Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
In his lifetime, William Harrison Ainsworth (AYNZ-wurth) was well known as an editor and publisher as well as a novelist. Editing and publishing, in fact, were at least as important in his life as was his writing. He was born in 1805 into the family of a respected Manchester lawyer. After attending grammar school in Manchester, he was apprenticed to a lawyer with the intent that he should follow his father’s profession. At the death of his father in 1824, he left Manchester and continued his studies in London at the Inner Temple. But fate did not intend him for the legal profession. In 1826 he married Anne Francis Ebers, daughter of John Ebers, a prominent London publisher, an event that directed him toward activities other than law.
At the time of his marriage, Ainsworth had already done considerable writing, had published in several periodicals, and had tried to start a magazine of his own, The Boeotian. After his marriage he entered the publishing business, but he seems to have been too poor a businessman to succeed. He turned then to writing. Sir John Chiverton, a mediocre novel written by Ainsworth and J. P. Aston, had received some praise from Sir Walter Scott. Sometime in 1830, while traveling on the Continent, Ainsworth seems to have made up his mind to turn seriously to a career of novel-writing. His first success was Rookwood, which gave him some economic security, made him temporarily a literary lion, and gave him an entry into the literary and political life that centered about Holland House, the London residence of Lord Holland, who was the social leader of the Whigs. Following that successful novel, Ainsworth continued as a novelist, publishing about forty titles during his life.
Writing was only one of the activities of Ainsworth’s busy life. In 1839 he became editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, a famous British magazine of the time, to which he had been a contributor. He bought the magazine in 1854 and owned it for fourteen years. He eventually sold the magazine back to its previous owner for a fraction of what he had paid, the value of the magazine having fallen while under his ownership. Before he bought Bentley’s Miscellany, Ainsworth had edited other periodicals, Ainsworth’s Magazine and the New Monthly Magazine. Although an unsuccessful businessman, Ainsworth had a good reputation as an editor of periodicals. He was extremely courteous to contributors and was willing to help them to a greater extent than most editors of the time, even as far as helping them place in other periodicals pieces of writing which he could not use himself. Also unlike many editors of his time, he was prompt and fair in paying for work he used.
Ainsworth’s novels are historical romances, and his name and work have often been bracketed with those of such authors as Sir Walter Scott, G. P. R. James, Captain Marryat, James Fenimore Cooper, and Charles Lever. Like other writers in this genre, Ainsworth often took liberties with historical facts and used peculiarities of language to enliven his fiction. The slang of thieves and highwaymen was a realm of language which he particularly exploited. In Rookwood, which made him famous, Ainsworth also employed the bag of tricks common to the gothic novelists, bringing in old manor houses, corpses, coffins, and supernatural paraphernalia. Crichton is reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward, with its plot involving a Scottish adventurer and a foundling who turns out to be a noble and beautiful French heiress, along with such historical figures as Henry of Navarre and Catherine de Médicis. More typical of Ainsworth’s fiction is Jack Sheppard, the story of the famous highwayman. Characterization is slight in this novel, taking second place behind action and a plentiful supply of realistic, even brutal, details. Typical of Ainsworth’s ability to portray action is a hair-raising escape by water through the arches of London Bridge on the flood tide.
Very popular in its day was Guy Fawkes, part of which was set in Manchester, giving the author an opportunity to exploit his knowledge of the city in which he had been reared. A whole group of Ainsworth’s novels are laid against the background of London and the people and events of that city’s history. In that group belong The Tower of London, Old Saint Paul’s, Windsor Castle, and Saint James’s: Or, The Court of Queen Anne. Also of interest is The Lancashire Witches, which describes the famous trial at Lancaster in 1612, with long accounts of the outlandish charges made against the persons accused of witchcraft. Like many prolific writers, Ainsworth wrote better fiction earlier in his career than he did later. Books continued to flow from his pen until his death at Reigate on January 3, 1882, but most of the later volumes do not measure up to his earlier productions. He died still trying to recoup the financial losses incurred in publishing ventures, having to make up the money he lost as an unsuccessful businessman by writing popular novels.
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