(1805-1882) UK writer, primarily of historical romances. WHA also wrote as Will Brown and Cheviot Ticheburn. His style favoured sensationalism, mixing the Gothic fiction of Ann Radcliffe with the Romanticism of Walter Scott, and paved the way for the sensationalistic novels and penny dreadfuls of the 1840s. The basis of his popularity was his heroic treatment of common folk; though, when this extended to convicted criminals – like Dick Turpin, whose myth he created in his first novel, Rookwood (1834) – WHA was accused of condoning crime, a charge levelled at Edward Bulwer-Lytton and at many horror/thriller writers since. His most popular works aside from Rookwood included Jack Sheppard (1839) – about another highwayman – The Tower of London (1840) and Old St Paul's (1841). It was only in his later works, as his popularity was waning, that WHA turned to Legends and Supernatural Fiction. Windsor Castle (1843), set in the reign of Henry VIII, utilizes the Folktale of Herne the Hunter to pit paganism against Henry's new Church; The Lancashire Witches (1849) is based on the 17th-century trials of the Witches of Pendle Forest, and is a seminal novel in its field; Auriol, or The Elixir of Life (1844-1845 Ainsworth's Magazine; exp in The Works of William Harrison Ainsworth Vol 12 coll 1850), develops its alchemical base into a story of Rosicrucianism and Devil-worship. WHA was briefly editor of Bentley's Miscellany (1839-1841) and less briefly proprietor and editor of Ainsworth's Magazine (1842-1854) and The New Monthly Magazine (1845-1870), where many of his works appeared. Their effect was often enhanced by the superb artwork of George Cruikshank, who later claimed to have provided WHA with some of his plots. WHA's work was much imitated, especially by the melodramatists G P R James (1799-1860), Thomas Peckett Prest (1810-1859) and James Malcolm Rymer. [MA]
further reading: William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends (1911) by Stewart M Ellis; A Bibliographical Catalogue of the Published Novels and Ballads of William Harrison Ainsworth (1925) by Harold Locke; A Tale of Three Authors (1940) by Leo Mason, which links WHA with Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe.
William Harrison Ainsworth