1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Harrison Ainsworth

R. H. Horne, "William Harrison Ainsworth" New Spirit of the Age (1844; 2d edition) 2:217-22.



From the historical novel and romance, as re-originated, in modern times, by Madame de Genlis and Sir Walter Scott, and adopted with such high success by Sir Bulwer Lytton, and with such extensive popularity by Mr. James, there has of late years sprung up a sort of lower or less historical romance, in which the chief part of the history consisted in old dates, old names, old houses, and old clothes. But dates in themselves are but numerals, names only sounds, houses and streets mere things to be copied from prints and records; and any one may do the same with regard to old coats, and hats, wigs, waistcoats, and boots. Now, we know that "all flesh is grass," but grass is not flesh, for all that; nor is it of any use to show us hay for humanity.

To throw the soul back into the vitality of the past, to make the imagination dwell with its scenes and walk hand in hand with knowledge; to live with its most eminent men and women, and enter into their feelings and thoughts as well as their abodes, and be sensitive with them of the striking events and ruling influences of the time; to do all this, and to give it a vivid form in words, so as to bring it before the eye, and project it into the sympathies of the modern world, this is to write the truest history no less than the finest historical fiction; this is to be a great historical romancist — something very different from a reviver of old clothes.

Such are the extremes of this class; and if there be very few who in execution approach the higher standard, so there are perhaps none who do not display some merits which redeem them from the charge of a were raking and furbishing up of by-gone materials. But as there is a great incursion of these un-historical un-romantic romances into the literature of the present day, and fresh adventurers marshalling their powers of plunder on the borders, it may be of some service that we have drawn a strong line of demarcation, displaying the extreme distinctions, and leaving the application to the general judgment.

With regard to the Newgate narrative of Jack Sheppard and the extraordinarily extensive notoriety it obtained for the writer, upon the residuum of which he founded his popularity, so much just severity has already been administered from criticism and from the opinion of the intellectual portion of the public, and its position has been so fully settled, that we are glad to pass it over without farther animadversion.

The present popularity of Mr. Ainsworth could not have risen out of its own materials. His so-called historical romance of Windsor Castle is not to be regarded as a work of literature open to serious criticism. It is a picture book, and full of very pretty pictures. Also full of catalogues of numberless suits of clothes. Such a passion, indeed, has he for describing clothes, that he frequently gives us two suits with a single body, one being concealed under the other. It would be difficult to open it any where without the eye falling on such words as cloth of gold, silver tissue, green jerkin, white plumes.

Looking for examples, here is the first introduction of the heroine.

"In this litter sat Anne Boleyn. She wore a surcoat of white tissue, and a mantle of the same material lined with ermine. Her gown, which, however, was now concealed by the surcoat, was of cloth of gold tissue, raised with pearls of silver damask, with a stomacher of purple gold similarly raised, and large open sleeves lined with chequered tissue. Around her neck she wore a chain of orient pearls, from which depended a diamond cross. A black velvet cap richly embroidered," &c. &c. — Windsor Castle, p. 21.

It is said that she had a strong tendency to coquetry, and "how severely she suffered for it, it is the purpose of this history to relate." Her first action is thus described:—

"At this moment, Anne's eyes were fixed with some tenderness on one of the supporters of her canopy on the right, — a very handsome young man attired in a doublet and hose of black tylsent, paned and cut, &c."

Here are several Characters:—

"Though scarcely eighteen, the Duke of Richmond looked more than twenty, and his lips and chin were clothed, with a well-grown though closely-clipped beard. He was magnificently habited in a doublet of cloth of gold of bawdekin, the placard and sleeves of which were wrought with flat gold, and fastened with siglets. A girdle of crimson velvet, enriched with precious stones, encircled his waist, and sustained a poniard, and a Toledo sword, damascened with gold. Over all he wore a loose robe, or housse, of scarlet mohair, trimmed with minever, and was further decorated with the collar of the Order of the Garter. His cap was of white velvet, ornamented with emeralds, and from the side depended a small azure plume. He rode a magnificent black charger, trapped in housings of cloth of gold, powdered with ermine.

"By the Duke's side rode the Earl of Surrey, attired as upon the previous day, and mounted on a fiery Arabian, trapped in crimson velvet, fringed with Venetian gold. Both noblemen were attended by their esquires in their liveries." — Ibid. p. 24.

Behind these carefully developed characters "came a chariot covered with cloth of silver," containing two beautiful damsels, one of whom attracted the greatest attention:—

"Her gown was of white satin worked with gold, and had long open, pendant sleeves; white from her slender and marble neck hung a cordeliere — a species of necklace imitated from the cord worn by Franciscan friars, and formed of crimson silk twisted with threads of Venetian gold. * * Her companion was the Lady Mary Howard, &c. * * Lady Mary was dressed in blue velvet, cut and lined with cloth of gold, and wore a head gear." &c. — Ibid. p. 25.

Sometimes the features of a face are well portrayed, but the ruling passion rapidly asserts its prerogative. Of the first character introduced, it is said that "his countenance was full of thought and intelligence," but six lines further down we arrive at more important information:—

"His dress was rich but sombre, consisting of a doublet of black satin, worked with threads of Venetian gold; hose of the same material, and similarly embroidered; a shirt curiously wrought with black silk, and fastened at the collar with black enamelled clasps; a cloak of black velvet, passmented with gold, and lined with crimson satin; a flat black velvet cap, set with pearls and goldsmith's work, and adorned with a short white plume; and black velvet buskins. His arms were rapier and dagger, both having gilt and graven handles, and sheaths of black velvet." — Windsor Castle, p. 2-3

The book is also full of processions, banquets, royal hunting parties, courtiers, lords, and jesters, who are indeed "very dull fools." It has, moreover, a demon ghost in the form of Herne the Hunter, who according to this legend, led King Henry VIII. and all his court the life of a dog. As to plot or story it does not pretend to any.

Old St. Paul's, a tale of the Plague and the Fire, is a diluted imitation of some parts of De Foe's Plague in London, varied with libertine adventures of Lord Rochester and his associates. It is generally dull, except when it is revolting. There are descriptions of nurses who poison or smother their patients, wretched prisoners roasted alive in their cells, and one felon who thrusts his arms through the red-hot bars, — "literally" is added, by way of apology.

A critic recently remarked of Mr. Ainsworth's St. James's, or the Court of Queen Anne, that the delineations of character in it were mere portraits, and nothing more. "The business in which they are engaged has no vitality for any but themselves — it is dull, passe in every sense of the word, and they leave not a single incident or memento of romance or poetry behind them by which to identify them in our hearts, &c. * * * * It is one thing to write an historical romance; another, to write a romantic history; and a third to write a history without any romance." We might quote many similar opinions.

It has become very plain, that brief as this paper is, the natural termination of it can no longer be delayed. The truth must be told. This paper is a joint-production. No sooner were the first two paragraphs seen, than the article was taken out of the writer's hands in order to prevent a severity which seemed advancing with alarming strides. But the continuation by another hand appearing to be very little better, recourse was had to quotations from the author's works, introduced by a third hand; and finally, as it was feared by the hint at "similar opinions" that further critical references were intended, it was unanimously agreed that nothing more should be done in that way, except to coincide with the remarks often made concerning the good-tempered portraits of a man who is usually spared in public, because so much esteemed and regarded in private.