William Harrison Ainsworth Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Most of the work that William Harrison Ainsworth (AYNZ-wurth) produced in forms other than the novel was limited to juvenilia. Before he had reached the age of nineteen, he had published dramas, poems, essays, tales, and translations in local Manchester periodicals. He also wrote several short books of verse and a brief political pamphlet before he became known as a novelist. Later, he contributed some reviews and verse to annuals and magazines. The songs and ballads scattered throughout his novels were collected for separate publication in 1855 and reprinted in 1872. Ainsworth’s association with periodicals was long and significant, and most of his novels were first published as magazine serials. He served as editor with the periodicals Bentley’s Miscellany (1839-1841 and 1854-1868), Ainsworth’s Magazine (1842-1854), and the New Monthly Magazine (1846-1870).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

William Harrison Ainsworth has often been considered the heir of Sir Walter Scott. After writing two books that were criticized for glamorizing criminals, he produced dozens of solid historical novels that were entertaining, moral, and educational. Some of these works feature real historical figures; others use invented characters who take part in significant historical events. Ainsworth’s books have vivid scenes and exciting conflicts. They are filled with accurate details about costume, food, ceremony, and architecture. Although Windsor Castle and The Tower of London are novels, generations of tourists used them for guidebooks. Ainsworth covered the significant monarchs that were too recent to be in William Shakespeare’s plays. Most ordinary people in the nineteenth century gleaned their sense of English history largely from the works of Scott, Shakespeare, and Ainsworth.

Ainsworth, however, contributed virtually nothing to the development of the novel as a literary form; he merely did what Scott had done before him—and not nearly so well. The literary novel was turning to realistic social and psychological examinations of contemporary life. Ainsworth is significant for the roles he played as an author and as an editor of popular literature. His books refined and preserved elements of popular theater and gothic fiction, adapting them to mid-nineteenth century modes of publication. His novels are characterized by heightened confrontations and recurringclimaxes; the techniques of suspended narration and the resources of serial construction; supernatural excitements, vivid tableaux, and memorable spectacles; a preference for romantic underdogs; and moral simplicity. Ainsworth made these touchstones of popular writing briefly respectable and then handed them down to the authors who catered to the much broader mass reading public of the late nineteenth century.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Abbey, Cherie D., ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1986. Presents information on Ainsworth’s writing in its two forms, the Newgate novels and the historical romances, and includes some biographical details. Also includes extracts from reviews and essays from the 1830’s through 1979, which are helpful in assessing critical responses to Ainsworth.

Carver, Stephen James. The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805-1882. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edward Mellen Press, 2003. Provides extensive analysis of Ainsworth’s writings and outlines the contributions Ainsworth made to periodical literature. Includes bibliographies of both Ainsworth’s work and secondary literature.

Collins, Stephen. “Guy Fawkes in Manchester: The World of William Harrison Ainsworth.” Historian 188 (Winter, 2005): 34-37. Explores Harrison’s life and works. Maintains that Harrison was one of the nineteenth century authors “responsible for placing some of the most memorable historical legends in the public psyche,” as illustrated by his novels about Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard. Focuses on Ainsworth’s novel Guy Fawkes, in which the author sets the Gunpowder Plot in his native Manchester.

Hollingsworth, Keith. The Newgate Novel, 1830-1847: Bulwer,...

(The entire section is 549 words.)