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• The forgotten work of Ainsworth, the ‘footnote’ Gothic novelist.

By ROSEMARY MITCHELL [Open Letters] – In his heyday, the historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) was briefly considered to be a credible rival of Dickens and W. M. Thackeray. Now he is known to few besides scholars of the Victorian gothic or historical novel, and enthusiasts for nineteenth-century Manchester, the city of his birth. Perhaps if he had stuck around in his native place, and – like Elizabeth Gaskell – had written novels about the industrial modernity he found there, we would be reading his fictions as part of a B.A. Hons degree in English Literature, or watching middle-brow T.V. adaptations of them, starring a cast probably composed of teenage pop stars looking for an acting career, and maturing British character actors desperate for work after the last film in the Harry Potter franchise. But Ainsworth fell in love with old woods full of ancient rookeries, mouldering manor houses, blood-stained castles, ruined abbeys, and nooks and crannies in old city streets and country churches. He became an historical novelist of the kind the literary critic J. C. Simmons described as a ‘footnote’ novelist: his learning is heavily worn, like an unwieldy suit of medieval armor. Ainsworth’s attraction was to the gothic historical, to the black and the bloody, to haunted history. This suit of does not remain passively propped up in the armory, but comes running after you with a sharpened sword down shadowy corridors. In other words, this is the dark side of those progressive Victorians we all know about, with their trains and telegraphs, their technological advances and their scientific discoveries, their liberal politics and their enlightened scepticism.

Ainsworth’s first successful novel, Rookwood (1834), was a Gothic romance, which depicted the legendary ride of the highwayman Dick Turpin from London to York (at least, it became legend after Ainsworth invented it). Jack Sheppard (1839), which focused on the career of the titular young eighteenth-century criminal, was so popular that nine different stage versions of it appeared before the end of the year, and criminal slang pervaded the language of the fashionable classes. It included an incredibly detailed and well-illustrated account of Jack’s escape from the famous Newgate Prison, which must have been of great interest to jail-breakers and prison governors alike. The novel attracted criticism for its celebration of criminal lives and achievements from such heavyweight names as Thackeray, and Ainsworth now abandoned the ‘Newgate Novel’, as this literary genre was known, in favour of the historical romance. The dandified and convivial Ainsworth was financially astute, and knew how to follow the money: in 1826 he had married the daughter of the publisher John Ebers, who unsurprisingly published Ainsworth’s first novel in the same year. As John Sutherland noted, Ainsworth was very shrewd in negotiating lucrative contracts for his novels, so it is not surprising that the novelist turned from criminal romances to the picturesque historical novel at just the right moment.

Continued in Open Letters | More Chronicle & Notices.

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