Author Who Outsold Dickens

Stephen Carver’s “Author Who Outsold Dickens” (2020): Biography of a Crime Novelist

By Stephen Basdeo

When I was doing my MA dissertation on the cultural history of crime, my supervisor, Dr Heather Shore, advised me to read two now largely forgotten novels: Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard (1839). The heroes of these two novels, respectively, were two thieves named Dick Turpin (1705–39) and Jack Sheppard (1701–24) — men who have featured extensively in my own research.

The author of these novels was William Harrison Ainsworth (1805–82) whose biography has now been written by Dr Stephen Carver, titled The Author Who Outsold Dickens: The Life and Work of W.H. Ainsworth, published in February 2020 by Pen and Sword Books.

Carver argues that Ainsworth is

The national treasure that most people haven’t heard of (p. xiii).

And Carver further holds that Ainsworth has been unfairly neglected by the modern reading public and also academics, who often repeat the attacks of his literary rivals without seriously engaging with Ainsworth’s corpus of works (p. xv). Carver is right to make this claim: from my own work I know that, although much of Ainsworth’s work is  often cited by critics, but he is rarely read and his body of work is rarely engaged with on a critical level.

Born in a house on King Street, Manchester, in 1805, the young Ainsworth was destined for a respectable career in the law. However, he was exercising his literary talents at an early age by writing scripts for members of his family to perform in the makeshift theatre they had in the cellar. Young Ainsworth decided to start writing short stories for literary magazines—amazingly, for a lad of but 15 years old, editors agreed that some of his submissions weren’t half bad and some of them were published.

Ainsworth enrolled at Manchester Grammar School in 1817 and left in 1822. He was a good looking young lad and he knew it—he fancied himself a bit of a Lord Byron, and Ainsworth was, by all accounts, quite popular with the ladies of Manchester’s bourgeois elites. Yet the capital was calling him—only in London could he make a name for himself as an author. Interested in history and horror from his youthful readings of Gothic romances, his literary interests took a more serious turn and he decided that he wanted to become an historical novelist like his literary hero Walter Scott (1771–1832), the inventor of the historical novel.

The publication of Ainsworth’s first novel in 1827, titled Sir John Chiverton, brought him to Scott’s notice who seems to have approved of the young man’s first novel. Scott died in 1832 and it seemed that the title of England’s most famous historical novelist would pass from Scott to Ainsworth. During the next decade, for instance, when contemporary novelists such as Dickens turned their minds to the ‘Condition of England’question, Ainsworth stuck to historical fiction. The 1830s and 1840s were the decade in which Ainsworth would soar to heights of fame — or infamy — when he published in quick succession:

  • Rookwood (1834)
  • Crichton (1835)
  • Jack Sheppard (1839)
  • Old Saint Paul’s (1841)
  • Windsor Castle (1842)
  • The Miser’s Daughter (1842)
  • The Lancashire Witches (1848)

If Rookwood made Ainsworth famous, going through five editions in five years, it was Jack Sheppard which dented Ainsworth’s popularity for having convinced (allegedly) a valet to murder his master, which caused a sensation in the press.

Although further novels followed Jack Sheppard, after reading Carver’s book one cannot help but think that the period from c.1850 to his death is one of simple decline in popularity. By the 1870s, when Ainsworth wrote his Wat Tyler novel Merry England (1874), he was hardly able to command the publisher’s advances he could in the 1840s.

Ainsworth has always been a favourite of mine. Carver’s very readable book enabled me to get to know him a little better — so often when we read a novel we have no idea of the life of the author behind the book!

Yet this is not just a biography: Carver’s book is titled The Life and Work and his book functions both as a biography and, due to Carver’s analysis of Ainsworth’s novels, a companion to the many novels which Ainsworth published throughout his life.

This book is an excellent buy for any general reader who wishes to find out about the life of a famous forgotten Victorian novelist and I wish it had been around when I was doing my MA thesis, for the book will be very useful to students as well.

Stephen Carver, The Author Who Outsold Dickens: The Life and Work of W.H. Ainsworth (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2020). 253pp. Harback RRP £25 ISBN 9781526720696. Available from the publisher’s website.

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