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...
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