Rookwood (1834) contained the first and most famous depiction of Dick Turpin’s ride to York (an event born purely of Ainsworth’s imagination) and romanticised the famous rogue as a noble figure, inspiring an endless stream of penny dreadfuls and pocket libraries with dashing highwaymen more Robin Hood than robber. Similarly, Jack Sheppard, in truth a young housebreaker and prison-breaker who was hung at the age of 23, was mythologised in serials, stories and comic strips for the next century (as was that other famous burglar, Charles Peace) often the hero of these stories which pitched him against Jonathan Wild, the crooked thief-taker.
Ainsworth was to have followed his father’s profession and become a solicitor, but was inspired in his reading of classic gothic novels and by swashbuckling exploits recounted by his father’s clerk, James Crossley, who was to become a lifelong friend and literary adviser.
Following his father’s death in 1824, Ainsworth inherited a partnership in the law firm of Ainsworth, Crossley and Sudlow, but was unprepared to take on such a senior position and travelled to London to complete his studies.
He had already published a number of ballads and verses under pseudonyms, having started writing gothic plays while attending Manchester Grammar School, and in 1826 collaborated on his first novel, the anonymously published Sir John Chiverton. At the time he was working as an editor for the publisher John Ebers and subsequently married Ebers’ daughter Fanny in 1826 with whom he had three children before separating in 1835. After an abortive attempt to set himself up as a publisher, he practiced law in the early 1930s whilst planning his next novel.
Bulwer-Lytton had inadvertently created a category of novel with Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832) which had criminal heroes, ‘Newgate novels’, into which Rookwood found itself classed, although the main plot concerns the classic gothic battle between two brothers over their father’s estate. Only a sub-plot to the main novel, Dick Turpin’s ride was probably inspired by the real-life highwayman John ‘Swift Nick’ Nevison who rode from Gads Hill to York using a team of horses in order to establish an alibi; in Rookwood, Turpin – with the police at his heels – rides Black Bess non-stop in twelve hours, resulting in the death of that famous steed. (Many later retellings of the Dick Turpin legend adopted the ride as a centrepiece, with Bess usually surviving in versions for youngsters.)
Following the success of Rookwood, Ainsworth’s later novels were best-sellers. Jack Sheppard (1839), helped along with the publicity of its serialisation in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1839-40 which Ainsworth was then editing, even outsold Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838). Dickens became one of Ainsworth’s literary friends, his circle also including William Makepeace Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle and Benjamin Disraeli.
Ainsworth continued to publish novels; his first pure historical, Crichton, had appeared in 1837 and was followed by The Tower of London (1940), Guy Fawkes (1841), Old St. Paul’s (1841) and Windsor Castle (1843). In these he was considerably influenced by Scott, telling his stories against a backdrop of English history. In The Tower of London it was the England of Mary Tudor, whilst Old Saint Paul’s was set against the London of the plague and the great fire. In all cases, Ainsworth tried to capture the spirit of the times and provided copious footnotes based on his researches.
At the same time, Ainsworth continued to work as an editor, first on Bentley’s Miscellany (1839-41) and then on his own Ainsworth’s Magazine which was launched in 1842 and folded in 1854; he had earlier purchased New Monthly Magazine in 1845, which he continued to edit, and purchased Bentley’s Miscellany, but both titles were on a slow wane and Bentley’s was sold on in 1868 and New Monthly in 1870. Ainsworth himself was on the wane, having moved to Brighton in 1853 and distancing himself from the London social scene. His last great novels were The Lancashire Witches (1849) and The Star Chamber (1854), after which his success gradually petered off. He remarried in 1878, but his life around this time remains obscure, apart from a celebratory banquet in his honour held in Manchester in 1881 – his hometown had taken centre stage in both Mervyn Clitheroe (serialised in 1851-58) and The Good Old Times (1873). Ainsworth died soon after, at Reigate, Surrey, on January 3, 1882.
In the end, Ainsworth will be remembered as one of the founders of boys’ adventure fiction, and although his style is now old-fashioned and wooden and his successors bought a more swashbuckling approach to their action, the influence of his early ‘Newgate’ novels was certainly felt for a full century.
William Harrison Ainsworth. A memoir, by William Axon. London, Gibbings & Co., 1902.
William Harrison Ainsworth and his Friends, by Stewart Ellis. London & New York, John Lane, 2 vols., 1911.
A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Published Novels and Ballads of William Harrison Ainsworth, by Harold Locke. London, Elkin Mathews, 1925.
William Harrison Ainsworth, by J. Worth George. New York, Twayne, 1972.
Sir John Chiverton (by anonymous, with John P. Aston). London, John Ebers, 1826.
