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‘What a Brain must Mine be!’: The Strange Historical Romances of William Harrison Ainsworth

By (August 1, 2011) 2 Comments

W. H. Ainsworth, 1844It starts with a precise date – 21 April 1529, or 10 July 1553, perhaps, or ‘one night, at the latter end of April 1665’ – which may mean nothing to you if you are not a historian (and even if you are). Then you are straight into the heart of a drama of some sort, whether the procession for a young queen daringly inserted into the Tudor succession by a powerful kingmaker, or a Puritan family’s evening prayer in the midst
of plague-ridden London. The style is grandiose and melodramatic, although the reader is not spared copious details of the Tudor landscape of London, or the backstory of the epidemic (‘Before proceeding further it may be desirable to show in what manner the dreadful pestilence … commenced and how far its ravages had already extended’). The author has done his homework, and he relishes the picturesque detail which he shares so generously with you. The twenty-first-century reader may be initially amused, then exasperated, then intolerant and bored as he or she progresses through a few more pages of this energetic and overladen prose. Life is short, this artifice is particularly long: why persist?

In his heyday, the historical novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) was briefly considered to be a credible rival of Dickens and W. M. Thackeray. Now he is known to few besides scholars of the Victorian gothic or historical novel, and enthusiasts for nineteenth-century Manchester, the city of his birth. Perhaps if he had stuck around in his native place, and – like Elizabeth Gaskell – had written novels about the industrial modernity he found there, we would be reading his fictions as part of a B.A. Hons degree in English Literature, or watching middle-brow T.V. adaptations of them, starring a cast probably composed of teenage pop stars looking for an acting career, and maturing British character actors desperate for work after the last film in the Harry Potter franchise. But Ainsworth fell in love with old woods full of ancient rookeries, mouldering manor houses, blood-stained castles, ruined abbeys, and nooks and crannies in old city streets and country churches. He became an historical novelist of the kind the literary critic J. C. Simmons described as a ‘footnote’ novelist: his learning is heavily worn, like an unwieldy suit of medieval armor. Ainsworth’s attraction was to the gothic historical, to the black and the bloody, to haunted history. This suit of does not remain passively propped up in the armory, but comes running after you with a sharpened sword down shadowy corridors. In other words, this is the dark side of those progressive Victorians we all know about, with their trains and telegraphs, their technological advances and their scientific discoveries, their liberal politics and their enlightened scepticism.

Ainsworth’s first successful novel, Rookwood (1834), was a Gothic romance, which depicted the legendary ride of the highwayman Dick Turpin from London to York (at least, it became legend after Ainsworth invented it). Jack Sheppard (1839), which focused on the career of the titular young eighteenth-century criminal, was so popular that nine different stage versions of it appeared before the end of the year, and criminal slang pervaded the language of the fashionable classes. It included an incredibly detailed and well-illustrated account of Jack’s escape from the famous Newgate Prison, which must have been of great interest to jail-breakers and prison governors alike. The novel attracted criticism for its celebration of criminal lives and achievements from such heavyweight names as Thackeray, and Ainsworth now abandoned the ‘Newgate Novel’, as this literary genre was known, in favour of the historical romance. The dandified and convivial Ainsworth was financially astute, and knew how to follow the money: in 1826 he had married the daughter of the publisher John Ebers, who unsurprisingly published Ainsworth’s first novel in the same year. As John Sutherland noted, Ainsworth was very shrewd in negotiating lucrative contracts for his novels, so it is not surprising that the novelist turned from criminal romances to the picturesque historical novel at just the right moment.

