Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/Harrison Ainsworth
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Mr. William Harrison Ainsworth, whose novels were very popular only few years ago, and who is still a contributor to Mr. Mudie's bookshelves, was born at Manchester, in the year 1805. He was educated at the Free Grammar School of his native city, and, the son of a solicitor, was bred to the law. But at a very early age Mr. Ainsworth showed a taste for literature; before he left school he was a contributor to the pages of 'The Iris,' a journal then published in Manchester. He married the daughter of Mr. Ebers, a publisher in Bond-street, and at that time manager of the Operahouse. Ainsworth's first novel was 'Sir John Chiverton;' and of this, his first essay in fiction, no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott spoke in terms of high praise.
At Mr. Ebers's suggestion, Ainsworth appears to have tried his hand as a publisher; but he soon abandoned this, and devoted himself to literary pursuits. In 1834, 'Rookwood' appeared, and at once established his reputation as a writer of fiction. 'Rookwood' was followed, in 1837, by 'Crichton,' which was as successful as its immediate predecessor, and added to the author's fame. In the month of March 1839, Charles Dickens retired from the editorship of 'Bentley's Miscellany,' and wrote his successor in, in his humorous style, talking of the old and new coachman—'Bentley's' being the coach. 'The new whip' we quote the writer of a short biography of Ainsworth—'having mounted the box, drove straight to Newgate.' By the bye, Dickens had driven 'Bentley's' there before him; but the great humorist's thieves' story had a fine moral to it. 'He there took in Jack Sheppard and Cruikshank the artist; and, aided by that very vulgar but wonderful draughtsman, he made an efficient story of the burglar's or housebreaker's life.'In such works of fiction as 'Jack Sheppard,' it soon became plain that Ainsworth's forte lay. He followed up his latest success with 'Guy Fawkes'
THE BIOGRAPHER OF JACK SHEPPARD.
and 'The Tower of London.' In 1842 his connection with 'Bentley's' terminated, and in a magazine of his own he produced successively 'The Miser's Daughter,' 'Windsor Castle,' and 'St. James's.' In the above list the best of the author's novels are contained, but it by no means exhausts the catalogue of his works. It is as the biographer of such gentlemen as Mr. Jack Sheppard, of bad fame, that our author must lay claim to immortality; and it is in this field of labour that he is most at home. He has himself placed on record the state of his feelings after he had disposed of Mr. Turpin's apocryphal steed 'Black Bess.' 'Well do I remember,' says the author, 'the fever into which I was thrown during the time of composition. My pen literally scoured over the pages. So thoroughly did I identify myself with the flying highwayman that, once started, I found it impossible to halt. … In his (Turpin's) company I mounted the hillside, dashed through the bustling village, swept over the desolate heath, threaded the silent street, plunged into the eddying stream. … With him I shouted, sang, laughed, exulted, wept; nor did I retire to rest till in imagination I heard the bell of York Minster toll forth the knell of poor Black Bess.'
This is poetic frenzy with a vengeance; and nobody will be disposed to deny that, whatever else the novelist lacked, it certainly was not sympathy with his creations.
The moral tendency of his writings, and the effect they were likely to produce on the youthful or untrained mind, have often been the subject of criticism. Of these, we think there can be no doubt the effect must be bad. While we wish Mr. Ainsworth no harm, we wish the cause of morality in fiction well; and we cannot help thinking that, if the 'fever into which he was thrown,' by the recital of the lawless adventures of a highwayman, had carried off his passion for writing novels, English literature would have been the gainer.