History

Newgate Novels: “Rookwood” (1834)

Dick Turpin (1705-1739) as imagined in Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834). [Source: stand-and-deliver.org].

The novel emerged as the dominant literary genre in the eighteenth century. One of the first majorly successful novels was Pamela (1740). Most novels during the eighteenth century are classified into two categories: the sentimental-domestic novel and the didactic novel. However, by the late-eighteenth century another genre emerged: the gothic novel. Central to the development of this genre were works such as The Castle of Otranto (1767) by Horace Walpole, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe, and The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis. Gothic novels feature common settings and themes such as haunted castles, supernatural occurrences, secret panels and doorways, time-yellowed manuscripts and poorly-lighted midnight scenes. Some of these features were adopted by novelists of the Newgate genre in their works.

My personal copy of The English Rogue Described (1674)

My personal copy of The English Rogue Described (1683)

Newgate novels can also be seen as a continuation of the eighteenth-century literary genre of criminal biography. In the eighteenth century there was a proliferation of literature in which the main ‘stars’ were criminals. The genre actually started way back in the late 17th century with books such as Jackson’s Recantation, or, The Life & Death of the Notorious High-way-man (1674), and printed broadsides detailing the ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals condemned to the gallows. Criminals of all ranks were popular in these works, but highwaymen especially so; numerous cheap pamphlets poured out of Grub Street, whilst major novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding wrote novels about fictitious and famous contemporary criminals, such as Jonathan Wild. When writers such as Edward Bulwer Lytton and William Harrison Ainsworth came on the scene in the 1800s, crime stories were a well-established genre. Yet when I approached the study of these novels, I was at first confused as to which class of British society these audiences were aimed at. Through an analysis of Rookwood (1834) by William Harrison Ainsworth I want to illustrate that the audience for these tales was the middle classes, and not, as the nineteenth-century social crusader, Henry Mayhew, said, the working classes.

It was in the Newgate novel that the conventions of gothic romance and criminal biography converged, evident by their utilisation of historic settings as well as their popularisation of criminals. Ainsworth’s preface to Rookwood in 1834 explained that he:

Resolved to attempt a story in the bygone style of Mrs. Radcliffe…substituting an old English squire, an old English manorial residence, and an old English highwayman, for the Italian marchese, the castle and brigand.

The novel was set in the 1700s and opens with the death of Sir Piers Rookwood who has two sons. The firstborn, Luke, is supposedly illegitimate and has no right to the estate. The other son and hitherto legitimate heir is Ranulph Rookwood. Throughout the course of the novel it is revealed that Luke is actually legitimate by way of a clandestine first marriage of Sir Piers and a Catholic woman and stands to inherit the Rookwood estate. The novel becomes a battle between the two brothers and their respective families to inherit the estate.

Title Page to Ainsworth’s Rookwood (1834) [Source: Wikipedia].

Moving the plot forward is a jovial character that goes by the name of Jack Palmer, who is Luke’s friend. It turns out that this character is the famous highwayman Dick Turpin (1705-1739). In this novel, Turpin is a true gentleman. He is polite and relatively non-violent, saying ‘I will steer clear of blood – if I can help it’. The Turpin of Ainsworth’s novel was ‘a romantic, courageous, daredevil figure, elegantly clad and handsome,’ in contrast to the real Turpin, the ‘historically verifiable pock-marked thug’. This work revived the reputation of highwaymen despite the fact that these criminals’ reputations had declined in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The reason for this may be that Ainsworth did not portray Turpin committing any criminal act. Instead the aristocratic Rookwoods are the real criminals because they ‘continue their murderous ways’ until they each fall victim to their own schemes. The representation of the aristocracy as morally debased was a reflection of nineteenth-century middle-class views of the aristocratic classes. The nineteenth century was the century of the middle class, who defined its social and moral environment. W. M. Thackeray remarked that ‘it is to the middle class that we must look for the safety of England’. In addition, the nobility was described by people such as Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) in Culture and Anarchy (1869) as ‘barbarians’. The representation of the middle class as morally superior to the aristocracy was a feature of the first novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719). Throughout the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries novels, ‘pitted the bourgeois values of thrift, peace and chastity against a violent and profligate nobility’. Despite being a criminal, Turpin was the least criminal character out of all the characters in the novel. Hence he was a respectable character to whom readers could warm.