Ainsworth’s classic works in this new field of endeavor were The Tower of London (1840), Old Saint Paul’s (1841) and Windsor Castle (1843). To Ainsworth connoisseurs (and there are some, believe it or not), they are quite irresistible. The Tower of London, based on the events of the brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, runs the full gamut of historical drama, tragedy, romance – and slapstick comedy with giants, dwarfs, merry widows, and gargantuan pies and pints of ale. Ainsworth clearly envied his Tudor ancestors for their indulgence of their appetites – for food and drink, but also for sexual titillation and executions. (Of course, as he is a Victorian, so, while the details of the butchery and torture are not spared, no hand is ever allowed to rest lustfully on lovely Lady Jane’s breasts). Confined largely to the Tower of London, Ainsworth’s characters obligingly ensure that their activities and intrigues are conducted in as many different parts of the ancient building as is possible: thus we have the full guided tour of the historic site, without the current exorbitant admission fee. His original readers also had the superb illustrations of George Cruikshank (and William Delamotte and Tony Johannot) to enrich their experience: grand tableaux of Cruikshank’s spindly and cartoonesque figures, flimsy as their one-dimensional textual personae, are often counterbalanced by delicate and evocative images of the modern appearance of the historical buildings. Cruikshank and Ainsworth later quarreled, because the illustrator felt that he had contributed as much to Ainsworth’s success as the author himself, a view which is not without some substance.

Ainsworth was worried that the Tower of London was inadequately honored and preserved as an historical monument, as he tells us in the preface. Perhaps, he thought, if he re-peopled it with the doomed Lady Jane, her handsome husband Guildford Dudley, and their nemesis, the fiendish Spanish ambassador Simon Renard, his readers would appreciate its national significance. For good measure, he delivers to us also the gloomy and aging Mary I and the beauteous young Elizabeth, rivals for the affections of the young Earl of Devon. Still not enough drama for you? Just in case, he adds in a fully fictional love triangle: the lovely Cecily, the dashing Cuthbert, and the jealous jailer Nightgall, who chases the unhappy couple through an imagined series of Gothic passages and dungeons which Ainsworth has inventively added to the structure of the Tower. If you still can’t see the allure of an Ainsworth novel, the comic antics of the kitchen or the gruesome ballad of the executioner, preparing to behead half the cast at the end of the novel, may yet draw you in. Here he is, with his two unappealing friends Wolfytt and Scorrocold, getting ready for poor Lady Jane’s execution:

“This is my favourite axe. I can make sure work with it. I always keep it for queens or dames of high degree … This notch, which I can never grind away, was made by the old Countess of Salisbury, that I told you about. It was a terrible sight to see her white hair dabbled with blood. Poor Lady Jane won’t give me so much trouble, I’ll be sworn. She’ll die like a lamb.”

“Ay, ay,” muttered Sorrocold. “God send her a speedy death!”

“She’s sure of it with me,” returned Mauger, “so you may rest easy on that score.” And as he turned the grindstone quickly round, drawing sparks from the steel, he chanted, as hoarsely as a raven, the following ditty:

The axe was sharp, and heavy as lead,
As it touched the neck, off went the head!
And the screaming of the grindstone formed an appropriate accompaniment to the melody.

Queen Anne laid her white throat upon the block,
Quietly waiting the fatal shock;
The axe it severed it right in twain,
And so quick so true that she felt no pain!
And he again set the wheel in motion.

Salisbury’s countess, she would not die
As a proud dame should decorously.
Lifting my axe, I split her skull,
And the edge since then has been notched and dull.
Queen Catherine Howard gave me a fee
A chain of gold to die easily:
And her costly present she did not rue,
For I touched her head and away it flew!

“A brave song, and well sung,” cried Wolfytt, approvingly. “Have you any more of it?”

“No,” replied Mauger, significantly. “I shall make another verse to-morrow …”.

With this grim exchange, they are obliged to break off their discussion, as ‘a figure robed in white, but insubstantial almost as the mist’ – the ghost of Anne Boleyn, naturally – appears to provide the evening’s star turn, the performance of a training circuit round the scaffold.

