In his 1839-40 series of stories that were collected and formed into the novel Jack Sheppard: A Romance, William Harrison Ainsworth drew a portrait of early 18th Century England that reflected the deep class divisions within British society, and which helped to use the real-life short-lived exploits of a small-time thief named Jack Sheppard, whose notoriety derived from his capacity for escaping from prison, as a metaphor for the moral decrepitude that pervade that society. The Industrial Revolution was dramatically changing Britain during the period Ainsworth penned his fictional account, and the political and cultural turmoil that entailed provided considerable inspiration for the author. Ainsworth’s novel was written during this period of radical transformation, but it focuses on that period one hundred years before when economic and social rifts within British society were equally pronounced, and when the downtrodden recognized that their prospects for upward mobility were especially bleak. There is, early in Jack Sheppard, a lengthy passage in which the author describes the setting for his opening scene:
“The room in which this interview took place had a sordid and miserable look. Rotten, and covered with a thick coat of dirt, the boards of the floor presented a very insecure footing; the bare walls were scored all over with grotesque designs, the chief of which represented the punishment of Nebuchadnezzar. The rest were hieroglyphic characters, executed in red chalk and charcoal. The ceiling had, in many places, given way; the laths had been removed; and, where any plaster remained, it was either mapped and blistered with damps, or festooned with dusty cobwebs. Over an old crazy bedstead was thrown a squalid, patchwork counterpane; and upon the counterpane lay a black hood and scarf, a pair of bodice of the cumbrous form in vogue at the beginning of the last century, and some other articles of female attire. On a small shelf near the foot of the bed stood a couple of empty phials, a cracked ewer and basin, a brown jug without a handle, a small tin coffee-pot without a spout, a saucer of rouge, a fragment of looking-glass, and a flask, labelled "Rosa Solis." Broken pipes littered the floor, if that can be said to be littered, which, in the first instance, was a mass of squalor and filth.”
The action that occurs in this decrepit setting involves a meeting between the widow of a deceased carpenter named Sheppard and a male visitor to Mrs. Sheppard’s flat referred to as Mr. Wood. Responding to a comment by her visitor to the effect that her home was unfit for human habitation, Mrs. Sheppard observes that “it's better than the cold stones and open streets.” That is the bar above which these characters – and their real-life counterparts – existed: anything indoors is better than living on the streets, which, in notoriously cold and damp London, is not a viable option at all. With this opening, the story of this woman’s infant son, Jack, commences. As the story progresses, Ainsworth repeatedly emphasizes the poverty endemic in the society he depicts, his prose littered with descriptions of economic ruin: “. . .old ruinous buildings, called Wheeler's Rents; a dirty thoroughfare . . .”; “Old and dilapidated, the widow's domicile looked the very picture of desolation and misery. Nothing more forlorn could be conceived,” and so on. The environment Ainsworth portrays reflects a society little evolved from the days of the fictional Robin Hood:
“Regardless as the gentry of the Mint usually were (for, indeed, they had become habituated from their frequent occurrence to such scenes,) of any outrages committed in their streets; deaf, as they had been, to the recent scuffle before Mrs. Sheppard's door, they were always sufficiently on the alert to maintain their privileges, and to assist each other against the attacks of their common enemy—the sheriff's officer.”
Jack Sheppard is a story that takes place in a world that offered little hope to the majority of its citizens. Ainsworth’s is not a linear story in the conventional literary sense, however. It is divided into three distinct periods, or “epochs.” The first begins in 1703, when the real-life Jack Sheppard is barely a year old, and is titled “Jonathan Wild,” in reference to the criminal who talked the infant’s father into turning to a life of crime. The second epoch covered begins in 1715 and is titled “Thames Darrell,” a fugitive and contemporary and friend of the now-teenaged Jack Sheppard. Having aided in this fugitive’s escape from captivity, Jonathan Wild assures Mrs. Sheppard that “Darrell, has embarked upon the Thames, where, if he's not capsized by the squall, (for it's blowing like the devil,) he stands a good chance of getting his throat cut by his pursuers—ha! ha!” The third, and final period depicted in this novel begins in 1724 and is titled “The Prison-Breaker.” Jack Sheppard is now an adult and a professional thief himself, and this “epoch” begins with Jack imprisoned for his crimes. Not only is he serving a prison sentence, but British authorities, Ainsworth writes, are sufficiently impressed with this prisoner’s reputation that they place him Newgate Ward, a particularly secure section of the prison:
“The ward in which he was confined, was about six yards in length, and three in width, and in height, might be about twelve feet. The windows which were about nine feet from the floor, had no glass; but were secured by thick iron bars, and an oaken beam. Along the floor ran an iron bar to which Jack's chain was attached, so that he could move along it from one end of the chamber to the other.”
Such are the measure imposed upon Jack to prevent his escape that, when he does indeed escape, we are even more impressed by his resourcefulness and determination. Ainsworth’s description of Jack’s prison cell depicts an exceedingly claustrophobic environment made more uninviting by the chain connecting the prisoner to his cell. Throughout Jack Sheppard, Ainsworth uses detailed descriptions of settings to portray a society very much conducive to the development of sociopathic personalities. Ainsworth’s work has been discussed in the context of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and one can envision a British version of Hugo’s venerable work reading something like Jack Sheppard.