Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978
William Harrison Ainsworth began creative writing as a youth in Manchester and published poetry, short stories, and a novel while he was studying to be a lawyer. After abortive careers in publishing and law, success came to him in 1834 with Rookwood, a best seller that made his name and that catapulted him to the top of London’s literary scene. He followed this with Crichton (1837), which had respectable, although not large, sales.
Jack Sheppard, Ainsworth’s third mature novel, was a spectacular success, eclipsing his first two novels in sales. The novel has its roots in the eighteenth century picaresque style of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. This style moves the story along by recounting the adventures that a rogue has while traveling. The novel also follows in the tradition of the Newgate novel; its hero-namesake is a lowborn criminal. Finally, Ainsworth sets his novel in the past rather than telling a story about his contemporary society.
These three novelistic elements had proven their popularity with the early Victorian reading public when Ainsworth set out to write. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, already an established author, added to his popularity with the novels Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), which featured sensitive and intelligent heroes driven by circumstances to a criminal life. Ainsworth’s Rookwood uses the Newgate theme of a glamorous criminal hero as well as the gothic features of sensationalism and mystery. When the sales of Crichton, a historical romance set in the sixteenth century French court, failed to match those of Rookwood, Ainsworth returned to the more popular Newgate formula. Crime stories continued to be read in the late 1830’s: Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837-1839), for example, began appearing before Jack Sheppard, and for four months the two novels were serialized together in Bentley’s Miscellany (1839-1840).
Jack Sheppard’s chief strength lies in its tight plotting. Ainsworth devoted considerable effort to planning the structure of his early novels, and this effort resulted in works that are coherent and fast-paced, and in which all the loose ends of the story line are tied up. In the case of Jack Sheppard, Ainsworth faced the problem of how to tell a story spanning twenty-two years without turning it into an increasingly monotonous recitation of adventure after adventure. He solved the problem by focusing on three periods in his hero’s life, which he calls epochs. There is a short prologue, occurring in 1703, which introduces the main characters; then a few weeks in 1715, during which Jack turns to a life of crime; and finally six months in 1724, when the most exciting action takes place. The epochs are tied together with linking narratives, and an epilogue resolves the fates of the surviving characters. This strategy is effective in maintaining the reader’s interest, but it is a modification of the picaresque tradition’s episodic nature.
Ainsworth took pains to research thoroughly the historical background of his novels. As a result, his books have a strong sense of setting; the descriptions of buildings, clothing, and surroundings are vivid. His pages are populated with clearly drawn and believable historical figures. Jack Sheppard has all of these characteristics. Ainsworth was prepared, however, to change the past for the sake of his story. In this novel, for example, he turns the real Jonathan Wild, a historical figure of ambiguity, into an unmitigated villain.
Ainsworth shared with many of his contemporaries the belief that the characters in his works should be judged by the omniscient narrator. Using simple, black-and-white criteria, Ainsworth judges his characters as loyal or disloyal, brave or cowardly, noble or ignoble. Sometimes the author uses description to tell his readers what they should think of a character; sometimes he provides summary judgments. The author’s voice is rarely unheard in Ainsworth’s novels, whether as a moral judge or as a guide pointing out scenes. Jack Sheppard is no exception.
Ainsworth also wrote melodramatic episodes that were popular with his early nineteenth century audience. (Jack Sheppard was adapted for the stage in eight pirated versions—a measure of the novel’s popularity.) He depicts the scene in which Wild throws Sir Rowland Trenchard into the well in especially lurid colors. Ainsworth fills his pages with examples of cruelty, violence, brutality, and murder. Sometimes this is effective and appropriate to the subject matter, but at other times it becomes an artistic flaw. Ainsworth focuses so closely on the details of Wild’s cruelty (a depth of cruelty unusual by Victorian standards) that he fails to explain why the character is so malevolent. His failure to explain makes the character seem less real. (Several of Ainsworth’s later novels also include characters whose villainy has no motives.)
Jack Sheppard reflects the concerns and interests of the society that produced it. Its historical approach was attractive at a time when the study of history was very popular. Its concern with urban violence and criminality came at a time when worries about maintaining public order in the streets were at the forefront of public debate. Its melodramatic passages were to the taste of a generation that liked terror and the exaggerated display of emotions.
At the height of his popularity, Ainsworth earned the princely sum of 1,500 a novel from his publishers, in addition to his handsome income from editing Bentley’s Miscellany and Ainsworth’s Magazine. Later generations of readers came to dislike Ainsworth’s melodrama; after the mid-1850’s, his novels ceased to sell and his career went into decline. Ainsworth knew that the tastes of his audience were changing, but he was unable to change with them. Instead, he continued to produce novels in the Newgate and picaresque traditions. When he at last began to write novels set in the nineteenth century, he was too late to regain his readership. By the end of his career, he was lucky to get as much as 50 for a novel.