Herne the Hunter plunging into the lake - George Cruikshank
Herne the Hunter plunging into the lake – George Cruikshank

My love affair with the novels began, not with the marvellous Tower, but with Windsor Castle. It, too, has Anne Boleyn in it (alive this time), a surefire hit for any historical novel, but better still, it has Herne the Hunter, an outdoorsy Gothic ghost with Shakespearean credentials. I was at school in Windsor at the time, which explains the novel’s particular appeal to me: we were actually next to the very park in which Herne, with his accompanying hounds and horsemen, was wont (allegedly) to roam! During Physical Education, I was even obliged to run up and down the Long Walk, yet despite these runs, and indeed walks in more secluded parts of Windsor Forest, I never saw Herne. But then – unlike Henry VIII – I was not just about to execute one spouse to make way for the next:

…a fierce tumult raged within his breast. He fixed his eyes on the Round Tower, which was distinctly visible, and from which he expected the signal, and then tried to peer into the far horizon. But he could discern nothing … Henry’s fancy was so powerfully excited, that he fancied he could behold the terrible tragedy enacting at the Tower.

“She is now issuing forth into the green in front of Saint Peter’s Chapel,” said Henry to himself. “I can see her as distinctly as if I were there. Ah, how beautiful she looks! and how she moves all hearts to pity! … She takes leave of her weeping attendants—she mounts the steps of the scaffold firmly—she looks round, and addresses the spectators. How silent they are, and how clearly and musically her voice sounds! … Now she disrobes herself, and prepares for the fatal axe. It is wielded by the skilful executioner of Calais, and he is now feeling its edge. Now she takes leave of her dames, and bestows a parting gift on each. Again she kneels and prays. She rises. The fatal moment is at hand. Even now she retains her courage—she approaches the block, and places her head upon it. The axe is raised—ha!”

The exclamation was occasioned by a flash of fire from the battlements of the Round Tower, followed by a volume of smoke, and in another second the deep boom of a gun was heard.

At the very moment that the flash was seen, a wild figure, mounted on a coal-black steed, galloped from out the wood, and dashed towards Henry, whose horse reared and plunged as he passed.

“There spoke the knell of Anne Boleyn!” cried Herne, regarding Henry sternly, and pointing to the Round Tower. “The bloody deed is done, and thou art free to wed once more. Away to Wolff Hall, and bring thy new consort to Windsor Castle!”

What the subtle, hard-bitten Cromwell of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall would make of his replacement as Henry’s counsellor, in this Victorian novel, by an antler-sporting supernatural Wildman is surely a subject for late-night speculation. We can only marvel at how many miles away Mantel’s historical fiction is from Ainsworth’s, and yet how close in its exploration of our responses to the brutal environments of the historical past. This aspect of Ainsworth’s fiction is particularly apparent when we turn to his next novel.

In Old St Paul’s, Ainsworth struggled with the fact that the building at the centre of the novel, with many of its neighbors, had been consumed in the Great Fire of London. Accordingly, we have an apocalyptic novel, in which Ainsworth reconstructs early modern London and populates it with his characters, before staging both a plague and a fire to destroy place and people: a sort of buy one, get one free, version of that best-selling contemporary disaster novel, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). As Stephen Carver, Ainsworth’s most recent advocate, has noted, the holocaust which the nineteenth-century novelist describes will strike the modern readers as all too familiar, in the light of the more horrific events of twentieth-century history: the novel’s hero, Leonard, contemplating the mass burial sites of plague victims, is a thanatourist which whom we may well identify. And we soon realise that Ainsworth’s fascination with the ‘dark and bloody’ history of his country exemplifies both the entertainment and the psychological functions of the Gothic. It gave his readers a pleasurable thrill of horror, while also expressing their deepest anxieties and subconscious fears.

