William Harrison Ainsworth

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 256-62.

The birth of AINSWORTH took place at Manchester in 1805. His father was of the law; and the lad was articled to a local solicitor with the view of adopting the paternal profession. Coming, however, to London to finish his terms, he became afflicted with the "cacoethes scribendi," the result of which was a slender volume of verse, published under the penname of "Cheviot Tichebourne," and dedicated to Charles Lamb. For that fine writer, Ainsworth had great veneration, and wrote some letters to him, accompanying a present of books, and pressing him to visit Manchester, the answers to which are preserved in Lamb's correspondence, as edited by Talfourd.

About a year later (1825) appeared a novel entitled Sir John Chiverton, which, with much of the crudity of youth, was characterized by a certain amount of talent, and even genius. It was fortunate enough to attract the attention of Sir Walter Scott, who noted in his diary (October 17th, 1826), that he had read it with interest, and thought it "a clever book," coupling with it in his praise the Brambletye House of Horace Smith, and claiming to be the originator of the style in which they were both written

Which I was born to introduce,
Refined it first and shew'd its use.

This novel is generally ascribed to Ainsworth; but the attribution is erroneous, it having been actually the production of his friend and fellow clerk in the office of Alexander Kay, of Manchester, Mr. John P. Aston, who is still practising his profession in London. The first edition bears the name of Ebers, of Bond Street, as publisher; but the second, which was a mere re-issue, was published by his friend Ainsworth himself, who then, having in 1826 married the daughter of Ebers, had given up the law for book-selling.

It may be supposed that, during the next eight years, the energies of the young publisher were absorbed by business, as it was not till 1834 that his next important work, Rookwood, made its appearance. Our author was now twenty-nine years of age; and was by the vast success of his book, at once lifted into fame and notoriety. This novel was avowedly modelled on those stirring productions of the leading French romancists, — Eugene Sue, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas, — the forcibly dramatic character of which had strongly excited his admiration, and, indeed, for a time, — for posterity will certainly reverse the judgment, — thrown into some eclipse even the fictions of Scott, and our own romantic school. In the concentration of his power upon the dramatic action of the story, and the avoidance of whatever did not seem subservient to the evolution of the plot and the proper comprehension of the situation, the young novelist sought to apply the treatment of the renowned French writers to episodes and personages of English story. Rookwood is a work of considerable, but unequal power; and with its once well-known "Romany Chant," and the brilliant episode of Dick Turpin's ride to York, established the author as a favourite with the novel-reading public. This latter chapter is a masterpiece of descriptive power, and, though its hero is but a subsidiary character, in great measure made the fortune of the book. "I wrote it" (the fourth book), says he to an interlocutor, "in twenty-four hours of continuous work. I had previously arranged the meeting at Kilburn Wells, and the death of Tom King — a work of some little time, but from the moment I got Turpin on the high road, I wrote on and on till I landed him at York. I performed this literary feat, as you are pleased to call it, without the slightest sense of effort. I began in the morning, wrote all day, and as the night wore on, my subject had completely mastered me, and I had no power to leave Turpin on the high road. I was swept away by the curious excitement and novelty of the situation; and being personally a good horseman, passionately fond of horses, and possessed moreover of accurate knowledge of a great part of the country, I was thoroughly at home with my work, and galloped on with my pet highwayman merrily enough. I must, however, confess that when the work was in proof, I went over the ground between London and York to verify the distances and localities, and was not a little surprised at my accuracy." This is to the point; and its citation is the more necessary here to refute a statement, made by R. Shelton Mackenzie, D.C.L., upon the authority of the late Dr. Kenealy, and inserted in the fifth volume of an American edition of the Noctes Ambrosianae, (in British Museum), to the effect that Maginn wrote the whole of Turpin's "Ride to York," as well as all the slang songs in Rookwood. There can be no truth in the statement which should be regarded with suspicion, if only in consideration of the "authority" on which it depends. There is a smart review of Rookwood, comparing Ainsworth and Bulwer, to the advantage of the former, under the title of High-Ways and Low-Ways, or Ainsworth's Dictionary, with Notes by Turpin, in Fraser's Magazine, for June, 1834.

