William Harrison Ainsworth: A Contextual Chronology

1805 – William Harrison Ainsworth born in Manchester, February 4, the first child of Thomas Ainsworth, solicitor, and Ann Harrison.

1806 – Birth of brother, Thomas Gilbert Ainsworth, October 4 (destined for a long life of mental illness).

1807 – British slave trade abolished by Act of Parliament.

1812 – Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

1814 – Walter Scott, Waverley.

1815 – Napoleon defeated at Waterloo.

1817 – Ainsworth enters Manchester Free Grammar School. Death of Jane Austen. Byron, Manfred.

1818 – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

1819 – Peterloo Massacre. (St Peter’s Field, Manchester, was close to the Ainsworth’s family home in King Street.)

1820 – Ainsworth writes and produces first plays at a ‘private theatre’ (home) at King Street: The Brothers and Giotto; or The Fatal Revenge (he also acts). Death of George III, accession of George IV (Regent since 1811).

1821 – Ainsworth’s The Rivals: A Serio-Comic Tragedy published in Arliss’s Pocket Magazine under pseudonym ‘T. Hall.’ T. Hall writes seventeen articles, including a well-received piece on his discovery of the seventeenth century dramatist ‘William Aynesworthe,’ whose work is quoted at length and favourably compared to that of ‘Richard Clitheroe,’ another invention. John Keats dies of TB in Rome. Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The Manchester Guardian is founded.

1822 – Ainsworth leaves school, and begins study of law, initiating a corresponding with Charles Lamb. His first book, dedicated to Lamb, The Maid’s Revenge; and A Summer’s Evening Tale; with Other Poems published under the pseudonym ‘Cheviot Ticheburn.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley drowns in the Bay of Spezia.

1823 – Publication of Ainsworth’s December Tales, a collection of literary articles and short stories previously printed in The London Magazine, The Edinburgh Magazine, Arliss’s Pocket Magazine and The European.

1824 – Ainsworth produces a new periodical, The Boeotian – writing most of it and self-publishing – which runs for six issues. Death of father. Leaves Manchester for London to study law. Death of Byron.

1825 – Ainsworth meets Lamb. Letter to James Crossley, March 25: ‘Little Charles Lamb sends me constant invitations. I met Mrs. Shelley at his house the other evening. She is very handsome; I am going to the theatre with her some evening.’ First steam-driven passenger railway opens, running between Stockton and Darlington.

1826 – Ainsworth qualifies as a solicitor. Publication of Sir John Chiverton (written in collaboration with J.P. Aston). John Ebers publishes Ainsworth’s pamphlet Considerations on the best means of affording Immediate Relief to the Operative Classes in the Manufacturing Districts. Presented to Sir Walter Scott at Pall Mall. Marries Anne Francis ‘Fanny’ Ebers, October 11; sets up shop as a publisher and bookseller.

1827 – Birth of Ainsworth’s first child, Fanny.

1828 – Ainsworth publishes The Christmas Box, an annual which includes ‘The Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee’ by Scott. Visits France and Germany.

1829 – Birth of Ainsworth’s second daughter, Emily. Abandons publishing. Roman Catholic Relief Act.

1830 – Ainsworth resumes legal practice. Birth of third child, Anne Blanche. Tours Italy. Begins association with the new Fraser’s Magazine, meets Coleridge. Death of George IV, accession of William IV.

William Harrison Ainsworth by Daniel Maclise

1832 – Death of Sir Walter Scott. First Reform Act.

1833 – Charles Dickens begins contributing ‘Sketches by Boz’ to The Morning Chronicle.

1834 – Poor Law Amendment Act. Ainsworth’s Rookwood published in three volumes by Richard Bentley; critical success and popular fame nothing short of meteoric. Novel dramatised for the Adelphi. Thackeray reviews novel in Fraser’s, where Ainsworth is highly praised, mostly at the expense of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Ainsworth meets and befriends Dickens at his open-house at Kensal Lodge; introduces Dickens to John Macrone, George Cruikshank and John Forster. Death of Coleridge.

1835 – Ainsworth separates from his wife. William Henry Fox Talbot prints his first photographs.

1836 – Persuades Macrone to publish Browning’s early work, Sordello. Death of Macrone. Serialisation of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers begins.

1837 – Crichton. Death of William IV. Victoria accedes to the throne. Dickens becomes editor of Bentleys Miscellany, commences serialisation of Oliver Twist.

