Ainsworth’s first novel Rookwood opens phantasmagorically in a mausoleum piled high with coffins, and its first line is pure Gothic: ‘Within the gloomy precincts of a vault – by the feeble light of a candle stuck in a sconce against its walls – and at midnight’s witching hour, two figures might be discovered, seated on an old oaken coffin-lid, and wrapped in silence as deep as that of the dead around them.’ The novel was deliberately constructed in the Radcliffean mode, in an effort to revive a fading tradition. Ainsworth’s formula was very successful, and sales were good. Ainsworth believed that the structure of romance which had been created by Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis and Maturin, had been left in an imperfect state; in Germany and France, Hoffman, Tieck, Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, and Paul Lacroix had modified the genre, but it still awaited a skilful architect for its full renovation: presumably in his own hands. However, he subsequently gave less attention to the blending of the natural with the supernatural, and went on to write numerous historical novels. His second novel, about the highwayman Jack Sheppard (1839), is part of ‘the Newgate school’ of crime fiction. The revival of romance that he foresaw was left to his competitor Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who renovated the full-blooded supernatural, notably in his novels Falkland (1827) and Zanoni (1842) and his short tale ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ (1859). Ainsworth stands at the juncture where the first wave of the Gothic has subsided and the second wave is gathering strength.

Copyright © 2000, 2012 Rictor Norton


During a visit to Chesterfield, in the autumn of the year 1831, I first conceived the notion of writing this Tale. Wishing to describe, somewhat minutely, the trim gardens, the picturesque domains, the rook-haunted groves, the gloomy chambers, and gloomier galleries of an ancient hall, with which I was acquainted; I resolved to attempt a story in the by-gone style of Mrs Radcliffe (which had always inexpressible charms for me), substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle, and the brigand of that great mistress of Romance.
          While revolving this subject, I happened, one evening, to enter the spacious cemetery, attached to the church with the queer, twisted steeple, which, like the uplifted tail of the renowned Dragon of Watley, to whom ‘houses and churches were as capons and turkies,’ seems to menace the before-mentioned town of Chesterfield and its environs with destruction. Here, an incident occurred, on the opening of a vault, which it is needless to relate, but which supplied me with a hint for the commencement of my Tale, as well as for the ballad, entitled ‘The Coffin,’ introduced in the course of the narrative. Upon this hint I immediately acted; and the earlier chapters of the book, together with the description of the ancestral mansion of the Rookwoods, were completed before I quitted Chesterfield.
          Written at intervals, printed as it was written, and composed without a fixed scheme being previously laid down for the structure of the story, the work had, no doubt, a disjointed effect, on its first appearance, – a fault, which I have endeavoured to remedy in subsequent editions. But, having imagined the outline of a grim, Bluebeard-like legend (the hero of which was to play the part of a Henry the Eighth in private life), I gave myself little concern as to details; leaving the disposition of my characters, and the solution of my mysteries, entirely to chance. . . . I have been charged by the Edinburgh Review with extravagance. This extravagance was intentional. My object was to blend the natural with the supernatural; the sober realities of every-day life, and the calm colouring of rural scenery, with the startling situations, the wild grouping and fantastic delineations of romance, in a degree, that could not be accomplished without some appearance of irregularity and exaggeration. . . .
          The supernatural occurrence, which forms the groundwork of one of these ballads (‘The Lime Tree’), and which I have made the harbinger of doom to the house of Rookwood, is ascribed, by popular superstition, to a family resident in one of our southern counties; upon whose estate the fatal tree (a gigantic lime, with mighty arms, and huge girth of trunk, as described in the song,) is still carefully preserved.
          The ancient mansion, to which this singular piece of timber is attached, is, I may state, for the benefit of the curious, the real Rookwood Place; for I have not drawn upon imagination, but upon memory, in describing the seat and domains of that fated family. The general features of the venerable structure, several of its chambers, the old garden, and, in particular, the noble park, with its spreading prospects, its picturesque views of the hall, ‘like bits of Mrs Radcliffe’ (as the poet Shelley once observed of the same scene), its deep glades, through which the deer come lightly tripping down, its uplands, lopes, brooks, brakes, coverts, and groves, are delineated with, I think, entire accuracy. These sylvan retreats rise to my recollection, as I now, in fancy, retrace them, with the vividness and distinctness of reality. How fresh is even the thought of such a scene! The fern is crushed beneath our feet; the rooks are cawing overhead; the lordly stag gazes proudly at us from yon steep acclivity; that umbrageous thicket invites us to its shade. – But alas! I am rambling from my subject all this while, and must return to my preface, instead of dreamingly wandering into the ‘good greenwood.’
          To come back to the point whence I have strayed: – The superstition that a falling branch afforded a presage of approaching death, is not peculiar to the family I have mentioned. Many other old houses have been equally favoured: in fact, there is scarcely an ancient family without its boding sign. . . .
          If the design of Romance be, what it has been held, the exposition of an useful truth, by means of an interesting story, I fear I have but imperfectly fulfilled the office I have imposed upon myself; having, as I will freely confess, had, throughout, an eye, rather to the reader’s amusement, than his edification. One wholesome moral, however, may, I trust, be gathered from its perusal; namely, that, without due governance of the passions, high aspirations and generous emotions will little avail their possessor. The impersonations of the Tempter, the Tempted, and the Better Influence, may be respectively discovered, by those who care to cull the honey from the flower, in Alan Rookwood, in Luke, and in Sybil.
          The chief object I had in view, in making the present essay, was to see how far the infusion of a warmer, and more genial current into the veins of Old Romance would succeed in reviving her fluttering and feeble pulses. The attempt has succeeded beyond my most sanguine expectation. The ancient lady has arisen from her couch, taken the air, and succeeded in attracting a crowd of youthful admirers. Let me hope that, in more able hands, her restoration will be complete.
          Romance, if I am not mistaken, is destined shortly to undergo an important change. Modified by the German and French writers, – by Hoffman, Tieck, Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, and Paul Lacroix (le Bibliophile Jacob) – the structure, commenced in our own land by Horace Walpole, Monk Lewis, Mrs Radcliffe, and Maturin, but left imperfect and inharmonious, requires, now that the rubbish, which choked up its approach, is removed, only the hand of the skilful architect to its entire renovation and perfection. I have not included the great name of WALTER SCOTT in this list, because, in the sense to which I would confine the term, he is not a Romancer. But I cannot help echoing the wish of the French aspirant* (*Victor Hugo. – Litterature et Philosophie Mélées), that we may yet see the only romance, which could surpass the creations of our, as yet, unrivalled novelist; – ‘le Roman, à la fois, drame et épopée; pittoresque, mais poétique; réel, mais idéal; vrais, mais grand; qui enchâssera Walter Scott dans Homère!’

[SOURCE: William Harrison Ainsworth, Prefaces to Rookwood: A Romance, Standard Novels No. 60 (London: Richard Bentley, 1837), pp. xiii–xiv, xxiv–xxv, xxxviii–xxxix]

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