As a child growing up in Regency Manchester, William Harrison Ainsworth had his head filled with tales of highwaymen by his father. His favourite was Dick Turpin. Expected to join the family law firm, the young Ainsworth was already writing poems, plays and short stories as a schoolboy. He started publishing in literary journals from the age of sixteen, and by twenty-one he had moved to London, published a book of poetry, a collection of short stories and his first novel.
But literary success still eluded Ainsworth, and he reluctantly passed the bar. He loathed the work but having married young he had a growing family to support. He continued to write; contributing to the new Fraser’s Magazine, joining a set that included Thackeray, Southey, Carlyle, D’Orsay and Coleridge. In 1831, he began writing a novel entitled Rookwood, intended to bring new life to the gothic romance by setting the story not in medieval Europe, as was the convention, but in Georgian England. As gothic novels must have a brigand, Ainsworth’s chose his boyhood hero, Dick Turpin.
Three years later, the publication of Rookwood by Richard Bentley turned Ainsworth into a celebrity virtually overnight, creating a fashionable craze for highwaymen fed by penny dreadful knock-offs and unlicensed theatrical adaptations. Although Turpin was not the novel’s protagonist, he was adapted as such by Ainsworth’s massive readership, and many of the Turpin legends (like the famous ride to York) were invented by Ainsworth. With the exception of John Forster in the Examiner, who thought Rookwood vulgar and socially dangerous, critical acclaim was unanimous and a new genre was spawned, the so-called ‘Newgate Novel’.
A second edition was soon published, this time with illustrations by George Cruikshank. With Scott two years dead and Dickens still a relatively unknown journalist, reviewers dubbed Ainsworth the natural heir to the throne of letters recently vacated by Scott. Finally, aged twenty-nine, the world was at his feet.
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