“‘Tis said, that the first of the race from which you now claim descent, Sir Ranulph Rookwood, slew his dame, in jealous indignation for imaginary wrong. Her prayers, her tears, her adjurations of innocence—and she was innocent—all her agony, could not move him. He stabbed her thrice. He smote the bleeding corse, and as life was ebbing fast away, with her fleeting breath she pronounced a curse upon her murderer, and upon his race. She had invoked all the powers of mercy, and of goodness, to aid her. A deaf ear had been turned unto her agonised entreaties. With her dying lips she summoned those of hell. She surrendered her soul to the dark Spirit of Evil, for revenge; and the revenge was accorded her. She died—but her curse survived.”
Following the death of Sir Piers Rookwood, the young Luke Bradley, who ekes out a precarious living as a woodsman and a poacher, learns from his grandfather, the sexton Peter Bradley, that Sir Piers may in fact have been married to his mother, Susan; and that far from being the despised bastard he always believed himself, Luke may be the true heir to the titles and estates of Rookwood. Although the history of the Rookwood family is dark and bloody, Luke instantly swears that he will find the proof he needs to establish his identity, but knows that in doing so he will find an implacable and dangerous enemy in the widowed Lady Rookwood, mother to the heir-presumptive, Ranulph.
The late Sir Piers and his wife led a turbulent and unhappy life together, one of the consequences of which was the departure of Ranulph for Europe, where he had lived for over a year at the time of his father’s death. Word of his succession was sent to Ranulph, but was not expected to reach him for days. To the astonishment of the household, however, Ranulph arrives at Rookwood in time for the funeral. To Dr Small, the local vicar, Ranulph confesses the real reason for his sudden departure from home, namely his father’s furious reaction to the discovery that his son had fallen in love with Eleanor Mowbray, his cousin, the daughter of Sir Piers’ sister, who had been banished from the house and family carrying her father’s malediction after marrying against his will. Ranulph also recalls a puzzling threat made by his father in the event of Ranulph’s persistence in his suit—a threat of disinheritance, although Rookwood is entailed. Finally, most reluctantly, Ranulph reveals the secret of his unexpected return: a terrifying encounter with a ghostly apparition that resembled his father, at what he now learns was the exact hour of Sir Piers’ death…
Meanwhile, Lady Rookwood is reading a letter found amongst Sir Piers’ papers—a letter which she casts into the fire as she curses her husband’s memory. She finds also a miniature of a young and lovely woman, bound up with a marriage certificate…but these she keeps and conceals. Barely has she done so than Luke Bradley almost forces his way into the house, demanding to see Lady Rookwood. During the scene that follows, Lady Rookwood stuns Luke by admitting his legitimacy—then challenges him to prove it if he can, with wealth and power and position ranged against him.
In a fury, Luke then makes his way by secret passages, the existence of which were revealed to him by his grandfather, to the room where his father’s embalmed body lies in state, forcing Lady Rookwood at pistol-point to accompany him. Upon their sudden entry, however, Luke and Lady Rookwood are equally astonished to find Ranulph standing beside the coffin. During the confrontation that follows, Luke openly declares his claim to Rookwood—and Ranulph is forced to remember his father’s mysterious threats of disinheritance. His ghostly experience weighing on his mind, Ranulph horrifies his mother by conceding that Luke may be telling the truth.
Before any resolution is reached, several of the family retainers burst into the room, capturing Luke and threatening him with an outstanding warrant for poaching and the assault of the Rookwood gamekeeper: capital offences. When Ranulph tries to intervene, the furious Lady Rookwood takes him to one side and threatens him with her own curse, warning him also that if he surrenders Rookwood, Eleanor Mowbray can never be his wife. Shaking her off, Ranulph promises Luke that he will be freed from his bonds if he will pledge his word of honour not to try and escape, but a defiant Luke will promise nothing.
Still in fetters, Luke is locked into a small room and placed under guard. However, behind the room is another secret passageway, and through a small gap in the woodwork Luke overhears a plan for an attack upon Lady Rookwood and a robbery of the house, to be committed by a band led by a man who visits the house under the name of Jack Palmer—but who in reality is the highwayman, Dick Turpin. Though the robbery is thwarted, Turpin takes possession of the marriage certificate that can prove Luke’s claim, intending to sell it to the highest bidder.
