Ainsworth, as seen by Punch

An awful warning

Ainsworth’s fate was sealed not how he wrote but what he placed at the heart of his stories


This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Those who use the London Library have probably found themselves among those shelves marked Fiction. A vast range of titles, but also, to adopt the melodramatics of the author whose biography we are considering, an AWFUL WARNING. It is in Fiction — and not, it must be noted, Literature, quite another bucket of bream — that one finds the mighty triple-decker novels of the nineteenth century. Authors once topping the contemporary charts: Edward Bulwer Lytton, George Whyte-Melville, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and many others. Once — but no longer. So much so that the issue desk keeps a brush, specifically to whisk the accumulated dust from these volumes on the rare occasions when they are ventured from the stacks.

The Author Who Outsold Dickens: The Life & Works of W.H. Ainsworth
by Stephen Carver, Pen & Sword, £25

How are the mighty … indeed. None more so than William Harrison Ainsworth, (1805-82), the man who, as his new biographer entitles his book, “outsold Dickens”. And so for a while he did. He wrote around 40 historical novels, from his bestsellers Rookwood (the tale of highwayman Dick Turpin and “the publishing event of the decade”) in 1834 and Jack Sheppard (another mythologised villain and an even bigger hit: book sales aside, eight rival adaptations crowded the London stage) in 1839, to his final work, Stanley Brereton (1881). He wove stories around Old St Paul’s, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London, and fictionalised the careers of Guy Fawkes, Beau Nash and the once-notorious Lancashire Witches. In 1842 he launched the eponymous Ainsworth’s Magazine, using it to showcase serials of his own works, as well as those of various distinguished contributors. Hablôt K. Browne, Dickens’s “Phiz”, was the lead illustrator.

For three years he was a close friend of the man who all too soon strode out ahead: Charles Dickens

For three years — 1835-8 — he was a close friend of the man who would with ever greater and more resonant footsteps, chase him down, walk alongside and all too soon stride out ahead: Charles Dickens. They were not dissimilar: narcissists, dandies, driven by ambition. For a while they even exploited a similar topic: London criminality. Where Ainsworth had Turpin and Sheppard, Dickens offered Fagin and Bill Sykes.

This proved a turning point. Ainsworth would continue to sell, but where Dickens became the darling of both critics and a worldwide fan base, Ainsworth, so recently his equal, fell foul of those who made and thus unmade the hierarchy of fiction-writing. The stumbling block: what was known as the Newgate novel. The Newgate in question was not so much the London prison, but the accounts of criminals that appeared in the Newgate Calendar (also known as The Malefactors’ Bloody Register), first published between 1774-8 and appearing in new editions up to 1841.

Newgates were full-on ripping yarns but in one way at least prefigured modernity. Not merely in placing villains at the heart of the plot, but like noir fictions, in accepting moral ambiguities and eschewing the black and white simplicity of “goodies” and “baddies”. This, for such contemporaries as William Thackeray, was intolerable: “Let your rogues in novels act as rogues and our honest men as honest men; don’t let us have any juggling and thimble-rigging with virtue and vice.” In Vanity Fair (February 1847), he parodied the style, mocking Newgate’s heightened prose and lurid (and here wholly invented) cant:

“Mofy! Is that your snum?” said a voice from the area. “I’ll gully the dag and bimbole the clicky in a snuffkin.”

“Nuffle your clod, and beladle your glumbanions,” said Vizard, with a dreadful oath. “This way, men: if they screak, out with your snickers and slick! Look to the pewter-room, Blowser. You, Mark, to the old gaff’s mopus box! and I,” added he, in a lower but more horrible voice, “I will look to Amelia!”

All very droll, but with serious effect. Dickens, whose Oliver Twist was briefly ranked within the genre, took pains to absent himself, complaining, one might almost suggest, too much; Ainsworth ignored the cultural revolution, and paid. Chronology — the shift from gleeful Regency immorality, to the zealous puritanism of Victorian evangelicals — was not on his side. Cant, as in criminal slang, was out; cant, as in censorious, self-flagellating pietism, was in. The critics and thence the public — both of whom must cover their now erroneous tracks — needed a scapegoat.

If Dickens, among others, equalled “good”, there must be a “bad” to parade for the brickbats. Ainsworth was duly tapped for the job. Critical thumbs turned down and Old St Paul’s, his next book, was damned as “generally dull, except when it is revolting”. He continued to write, continued to sell, but he was no longer the writer who had sat, literally and figuratively, amid the elite of mid-nineteenth-century writing. His books were no longer marked “literature”, merely “fiction”, even if, as Thackeray admitted, Ainsworth, as much as Dickens, was “what the public likes”.

Ainsworth died an exile from the world he had dominated, far from wealthy, the grindstone still grating

Let us not be over-sympathetic. Selling is but part of the struggle. Dan Brown doubtless leaves Peter Carey at the post, but whose books are better placed for longevity? Dickens was in a different league to Ainsworth. Both men researched, but with the former one never saw the joins; Ainsworth’s book-learning could be painfully obvious. Both men found their criminal slang in dictionaries but if Dickens absorbed it without trace, Ainsworth was far more creaky. That said, Rookwood has a number of seemingly authentic eighteenth-century ballads, notably “Nix My Dolly Pals, Fake Away”. Armed with a lexis taken, unashamedly, from the canting dictionary appended to the transportee James Hardy Vaux’s 1819 memoir, Ainsworth created some very fair facsimiles for what he termed his “patter”.

The title page of Rookwood

Wikipedia lists every Ainsworth title but like the critics finds no reason to dwell on any but the earliest. Ainsworth — again Dickensian — kept working till the end. Most of his old circle, Dickens included, had long since died, and posthumous reputations would vary. His London days over, Ainsworth was fortunate to get a second wind via his “Lancashire novels”, written around the stories of his home county and much enjoyed therein. Shortly before his death Manchester’s great and good treated him to that Victorian standby, a celebratory dinner.

Real life offers few happy endings and Ainsworth died an exile from the world he had dominated, far from wealthy, the grindstone still grating. Yet as Carver notes in his envoi, Ainsworth’s muted career is far more of a paradigm for Ms or Mr Average Writer than Dickens’s vaunted magnificence. He could never have predicted his scapegoating, and one must credit his refusal to collapse beneath it. He pleased his many readers but no one suggested any literary excellence. His fate, however, was sealed not, as Carver notes, by how he wrote but what he placed at the heart of his stories. Some things persist: perceived against the flail of identity politics with all their gloating zealotry, his story stands not simply of his era, but as an AWFUL WARNING for writers of today as well.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover