William Harrison Ainsworth has often been considered the heir of Sir Walter Scott. After writing two books that were criticized for glamorizing criminals, he produced dozens of solid historical novels that were entertaining, moral, and educational. Some of these works feature real historical figures; others use invented characters who take part in significant historical events. Ainsworth’s books have vivid scenes and exciting conflicts. They are filled with accurate details about costume, food, ceremony, and architecture. Although Windsor Castle and The Tower of London are novels, generations of tourists used them for guidebooks. Ainsworth covered the significant monarchs that were too recent to be in William Shakespeare’s plays. Most ordinary people in the nineteenth century gleaned their sense of English history largely from the works of Scott, Shakespeare, and Ainsworth.
Ainsworth, however, contributed virtually nothing to the development of the novel as a literary form; he merely did what Scott had done before him—and not nearly so well. The literary novel was turning to realistic social and psychological examinations of contemporary life. Ainsworth is significant for the roles he played as an author and as an editor of popular literature. His books refined and preserved elements of popular theater and gothic fiction, adapting them to mid-nineteenth century modes of publication. His novels are characterized by heightened confrontations and recurringclimaxes; the techniques of suspended narration and the resources of serial construction; supernatural excitements, vivid tableaux, and memorable spectacles; a preference for romantic underdogs; and moral simplicity. Ainsworth made these touchstones of popular writing briefly respectable and then handed them down to the authors who catered to the much broader mass reading public of the late nineteenth century.