1838 – Death of Ainsworth’s wife, on March 6, aged 33. Visits Manchester with Dickens and Forster.

1839 – First Chartist Petition. Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard published, out-selling Oliver Twist; eight dramatic versions produced. Novel attacked by Forster and Thackeray. A moral panic, the ‘Newgate controversy,’ breaks out around Ainsworth, Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, author of Paul Clifford (1830). Becomes editor of Bentley’s Miscellany in March, after Dickens’ resignation. (Contributions during Ainsworth’s editorship include Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Longfellow’s narrative poem ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus.’)

1840 – Penny Post introduced. Lord William Russell murdered by his servant, François Courvoisier, reportedly inspired by a scene from Jack Sheppard. Serial publication of Guy Fawkes. The Tower of London. Victoria marries Prince Albert.

1841 – Old St. Paul’s serialised in The Sunday Times. Resigns editorship of Bentley’s in December.

1842 – Ainsworth’s Magazine begins in February; prints ‘A few words to the Public about Richard Bentley’ by Cruikshank, which engenders a protracted war of words between Ainsworth and Bentley’s champion, ‘Father Prout’ (Francis Mahony). The Miser’s Daughter. Begins serial publication of Windsor Castle. Death of mother, March 15. Second Chartist Petition.

1843 – Ainsworth begins serialisation of Modern Chivalry (of which authorship remains uncertain, but probably written by Catherine Gore with Ainsworth mentoring). Sells Ainsworth’s Magazine.

1844 – Saint James’s (the last of Ainsworth’s novel to be illustrated by Cruikshank). Begins serialisation of Auriol under title of Revelations of London. In the collection of critical essays, A New Spirit of the Age, edited by Richard H. Horne, Ainsworth’s work is described as ‘a romance of old clothes’ and ‘generally dull, except when it is revolting.’ Horne concludes that Ainsworth is ‘usually spared in public, because [he is] so much esteemed and regarded in private.’ G.W.M. Reynolds begins serial publication of The Mysteries of London. First telegraph line laid in England.

1845 – Ainsworth purchases the New Monthly Magazine for £3,250. Credited as one of the pilots of the Victoria in Poe’s ‘Balloon Hoax.’ Regains possession of Ainsworth’s Magazine. Begins long-running quarrel with The Athenaeum.

1847 – Ainsworth buys back copyright of romances from Bentley. Serial publication of James the Second. Serial publication of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Anonymous publication of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Agnes Grey by Anne, and Wuthering Heights by Emily.

1848 – Serial publication of The Lancashire Witches. Thackeray parodies the storm scene from Jack Sheppard in Vanity Fair (‘The night attack,’ Chapter 6). This is removed from the revised edition of 1853, and omitted from all subsequent editions, the satire no longer deemed culturally relevant by Thackeray. Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton. Death of Emily Brontë. Dickens, Dombey and Son. Third Chartist Petition. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. 

1849 – Ainsworth visits France and Spain. Re-issues cheap collected editions of earlier works. Charlotte Brontë, Shirley. Death of Anne Brontë.

1850 – Death of William Wordsworth. Tennyson publishes In Memoriam; becomes poet laureate.  First Public Libraries Act.

1851 – Begins serial publication of semi-autobiographical work, The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe (not a financial success, and left unfinished until 1858). Henry Mayhew’s social study London Labour and the London Poor (originally articles written for The Morning Chronicle) published in three volumes.

1852 – Ainsworth spends most of year in France and Germany.

1853 – Serial publication of The Star Chamber and The Flitch of Bacon. Moves to Brighton. Dickens, Bleak House.

1854 – Ainsworth’s Magazine ceases publication; purchases Bentley’s Miscellany for £1,700. The Light Brigade of the British cavalry all but wiped out at the Battle of Balaclava.

1855 – Serial publication of The Spendthrift. Ballads. Death of Charlotte Brontë.

1856 – Ainsworth granted a Civil List Pension of £100 p.a. on the recommendation of Lord Palmerston. (Later writing to Crossley: ‘It was a great misfortune to me that Disraeli went out. He would have given me something better than a pension.’)

1857 – Indian Mutiny. Obscene Publications Act. Thackeray plans a Kensal Lodge reunion dinner for Dickens, Ainsworth, Daniel Maclise and himself, but Ainsworth and Dickens both excuse themselves and the event never takes place.

1858 – Mervyn Clitheroe completed and published.

