William Harrison Ainsworth: Father of the Second Gothic Golden Age

Stephen Carver’s new biography of William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882), The Man Who Outsold Dickens: The Life & Work of W. H. Ainsworth, is an eye-opening look at the man who helped to start what I consider the Second Gothic Golden Age. The first Gothic Golden Age I would define as from 1789-1820, beginning with the publication of Mrs. Radcliffe’s first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne and ending with the publication of Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. With the publication of Ainsworth’s Rookwood in 1834, the Gothic was heavily revived and a new Gothic age began that would extend into the 1850s, ending roughly with the publication of George W. M. Reynolds’ last Gothic novel The Necromancer (1852). That is not to say the Gothic did not remain popular during the interim—Scott himself used Gothic elements in his novels, most notably in Anne of Geierstein—but Rookwood created a new form of Gothic that combined historical detail with Gothic elements on a level not done previously. In its wake would be many more Gothic novels by Ainsworth, as well as Gothic works by George W. M. Reynolds, and other English novels that used Gothic elements, including the works of Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens, and the Brontës, as well as several French Gothic novels.

A front page of “Reynolds sMiscellany” depicts England’s three bestselling authors of the day, Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton, and Ainsworth. It is interesting that George W. M. Reynolds would pay such homage to these authors since Dickens particularly hated him for writing unauthorized sequels and spin-offs of his books.

Carver’s book is a straightforward biography that details the entire life of Ainsworth, while also taking time to give plot descriptions, literary criticism, and the reception history of the various books Ainsworth wrote. I will discuss here just some of the more interesting points Carver discusses, especially in relation to Ainsworth’s Gothic works.

Ainsworth’s life and career spanned most of the nineteenth century and the Romantic and Victorian periods. Ainsworth’s interest in the Gothic began early. In 1819, at age fourteen, he wrote the story “The Specter Bridegroom.” His early horror stories were influenced by Scott’s ballads, but this story also inverted Washington Irving’s “The Spectre Bride” by having the bridegroom not only be the specter but the Wandering Jew, showing Ainsworth was familiar with the Wandering Jew fiction of the period. (For more about the Wandering Jew in Gothic fiction, see my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption.) Carver says this story’s violent climax recalls those of William Beckford’s Vathek (1786) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795). (Notably, the Wandering Jew made his first appearance in Gothic fiction in The Monk.)

Another early Gothic work was December Tales (1823), Ainsworth’s second published work when he was only eighteen. Among the Gothic stories is a wandering immortal who sells his soul for eternal life so he can revenge himself on his enemies; then he has eternity to repent. He experiences such agonies as drowning without dying, which predates the similar situation in Varney the Vampire (1846), whose title character continually tries to destroy himself, only to have nature continually thwart him—the volcano he jumps in spits him back out; the sea he tries to drown in casts him ashore.

As early as Ainsworth’s first novel, Sir John Chiverton (1826), Ainsworth was being compared to Scott and Radcliffe and blending the Gothic with historical romance. Carver refers to Sir John Chiverton as possibly the first example of nineteenth century literature struggling to establish a new form of English Gothic since it is set in England (39).

In the preface to later editions of Rookwood, Ainsworth talks about writing the novel with the trappings of Radcliffe, but with an English setting. He discusses the design of romance and his intent to start a Gothic revival, so the preface is really like a Gothic manifesto for a Gothic revival. I have written extensively about Rookwood elsewhere at this blog, so I won’t discuss it further here, but it is the seminal work of this Gothic revival. I will note that according to Carver, Scott’s St. Ronan’s Well (1823) appears to have been an influence on the novel, but Scott’s work is a comedy of manners, while Ainsworth uses the Cain and Abel motif, the Gothic, and revenge tragedy to create a Gothic extravaganza.

Rookwood’s success led Ainsworth to be the darling of literary circles. He was befriended by Bulwer-Lytton, invited to Lady Blessington’s literary evenings, and hailed as the English Victor Hugo and successor to Sir Walter Scott.

Carver goes on to discuss Jack Sheppard (1839) and its role in the Newgate novels controversy, which I will skip over discussing here.

The opening of Windsor Castle

Other novels of Gothic interest include Guy Fawkes (1841), which is a Gothic tragedy with a Catholic hero. The novel’s family is named Radcliffe, which may be a homage to Mrs. Radcliffe. According to Carver, Ainsworth transforms Guy Fawkes from a terrorist into a revolutionary leader and hero in the novel (119).

The Tower of London (1840) is interesting also because it turns an English monument into a setting of Gothic horror. It also shows the influence of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831). In that novel, Hugo was treating the cathedral as if it were itself a book, “a book of stone.” Similarly, in Ainsworth’s novel, the history of England is written in the edifice of the Tower of London. (128). Like Notre Dame Cathedral, which was in disrepair when Hugo wrote his novel, the Tower of London was abandoned and neglected when the novel was published. Ainsworth’s novel resulted in the Tower becoming popular and being restored as a Victorian museum. The novel would be so popular that it would be referenced at length in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), nearly half a century later. Carver goes on to discuss how in successive novels Ainsworth turned national landmarks into Gothic castles, an epic and ongoing process of “psycho-geography” (130).

