Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ainsworth, William Harrison

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AINSWORTH, WILLIAM HARRISON (1805–1882), novelist, was born in King Street, Manchester, 4 Feb. 1805, in a house that has long since been demolished. His father was a solicitor in good practice, and the son had all the advantage that educational facilities could afford. He was sent to the Manchester grammar school, and in ‘Mervyn Clitheroe’ has left an interesting and accurate picture of its then condition, which may be contrasted with that of an earlier period left by the ‘English opium-eater.’ At sixteen, a brilliant, handsome youth, with more taste for romance and the drama than for the dry details of the law, he was articled to Mr. Alexander Kay, a leading solicitor of Manchester. The closest friend of his youth was Mr. James Crossley, who was some years older, but shared his intellectual taste and literary enthusiasm. A drama, written for private theatricals in his father's house, was printed in ‘Arliss's Magazine,’ and he also contributed to the ‘Manchester Iris,’ the ‘Edinburgh Magazine,’ and the ‘London Magazine.’ He even started a periodical, which received the name of ‘The Bœotian,’ and died at the sixth number. Many of the fugitive pieces of these early days were collected in volumes now exceedingly rare: ‘December Tales’ (London, 1823), which is not wholly from his pen; the ‘Works of Cheviot Tichburn’ (London, 1822; Manchester, 1825), dedicated to Charles Lamb; and ‘A Summer Evening Tale’ (London, 1825).

