Authors: William Harrison Ainsworth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist and editor

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Sir John Chiverton, 1826 (with John Partington Aston)

Rookwood, 1834

Crichton, 1837

Jack Sheppard, 1839

The Tower of London, 1840

Guy Fawkes, 1841

Old Saint Paul’s, 1841

The Miser’s Daughter, 1842

Windsor Castle, 1843

Saint James’s: Or, The Court of Queen Anne, 1844

James the Second, 1848

The Lancashire Witches, 1849

The Star-Chamber, 1854

The Flitch of Bacon, 1854

The Spendthrift, 1856

Mervyn Clitheroe, 1858

Ovingdean Grange, 1860

The Constable of the Tower, 1861

The Lord Mayor of London, 1862

Cardinal Pole, 1863

John Law, 1864

The Spanish Match, 1865

Auriol, 1865

The Constable de Bourbon, 1866

Old Court, 1867

Myddleton Pomfret, 1868

The South-Sea Bubble, 1868

Hilary St. Ives, 1869

Tower Hill, 1871

Talbot Harland, 1871

Boscobel, 1872

The Manchester Rebels of the Fatal ’45, 1872 (originally published as The Good Old Times)

Merry England, 1874

The Goldsmith’s Wife, 1875

Preston Fight, 1875

The Leaguer of Latham, 1876

Chetwynd Calverley, 1876

The Fall of Somerset, 1877

Beatrice Tyldesley, 1878

Beau Nash, 1879

Stanley Brereton, 1881


Ballads, 1855


In his lifetime, William Harrison Ainsworth (AYNZ-wurth) was well known as an editor and publisher as well as a novelist. Editing and publishing, in fact, were at least as important in his life as was his writing. He was born in 1805 into the family of a respected Manchester lawyer. After attending grammar school in Manchester, he was apprenticed to a lawyer with the intent that he should follow his father’s profession. At the death of his father in 1824, he left Manchester and continued his studies in London at the Inner Temple. But fate did not intend him for the legal profession. In 1826 he married Anne Francis Ebers, daughter of John Ebers, a prominent London publisher, an event that directed him toward activities other than law.{$I[AN]9810000276}{$I[A]Ainsworth, William Harrison}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Ainsworth, William Harrison}{$I[tim]1805;Ainsworth, William Harrison}

At the time of his marriage, Ainsworth had already done considerable writing, had published in several periodicals, and had tried to start a magazine of his own, The Boeotian. After his marriage he entered the publishing business, but he seems to have been too poor a businessman to succeed. He turned then to writing. Sir John Chiverton, a mediocre novel written by Ainsworth and J. P. Aston, had received some praise from Sir Walter Scott. Sometime in 1830, while traveling on the Continent, Ainsworth seems to have made up his mind to turn seriously to a career of novel-writing. His first success was Rookwood, which gave him some economic security, made him temporarily a literary lion, and gave him an entry into the literary and political life that centered about Holland House, the London residence of Lord Holland, who was the social leader of the Whigs. Following that successful novel, Ainsworth continued as a novelist, publishing about forty titles during his life.

Writing was only one of the activities of Ainsworth’s busy life. In 1839 he became editor of Bentley’s Miscellany, a famous British magazine of the time, to which he had been a contributor. He bought the magazine in 1854 and owned it for fourteen years. He eventually sold the magazine back to its previous owner for a fraction of what he had paid, the value of the magazine having fallen while under his ownership. Before he bought Bentley’s Miscellany, Ainsworth had edited other periodicals, Ainsworth’s Magazine and the New Monthly Magazine. Although an unsuccessful businessman, Ainsworth had a good reputation as an editor of periodicals. He was extremely courteous to contributors and was willing to help them to a greater extent than most editors of the time, even as far as helping them place in other periodicals pieces of writing which he could not use himself. Also unlike many editors of his time, he was prompt and fair in paying for work he used.

Ainsworth’s novels are historical romances, and his name and work have often been bracketed with those of such authors as Sir Walter Scott, G. P. R. James, Captain Marryat, James Fenimore Cooper, and Charles Lever. Like other writers in this genre, Ainsworth often took liberties with historical facts and used peculiarities of language to enliven his fiction. The slang of thieves and highwaymen was a realm of language which he particularly exploited. In Rookwood, which made him famous, Ainsworth also employed the bag of tricks common to the gothic novelists, bringing in old manor houses, corpses, coffins, and supernatural paraphernalia. Crichton is reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward, with its plot involving a Scottish adventurer and a foundling who turns out to be a noble and beautiful French heiress, along with such historical figures as Henry of Navarre and Catherine de Médicis. More typical of Ainsworth’s fiction is Jack Sheppard, the story of the famous highwayman. Characterization is slight in this novel, taking second place behind action and a plentiful supply of realistic, even brutal, details. Typical of Ainsworth’s ability to portray action is a hair-raising escape by water through the arches of London Bridge on the flood tide.

