In the early nineteenth century, an interest in criminals and the common highwaymanarose in Europe. Many magazines in London, such as Bentley’s Miscellany, Fraser’sMagazine, and The Athenaeum featured sections that were reserved for stories abouthighwayman and their numerous adventures. The growing interest in the subject inspiredmany authors to write about the various exploits of popular criminals and highwayman. Some prominent examples of this type of novel were Edward Bulwer’s Paul Clifford(1830) and Eugene Aram (1832); Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838-39) and BarnabyRudge (1841); and William Harrison Ainsworth Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard(1839-40). Several of these novels were based upon famous crimes and criminal careersof the past (Eugene Aram, Dick Turpin in Rookwood, and Jack Sheppard); others derivedfrom contemporary crime (Altick, 1970, p. 72).
Although many authors chose to basetheir stories on criminals, William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood and Jack Sheppardare two of the best examples of the theme of ‘crime and punishment’ in the nineteenthcentury. Ainsworth started his writing career as a writer of Gothic stories for variousmagazines. Gothic elements are included in Ainsworth’s novel: the ancient hall, thefamily vaults, macabre burial vaults, secret marriage, and so forth (John, 1998, p. 30). Rookwood is a story about two half-brothers in a conflict over the family inheritance.
The English criminal who Ainsworth decides to entangle in Rookwood was Dick Turpin,a highwayman executed in 1739. However, echoing Bulwer, Ainsworth’s explanation forhis interest in Dick Turpin (like Bulwer’s explanation in his choice of Eugene Aram as asubject) is personal and familial (John, 1998, p. 31). Though the basis of the novels seemsimilar, Ainsworth treated Dick Turpin in a different way than Bulwer treated EugeneAram.
Ainsworth romanticizes history, but basically sticks to the facts (as far as he knewthem). Perhaps more importantly, Ainsworth does not pretend that the Turpin he inventsis the real Dick Turpin, nor does he attempt to elevate Turpin’s social class status (John,1998, p. 32). Ainsworth recalls lying in bed listening to the exploits of ‘Dauntless Dick’,as narrated by his father. Despite Ainsworth’s infatuation with the criminal, the realTurpin was no more interesting a character than an ordinary cat burglar.
Besideshighway robbery, his affairs included stealing sheep and breaking into farmer’ houses,sometimes with the aid of confederates; and he took a turn at smuggling (Hollingsworth,1963, p. 99). Although Turpin appears in a considerable part of the novel, he really hasno effect on the plot. He stole a marriage certificate, but the incident was not important to the plot.
Although Turpin does not have much to do with the plot, he helps the novelcelebrate the life of a highwayman. Ainsworth’s Turpin was essentially innocent andgood-natured, though courageous and slightly rash. He was very chivalrous andattractive in the eyes of the lady. An example of Turpin’s personality is shown in anincident in Rookwood when he goes to a party at Rookwood Hall under the alias of Mr.
Palmer. He makes a heavy wager against the capture of himself to a lawyer/thief catcher. Unreal as he was, Turpin undoubtedly was the cause Rookwood’s success. Rookwoodwent into five editions in three years.
This fact shows that Ainsworth’s enthusiasm withcriminals found its favor with the public. The success of Dick Turpin in Rookwood repeated in Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard(1839); in both cases the fact that the criminals were given a crude vitality andindividualizing speech entirely denied to other characters was taken to indicate theapproval of their actions (Horsman, 1990, p. 88). The novel was separated in three‘epochs’, 1703, 1715, and 1724. Its plot is less complicated than that of Rookwood.
It isthe story of two boys that are brought up as brothers: one (Thames Darrell) virtuous andone, (Sheppard), good hearted but mischievous. Jack Sheppard, like Rookwood, waswritten as a romance, but not in a Gothic setting. Unlike Rookwood, the whole storycenters around Jack and his antics. Throughout the novel Ainsworth stuck to history asbest as he could. The real Jack Sheppard was born in 1702 and hanged at Tyburn onNovember 16, 1724, at the age of 21. He became a carpenter’s apprentice when he was15.
The record shows that he never committed a crime until the age of 20. One maywonder why Ainsworth chose a character with such a short career in the crime business. The answer lies in the fact that the real Jack Sheppard was known for his daring escapesfrom incarceration. First, he escaped from a small prison called St. Giles Round-House. After he was reincarcerated, he and Edgeworth Bess (a supposed romantic interest ofSheppard at the time) escaped from Clerkenwell.
The feats that probably made Sheppardmost famous was his two escapes from the famous Newgate prison. These escapes werethe ‘meat’ of the story. Ainsworth very rarely went into detail about the actual robberies,but described the escapes in great detail. For example, he escaped from Newgate the firsttime by slipping through a crack in the bars of the jail. One of the peculiarities of theevent was that only one bar was removed for the escape.
Questions have been raisedwhether or not it is possible for any human, besides a child, to fit through a gap thatsmall. After the escape, Sheppard was caught and returned to Newgate 11 days later. OnOctober 15, he made his most famous escape of all, this time from a deeper part of thepenitentiary. Sheppard was left unattended during the evening. He slipped his unusuallysmall hands out of the heavy irons that bounded him, removed an iron bar fixed in achimney, and worked his way to freedom through an incredible series of locked doorsand walls.
After he had escaped, he hid, but he left London only once. Jack went to seehis mother, while on her death bed she begs him to leave the country, but Jack refuses toleave. After she dies, Jack goes to her funeral, and in front of everyone bows at hismother’s grave. He is apprehended by authorities and never escapes from prison again. The personality of Jack Sheppard won the hearts of readers everywhere.
Uponcompletion of the novel, it was dramatized at an incredible rate. Eight versions of thenovel were produced in London–an unheard of number of dramatizations of that time. As a serial in Bentley’s Miscellany, Jack Sheppard ran for thirteen months, throughFebruary 1840. Bentley issued the book in three volumes in October 1839, shortly afterAinsworth had completed the novel. The sales were tremendous.
Jack Sheppard sold3,000 copies in a week. Exactly why there was so much enthusiasm for these types of novels is a matterfor wonder. Ainsworth’s novels had, it is true, the elements to make a popular success: aspotless hero and an underdog to sympathize with, both pitted against a fearful villain; aglimpse of aristocracy, a suggestion of sex, hairbreadth adventures, and plenty of virtuousemotions (Hollingsworth, 1963, p. 140).
Rookwood and Jack Sheppard are primeexamples of the ‘criminal’ theme that was popular in the early nineteenth