‘Sir John Chiverton’ appeared in 1826, and for forty years was regarded as one of his early works; but Mr. John Partington Aston has also claimed to be its author. In all probability both of these young men joined in the production of the novel which attracted the attention of Sir Walter Scott. On the death of his father in 1824 Ainsworth went to London to finish his legal education with Mr. Jacob Phillips of the Inner Temple. Whatever intentions he may have formed of humdrum study and determined attention to the details of a profession in which he had no interest, were dissipated by contact with the literary world of the metropolis. He made the acquaintance of Mr. John Ebers, who at that time combined the duties of manager of the Opera House with the business of a publisher. He it was who issued ‘Sir John Chiverton,’ and the verses forming its dedication are understood to have been addressed to Anne Frances (‘Fanny’) Ebers, whom Ainsworth married 11 Oct. 1826. Ainsworth had now to decide upon a career, and acting upon the suggestion of Ebers, his father-in-law, he began business as a publisher; but after an experience of about eighteen months he abandoned it. In this brief interval he introduced the Hon. Mrs. Norton and Ude, the cook, to the discerning though unequal admiration of the British public. He was introduced to Sir Walter Scott, who wrote the ‘Bonnets of Bonnie Dundee’ for an annual issued by him. Ainsworth gave him twenty guineas for it, which Sir Walter accepted, but laughingly handed over to the little daughter of Lockhart, in whose London house they had met. Ainsworth's literary aspirations still burned with undiminished ardour, and several plans were formed only to be abandoned, and when in the summer of 1830 he visited Switzerland and Italy he was as far as ever from the fulfilment of his desires. In 1831 he visited Chesterfield and began the novel of ‘Rookwood,’ in which he successfully applied the method of Mrs. Radcliffe to English scenes and characters. The finest passage is that relating Turpin's ride to York, which is a marvel of descriptive writing. It was written, apparently in a glow of inspiration, in less than a day and a half. ‘This feat,’ he says, ‘for feat it was, being the composition of a hundred novel pages in less than twenty-four hours, was achieved at “The Elms,” a house I then occupied at Kilburn.’ The success of ‘Rookwood’ was marked and immediate. Ainsworth at a bound reached popularity. This was in 1834, and in 1837 he published ‘Crichton,’ which is a fine piece of historical romance. The critics who had objected to the romantic glamour cast over the career of Dick Turpin were still further horrified at the manner in which that vulgar rascal, Jack Sheppard, was elevated into a hero of romance. The outcry was not entirely without justification, nor was it without effect on the novelist, who thenceforward avoided this perilous ground. ‘Jack Sheppard’ appeared in ‘Bentley's Miscellany,’ of which Ainsworth became editor in March 1840, at a monthly salary of 51l. The story is powerfully written, and its popularity was greatly aided by the wonderful illustrations supplied by George Cruikshank. In 1841 he received 1,000l. from the ‘Sunday Times’ for ‘Old St. Paul's’ and he, in 1848, had from the same source another 1,000l. for the ‘Lancashire Witches.’ In 1842 he began the publication of ‘Ainsworth's Magazine,’ which came to an end in 1853, when he acquired the ‘New Monthly Magazine,’ which he edited for many years. This was the heyday of Ainsworth's reputation alike in literature and in society. His home at Kensal Manor House became famous for its hospitality, and Dickens, Thackeray, Landseer, Clarkson Stanfield, Talfourd, Jerrold, and Cruikshank, were among his guests. The long list of his novels may now be given: ‘Rookwood,’ 1834; ‘Crichton,’ 1837; ‘Jack Sheppard,’ 1839; ‘Tower of London,’ 1840; ‘Guy Fawkes,’ 1841; ‘Old St. Paul's, a Tale of the Plague and the Fire of London,’ 1841; ‘The Miser's Daughter,’ 1842; ‘Windsor Castle,’ 1843; ‘St. James's, or the Court of Queen Anne,’ 1844; ‘Lancashire Witches,’ 1848; ‘Star Chamber,’ 1854; ‘The Flitch of Bacon, or the Custom of Dunmow,’ 1854; ‘Spendthrift,’ 1856; ‘Mervyn Clitheroe,’ 1857; ‘Ovingdean Grange, a Tale of the South Downs,’ 1860; ‘Constable of the Tower,’ 1861; ‘The Lord Mayor of London,’ 1862; ‘Cardinal Pole,’ 1863; ‘John Law the Projector,’ 1864; ‘The Spanish Match, or Charles Stuart in Madrid,’ 1865; ‘Myddleton Pomfret,’ 1865; ‘The Constable de Bourbon,’ 1866; ‘Old Court,’ 1867; ‘The South Sea Bubble,’ 1868; ‘Hilary St. Ives,’ 1869; ‘Talbot Harland,’ 1870; ‘Tower Hill,’ 1871; ‘Boscobel,’ 1872; ‘The Manchester Rebels, or the Fatal '45,’ 1873; ‘Merry England,’ 1874; ‘The Goldsmith's Wife,’ 1874; ‘Preston Fight, or the Insurrection of 1715,’ 1875; ‘Chetwynd Calverley,’ 1876; ‘The Leaguer of Lathom, a Tale of the Civil War in Lancashire,’ 1876; ‘The Fall of Somerset,’ 1877; ‘Beatrice Tyldesley,’ 1878; ‘Beau Nash,’ 1880; ‘Auriol’ and other tales, 1880; ‘Stanley Brereton,’ 1881. These novels all met with a certain amount of success, but those of later years did not attain the striking popularity of his earlier efforts. Many, however, were translated into various modern languages, and the editions were so numerous that some twenty-three pages of the British Museum catalogue are devoted to his works. The scenery and history of his native county had a perennial interest for him, and a certain group of his novels—that is, the ‘Lancashire Witches,’ ‘Guy Fawkes,’ ‘The Leaguer of Lathom,’ ‘Beatrice Tyldesley,’ ‘Preston Fight,’ the ‘Manchester Rebels,’ and ‘Mervyn Clitheroe’—may almost be said to form a novelist's history of Lancashire from the pilgrimage of grace until the early part of the present century. The historical element enters into many of his other works. ‘The Flitch of Bacon’ is founded on the ancient Essex custom mentioned by Chaucer and other early writers. In the remoter instances where the flitch was claimed the man only appears to have been present; but after the dissolution of the religious houses, when the custom became that of the manor, both husband and wife had to appear. In 1851 the lord of the manor declined to give the flitch; but the claimants obtained one from a public subscription, and a concourse of some 3,000 people assembled in Easton Park in their honour. This may have attracted the attention of Ainsworth, and in 1855 he offered to give the flitch. The candidates were Mr. James Barlow and his wife, of Chipping Ongar, and the Chevalier de Chatelain and his wife. The last named were well known in literary circles, and at the ceremony, 19 July 1855, Robert Bell and other well-known writers were present. It has been revived in 1857, 1869, 1874, and 1876. Similar customs are recorded at Whichnor, Staffordshire, and in Germany and France (Andrews, History of the Dunmow Flitch of Bacon Custom, London, 1877). Probably no more vivid account has been written of the great fire and plague of London than that given in ‘Old St. Paul's.’ The charm of Ainsworth's novels is not at all dependent upon the analysis of motives or subtle description of character. Of this he has little or nothing, but he realises vividly a scene or an incident, and conveys the impression with great force and directness to the reader's mind. Ainsworth came upon the reading world at a happy moment. People were weary of the inanities of the ‘fashionable novel,’ and were ready to listen to one who had a power of vivacious narrative. In 1881, when he was in his seventy-seventh year, a pleasant tribute of respect and admiration was paid to him in his native town. The then mayor of Manchester (now Sir Thomas Baker) entertained him at a banquet in the town hall 15 Sept. 1881, ‘as an expression of the high esteem in which he is held by his fellow-townsmen and of his services to literature.’ In proposing Mr. Ainsworth's health the mayor gave a curious instance of the popularity of his writings. ‘In our Manchester public free libraries there are 250 volumes of Mr. Ainsworth's different works. During last twelve months those volumes have been read 7,660 times, mostly by the artisan class of readers. And this means that twenty volumes of his works are being perused in Manchester by readers of the free libraries every day all the year through.’ It was well that this pleasant recognition was not longer delayed. The contrast was pathetically great between the tall handsome dandified figure presented in the portraits of him by Pickersgill and Maclise, and the bent and feeble old man who stood up to acknowledge the plaudits of those who had assembled to honour him. His last published work was ‘Stanley Brereton,’ which he dedicated to his hospitable entertainer. He died at Reigate 3 Jan. 1882, leaving a widow and also three daughters by his first marriage. He was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. With the exception of Gleig, he was the last survivor of the brilliant group who wrote for the early numbers of ‘Fraser's Magazine,’ and, though he died in harness, had outlived nearly all the associates of the days when he first achieved fame.

[No biography of Ainsworth has appeared or is likely to be published. When Jerdan published his ‘Autobiography,’ Ainsworth prohibited the publication of his own letters; and though he had preserved a mass of correspondence, it proved, on examination after his death, to have but little biographical or literary importance. Laman Blanchard wrote a brief memoir, which appeared in the ‘Mirror’ in 1842, and was afterwards prefixed to the popular editions of ‘Rookwood.’ In addition to this there is a report of the banquet to him in 1881, which was printed for private circulation, and the ‘Early Life of William Harrison Ainsworth’ by John Evans. Reprinted from the ‘Manchester Quarterly,’ i. 137, Manchester, 1882. This contains a portrait from a drawing taken in 1826. There are also engraved portraits by Pickersgill and Maclise.]

W. E. A. A.