‘A book in his hand, – but it couldn’t be a prayer-book’, the self-awareness of William Harrison Ainsworth’s Newgate novels

Ibitson, D. A. (2018) ‘A book in his hand, – but it couldn’t be a prayer-book’, the self-awareness of William Harrison Ainsworth’s Newgate novels. Journal of Victorian Culture, 23 (3). pp. 332-349. ISSN 1355-5502

Ibitson_A book in_2018.pdf - Accepted Version

Download (629kB) | Preview


This article argues that William Harrison Ainsworth’s Newgate novels Jack Sheppard (1839-40) and Rookwood (1834) exhibit a self-awareness of both their contextual literary culture, and of the critical opposition that defines the Newgate genre of the 1830s and 40s. Jack Sheppard, alongside Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, is shown to both depict and exploit contemporary concerns about the harmful influence of popular literature which were exacerbated by the Courvoisier case of 1840. Its portrayal and use of a society saturated by dangerous literature ironically contradicts Ainsworth’s own protestations of innocence at his text’s implication in Courvoisier’s murder of Lord William Russell. This article establishes that pre-existing Eighteenth Century and Romantic anxieties about literature consumption are a precursor to Newgate’s exploration of such issues at the start of the Victorian period. Ainsworth’s novels are shown to be concerned with standards of literature, the unreliable interpretation and ungovernable appropriation of both literature and theatrical entertainments, the control of narratives, and the author’s place in this. Ideas of Modernity are discussed and defined in terms of the production and consumption of popular print media, and Ainsworth’s novels are demonstrated to be vital engagements with early Victorian popular culture. It is established that depictions of environments saturated with influential and uncontrollable literature in Jack Sheppard and Rookwood allow them to function as a satirical critique of both the critics and audience of Newgate narratives, and that one of Newgate’s main concerns is the genre itself.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: © 2018 Oxford University Press. This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced version of an article accepted for publication in the Journal of Victorian Culture following peer review.
Divisions: School of Humanities
Depositing User: David Ibitson
Date Deposited: 16 Jul 2018 10:23
Last Modified: 04 Jul 2020 06:30
URI: https://bgro.repository.guildhe.ac.uk/id/eprint/332

Actions (login required)

Edit Item Edit Item