His sympathies with Luke in spite of these mercenary plans, Turpin helps him to escape. The two make their way to a gypsy encampment, ruled over by Queen Barbara Lovel, an ancient woman of strange powers whose only earthly affections are wrapped up in her lovely granddaughter, Sybil, to whom Luke has long been plighted. It is with horror and dismay that Sybil learns of Luke’s birth, convinced in spite of his ardent protestations that his pride will not permit him to marry a mere gypsy if he is in truth Sir Luke Rookwood. Sybil’s worst fears are confirmed when it is subsequently revealed that the Rookwood title alone is entailed: the lands and money are held outright, to descend to whomever their owner chooses. Luke then discovers that the only way he can take full possession is by marrying the woman to whom by right they now belong—Eleanor Mowbray…
Although, apparently, not much remembered these days, there was a time when William Harrison Ainsworth was a true lion of the English literary scene, his novels best-sellers, his company courted by his fellow writers, and the magazines declaring him to be “the heir of Sir Walter Scott”. Ainsworth’s career began as many literary careers did in those days, it seems—that is, as the preferred occupation of a man vacillating between publishing and law as a means of earning a living, but enthusiastic about neither. At the start he wrote poetry and short stories, sometimes under a pseudonym. His first attempt at a novel was done in collaboration with John Partington Ashton, a clerk in his father’s law office. Sir John Chiverton was a great success, but one attended by controversy over the relative contributions of its two authors. These days the novel is all but impossible to get hold of, so we are unable to judge it for ourselves.
About Ainsworth’s second venture into fiction there is, however, no doubt at all. Rookwood was published in 1834 to huge success, multiple reprintings and not a little critical acclaim—but this work, too, caused quite a lot of controversy, although of a very different kind.
Rookwood is very undisciplined novel, crammed with more incidents and twists than it can comfortably hold and with the melodrama cranked up to an untenable degree. From the point of view of this blog, I also have to say that Rookwood is a very typical novel—inasmuch as we yet again find ourselves struggling with an incredibly convoluted family tree further confused by multiple marriages and assumed identities. The Rookwood habit of reiterating family names doesn’t help, either. However, the sheer enthusiasm of the project carries it over a lot of rocky ground; and whatever the literary shortcomings of this novel, historically we can see that this is a very important work, for two distinct reasons.
Firstly, Rookwood forms a clear bridge between the Gothic novel and the modern horror story. Indeed, Ainsworth himself regarded it as “a home-grown Gothic”, with English settings and character types substituted for the usual European scenes. The reality of the curse upon the Rookwoods plays itself out over the course of the story, while Ranulph’s Hamlet-like encounter with his dead father is never explained away. However, perhaps of more importance is the novel’s ghoulish dwelling upon body-horror, which marks it as a descendent of the Lewis-Maturin school of writing and points to increasingly grim future tales. A remarkable number of its scenes take place in underground crypts, with the characters surrounded by coffins and dead bodies. We even get a wedding in such surroundings! There are also lengthy descriptions of corpses in various states of preservation; while Luke Bradley acquires his dead mother’s mummified hand – a wedding-ring on the third finger – and takes to carrying it around in his inner breast pocket.
Here are some excerpts from the novel’s tone-setting opening sequence:
Within the deep recesses of a vault, the last abiding place of an ancient family—many generations of whose long line were there congregated—and at midnight’s dreariest hour, two figures might be discovered, sitting, wrapt in silence as profound as that of the multitudinous dead around them…
A thunderous crash resounded through the vault. One of the coffins, which Luke had dislodged from its position, tumbled to the groud; it alighted upon its side, splitting asunder in the fall.
“Great heavens! what is this?” cried Luke; as a dead body clothed in all the hideous apparel of the tomb, rolled forth to his feet.
“It is thy mother’s corpse,” answered the sexton. “I brought thee hither to behold it; but thou hast anticipated my intentions…”
Insensible as he was, Luke had not relinquished the hold he maintained on his mother’s hand. And when Peter lifted the body, the ligaments, connecting the hand with the arm, were suddenly snapped asunder… The first thing [Luke] perceived, upon collecting his faculties, were the skeleton fingers, which he found twined within his own…
Rookwood is in many ways a very odd novel. It certainly sits very comfortably beside Vanity Fair under the descriptor, “a novel without a hero”. The Rookwoods are an old family whose men have a deadly and well-deserved reputation for marrying in haste and murdering at leisure. In the early stages of the tale, Luke Bradley is a sympathetic character; but as soon as he knows for certain that he is a Rookwood by birth as well as by blood, the ancient curse begins to play its part and he becomes a true son of his ancestors, willing to do anything to claim his inheritance, no matter who he has to hurt – or marry – or kill.
When Sybil Lovel hears the truth of Luke’s birth, she shrinks from him in horror, knowing only too well the fate in store for the first Rookwood bride of each generation. Sybil herself is the very embodiment of Maggie Tulliver’s dictum about “all the dark unhappy ones”; although in this case her fair counterpart, Eleanor Mowbray, seems no less doomed to be a victim. Of the men, both Ranulph Rookwood and Eleanor’s brother, Major Mowbray, are for the most part on the side of light, especially the former; but neither one of them is a vivid enough character to disperse the story’s overriding sense of foreboding.
