About W.H. Ainsworth

Ainsworth, sketch by Daniel Maclise, Fraser’s Magazine 1834

William Harrison Ainsworth (1805 – 1882) was a journalist, novelist and poet. A Victorian with a Romantic soul, his historical novels had a violent, sexy mise-en-scène that transplanted the codes of the eighteenth century gothic into an English setting. His most significant publications fall between Rookwood (1834) and The Lancashire Witches (1848). Although a member of the early-Victorian literary elite, Ainsworth’s reputation was mortally wounded by controversy, and his melodramatic style was often criticised and satirised by his peers.

The son of a Manchester solicitor, Ainsworth was contributing to magazines from the age of sixteen. He befriended Charles Lamb through the London Magazine and moved to London to study law in 1824. He was one of the original ‘Fraserians,’ and counted among his friends Lockhart, Colburn, Hunt, Lytton, McGinn, Mary Shelley, Macrone, Forster, Cruikshank, Thackeray and Dickens. His co-authorship of the historical novel Sir John Chiverton (1826) brought him to the attention of his hero Sir Walter Scott (although Scott’s journals refer to Ainsworth as an ‘imitator’), but it was the publication of Rookwood: A Romance by Richard Bentley in 1834 that made his name.

Rookwood was one of the most successful novels of the nineteenth century. It alchemically blends different genres, Ainsworth later explaining in a preface to the 1849 edition that, ‘I resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe … substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle, and the brigand of the great mistress of Romance.’ Striking gold, Ainsworth made the Georgian highwayman Dick Turpin a central character, and inventing the ‘Ride to York’ legend that endures to this day. Ainsworth also superseded Charles Maturin’s conceptually transitional fantasy Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and finally brought the scenario of the traditional gothic novel to the British mainland. Rookwood therefore represents a bridge between the eighteenth century gothic and the contemporary urban nightmares of the penny dreadful and the literary novel, much as it is stylistically and historically liminal, somewhere between Romantic and Victorian.

A craze for criminal romance ensued, and Ainsworth returned to the Newgate Calendars in 1839, serialising Jack Sheppard in Bentley’s Miscellany, which ran concurrently with Oliver Twist. As both stories were set in the London underworld and illustrated by Cruikshank, critical comparisons were common, much to Dickens’ annoyance. An editorial moral panic, the ‘Newgate controversy,’ followed, originally led by the Examiner, Punch and the Athenaeum, centring around the ‘Newgate novels’ of Lytton, Ainsworth and Dickens, and their potential to corrupt young, working-class males. When the valet François Courvoisier murdered his master, Lord William Russell, allegedly after reading Jack Sheppard, the charge against Ainsworth seemed incontrovertible and his status as a good Victorian and a serious literary novelist never recovered. Dickens publicly and privately distanced himself from his friend, Thackeray criticised and lampooned, and Poe savaged Ainsworth in Graham’s Magazine, later sending him up in ‘The Balloon-Hoax.’

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Cover of the 1968 PAN paperback edition of Old St Paul’s (originally published 1841)

Down but not out, Ainsworth took over the editorship of Bentley’s Miscellany from Dickens in 1839, and began two historical romances, Guy Fawkes and The Tower of London, transferring his gothic sensibilities from the underworld to the kings and queens of England. A stream of popular romances followed; forty years on Ainsworth was still turning national landmarks into sublime spaces, and populating them with ill omens, fated monarchs, paupers of noble birth, star crossed lovers, gothic villains, hot gypsies and plenty of ghosts. His last major work, however, was The Lancashire Witches, which was published serially in the Sunday Times in 1848.

The Lancashire Witches is the only of Ainsworth’s forty-three novels to have remained consistently in print, often shelved alongside Dennis Wheatley and Montague Summers (both of whom it undoubtedly influenced). In their role of gothic other to patriarchal versions of femininity, Ainsworth’s powerful Faustian protagonists know, like Eve, that they have a much better chance with Satan than God. Although the primary plot offers a more moral interpretation, the possibility that it is good to be bad remains forever teasing and present. At times the author appears on the threshold of more serious comment on persecution but chooses, instead, magic realism. The narrative therefore works according to the logic of a fairytale, which is really where witches belong, and much of the story takes place in an enchanted wood. This anachronistic synergy of history, folk tale, romance and melodrama is the last English novel that can truly be said to belong to the original gothic tradition.

Ainsworth subsequently dropped from the literary mainstream, although the ‘Lancashire Novelist’ was honoured at a Lord Mayor’s banquet in Manchester in 1881 as ‘an expression of the high esteem in which he is held by his Fellow townsmen and of his services to Literature.’ An accompanying article in Punch affectionately described him as ‘the greatest axe-and-neck-romancer of our time.’ He died a few weeks later.

Although rejected by his contemporaries as a hack, and still often critically overlooked, Ainsworth contributed significantly to the development of the literary novel after Scott, and to the new urban gothic of Dickens, Reynolds and Stevenson.  His darkly romantic and essentially melodramatic approach to history, while flying in the face of Lukácsian theory, can still be seen in popular narratives today, such as, for example, TV shows like Rome and The Tudors, and historical blockbusters like Braveheart and Titanic.

Entry from Blackwell’s The Encyclopedia of the Gothic written by S.J.Carver