Tag Archives: Rookwood

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.

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

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.)

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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.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Sir Walter Scott