Very popular in its day was Guy Fawkes, part of which was set in Manchester, giving the author an opportunity to exploit his knowledge of the city in which he had been reared. A whole group of Ainsworth’s novels are laid against the background of London and the people and events of that city’s history. In that group belong The Tower of London, Old Saint Paul’s, Windsor Castle, and Saint James’s: Or, The Court of Queen Anne. Also of interest is The Lancashire Witches, which describes the famous trial at Lancaster in 1612, with long accounts of the outlandish charges made against the persons accused of witchcraft. Like many prolific writers, Ainsworth wrote better fiction earlier in his career than he did later. Books continued to flow from his pen until his death at Reigate on January 3, 1882, but most of the later volumes do not measure up to his earlier productions. He died still trying to recoup the financial losses incurred in publishing ventures, having to make up the money he lost as an unsuccessful businessman by writing popular novels.

BibliographyAbbey, Cherie D., ed. Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1986. Presents information on Ainsworth’s writing in its two forms, the Newgate novels and the historical romances, and includes some biographical details. Also includes extracts from reviews and essays from the 1830’s through 1979, which are helpful in assessing critical responses to Ainsworth.Carver, Stephen James. The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805-1882. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edward Mellen Press, 2003. Provides extensive analysis of Ainsworth’s writings and outlines the contributions Ainsworth made to periodical literature. Includes bibliographies of both Ainsworth’s work and secondary literature.Collins, Stephen. “Guy Fawkes in Manchester: The World of William Harrison Ainsworth.” Historian 188 (Winter, 2005): 34-37. Explores Harrison’s life and works. Maintains that Harrison was one of the nineteenth century authors “responsible for placing some of the most memorable historical legends in the public psyche,” as illustrated by his novels about Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard. Focuses on Ainsworth’s novel Guy Fawkes, in which the author sets the Gunpowder Plot in his native Manchester.Hollingsworth, Keith. The Newgate Novel, 1830-1847: Bulwer, Ainsworth, Dickens, and Thackeray. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1963. Discusses the Newgate theme in nineteenth century literature, including critical commentary on Ainsworth’s Newgate fiction and his association with Charles Dickens. Valuable for placing Ainsworth within this genre. Also covers his later writings and his work as editor of New Monthly Magazine.Kelly, Patrick. “William Ainsworth.” In Victorian Novelists After 1885. Vol. 1 in Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Ira B. Nadel and William E. Fredeman. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1983. Provides some helpful background information on Ainsworth’s early years, the influences on his writing, and his later years as an editor. Cites Rookwood and Jack Sheppard as novels worthy of attention, and also discusses the novel Crichton. Notes the influence of Sir Walter Scott on Ainsworth’s historical novels.Maxwell, Richard. “City Life and the Novel: Hugo, Ainsworth, Dickens.” Comparative Literature 30 (Spring, 1978): 157-171. Maxwell notes that Ainsworth’s unfinished Revelations of London (1845-1846) and Old Saint Paul’s reflect Ainsworth’s fascination with French literature. Concedes that there are strengths in Revelations but faults it for the lack of plot development. A partially favorable commentary; however, portrays Ainsworth in his later years as an “aimless eccentric without a place in the modern world.”Mitchell, Rosemary. “Experiments with History: The Later Novels of W. H. Ainsworth and Their Illustrations and the Decline of the Picturesque Historical Novel.” In Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830-1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Chapter on Ainsworth’s later historical novels is part of a study of nineteenth century history books, history textbooks, and historical novels that focuses on Victorians’ attitudes toward British history. Demonstrates how the text and images in popular and scholarly publications contributed to Victorian cultural identities.Sharpe, James. Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman. London: Profile, 2004. Biography explores how the criminal’s legend was recounted in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature, including a discussion of Ainsworth’s treatment of Turpin in his historical novel Rookwood.Worth, George J. William Harrison Ainsworth. New York: Twayne, 1972. Discusses the major aspects of Ainsworth’s writing and provides background information on his long life. Describes the author as an “intriguing novelist” who “deserves to be read.”
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