Rookwood: The Gothic Family Plot Taken to the Extreme

William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1834 novel Rookwood took the literary world by storm in its day, and although it is largely forgotten now, its influence lingers on in much better known works of literature.

William Harrison Ainsworth, painted by Daniel Maclise

In Rookwood, Ainsworth wanted to write a Gothic novel in the style of Walpole and Radcliffe, but at the same time, he was heavily influenced by the rise of the historical novel, particularly by Sir Walter Scott, and so he set the novel in England in the reign of George II in 1737. This decision was also partly made because of his long-time interest in the famous highwayman Dick Turpin, who figures as a main character in the novel, and reflects the influence of the Newgate novels of the time, novels which focused upon criminals.

Anne Williams, in her book Art of Darkness: The Poetics of Gothic, has said “Gothic plots are family plots; Gothic romance is family” (22-3). Nothing could be truer of Rookwood, which has one of the most complex family inheritance storylines of any novel ever written.

The novel opens at the manor of Rookwood Place. The owner Sir Piers Rookwood has recently died after a bough of an ancient tree is found on the ground. Family legend says a death always follows the dropping of a branch from the tree. Sir Piers’ son Ranulph is believed to be the true heir to Rookwood Place, but Peter Bradley, the estate’s keeper, reveals to his grandson Luke Bradley that he is really Sir Piers’ legitimate and oldest son. Sir Piers had married Peter Bradley’s daughter, and Peter brings Luke into the family vault to show him his mother’s body and even the hand bearing the wedding ring. In a grotesque moment, Luke takes his mother’s hand and ring as proof of his legitimate birth. Not surprisingly, we also learn Luke’s parents were married by a Jesuit priest, Father Checkley. The Gothic loved to pick on Catholics, and the Jesuits were frequently manipulative plotters in Gothic storylines, especially in Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew (1846). Rookwood, however, may be the first use of Jesuits in a Gothic plot.

Peter Bradley now plots to marry Luke to his cousin Eleanor Mowbray, the daughter of Sir Piers’ sister. However, Ranulph is also in love with Eleanor. Luke is not interested in Eleanor at first. Rather, he has been raised by gypsies and is in love with a young gypsy named Sybil Lovel. At his grandfather’s insistence on the marriage to Eleanor, however, Luke finally gives way.

Eleanor Mowbray comes to Rookwood Place with her mother for Sir Piers’ funeral and under the belief she will marry Ranulph. However, their carriage is waylaid and they find themselves among the gypsies. Dick Turpin, at this point, intercedes to help Luke marry Eleanor. However, at the ceremony performed among the gypsies, Luke is fooled into marrying Sybil. Sybil, realizing Luke does not love her, kills herself. Sybil’s grandmother then takes revenge by poisoning a lock of Sybil’s hair and giving it to Luke, which eventually results in his death.

Rookwood’s cover page

After Luke’s death, Peter Bradley reveals that he is really Alan Rookwood, the brother of Reginald Rookwood, the father of Piers. (This makes the family tree extremely complicated since Luke’s parents were first cousins and he also has attempted to marry his first cousin.) Ranulph’s mother, Maud, who has been scheming for her son, now manages to find herself accidentally locked inside the family tomb with Peter Bradley, in one of the most terrifying moments in the novel as they realize they will die before they are ever found. In the end, Ranulph and Eleanor, the only surviving members of the family, marry.

The plot is more complicated than my summary, and it includes a long chase of Dick Turpin by the law, which goes on for many chapters and was said to thrill readers, although the modern reader wonders why Dick is really in the novel at all and wants to get back to the dysfunctional family plot.

The novel would win no awards for subtlety or even style, but it is a rousing good story for the most part. It is sensational and at times gory—who would want to carry around their long-dead mother’s hand? It is also amoral. The reader is not clear whom to cheer for. At times, it seems like Ainsworth is on Luke’s side as the rightful heir, but critic Stephen Carver in his article “The Design of Romance: Rookwood, Scott, and the Gothic,” argues that Luke’s fatal flaw is his lust for power, property, and revenge for his mother, which is why he fails in the end. Furthermore, Luke is driven on by his grandfather’s own desire for revenge upon the family—his own family.

As stated earlier, Ainsworth’s goal was to write a novel like Radcliffe. In the novel’s 1849 preface, he states, “I resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe,—which had always inexpressible charms for me,—substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle, and the brigand of the great mistress of Romance.” He succeeded in doing so, and notably, like Mrs. Radcliffe, he shies away from any actual supernatural events, although at times the characters think supernatural things are happening, and there are both family curses and legends and contradicting curses and legends. Like Mrs. Radcliffe, Ainsworth also sprinkles poetry throughout the novel, most of it in the form of songs, many of them about highwaymen and of questionable merit—Mrs. Radcliffe was no great poet herself. The songs tend to delay the action for the modern reader, but they have some charm.

The Bridal scene by George Cruikshank who did several illustrations for the novel.

Sir Walter Scott’s influence is prevalent in the novel’s historical setting in England—one of the first Gothic novels to be set in England rather than abroad. Ainsworth is less interested, however, in the historical drama of the period that Scott tried to depict in his own works. Stephen Carver, in the article referenced above, argues that Scott’s poetry was a greater influence on Ainsworth than his fiction.

