William Harrison Ainsworth Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Popular fiction requires, above all else, a work that holds the reader’s interest. The best popular authors, furthermore, are generally those who believe and delight in the books they write. William Harrison Ainsworth began to publish just after Sir Walter Scott’s death. At that time there was as yet no clearly discernible indication of the direction fiction would take, but there was a vogue for stories about history and crime. These topics suited Ainsworth’s personal taste—his early interest in his father’s tales, his love of acting exciting roles, his fondness for Scott, Lord Byron, Christopher Marlowe, and for gothic novelists such as Matthew Gregory Lewis and Ann Radcliffe. Before long, the vogue for such stories had passed. Its other practitioners, including Charles Dickens, moved on to different styles and themes, but Ainsworth remained in the groove he had carved. His method of composition bred anarrative technique that secured the reader’s involvement but did not encourage analytical thought.

Ainsworth’s mind was attracted by snatches of legend, by the mood surrounding a place, by the intensely realized scenes without antecedents or consequences that often feature in daydreams. His books have very complicated stories but often lack plot in the sense of shape, point, or consequence. His most successful works gain apparent unity because they are linked to a single place or use a well-known historical event as a frame. Ainsworth was not creative in the broad sense; he depended on research because it supplied a mass of details that helped disguise the fact that he lacked Scott’s ability to create the texture and spirit of the past. The accurate details also gave Ainsworth’s books respectability for a mass public that was becoming increasingly self-conscious; historical distance permitted both Ainsworth and his readers to be emotionally involved in scenes of horror, conflict, and danger.

Ainsworth’s stories are far too complicated to summarize. In each novel, at least three or four series of events move simultaneously; typically, one is historical, one uses fictional characters acting in historical events, and a third involves comic figures. Each individual story line is itself intricate. In any plot, at any moment, present action may be suspended by the entrance of a stranger who proceeds to recount the course of his life to date, and the stranger’s narrative may itself be suspended for its own internal interruptions. The method is not, strictly speaking, dramatic, because the reader is likely to forget just what question is driving the story onward. The individual scenes, however, are vividly realized. Inevitably, at the end of an installment, one set of characters is left dangling, and a new set is taken up in the next. Ainsworth’s creative use of the breaks imposed by the medium (in this case serialization) and his control of lighting effects and angles of vision anticipate the techniques of popular film and television.

Especially useful for creating effects, the topics of history and the supernatural were used by Ainsworth because they supplied cruelty, torture, flight, combat, and chills down the spine, tools for the manipulation of emotions. The supernatural elements that appear in almost all of Ainsworth’s novels are used primarily for effect; Ainsworth neither explains the uncanny events nor (as serious gothic novelists would) explores the mystery of evil. Elements of reality, such as murders, storms, and riots, arouse emotional responses, and the unreality of the supernatural may, like the distance of history, help rationalist readers from an industrialized world to release emotions that are no longer acceptable in daily life.

Ainsworth virtually always includes at least one character who is disguised, who is using a false name, or who has mysterious, confused, obscure parentage. Readers of Ainsworth’s books soon learn that they can never be certain who the characters really are. The stories of concealed parentage and shifting identity allow readers in the most humdrum circumstances to step imaginatively into the shoes of a countess, a knight, or even royal offspring, secure in the expectation that anyone might turn out to be royalty in disguise. The device is a psychological strategy for Ainsworth, the bourgeois son of a Nonconformist family from a bleak industrial town who chose to become a Royalist, a Tory, and a Jacobite. It is also a paradigm for the escapism beloved by readers who found themselves increasingly interchangeable cogs in the nineteenth century’s bureaucratic and commercial machines.


An immediate best seller, Rookwood not only is typical Ainsworth but also might serve as a model to teach generations of adventure writers about constructing narrative books. The opening sentence reveals two people seated in a burial vault at midnight. The rest of the long first paragraph holds the reader’s curiosity about these people in abeyance while it describes the architecture and effigies of the mausoleum in order to create an air of foreboding. The first chapter alternates passages of partial exposition with scenes of strong emotion, and the second chapter is a chase built from a series of captures, struggles, and escapes. At the second chapter’s climax, Luke Rookwood—the protagonist—dives into a pool and does not emerge; the chapter ends, leaving him underwater. The next several chapters introduce other characters, new lines of action, and a great deal more historical exposition before telling the reader what happened to Luke.

Rookwood virtually catalogs the devices made popular by gothic novelists thirty years earlier. In the opening chapter, Ainsworth introduces the inheritance theme and Luke’s confused parentage, a death omen, croaking ravens, a Gypsy queen, a preserved corpse with a significant ring on its finger, an evil Jesuit, a moving statue, a dead hand, and writing on a wall. The rest of the book supplies duels between relatives, a deathbed curse, a runaway bride, a portrait that changes expression, underground caverns, a supernatural summons, a miniature with an inscription that gives a clue to the past, a rediscovered marriage certificate, secret passageways, stormy nights, an interrupted burial, a purely incidental death by thunderbolt, corpses swaying from a gibbet, talismans, a deserted priory where Gypsies dwell, a character who masquerades as a ghost, infallible prophecies in verse, love potions, a marriage in a subterranean shrine (formerly an anchorite’s cell) with a corpse on the altar, disguises, a bride substituted for another in the dark, a heroine drugged into passivity, a battle between Gypsies and highwaymen, and a faithless lover who dies from kissing a poisoned lock of hair. In the final scene, the villainess is shoved by a statue into a sarcophagus, where she perishes.

Like the typical gothic romance, Rookwood has a Byronic hero of mixed good and evil (Luke), a persecuted maiden (Eleanor), and a romantic hero who gets the girl (Ranulph). Ranulph and Eleanor are uninteresting, and even Luke is not very successful; he arouses some sympathy at the outset because he is an underdog, but his transformation to villain is not explored fully enough to be convincing. To berate Ainsworth for lack of originality, however, is to miss the point. He used the traditional gothic devices for the very reason that they were conventional; they had become a code, an emotional...

(The entire section is 3055 words.)