Significantly, while Ainsworth wrote Gothic novels, he continued to blend historical details into them. The Tower of London is about Lady Jane Grey, and Windsor Castle (1843) and Old Saint Paul’s (1841) also have historical backgrounds. Ainsworth always did a lot of research for his novels and he even includes indexes in some of them (149). In Windsor Castle, Henry VIII sells his soul to marry Jane Seymour, and the mythical Herne the Hunter helps the characters to save their souls. While Herne goes back to Shakespeare, Ainsworth creates his own version of Herne. He did the same with other legends and historical personages in a way that made them sink into the national consciousness so that what people thought they knew about their own English history and myth was really stuff they had learned from Ainsworth (151-2).

Other Gothic works include Auriol, or: The Elixir of Life (1850) and The Lancashire Witches (1849), both of which I’ve discussed at length in separate blog posts.

Worth mentioning, however, is that Ainsworth draws on Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and the depiction of Eve for his female witches. Carver argues that Ainsworth was in the feminist camp. In Jack Sheppard, his powerful sexual women are the ones left standing. In The Lancashire Witches, the witches are trail-blazing female characters because they self-emancipate. Eve in Paradise Lost dreams of flying, while Ainsworth’s witches do fly. Furthermore, the witches have a matriarchal dynasty, rather than one based in patriarchal authority. They are women of self-realization and determinism (163-66). Carver suggests that Alice, who has a mark on her forehead, may have inspired Stoker, in Dracula (1897), to give Mina the mark on her forehead (166). I think that a bit of a stretch given that the Mark of Cain was common in Gothic literature, but I will admit that usually it is on the forehead of a male and Ainsworth was the first to place it on a female’s forehead.

The Lancashire Witches was Ainsworth’s last major success and his last truly Gothic work, but he went on to write many more novels, most with Lancashire settings and about Lancashire history. Most notably, The Manchester Rebels of the Fatal ’45 (1873) discusses how Manchester raised a regiment to help support Bonnie Prince Charlie and is comparable to Scott’s Waverley (1814).

Ainsworth’s novels were popular enough in his time to be translated into German, Dutch, French, and Russian, and to sell well in America. In fact, Jesse and Frank James read or knew of them because they signed their letters to the newspapers as “Jack Sheppard” (212).

The Tower of London’s opening pages.

No doubt, Ainsworth deserves more recognition for his contributions to literature and his role in influencing many of his contemporary authors as well as those who came after him. An additional treat in reading this biography is how in-depth Carver is about the early Victorian publishing industry, particularly novel serialization, and we are given insight into Ainsworth’s relationships with Dickens, Thackeray, George W. Reynolds, his illustrator Cruikshank, and several other authors.

In the “L’Envoi” section that concludes the book, Carver provides an excellent summary of Ainsworth’s role in literature:

“In Ainsworth’s long life, we can see not only the struggle and commitment that necessarily comes of laying down one’s life for literature, but in his professional and personal relationships with friends and foes alike, the entire literary and cultural milieu of his age. And beyond this, there is the evolution of the English novel itself, from Romanticism to Realism, from Scott to Dickens. Writers like Ainsworth and his forgotten friends represent the transition, a dynamic period of literary production that was neither Regency nor Victorian but something in between, in which genres were born, merged and abandoned with dizzying speed.” (213)

Consequently, I feel Ainsworth is the link between the older Gothic novels of Radcliffe and a newer form of Gothic, which in Ainsworth’s novels meant a more historical Gothic, one also set in England, one valuable in itself, but that also paved the way for later works like Varney the Vampire and Dracula.

Ainsworth’s role in the evolution of the Gothic novel definitely deserves further exploration. I applaud Stephen Carver for this new biography that will raise new appreciation of Ainsworth, the author who not only rivaled his friend Dickens but inspired so many other great writers.

Stephen Carver also has a blog titled Ainsworth & Friends that is worth visiting.

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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.

4 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, George W.M. Reynolds, Gothic Places, Sir Walter Scott, The Wandering Jew

4 responses to “William Harrison Ainsworth: Father of the Second Gothic Golden Age

  1. ellenandjim

    Very interesting — not just to us, but there are other souls alive in the world today still writing and reading the Gothic. In the course I took this term, the last session (today) the young woman teaching it attempted to define the Victorian gothic, which she too has starting somewhat later than the romantic age and first gothic novels ended. She suggested what characterizes it are setting the action in England, setting the action in the present time, and less emphasis on the supernatural. This fits Ainsworth (whom she never mentioned — I don’t know how deeply she’s read of the texts.)

    I was startled to find some parallels between what Lewis wrote in The Monk and Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (with its gothic elements). The opening sweeping scenes, intense grotesqueries meant to expose injustice then and now (15th century, 19th). I see here you quote Hugo too.

    We have also to define contemporary (20th century and early 21st) gothic, which I find also uses the present for a setting, uses any prosaic country for its setting, and leaves to us to decide what it was we and the characters saw.

    Ellen

  2. la Clarina

    Oh, but I must read this! I wish it had been about when I was researching my first novel – in which Ainsworth featured prominently…
    Of his work, I’ve only read Rookwood, Jack Sheppard, and The Admirable Crichton – which last I found rather dreadful. I remember raising an eyebrow at a review of the time, praising it as one of the great English novels of all time…
    Still, I’m very curious, and plan on reading Carver’s book.

    Your blog has been a lovely find!

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