Newgate novels were produced by middle-classes authors for the entertainment of the middle classes, and they were extremely popular; Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard outsold Dickens’ Oliver Twist in the 1830s. However, Rosaline Crone argues that the primary audience for these novels was the working classes. As the genre of criminal biography and the Newgate Calendar was becoming increasingly ‘unrespectable’, she says that tales of these criminals were ‘kept alive by young men and boys of the lower classes’ who had ‘particular delight in Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard’. To a certain extent Crone could be correct; the 1800s was the era in which middle-class notions of respectability emerged. Arguably, it might not be respectable for middle-class readers to read stories which glorified criminals. Crone’s arguments are based upon the comments of nineteenth-century social commentators such as Mayhew. However, her stance is less secure when these novels are viewed as consumer commodities. Their cost may have been significantly out of the reach of the working classes. A notice in The Times in 1835 advertises Lytton’s Newgate novel, Paul Clifford, for sale at five shillings. The average weekly wage for a working-class labourer in the 1830s was around nine shillings. Would a working man have spent half of his weekly earnings on a book? Doubtful – besides, ‘only the substantial middle, upper middle and upper class bought…hardback novels,’ and novel reading was seen as a middle-class activity by the late eighteenth century. Further evidence that the primary audience for the Newgate novel was the middle classes stems from the fact that the controversy surrounding them was essentially a debate about social hierarchy. In their romanticisation of criminals, working-class street literature was viewed as having been blended by authors into middle-class reading matter. It was the merging of ‘low’ reading matter with their own that middle-class readers would eventually find distasteful.

A family activity: reading in the nineteenth-century home. [Source: istockphotos.com]

Moreover, the literary devices used by authors such as Ainsworth anticipated how they would be read in the home in the middle-class home:

Reading aloud was the prevalent custom…giving voice to a novel encouraged a range of different effects, from familiar dialogue to florid eloquence, and the author was expected to provide the opportunities…the tempo of a scene was established and controlled by the structure of the sentences and the acceleration or retardation of the narrative pace.

Reading with the family was one of the early Victorian middle-class male’s most common relaxation and leisure pursuits. Rookwood features the now famous story of Dick Turpin’s ride to York from London in one day upon his loyal horse, Black Bess. The following passage is one in which the speaker in the household would have been able to change the tempo of his speech according to the events recounted:

It was then, for the first time, that the thoughts of executing his extraordinary ride to York flashed across him…his pursuers were now within a hundred yards, and shouted him to stand…the whole of the neighbourhood was alarmed by the cries, and the tramp of horses…suddenly three horsemen appear in the road; they hear the uproar and din. “A highwayman! A highwayman” cry the voices: “Stop him! Stop him!” But it is no such easy matter. With a pistol in each hand, and his bridle in his teeth, Turpin passed boldly on. His fierce looks – his furious steed – the impetus with which he pressed forward, bore down all around him.

Some parts of Turpin’s ride were narrated in the present tense, and this may have provided readers with a sense of excitement whilst the text was being read to them. Hence Newgate novels, due to their accessibility, and the fact that authors used literary devices which encouraged their reading in the home, catered primarily to the tastes of the middle classes. However, as I explained elsewhere, stories of criminals did eventually become the preserve of working-class youths in ‘penny dreadfuls’, whilst the middle classes tastes were catered to by a new genre c.1850: the ‘sensation novel’.


  • Ainsworth, W.H. (1834:1930). Rookwood: A Romance. London: Chapman and Hall
  • Anon. (1835). ‘Just published, in demy 8vo. price 5s. boards’. The Times, Saturday, July 18
  • Bloy, M. (2013). ‘Rural Unrest in the 1830s: The Swing Riots’. The Victorian Web [Internet] http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/ruralife/swing.htm [Accessed 15/07/2014]
  • Brewer, J. (2013). Pleasures of the Imagination. London: Routledge
  • Buckley, M. (2002). ‘Sensations of Celebrity: Jack Sheppard and the Mass Audience’. Victorian Studies 44.3
  • Crone, R. Violent Victorians. Manchester Uni. Press.
  • Hume, R.D. (1969). ‘Gothic vs. Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel’. PMLA 84(2)
  • James, L. (2006). The Middle Class: A History. London: Little Brown Book Group
  • Langford, P. (1989). A Polite and Commercial People. Oxford Uni. Press.
  • Probyn, C. (1987). English Fiction of the Eighteenth Century. New York: Longman
  • Pykett, L. (2003). ‘The Newgate Novel and Sensation Fiction’ Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge Uni. Press.
  • Sharpe, J. (2004). Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman. London: Profile Books
  • Shoemaker, R. (2006). ‘The Street Robber and the Gentleman Highwayman: Changing Representations and Perceptions of Robbery in London, 1690-1800’ Cultural and Social History, Vol. 3.
  • Stevenson, L. (1973). ‘The Rationale of Victorian Fiction’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 27(4)
  • Thackeray, W.M. (1860). The Four Georges. New York: James Noyes
  • Tosh, J. (1999). A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Wilson, B. Decency & Disorder, 1789-1837. London: Faber
  • Wilson, A.N. (2002). The Victorians. London: Random House Books

n.b. full references and page numbers to works cited can be found here.

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