Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner.

The Honest Truth: What the Dickens? Forgotten author who once outsold the literary giant

© PA Photo / LionsgateAneurin Barnard and Dev Patel in The Personal History Of David Copperfield, based on the 1849 Charles Dickens novel
Aneurin Barnard and Dev Patel in The Personal History Of David Copperfield, based on the 1849 Charles Dickens novel

William Harrison Ainsworth is the 19th-Century writer most of us haven’t heard of.

Literary historian, editor and novelist Dr Stephen Carver tells Sally McDonald The Honest Truth about why the great man – once known as Scotland’s Lord Byron – is so unknown nowadays.


Why did you write this book?

A long-held desire to get Ainsworth back into British literary history. I love his work and have a bit of a hobbyhorse about unjustly neglected or forgotten 19th-Century authors. From costume drama and the heritage industry, you’d think no one was active except Austen, Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. I’m sure viewers and readers would respond to his stories if they had access.

Did he and Dickens know one another in life and were they rivals?

When Ainsworth’s star rose, Dickens was still a struggling journalist. He looked up to Ainsworth as the ideal of a successful author, and even affected a similarly dandyish style. Ainsworth admired Dickens and invited him to his exclusive literary soirees.

It was here that Dickens met his first publisher, John Macrone, his illustrator, George Cruikshank, and his best friend and biographer, John Forster.

After The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was outdistancing Ainsworth in success. Both commanded equal sales.

What were Ainsworth most popular/famous works?

Most of his bestsellers fall between Rookwood in 1834 and The Lancashire Witches in 1848.

These novels were household names and remained so until the 1880s. Jack Sheppard was the last “Newgate Novel” and it blew Oliver Twist out of the water at the time.

After this, he moved towards historical romances, often set around national monuments like The Tower of London. The book was so successful that it caused the run-down Tower to be restored as a national treasure.

Is it true his talent was judged to be as great as that of Lord Bryon?

Oddly, yes, but only at the very start of his career.

He was strikingly similar physically: a stylish dresser and lady’s man, with curly dark hair and sharp, intelligent eyes.

When Rookwood published, reviewers fell over themselves to liken Ainsworth’s skills to Byron’s brooding Romanticism.

Steve Carver

Can you tell us something about Ainsworth’s love of Scotland?

He was an ardent if rather outdated Jacobite, having grown up listening to his mother’s relatives telling stories of the Manchester Rebels and the heroes of the ’45.

He wrote several Jacobite novels: James the Second, Boscobel, Preston Fight, and Beatrice Tyldesley.

He also published Sir Walter Scott’s original Bonnie Dundee in the 1840s, and he was on the funding committee for the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.

Why have Dickens’s books had long-lasting fame while Ainsworth’s are forgotten?

Dickens’ novels deal with timeless human universals, while his use of language is stunning. Dickens was also adopted by critics as the natural successor to Scott. His reputation was already iconic in his own lifetime.

Ainsworth’s novels were of their time and started to feel outdated towards the end of the century. But the main reason is his near constant critical annihilation led by the likes of Thackeray and Forster and perpetuated throughout his lifetime as the Victorian epoch became ever starchier. He was edited out of the history of popular literature.

Why is your own book so important?

My hope is that it reintroduces Ainsworth to the world and reminds people that 19th-Century fiction does not begin and end with Dickens. I’d love to see some of his novels in print, and dream of a Jack Sheppard serial starring Tom Hardy and Robert Carlyle.

Of all my research into literary history over the years, it is this story that is closest to my heart.


The Author Who Outsold Dickens: The Life and Work of W. H. Ainsworth, Stephen Carver, Pen & Sword History, £20.