Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Countdown to Halloween: William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834)

George Cruikshank, "The Vault", from William Harrison Ainsworth's Rookwood (1834)
A smooth transition from my last post on Walter Scott, because in so many ways William Harrison Ainsworth was a follower of the Wizard of the North.

Scott certainly thought so. In a journal entry in October 1826, Scott noted that he had: "Read over Sir John Chiverton [Ainsworth's first novel] and Brambletye House - novels in what I may surely claim as the style
"Which I was born to introduce -
Refined it first, and show'd its use."
[...] I am something like Captain Bobadil who trained up a hundred gentlemen to fight very nearly, if not altogether as well as myself."

This useful biography from Victorian Web describes Ainsworth as the "King of the Historical Potboiler", which is pretty accurate, if a little dismissive, and masks his enormous popularity. Certainly the most obvious choice for today's post would be Ainsworth's The Lancashire Witches (serialised in the Sunday Times in 1848, available here) - his novelization of the same unhappy events of 1612 narrated by Scott in Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. But instead, I'm going to say a word for the uncanny pleasures of Rookwood, first published in 1834 - and, some suggest, the last proper gothic novel. Indeed, even across three long volumes, the sheer number of gothic devices that Ainsworth manages to cram in - and have fun with - is mind-boggling.

Perhaps his most compelling creation in that regard is the malignant sexton Peter Bradley (pictured above in George Cruikshank's illustration), who begins and ends the novel in a coffin-filled crypt. And Bradley is important for our purposes here: early in volume 2, Bradley applies a curse to an unfortunate neighbour that explicitly evokes Halloween in relation to the kind of spookiness that we're now accustomed to, but which has hitherto been in relatively short supply in this countdown:
All three volumes of the 1834 edition are available here, here and here. And if that's not enough to capture your imagination, I should probably also mention that Ainsworth's characterisation of Dick Turpin throughout the novel is probably the definitive romantic account of a highwayman. More on that soon, I think.

Worth mentioning here, given the wider concerns of this scrapbook, is Ainsworth's popularity in America. In a preface to a late-nineteenth century edition of Rookwood, Laman Blanchard declared, "In America his writings have been extensively read." Rookwood certainly was - the pioneering actor-playwright Nathaniel Harrington Bannister (who I've written about here) adapted the novel for the New Orleans stage soon after its release. And I've already touched on Ainsworth's own fascination with America here.

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