last census, are 19,888, which, added to the 130,000 above enumerated, gives within a fraction of 150,000 individuals for the entire criminal population of the country (Mayhew, 380 – 381).
And what, wondered the police, journalists, politicians, churchmen and academics, might be the cause of such ‘juvenile delinquency’? Soon, the microscopic gaze turned toward the popular culture of the masses, and in particular towards the criminal romances playing night and day in the cheap theatres. Ainsworth, father of Turpin and Sheppard reborn, did not initially realise how much trouble he was in. As his approach to criminal biography, and his own private life, demonstrates, he was always something of an innocent, despite his liberal use of trapdoors and stage blood.
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