1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Harrison Ainsworth

John Evans, "William Harrison Ainsworth" Lancashire Authors and Orators (1850) 1-4.



Provincial authors, however excellent their productions, are rarely so thoroughly popular as those who identify themselves, and their works with the metropolis. This is mainly to be attributed to their addressing themselves principally to local sympathies and patronage. Local histories, local poems, local biographies, and local sketches, compose, to a great extent, the staple commodity of most of our local authors, and consequently, though confessedly of some sterling value, rarely command anything of a good circulation out of the district from which they emanate. This feature is pretty prominent in the county of which we write, and notwithstanding the genuine literary productions that have sprung out of the haunts of cottonmills and weaving-sheds, they have only hare and there penetrated far beyond the immediate neighbourhood that called them into existence. The subject, however, of the present sketch is a notable exception. He has ventured upon a more enlarged sphere of action, and where his brother-authors of Lancashire have issued their ten copies, he has issued and, some how or other, secured the sale of his hundred. Whatever may be the tendencies of Ainsworth's novels, there can exist no mistake about his being a decidedly popular writer among the masses, as much so perhaps as any other living author of the same school of fiction. Probably this may be attributed to his having applied himself more assiduously to literary efforts than any other of his contemporaries in the locality in which he was born and reared. Since 1834, when first appeared his Rookwood, he has out-done all other competitors for fame in this quarter, and probably has produced as much in quantity as Dickens, James, or Marryat. Indefatigable application on the one hand, and the production of works calculated to excite the imagination and centre the interest of his readers on the other, has secured the name of Harrison Ainsworth no ordinary amount of fame in the world of letters.

The subject of our sketch was born about the year 1805, and is consequently now in his forty-fifth year. He received a tolerable education at a neighbouring school, but never evidenced anything beyond a mere ordinary intellect. A few stray snatches of verse and one or two fragments in the way of fiction composed his literary efforts until the latter end of the year 1833, when was announced his maiden production of Rookwood in three volumes. This work sold well, albeit a particular class of circulating libraries where traditions of blood, notorious highwaymen, and polished burglars, constituted the literary knowledge of dreamy lawyers' clerks and romantic dressmakers' apprentices. However, Rookwood, with its prime dashing Dick Turpin as hero, well remunerated the author for his speculation and secured him, among a certain description of readers, no common footing as a writer of fiction. In Lancashire and Yorkshire the book was eagerly sought and read, as the main plot of it was laid principally in scenes with which the inhabitants of the two counties were well acquainted. His descriptions, moreover, of the romantic spots with which the West Riding is so particularly abundant, were vivid, and told well upon his friends and supporters in the immediate locality. The work ran through two or three extensive editions, and gained no ordinary eulogiums from the press, although the sublimation of "famed Dick Turpin" into the highest sphere of heroism did not so well coincide with the taste of some of our more refined critics and journalists. In a short period Ainsworth brought out his "Critchton," a somewhat startling production but neither possessing the life or fertility of imagery that distinguished its more popular predecessor. The style of Critchton, however, is bold and possesses the same florid species of writing that predominates more or less in all Ainsworth's works. The adventures of the Scottish chieftain are well told, while some of the minor portraits are delineated with no common amount of energy and fidelity. We believe it was in 1837 that Charles Dickens relinquished the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany, when the subject of our sketch took command of that usually well-conducted and spirited periodical. In the Miscellany he commenced and completed his most immoral, yet his most successful romance of Jack Sheppard. In one sense we are led to believe its publication slightly tarnished the reputation of the periodical, although it increased its sale, and gave the editor increased popularity. The effect of Jack Sheppard upon the public mind was unquestionably poisonous, yet it was eagerly read, and dramatised and performed with the utmost success at nearly every theatre in London and the provinces. The book in itself is a vivid portraiture of crime, but far from being a truthful one. The plot, which is well wrought and decidedly interesting to those who perused it, forms perhaps the best feature of Jack Sheppard. The style is warm and florid; and the language is occasionally elegant. The dialogues are sometimes terse and smart, but frequently merge into the commonest slang or the most sickening sentiment. His characters, in so far as the stamp and impress they receive from Ainsworth is concerned, are sustained with tolerable correctness and consistency. There is a touch of the pathetic sometimes introduced, and worked out with some amount of ability and effect. Here and there Ainsworth is not backward in working upon the nerves of his readers; in the book before us we have no small share of the horrible and "thrilling" species of narration. We believe "Guy Fawkes" followed, a work replete with some exciting scenes and dramatic effect. Had he adhered more rigidly in this novel to historical fact, and not rendered his hero and principal dramatic personages what they really were not, he would have produced a much more meritorious work, and secured a more general class of readers. As it was, however, his Guy Fawkes was a comparative failure. About 1841 the proprietors of the Sunday Times treated with Ainsworth to write a novel for their paper, to appear in weekly portions, with the somewhat handsome remuneration of £1,000, when the work was complete. The novel came out under the name of Old St. Paul's. This production was regarded by some as effective in plot and detail as Jack Sheppard, and by others as the veriest trash that ever emanated from its author. For our part we conceived it to be, in some measure, historically true, although there was an extravagance thrown into many of the scenes and characters that entirely shrouded all its merits as a pure historical novel. Ainsworth is the author of the Tower of London, and one or two other productions of less note. Ainsworth's Magazine, of which we presume our author to be both editor and proprietor, ranks tolerably among the Magazinia of London. It is upon the whole a well-conducted periodical, and possesses a thorough good staff of contributors.

Mr. Ainsworth has something handsome in his form and features, and possesses a decidedly gentlemanly bearing. He appears to be fond of dress, and attires himself after the most approved fashion. He has a large circle of influential and rather aristocratic friends. In private company he is witty and vivacious, an excellent hand at a story, and never backward in puns or bon-mots. At present he resides in London, his literary occupations rendering it necessary. His works must have brought him in no ordinary profits, and as he has had but few losses, we should conceive him to be somewhat wealthy for a secondrate novelist. We understand his recent work in the Sunday Times of the "Lancashire Witches" has somewhat increased the circulation of that ably conducted journal.