Still emulous of the success of Dumas, and under the influence of that admiration which begets an imitative tendency, Ainsworth next applied himself to the production of a romance, the characters and incidents of which belong to the Renaissance period. In 1837 appeared Crichton, in 3 vols. 8vo. The hero is that "admirable" and almost mythical personage, whose traditional character and reputed accomplishments have been so capitally summed up by Ainsworth himself:—

A song I'll write on
Matchless CRICHTON;
In wit, a bright one,
Form, a slight one,
Love, a light one!
Who talketh Greek with us
Like great Busbequius;
Knoweth the Cabala
Well as Mirandola;
Fate can reveal to us,
Like wise Cornelius;
Reasoneth like Socrates,
Or old Zenocrates;
Whose system ethical,
Sound, dialectical,
Like to Chameleon,
Choppeth and changeth,
Everywhere rangeth!
Who rides like Centaur,
Preaches like Mentor,
Drinks like Lyaeus,
Sings like Tyrtaeus,
Reads like Budaeus,
Vaulteth like Tuccaro,
Painteth like Zucchero,
Diceth like Spaniard,
Danceth like galliard,
Tilts like Orlando,
Does all man can do!
Qui pupas nobiles
Amat amabiles;
Atque Reginam
Navarrae divinam!
Whose rare prosperity,
Grace and dexterity,
Courage, temerity,
Shall, for a verity,
Puzzle posterity!

This novel sustained, if it did not greatly increase, the reputation of its author; and besides its picturesque and graphic style of narrative, exhibited considerable reading and research. By its all accomplished hero, — if we are to credit Mr. Madden (Life of Lady Blessington, iii. 475), — Ainsworth intended to portray the varied talents and graces of his friend, Alfred Count d'Orsay.

Fielding and Defoe had chosen heroes from the criminal class; but since their day the knights of the pistol, the crow-bar and the centre-bit had died, — the majority of them suddenly — "unwept, unhonoured and unsung" by the ungrateful world that benefited by the catastrophe. But now arose a new school of criminal romance. Bulwer put himself under a course of instruction such as that which Mr. Job Jonson imparts to Pelham, and achieved by his Paul Clifford a vast temporary success and Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist, gave us the result of the patient observation and keen perception which he had brought to bear on the study of the London burglar and the Jew "fence." Ainsworth had discovered a new land of romance, and he now saw other adventurers invading the soil. He therefore cast about for another hero; and speedily finding in Jack Sheppard a fit rival for Turpin, he produced, in 1839, the novel which bears the name of this noted unworthy. The story, as the then rising novelist told it pleased young and old alike and became so extraordinarily popular that no fewer than eight different versions were produced upon the London stage, and the sale exceeded that even of Oliver Twist. Nor was this popularity merely evanescent; for I have seen it stated upon good authority that so long after its publication as the second half of the last decade, "Jack," found twelve thousand purchasers in five years. Anyway, whatever may be the abstract merits or demerits of the book, it is certain to enjoy a permanent life, if only from the inimitable etchings of GEORGE CRUIKSHANK, who has made the subject truly his own:—

CRUIKSHANK, 'tis thine to gild with fame
Th' obscure, and raise the humble name;
To make the form elude the grave,
And SHEPPARD from oblivion save.

Tho' life in vain the wretch implores,
An exile on the farthest shores,
Thy pencil brings a kind reprieve,
And bids the dying robber live.

This piece to latest time shall stand,
And show the wonders of thy hand.
Thus former masters graced their name,
And gave egregious robbers fame.

Apelles, Alexander drew,
Caesar is to Aurelius due;
Cromwell in Lely's work doth shine,
And Sheppard, CRUIKSHANK, lives in thine!

To confess the truth, Sheppard enjoys a double immortality; for the foregoing verses, which I transcribe from The Malefactors' Register; or, a New Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (p. 408), were actually written to celebrate a former delineation, in oils, of the notorious burglar by SIR JAMES THORNHILL, who visited him in Newgate for the express purpose of taking him "ad vivum," and whose first sketch, now before me, bears, in its vigour, not to speak of the autograph below, better evidence of its genuineness than a certificate "with five justices' hands to it, and witnesses more than a age would hold." Walter Thornbury, with that detestable spirit of detraction so peculiarly British, holds these novels of Ainsworth very cheap. "Even Dickens," says he, "had his fine gold jewelled by Cruikshank. Ainsworth's tawdry rubbish — now all but forgotten, and soon to sink deep in the mudpool of oblivion, was illuminated with a false splendour by this great humorist"; and elsewhere points out the great artist's "Rembrandtic nightmare of the 'Headsman sharpening his Axe,' from Ainsworth's melodramatic novel, The Tower of London, — a wonderful weird dusk, with no light but that which glimmers on the bald scalp of the hideous headsman, who, feeling the edge of his axe with his thumb, grins with a devilish foretaste of his pleasure on the morrow. I need scarcely say that all the poetry, dramatic force, mystery, and terror of the design is attributable to Cruikshank." I have already alluded to the controversy as to whether artist or writer has claim to the origination of these illustrated novels; whether, in short, these were "written up" to Cruikshank's etchings, or the latter merely illustrated what the novelist had already written. Cruikshank complained that his name was ignored in the announcements of "The Miser's Daughter," as dramatized by Mr. Andrew Halliday; and I think that Mr. Ainsworth was entitled to a counter-growl, — like Master Pierce Egan in old days, — on the score that his works were catalogued by the booksellers under Cruikshank's name, and their currency attributed to that artist's illustrations. The first edition of "Rookwood" was published before any acquaintance existed between artist and novelist; but Cruikshank's services were called in to illustrate a later issue. Jack Sheppard was published in Bentley's Miscellany; Cruikshank made the designs for this, and asserts that it was the "only bit of MS. of the author that he ever saw in the whole course of his life." Guy Fawkes appeared in the same serial, and received, too, the advantage of the artist's master-hand; then came The Tower of London, of which Cruikshank claimed the "original idea," published in monthly numbers, and in which he and Ainsworth were equal partners; The Miser's Daughter, Windsor Castle, the first part of which was illustrated by Tony Johannot, and the remainder by Cruikshank; and, finally, St. James's; or, the Court of Queen Anne, which was the last of Ainsworth's novels which Cruikshank illustrated.