Rookwood. London, 3 vols., Richard Bentley, 3 vols., 1834; Philadelphia, Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 2 vols., 1834; revised, John Macrone, 3 vols., 1835; revised, London, Richard Bentley, 1837.
Crichton. London, Richard Bentley, 3 vols., 1837; New York, Harper, 2 vols., 1937; revised, illus. Hablot K. Browne, London, Chapman & Hall, 1849.
Jack Sheppard, illus. George Cruickshank. London, Richard Bentley, 3 vols., 1839; Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard, 2 vols., 1839.
The Tower of London, illus. George Cruickshank. London, Richard Bentley, 3 vols., 1840; Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard, 1841.
Guy Fawkes; or, the Gunpowder Treason, illus. George Cruikshank. London, Richard Bentley, 3 vols., 1841; Philadelphia, Lea & Blanchard, 1841.
Old Saint Paul’s. A tale of the Plague and the Fire, illus. John Franklin. London, Hugh Cunningham, 3 vols., 1841.
The Miser’s Daughter, illus. George Cruickshank. London, Cunningham & Mortimer, 3 vols., 1842.
Windsor Castle, illus. George Cruickshank. London, Henry Colburn, 3 vols., 1843.
Saint James’s; or, the Court of Queen Anne, illus. George Cruickshank. London, John Mortimer, 3 vols., 1844; New York, Colyer, 1844.
James the Second; or, the Revolution of 1688. London, 3 vols., 1848.
The Lancashire Witches. London, Henry Colburn, 3 vols., 1849; New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1849.
The Flitch of Bacon; or, the Custom of Dunmow, illus. John Gilbert. London, G. Routledge & Co., 1854.
The Star-Chamber. London, G. Routledge & Co., 2 vols., 1854.
The Spendthrift, illus. Hablot K. Browne. London, G. Routledge & Co., 1857 .
Mervyn Clitheroe, illus. Hablot K. Browne. London, G. Routledge & Co., 1858.
Ovingdean Grange. A tale of the South Downs, illus. Hablot K. Browne. London, Routledge, Warne & Routledge, 1860.
The Constable of the Tower, illus. John Gilbert. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1861.
The Lord Mayor of London; or, City Life in the Last Century. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1862.
Cardinal Pole; or, the Days of Philip and Mary. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1863.
John Law, the Projector. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1864.
The Spanish Match; or, Charles Stuart at Madrid. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1865.
Auriol; or, the Elixir of Life. London, G. Routledge & Sons, 1865; as The Elixir of Life, London, New English Library, 1966.
The Constable de Bourbon. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1866.
Old Court. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1867.
Myddleton Pomfret. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1868.
Hilary St. Ives. London, Chapman & Hall, 3 vols., 1870.
Talbot Harland, illus. F. Gilbert. London, John Dicks, 1871.
Boscobel; or, the Royal Oak. A tale of the year 1651. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1872.
The Good Old Times. The story of the Manchester Rebels of ’45. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1873; as The Manchester Rebels of the Fatal ’45, London, Tinsley Bros., 1874.
Merry England; or, Nobles and Serfs. London, Tinsley Bros., 1874.
The Goldsmith’s Wife. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1875.
Preston Fight; or, the Insurrection of 1715. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1875.
Chetwynd Calverley. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1876.
The Leaguer of Lathom. A tale of the Civil War in Lancashire. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1876.
The Fall of Somerset. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1877.
Beatrice Tyldesley. London, Tinsley Bros., 3 vols., 1878.
Beau Nash; or, Bath in the Eighteenth Century. London, G. Routledge & Co., 3 vols., 1879.
Stanley Brereton. London, G. Routledge & Co., 3 vols., 1881.
The South-Sea Bubble, illus. Edward Henry Corbould. London, John Dicks, 1902.
Tower Hill, illus. F. Gilbert. London, John Dicks, 1902.
Considerations on the best means of affording immediate Relief to the Operative Classes in the manufacturing districts. London, John Ebers, 1826.
Poems by Cheviot Tichburn. London, Arliss, 1822.
Letters from Cockney Lands (by Will Brown). London, John Ebert, 1826.
Ballads: romantic, fantastical, and humorous, illus. John Gilbert. London, G. Routledge & Co., 1855.
Nick of the Wood. A story of Kentucky, by the author of “Spartacus”, edited by W. Harrison Ainsworth. London, Richard Bentley, 3 vols., 1837.
The Combat of the Thirty. From a Breton lay of the fourteenth century, with an introduction, comprising a new chapter of Froissart, by William Harrison Ainsworth. London, Chapman & Hall, 1859.