Having just reread Notre-Dame de Paris, which was the subject of my last blog post, Victor Hugo’s novel was strongly in my mind as I read Rookwood, and consequently, I felt the influence of Hugo throughout. Given that Notre-Dame de Paris was published in French in 1831 and in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1833, it is very likely Ainsworth read the novel before or while writing Rookwood. Furthermore, Ainsworth references Hugo in his preface along with several other authors, stating:

“The chief object I had in view in making the present essay was to see how far the infusion of a warmer and more genial current into the veins of old Romance would succeed in reviving her fluttering and feeble pulses. The attempt has succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectation. Romance, if I am not mistaken, is destined shortly to undergo an important change. Modified by the German and French writers—by Hoffman, Tieck, Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, and Paul Lecroix (le Bibliophile Jacob)—the structure commenced in our own land by Horace Walpole, Monk Lewis, Mrs. Radcliffe, and Maturin, but left imperfect and inharmonious, requires, now that the rubbish which choked up its approach is removed, only the hand of the skilful architect to its entire renovation and perfection.”

It is noteworthy here that Ainsworth does not list Scott among the English writers of romance. Of course, that is not to say all these writers were influences upon Ainsworth since he wrote the preface in 1849, fifteen years after the novel was first published, and Dumas, for example, did not begin publishing until a few years after the novel’s publication. However, Hugo’s influence seems highly likely, especially since after the novel was published, Ainsworth was praised as “The English Victor Hugo” (Carver p. 4).

Turpin’s Flight Through Edmonton, also by Cruikshank

While the comparison to Hugo may be general because Ainsworth had written a popular Gothic and historical novel like Hugo, the influence seems more apparent in the sort of lack of a moral to the work, just as Hugo’s novel, as I argued in my previous blog post, presents an existential or amoral viewpoint. Certainly, Ranulph seems no more moral than Luke, and Luke has more reason to behave in dastardly ways because of his being cheated from his inheritance. None of the characters are overly moral, but the theme of revenge does suggest Luke fails due to his lust for property, as Carver suggests. In any case, as with Notre-Dame de Paris, we are left with bodies littering the novel’s pages and most of the characters dead because of their inability to control their passions. As scholar Heather Glen states, Dick Turpin, Luke, and other Newgate heroes seem driven to break the law to right the injustices of society (Glen xxii), and Luke here believes himself wronged and trying to right that wrong. This position of the hero also makes him an outcast in society, a type of Gothic wanderer, who is not a transgressor, but rather feels society has transgressed against him, and consequently, he must transgress against society to right the first transgression.

As for Rookwood’s influence, one has to wonder if the revenge theme played into the creation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas’ Edmond Dantes also seeks revenge after being wronged. He just carries it out far more intelligently than Luke does.

More definitely, the novel influenced the works of Charlotte and Emily Brontë. In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Tales of Angria, Heather Glen discusses Rookwood’s influence on the Angria stories. She says the character of Henry Hastings in the stories is an ironic treatment of Rookwood (Glen xxiii). In my opinion, Jane Eyre also well may have been influenced by Rookwood. The gypsies who are primary characters in Rookwood may have inspired Mr. Rochester dressing up as a gypsy in Jane Eyre. Notably, Brontë has Jane call this supposed gypsy a “Sybil,” which is the name of the primary gypsy character in Rookwood. Of course, the name is also appropriate since a Sybil can foresee the future and Brontë’s fake gypsy claims to be a fortune teller. Furthermore, while Sybil in Rookwood does not appear to be prophetic, the novel has several prophecies, one of which Sybil helps to fulfill.

Even more so, in reading Rookwood, one cannot help thinking of Wuthering Heights. The complicated family relationships of Rookwood all relate to a family fight over who will inherit the property. It is interesting that Luke has to prove himself the legitimate heir. Critics have often speculated that in Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff may be Mr. Earnshaw’s bastard child. Heathcliff is also referred to as a gypsy in the novel since his origins are unknown. Luke was himself raised by the gypsies. Like Luke, Heathcliff tries to gain control of the family property. However, Heathcliff succeeds where Luke fails. Regardless, in the end, Heathcliff dies and the property returns to the only two remaining descendants of the Earnshaws and Lintons. Similarly, in Rookwood, the only remaining family members inherit the property. Emily Brontë must have had Rookwood in the back of her mind and simplified the family plot while also whitewashing the taint of illegitimacy from the novel enough just to hint at it for Heathcliff rather than make it blatant.

The Vault by Sir John Gilbert

Finally, I can’t help wondering if the creators of the Gothic TV soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971) were influenced by Rookwood. The house in the series is named Collinwood—is the similar name a coincidence? There is no plot of fighting over the inheritance of the property, but the series chronicles the Collins family over two centuries. Most notably, in the episodes set in 1897, there are gypsy characters, a dismembered hand of great power (which recalls Luke’s mother’s hand), and a family curse. The very complicated family tree of the series also reflects the complicated, multigenerational family tree of Rookwood.

Rookwood has been almost forgotten today, but it is a notable link in the chain of Gothic literature between Radcliffe and Scott and later writers like Dickens, George W. M. Reynolds, and the Brontës. I hope this article helps to create renewed interest in Rookwood and all of Ainsworth’s works.

(For other reviews at The Gothic Wanderer of Ainsworth’s work, visit Auriol, or the Elixir of Life and The Lancashire Witches.)

_________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Sir Walter Scott

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s