I have pointed out elsewhere that the capital drinking-song, "Jolly Nose," which, put into the mouth of Blueskin, in the novel, Jack Sheppard, became so famous by Paul Bedford's impersonation of the character, is a translation of one of the Vaux-de-Vire of the fine old Norman Anacreon, Olivier Basselin. These, with other "chansons-a-boire" of the same period, have been collected by the "Bibliophile Jacob," and published by A. Delahays (Paris, 1858, 8vo), and thus placed within reach of lovers of the "esprit gaulois." I give both versions for comparison:—

Beau Nez, dont les rubis ont couste mainte pipe
De vin blanc et clairet,
Et duquel la couleur richement participe
Du rouge et violet;
Gros Nez ! Qui te regarde a travers un grand verre,
Te juge encore plus beau.
Tu ne ressembles point au nez de quelque here
Qui ne boit que de l'eau.
Un coq d'Inde, sa gorge a toy semblable porte:
Combien de riches gens
N'ont pas si riche nez! Pour te peindre en la sorte,
Il faut beaucoup de temps.
Le verre est le pinceau, duquel on t'enlumine;
Le vin est la couleur
Dont on t'a peint ainsi plus rouge qu'une guisgne
En beuvant du meilleur.
On dit qu'il nuit aux yeux; mais seront-ils les maistres
Le vin est la guarison
De mes maux: j'aime mieux perdre les deux fenestres,
Que toute la maison."

Jolly Nose! the bright rubies that garnish thy tip,
Were dug from the mines of Canary;
And to keep up their lustre I moisten my lip
With hogsheads of claret and sherry.
Jolly Nose! he who sees thee across a broad glass,
Beholds thee in all thy perfection;
And to the pale snout of a temperate ass
Entertains the profoundest objection.
(For a turkey-cock's neck one might surely mistake thee:
Why there's many a well-to-do fellow
Can't boast such a nose! What a time it must take thee
To get to a colouring so mellow.)
For a big-bellied glass is the palette I use,
And the choicest of wine is my colour;
And I find that my nose takes the mellowest hues,
The fuller I fill it, — the fuller.
Jolly Nose! there are fools who say drink hurts the sight:
Such dullards know nothing about it;
'Tis better with wine to extinguish the light,
Than live always in darkness without it.

In an interesting paper in Belgravia for November, 1881, I find it stated by Mr. Percy Fitzgerald, that the enumeration of the works of Ainsworth occupy no fewer than forty pages of the British Museum Catalogue. I cannot thus be expected to give a complete bibliography here, or do otherwise than pass over without mention many productions worthy of separate notice. Amid a whole library of works of fiction, manifesting the extraordinary fecundity and versatility of their author, and underlaid by a basis of historical knowledge and research, it is not easy to select any for special mention. In his Tower of London (1840) he dealt with a higher class of criminals, and thus conciliated that large class of readers which takes a vast interest in the depiction of vice when it is clad in velvet and broad-cloth, but finds it vulgar and repulsive when it is presented in fustian and high-lows. In St. James's, or the Court of Queen Anne (1844), we find a vivid picture of Court life, and a spirited defence of the private character of Marlborough. In The Lancashire Witches (1848), dedicated to his old friend, James Crossley, F.S.A., the President of the Chetham Society, he has, with considerable artistic skill, made use of the materials afforded by two works of the Chetham series — Potts's Discovery, and the Journals of Nicolas Assheton — to illustrate in a powerful and striking manner the grand superstition of his native county. To The Flitch of Bacon (1854), we owe a temporary revival to one of the most curious of our old English customs, that instituted more than seven hundred years before at Great Dunmow in Essex, of giving a "Gamon of Bacon" to a man and his wife who had taken an oath, pursuant to the ancient "Custom of Confession," if ever

— you either married man or wife,
By household brawles or contentious strife,
Or otherwise, in bed or at boord,
Did offend each other in deed or word,
Or, since the Parish Clerk said Amen,
You wish't yourselves unmarried agen,
Or in a twelve months' time and a day,
Repented not in thought any way;
But continued true and just in desire,
As when you joyned hands in the holy quire, etc.