By the early 1850s, Ainsworth’s picturesque historical novels were going out of fashion. He tried writing novels with a contemporary setting, both realist and sensationalist in character, and succeeded in neither genre. So he went on writing historical romances, ever less successful, ever less financially rewarding. He moved house from London to Brighton, Tunbridge Wells, and then Reigate; he moved publishing house from the prestigious Chapman and Hall to the populist Tinsley Brothers. One of my favorites among his novels is the hallucinatory Auriol (1844), in which he seems to be exploring the collapse of the picturesque historical fiction he loved to write. His time-travelling Elizabethan hero, who has drunken a potion conveying immortality, has a pretty rough ride through early-nineteenth-century London, where he has the misfortune to encounter sinister Rosicrucians, low-grade criminals, and disturbing demolition works. In the last chapter, he awakes (or does he?) to discover that it is all a delirious dream. But is it? Ainsworth leaves both the reader and author uncertain, as if he has written himself into an historical hole – a particularly black one in the dungeon of a Kafkasque Gothic castle. Thus the closing paragraph of this fantastical novel:

Auriol then walked to the window and gazed through the tinted panes. It was very dark, and objects could only be imperfectly distinguished. Still he fancied he could detect the gleam of the river beneath him, and what seemed a long line of houses on the bridge. He also fancied he discerned other buildings, with the high roofs, the gables, and the other architectural peculiarities of the structures of Elizabeth’s time. He persuaded himself, also, that he could distinguish through the gloom the venerable Gothic pile of Saint Paul’s Cathedral on the other side of the water, and, as if to satisfy him that he was right, a deep solemn bell tolled forth the hour of two. After a while he returned from the window, and said to his supposed [sic: my italics] grandsire, “I am satisfied. I have lived centuries in a few nights.”

Frankly, it is not the first time that Ainsworth had got his antique breeches in a bit of a twist and finished a novel in some confusion: Crichton (1836), set in sixteenth-century France and detailing the adventures of the polymath, Sir James Crichton, concluded as abruptly and implausibly as the historical Crichton’s own life (although not in the same way). At least Ainsworth’s Admirable Crichton gets the girl, despite their unresolved religious differences – unlike the historical Crichton, who was stabbed to death one moonlit night in Mantua, at the tender age of twenty-one, by a thuggish Italian prince. Ainsworth, I am sure, would want me to tell you that it was in the early hours of 3 July 1582.

Contemporaries were rarely kind about Ainsworth’s historical romances (possibly because their own works did not sell so well). In the second volume of his The New Spirit of the Age (1844), Richard Hengist Horne described Ainsworth as ‘a reviver of old clothes’, complaining that:

… there has of late years sprung up a sort of lower or less historical romance, in which the chief part of the history consisted in old dates, old names, old houses, and old clothes. But dates in themselves are but numerals, names only sounds, houses and streets mere things to be copied from prints and records; and any one may do the same with regard to old coats, and hats, wigs, waistcoats, and boots.

For Horne, Windsor Castle was nothing but:

… a picture book … full of very pretty pictures. Also full of catalogues of numberless suits of clothes. It would be difficult to open it any where without the eye falling on such words as cloth of gold, silver tissue, green jerkin, white plumes.

Old St Paul’s, in an immortal phrase which modern reviewers may well find handy, was ‘generally dull, except when it is revolting.’ Horne’s criticisms may be witty and even well-founded, but they miss the sensuous appeal of the Ainsworth novel, the desire to create the appearance and the feel of the past in tangible detail, to give us the stench of corruption, the clink of the chain, the glare of the gaudy trappings of power. A precursor of Cecil B. DeMille and Dan Brown, a master of the spectacle and the sinister, king of the colourful and the clichéd, Ainsworth’s descriptions are as dramatic and as essential as his dialogues: the setting in the best Ainsworth novels is not really the background but the foreground, the very point of his prose. In The Tower of London, the Tower is as much a character as Lady Jane or Simon Renard: in fact, rather more so. ‘What a brain must mine be!’ exclaims poor Auriol, on awakening to find his nineteenth-century nightmare existence is just a spooky dream. His creator – a waking dreamer of historical reconstructions – might well have said the exactly the same thing.

Rosemary Mitchell is Associate Principal Lecturer in History and Reader in Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University College, U.K; she used to work for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She is interested in Victorian historical culture, and enjoys all varieties of Victorian historical novels, history books, and history paintings, particularly the bad ones.