William Harrison Ainsworth, a prolific writer now as obscure as he once was famous, reinvented the gothic novel in an English setting, a radical re-write of Scott's model of the historical romance and an antecedent of the contemporary urban gothic of Dickens and Reynolds. This study examines Ainsworth's literary career from a writer of magazine tales of terror in the 1820s to the massive influence of his gothic/Newgate romance of 1834, "Rookwood"; his friendships with Lamb, Lockhart, and Dickens; his fall from literary grace during the Newgate controversy (a moral panic engendered by the supposedly pernicious effects of cheap, theatrical adaptations of Ainsworth's underworld romance "Jack Sheppard"). The second half of the book examines the later "Lancashire novels" and the legacy of Ainsworth's subsequent historical novels, taking "The Lancashire Witches" to be his final, major work and the last of the "original" gothic novels. The novels "The Tower of London", "Guy Fawkes", "Old St. Paul's" and "Windsor Castle" are read as epic tragedy rather than simply as bad romance.
The study re-examines Ainsworth's singular vision of the outlaw, English history and religious intolerance as being at political odds with the new Victorian value system, particularly with regard to Catholics and the urban poor. A final chapter explores Ainsworth's later life and fiction and his adoption by his native Mancunians as "The Lancashire Novelist". The book includes extracts from Ainsworth's correspondence and journalism, detailing his close relationship with, among others, Scott, Dickens, Forster, Thackeray, Cruikshank, Bulwer-Lytton and G.P.R. James.
Part 1 Introduction: contemporary reception - the pre and early Victorian critical heritage; the Victorian reaction; late Victorian views; modern judgements; an age in transition. Part 2 Blood and thunder - a Gothic apprenticeship: essential juvenilia, 1821-1823; the best of the rest - "December Tales", 1823; the first novel -"Sir John Chiverton", 1826. Part 3 Fame and infamy - "Rookwood", a romance, 1834: life in London - business, family and Fraser's, 1826-1834; the design of romance - "Rookwood", Scott and the gothic; the phantom steed - the outlaw narrative of "Rookwood". Part 4 Writing the underworld - "Jack Sheppard", a romance, 1839: "a sort of Hogartharian novel"; vagabondiana - "Jack Sheppard" and social exploration; the storm - the Newgate controversy. Part 5 The historical novelist - prophecy, passivity and tragedy: twin-born romances - "Guy Fawkes" and "The Tower of London", 1840; hell on earth - "Old St. Paul's" - "A Tale of the Plague and the Fire", 1841; the devil and his works - "Windsor Castle", 1843 and "Auriol", 1844. Part 6 The Lancashire novelist: a dream of flying - "The Lancashire Witches - a Romance of Pendle Forest", 1848; the Lancashire novels. Part 7 The greatest axe-and-neck romancer of our time: growing old gracefully - 1850-1881; man of La Manchester. Part 8 Something like a conclusion: appendices.