William Harrison Ainsworth: A Forgotten Man

If I were to walk around Manchester and ask if people had heard of William Harrison Ainsworth, almost all of the answers I would get would be in the negative. I could spend a day, going from end to end along King Street, and I doubt anybody I met there, even those who vaguely knew who I was talking about, would be able to tell me much about him. William Harrison Ainsworth, truth be told, has been forgotten. In the city of his birth you won’t find a plaque or a statue or anything to remember him by, even on King Street, the street where he was born. The books that he wrote in his lifetime, books that were incredibly popular, aren’t available in the shops, though you can get a few of them as eBooks from Gutenberg and a few other places. William Harrison Ainsworth, I guess you could say, is now no more than a shade of memory.

In the early Victorian period Ainsworth was part of a holy triumvirate of literature, part of a trio of radically popular authors of only whom one is still held in high regard today- The other two were Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton (commonly regarded as the worst writer to ever set pen to paper.) He was adored by the general public, even at times outstripping the fledgling Dickens in terms of popularity. He wrote books that the masses just lapped up, books with sensational plots and an easy to read, addictive style.

Having recently begun to read Ainsworth’s Lancashire Witches I can immediately see why he was so popular. The book is is dripping with juicy, Gothic fantasy, almost to the point of ridiculousness- I’m fourteen and a half chapters in and already we’ve had demon monks, spooky religious buildings and demonic curses. Meanwhile, Jennet Device, the nine year old who history tells us testified against her own family, is being portrayed as some sort of proto-Omen child. It is very fun to read, more entertaining than some books by Dickens and definitely more entertaining than anything wot Bulwer Lytton ever wrote.

The problem with Ainsworth was the times that he lived in and the literary zeitgeist. Whilst his works were popular with the public, the establishment saw what he was writing as old fashioned, out-dated. The early to mid-Victorian period was all about social realism. About gritty, hard, realistic portrayals. It was about ragged orphans, rags to riches and ‘we need to do something about this awful situation.’ Meanwhile, Ainsworth was writing, primarily, fantasy-historical romances in the Walter Scott mould. By the eighteen thirties, after the death of Scott, these sort of books had gone out of fashion and they have never really come back in again. We’re now at the point where even Scott, the master of the genre, isn’t read, so out of fashion are historical romances- It is even (and I know this for a fact, having tried myself) almost impossible to get such books published today. As what he was writing wasn’t fashionable, Ainsworth was not well thought of by those at the top of the literary pyramid.

Early on the establishment were not so agnostic towards him but after one of his books, Jack Shepherd, inspired a gruesome murder, he was made a pariah, a scapegoat for the scandal that ensued, and began to be completely ostracised from literary circles. Dickens, who up to now had been friends with Aisnworth, turned his back and so too did many others. Without the support of the establishment and literary circles, Ainsworth faded from public consciousness after his death in 1882. Even by then he was a mostly forgotten figure.

Harrison Ainsworth by Daniel Maclise (public domain)

I don’t think any of his books have ever been made into films or television series, nor are they likely to be. Ainsworth is just too unknown, at the present, to be picked up- Lancashire Witches would make a great, if slightly cheesy, Hammer style horror film. Movie studios and television would rather have a known name, a known quantity, however, if they’re going to adapt something that old. They would rather have the two hundredth adaptation of Oliver Twist than something that has not been done before or is completely obscure to most people. So, sadly, there is no chance of seeing ignorant internet idiots complaining that Jennet Device has been ripped straight from The Omen.

William Harrison Ainsworth is a prime example of what can happen to anybody, to any creative type, be they artist or movie star or writer. It doesn’t matter how popular you are at any given point, how well known, you can still fade to obscurity. Think of how many musicians have been hailed as the next big thing, only to produce one or two hits and then nothing thereafter, forevermore. Think of all the child movie stars who produce one film, get trumpeted to the heavens, only to then fall as Lucifer fell back down to Earth. Even adult movie stars, hailed in their time, have been lost to the oblivion of obscurity.

Some of that which is popular today will be forgotten in years to come. Fifty Shades? Already started, I expect. Give it twenty years it will be a vague memory only. The Kardashians? Most definitely will be forgotten. Some things and people, as happened with Ainsworth, won’t necessarily deserve to be forgotten but that doesn’t matter. It isn’t a choice as to what gets forgotten and what doesn’t. It just happens, tastes change and people and things get left behind, they fade from public consciousness and eventually from memory itself. Sometimes it is scandal which drives the approach of obscurity, but with others it is merely misfortune.

Sometimes, however, that which once was lost can be found again and maybe, perhaps, William Harrison Ainsworth will have a resurgence yet.


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