William Harrison Ainsworth

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe to William Harrison Ainsworth, 1839; Letters from and to Charles Kirkpatrick Sharp (1888) 2:513-15.


I have been so tormented lately with night headaches, which made me more than usually stupid during the day, that I have been, apparently, very neglectful as to your books. The perusal of "Jack S[heppard]" gave me infinite pleasure. The whole appears to me admirable; but I think the author undervalues his own genius, by making use of well-known names, of which he hath no need. Were I possessed of his talents, I should scorn the Jacks and Gills of real life, and beget my own children. Clarissa and Tom Jones were the actual daughter and son of Richardson and Fielding; and in this, I humbly think, much of the pride of an author should consist. From early youth, I remember disliking the mixture of truth and fiction in romances and novels. I fled from charming Cassandra and the banks of the Euphrates, to repose with the less enchanting Astrea by the streams of Lignon; and tho' I could relish the satire of Fielding's "Jonathan Wild," still "Moll Flanders" gave me much more satisfaction. I suspect that tho' I am often very wrong, I was right in this taste. I think the gentleman in question is capable of the highest flights, and I wish you would put this into his head, as from yourself. My authority is good for nothing; but if he persist in using crutches, in place of exerting his full powers there is a Scott and Byron hero yet uncelebrated (as far as I know, but you know how little I am conversant with modern publications), whom I think he could make very much of — I mean the cannibal Sawny Bean, whose legend is to be found in the "Lives of the Highwaymen." The story, though mean in appearance, is capable of much horror and sublimity. I think Sawny (every Scotchman must needs have a pedigree) should be derived from that cannibal mentioned by Wynton, who ate human flesh during a famine — and his daughter, the ogress, is an excellent subject for genius to embellish. You will remember better than I can in which of our chronicles there is an historical notice respecting Sawny. The old women of Annandale used to say, if I remember right, that his cave was somewhere near CuIzean. Then why should not Sawny have been a friend of Johnnie Faa — a favourer of the eloping lovers, and, having intercepted the jealous and pursuing husband, have been half choked with his horns, when he was captured and led forth to justice?

This last notion is nonsense, but Sawny is certainly an excellent subject.

I have read some parts of Mr. D.'s book, which does not interest me. With many thanks I return it; and send a list of the modern names of some of the airs. I am sure an ingenious person would discover a great many more.

As to S., I cannot now be surprised at anything he does. After making such a rout about a trifle like my drawing for Rabelais, I am tempted to take Homer's "Iliad" for gospel, and to believe that the Greeks and Trojans waged a ten years' war for a paultry w—e.

"In life's last scene, what prodigies surprise!" says Dr. Johnson; but nothing hath surprised me these twenty years. Adieu, dear sir. — Believe me yours always,


Many thanks for Robin Hood; but how, according to Ritson, Fitzooth could be corrupted to Hood, I cannot guess. I had forgotten my Robin Hood entirely. He is the only hero of romance I know who was beaten in almost all his adventures.