Two others, — Mervyn Clitheroe (1857) and Ovingdean Grange (1860), — may be finally mentioned, from their more or less autobiographic character; the former graphically bringing before us the localities and school associates of Ainsworth's boyhood, — the latter, describing life on the South Downs, a part of England with which he was well acquainted.

The various Editorial and Proprietary engagements of Ainsworth must have involved a vast amount of anxiety, labour, and responsibility. Very early in his career he published a literary serial, under the title of The Manchester Iris; and I am not sure that the first volume of The Keepsake was not edited by him. In 1840, on the retirement of Charles Dickens, he undertook the management of Bentley's Miscellany, in which he published Guy Fawkes, and The Tower of London. To the Sunday Times he contributed Old St. Paul's, in weekly installments. At the close of 1841, he, in turn, retired from Bentley's, and started the magazine which bore his own name, in which also several of his romances appeared. In 1845, he added to his already onerous tasks, the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, in which he published his Star Chamber, and other novels; and he subsequently became proprietor of the serial, with which, in London, he was earliest associated.

In 1855, was published Ballads, Romantic, Fantastical and Humorous, — re-issued in later days by Routledge, in the usual tawdry, dateless fashion, which London publishers perversely suppose to be favoured by the public, with illustrations on wood by Sir John Gilbert. The volume is of unique character, and contains pieces of such originality and merit that one is led to regret that the author did not further cultivate a kind of composition for which he showed a special talent. Here will be found many lyrics, the titles of which will recall to grey-beards the days of their youth, — "Nix my doll, pals," "Will Davies and Dick Turpin," "The Carpenter's Daughter," "Old Grindrod's Ghost," "The Headsman's Axe," "The Corpse-Candle," "Jolly Nose," "The Carrion-Crow," "The Mandrake," "The Churchyard Yew," — and especially, a piece of a different class, "The Combat of the Thirty," written in 1855, and appended to the more recent edition, being a most spirited and picturesque version of a "Breton Lay of the Fourteenth Century," giving an account of the "Battle of Thirty Englishmen against Thirty Bretons, which took place in Brittany in the Year of Grace, One thousand three hundred and fifty, on Saturday, the Vigil of Sunday LAETARE JERUSALEM," the details of which are further supplied by a missing chapter of Froissart, discovered among the MS. collections of the Prince de Soubise, and first published in 1824, by the finder, M. Buchon, in his Chroniques Nationales et Etrangeres.

One of Ainsworth's earliest residences was the "Elms" at Kilburn. From this he removed to Kensal Manor House, on the Harrow Road, where, for a long series of years, he dispensed his genial and liberal hospitality to the large circle of friends,chiefly literary men and artists, — who made it a rallying point. From this he removed to Brighton, and later on, to Tunbridge Wells. Subsequently, in the retirement befitting his advancing years, he resided with his eldest daughter, Fanny, at Hurstpierpoint. He had also a residence at St. Mary's Road, Reigate, Surrey; and here he died, on Sunday, January 3rd, 1882, in the seventy-seventh year of his age. On the 9th of the same month, his remains were interred at the Kensal Green Cemetery; the ceremony being of very quiet and simple character, in accordance with his express wish.

Among the ancestors of the novelist were, if I mistake not, Robert Ainsworth, the celebrated Latin lexicographer; and his parental grandfather was Jeremiah Ainsworth, one of the founders of the Lancashire school of Geometry. A connection, on his mother's side, was Mr. John Badcock, who, under the pseudonym of "John Bee," — or, more properly, "Ion Bee," is the author, inter alia, of The Dictionary of the Turf the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon Ton, and the Varieties of Life, etc. (1823, 8vo), and The Living Picture of London (1828, 8vo).

To the later editions of Rookwood is prefixed an interesting memoir of Ainsworth by Laman Blanchard; and his own early friend, and his father's partner, James Crossley, F.S.A., of Manchester, contributed a biographical sketch of the novelist to the Manchester School Register, vol. iii. pp. 122-5, which also serves as an introduction to the Routledge reprint of the Ballads.