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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Harrison Ainsworth (1805–1882)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN the year 1881, at a commemorative dinner given to her native novelist by the city of Manchester, it was announced that the public library contained two hundred and fifty volumes of his works, which passed through seven thousand six hundred and sixty hands annually, so that his stories were read at the rate of twenty volumes a day throughout the year. This exceptional prophet, who was thus not without honor in his own country, was the son of a prosperous attorney, and was himself destined to the bar. But he detested the law and he loved letters, and before he was twenty he had helped to edit a paper, had written essays, a story, and a play,—none of which, fortunately for him, survive,—and had gone to London, ostensibly to read in a lawyer’s office, and really to spin his web of fiction whenever opportunity offered. Chance connected the fortunes of young Ainsworth with periodical literature, where most of his early work appeared. His first important tale was ‘Rookwood,’ published in 1834. This describes the fortunes of a family of Yorkshire gentry in the eighteenth century; but its real interest lies in an episode which includes certain experiences of the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, and his furious ride to outrun the hue and cry. Sporting England was enraptured with the dash and breathlessness of this adventure, and the novelist’s fame was established.  1
  His second romance, ‘Crichton,’ appeared in 1836. The hero of this tale is the brilliant Scottish gentleman whose handsome person, extraordinary scholarship, great accomplishments, courage, eloquence, subtlety, and achievement gained him the sobriquet of “The Admirable.” The chief scenes are laid in Paris at the time of Catherine de’ Medici’s rule and Henry III.’s reign, when the air was full of intrigue and conspiracy, and when religious quarrels were not more bitter and dangerous than political wrangles. The inscrutable king, the devout Queen Louise of Lorraine, the scheming queen-mother, and Marguerite of Valois, half saint, half profligate, a pearl of beauty and grace; Henry of Navarre, ready to buy his Paris with sword or mass; well-known great nobles, priests, astrologers, learned doctors, foreign potentates, ambassadors, pilgrims, and poisoners,—pass before the reader’s eye. The pictures of student life, at a time when all the world swarmed to the great schools of Paris, serve to explain the hero and the period.  2
  When, in 1839, Dickens resigned the editorship of Bentley’s Miscellany, Ainsworth succeeded him. “The new whip,” wrote the old one afterward, “having mounted the box, drove straight to Newgate. He there took in Jack Sheppard, and Cruikshank the artist; and aided by that very vulgar but very wonderful draughtsman, he made an effective story of the burglar’s and housebreaker’s life.” Everybody read the story, and most persons cried out against so ignoble a hero, so mean a history, and so misdirected a literary energy. The author himself seems not to have been proud of the success which sold thousands of copies of an unworthy book, and placed a dramatic version of its vulgar adventures on the stage of eight theatres at once. He turned his back on this profitable field to produce, in rapid succession, ‘Guy Fawkes,’ a tale of the famous Gunpowder Plot; ‘The Tower of London,’ a story of the Princess Elizabeth, the reign of Queen Mary, and the melancholy episode of Lady Jane Grey’s brief glory; ‘Old Saint Paul,’ a story of the time of Charles II., which contains the history of the Plague and of the Great Fire; ‘The Miser’s Daughter’; ‘Windsor Castle,’ whose chief characters are Katharine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, and Henry the Eighth; ‘St. James,’ a tale of the court of Queen Anne; ‘The Lancashire Witches’; ‘The Star-Chamber,’ a historical story of the time of Charles I.; ‘The Constable of the Tower’; ‘The Lord Mayor of London’; ‘Cardinal Pole,’ which deals with the court and times of Philip and Mary; ‘John Law,’ a story of the great Mississippi Bubble; ‘Tower Hill,’ whose heroine is the luckless Catharine Howard; ‘The Spanish Match,’ a story of the romantic pilgrimage of Prince Charles and “Steenie” Buckingham to Spain for the fruitless wooing of the Spanish Princess; and at least ten other romances, many of them in three volumes, all appearing between 1840 and 1873. Two of these were published simultaneously, in serial form; and no year passed without its book, to the end of the novelist’s long life.  3
  Whatever the twentieth century may say to Ainsworth’s historic romances, many of them have found high favor in the past. Concerning ‘Crichton,’ so good a critic as “Father Prout” wrote:—“Indeed, I scarcely know any of the so-called historical novels of this frivolous generation which has altogether so graphically reproduced the spirit and character of the time as this daring and dashing portraiture of the young Scot and his contemporaries.” The author of ‘Waverley’ praised more than one of the romances, saying that they were written in his own vein. Even Maginn, the satirical, thought that the novelist was doing excellent service to history in making Englishmen understand how full of comedy and tragedy were the old streets and the old buildings of London. And if Ainsworth the writer received some buffetings, Ainsworth the man seems to have been universally loved and approved. All the literary men of his time were his cordial friends. Scott wrote for him ‘The Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee,’ and objected to being paid. Dickens was eager to serve him. Talfourd, Barham, Hood, Howitt, James, Jerrold, delighted in his society. At dinner-parties and in country-houses he was a favorite guest. Thus, easy in circumstances, surrounded by affection, happy in the labor of his choice, passed the long life of the upright and kindly English gentleman who spent fifty industrious years in recording the annals of tragedy, wretchedness, and crime.  4
 
 
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