Perhaps best remembered for his popularisation of the story of Dick Turpin in Rookwood (1834) and of Herne the Hunter in Windsor Castle (1843), and for his prodigious output of historical and romantic novels, Ainsworth combined his writing career with that of magazine owner and editor. Locations in the West Midlands feature largely in Boscobel, the story of Charles Stuart's escape after the battle of Worcester.
Born and educated in Manchester, Ainsworth spent his summer holidays at his great-uncle's home, Rostherne, in Cheshire. While still at school, he contributed poetry and short stories to a number of magazines, and also wrote gothic melodramas, which he produced in a theatre he had set up in the family home. He followed his father into the law, being admitted to the Court of King's Bench in London in 1826, at the same time continuing with his literary work. During this period he began a correspondence with Charles Lamb, collaborated with a fellow-clerk on a long romance, Sir John Chiverton, and married Fanny Ebers, the daughter of his publisher. Even Sir Walter Scott was impressed by Sir John Chiverton, and wrote asking to meet the author.
In 1834 Rookwood appeared, and Ainsworth's name was made, with five large editions appearing in only three years. While living in London he provided a meeting place for other young writers such as Dickens and Thackeray, and became well-known as a literary host.
In 1839 he moved into the world of magazines, taking on the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany for a couple of years (succeeding Dickens in the post), founding his own Ainsworth's Magazine (1842-54), and also editing the New Monthly Magazine. At the same time he continued to produce nearly forty popular historical romances.
In 1854, he terminated Ainsworth's Magazine but bought Bentley's Miscellany in the same year, and continued as editor of this and the New Monthly Magazine until he sold the former in 1868. His popularity and success was now declining, and his work was appearing in Bow Bells, a cheap London magazine of little repute. He married again in 1878, but nothing is recorded about his second wife.
He died at Reigate on January 3rd, 1882, and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery.
Ainsworth wrote more than forty novels: the following works are available in the West Midlands Creative Literature Collection:-
Jack Sheppard (1839)
Old Saint Paul's (1841)
Windsor Castle (1843)
Boscobel, or The Royal oak (1872)
A sample chapter and the complete text of Boscobel, or The Royal oak are available on this website.
The Literary Encyclopedia has a profile of William Harrison Ainsworth by Stephen Carver, Fukui University.
Page created 9 March 2002 and last updated
6 April 2005
For your literary enquiries and comments please see the Who to contact page.
Please read the general terms and conditions and about accessibility on this site, including the use of the UK government accesskeys system.