1859 – Serial publication of Ovingdean Grange. The Combat of the Thirty. Ainsworth discovers and markets ‘Ouida’ (Louise de la Rame). Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species.

1860 – Ainsworth serialises Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne in the New Monthly. Financial problems; sells family house in King Street, Manchester.

1861 – The Constable of the Tower. Death of Prince Albert. Dickens, Great Expectations.

1862 – The Lord Mayor of London.

1863 – Ainsworth tours Switzerland and Italy. Begins serial publication of Cardinal Pole. Death of Thackeray.

1864 – Ainsworth sells ‘Beech Hill,’ his other Manchester home at Chetham Hill. John Law. Spends summer in Europe. Begins serial publication of The Spanish Match under the title of The House of Seven Chimneys.

1865 – Ainsworth visits Ireland. Serial publication of The Constable de Bourbon. Auriol completed and published, although Ainsworth later describes the novel as ‘a mere fragment of romance.’ Dickens, Our Mutual Friend.

1866 – Old Court serialised.

1867 – Ainsworth retires to Tunbridge Wells, marking the end of his open-house policy and social career of expansive dinner parties. The weight of the books in the library of the new house cause the ceiling below to collapse. Serial publication of Myddleton Pomfret, his last story to appear in Bentley’s. Birth of daughter, Clara, by Sarah Wells, listed on the last census as a maid in the household. (Ainsworth’s Edwardian biographer, S.M. Ellis, refers to a ‘private marriage’ but is deliberately vague regarding details.)

1868 – Ainsworth sells Bentley’s Miscellany back to Bentley. Allies himself to new weekly, Bow Bells (formally Reynolds’s Miscellany), in which many of his later, rather inferior, historical romances appeared thereafter. Serial publication of The South-Sea Bubble. Last public execution in England.

1869 – Hilary St. Ives (like Mervyn Clitheroe, this is one of the few novels with a contemporary setting). Ainsworth moves to Hurstpierpoint in the South Downs with his two unmarried daughters, but spends much of his time with his brother in the house he had bought for him in Reigate. Ellis relates the following anecdote, as told by Percy Fitzgerald:

‘I recall a dinner at Teddington, in the sixties, given by Frederic Chapman, the publisher, at which were [John] Forster and [Robert] Browning. The latter said humorously, “A sad, forlorn-looking being stopped me today, and reminded me of old times. He presently resolved himself into – whom do you think? Harrison Ainsworth!”

“Good Heavens!” cried Forster, “is he still alive?”’

1870 – Ainsworth resigns editorship of the New Monthly. Serial publication of Talbot Harland. Dickens dies, ‘exhausted by fame.’

William Harrison Ainsworth Punch cartoon

1871 – Tower Hill. Death of Bentley. George Cruikshank writes to The Times claiming to be the ‘originator’ of eight of Ainsworth’s early novels, but as he also claimed credit for the plot of Oliver Twist he is not taken overly seriously.

1872 – Boscobel. Letter to Crossley, January 25: ‘How do you like Forster’s Life of Dickens? I have only dipped into the book, but I see he only tells half the story.’ George Eliot, Middlemarch.

1873 – The Good Old Times (entitled The Manchester Rebels of the Fatal ’45 in subsequent editions).

1874 – Merry England. Serial publication of The Goldsmith’s Wife. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd.

1875 – Preston Fight. Letter to James Penderel-Brodhurst, aspiring author: ‘I do not advise you to enter upon a literary career. It is a very hazardous profession … I am certain you will find your old avocation [the law] more profitable than literature.’

1876 – Death of Ainsworth’s brother. The Leaguer of Lathom; Chetwynd Calverley. Victoria becomes Empress of India.

1877 – The Fall of Somerset.

1878 – Beatrice Tyldesley.

1879 – Beau Nash. Ainsworth moves to Reigate. Battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift.

1880 – Routledge publishes new editions of the majority of Ainsworth’s novels. Ainsworth visits Germany for health reasons. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady.

1881 – Stanley Brereton, Ainsworth’s final work, serialised in The Bolton Weekly Journal. Honoured at a Lord Mayor’s banquet in Manchester Town Hall, September 15, ‘As an expression of the high esteem in which he is held by his Fellow townsmen and of his services to Literature.’ Punch affectionately describes Ainsworth as ‘the greatest axe-and-neck-romancer of our time.’

1882 – Ainsworth dies of a heart attack, Reigate, January 5. He is buried in the family vault at Kensal Green Cemetery.

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