One of the most interesting things about Rookwood is that, in spite of its hugely complicated central plot, this is a novel that very nearly ends up being overwhelmed by its subplot. This brings us to the secondary historical importance of Rookwood, its place among the school of writing that came to be known as “the Newgate Novel”.
The first decades of the 19th century saw a sharp increase in what many social commentators considered an unhealthy interest in the details of crime and criminal lives. During the time the Newgate Calendar, which had originally been published during the 18th century and which consisted of biographies of famous and infamous criminals, was revived, and achieved great popularity. Novelists began to draw upon the Calendar for their plots, treating their anti-heroes with what critics believed to be unforgiveable leniency—or even worse, admiration. This tendency not confined to minor writers. Perhaps its most famous exponent was Charles Dickens, a number of whose early works contain vivid and not entirely negative descriptions of the criminal milieu. On the other hand, one of the genre’s most vocal critics was William Makepeace Thackeray, whose Catherine, published in 1839, was intended as a vicious satire of this particular school of writing. To Thackeray’s exasperation, his novel was frequently misinterpreted, often being classed with the very works it was written to attack.
William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, also published in 1839, is generally considered the ne plus ultra of this form of novel-writing, and was probably the the work that provoked Thackeray into literary retaliation. Rookwood, however, is also a Newgate Novel in fact if not in original intention, with its extended portrait of Dick Turpin, who emerges from the fringes of the plot to very nearly become the novel’s central character, earning the book both enthusiastic praise and angry condemnation at the time of its release
From its second edition onwards, copies of Rookwood carried prefaces penned by its author, who wavers between defiance and self-exculpation in the face of the various attacks upon his novel. As far as answering accusations of misplaced admiration of Turpin and his highwaymen brethren goes, however, Ainsworth didn’t have a leg to stand on. The enconiums upon Turpin’s character and the descriptions of his life on the road become increasingly rapturous as the tale progresses, until at last the narrator openly mourns his passing and that of a certain time in history, a certain way of life – while shaking his head over This Modern Age:
Dick Turpin was the Ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race which (we were almost about to say we regret) is now altogether extinct. Several successors he had, it is true, but no name worthy to be recorded after his own. With him, expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many Knights of the Road; with him, died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex… It were a subject well worthy of inquiry, to trace this decline and fall of the empire of the Tobymen, to its remoter causes—to ascertain the why and the wherefore, that with so many half-pay captains; so many poor curates; so many lieutenants, of both services, without hopes of promotion; so many penny-a-liners, and fashionable novelists; so many damned dramatists, and damning critics; so many Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviewers; so many detrimental brothers, and younger sons; when there are horses to be hired, pistols to be borrowed, purses to be taken, and mails are as plentiful as partridges;—it were worth serious investigation, we repeat, to ascertain why, with the best material available for a new race of highwaymen, we have none, not so much as an amateur.
Almost regret; yes.
During the latter stages of this novel, the exploits of Dick Turpin and his criminal comrades actually force the Rookwoods off-stage for an extended period of time. Here Ainsworth really does get carried away, almost burying his story under a deluge of gaolhouse ballads and thieves’ cant – both of which come accessorised by a plethora of explanatory footnotes. The former grow increasingly tiresome, with Dick & Co. singing at each other for page after page after page; the latter is more interesting, if only because it becomes increasingly apparent that whatever effort Ainsworth himself may have put into accumulating this wealth of linguistic information, subsequent generations of novelists with similar needs resorted to the simpler expedient of plundering Rookwood:
Wonderful were the miracles Dick’s advent wrought. The lame become suddenly active, the blind saw, and the dumb spake; nay, if truth must be told, absolutely gave utterance ‘to the most vernacular execrations’. Morts, autem morts, walking morts, dells, doxies, kinching morts, and their coes, with all the shades and grades of the Canting Crew, were assembled…
However, not even Ainsworth’s sternest critics were able entirely to withold their admiration for Rookwood‘s great set-piece: its breathless, chapters-long description of Dick Turpin’s legendary overnight ride from London to York on his gallant mare, the famous Black Bess. The passion and the energy of this sequence, the vividness of imagination on display, was something that almost everyone felt compelled to praise, in some cases even while the choice of subject matter was being decried:
Dick’s blood was again on fire. He was first giddy, as after a deep draught of kindling spirit; this passed off, but the spirit was still in his veins—the estro was working in his brain. All his ardour, his eagerness, his fury returned—he rode like one insane, and his courser partook of his frenzy. She bounded—she leaped—she tore up the ground beneath her—while Dick gave vent to his exultation in one wild prolonged halloo. More than half his race is run. He has triumphed over every difficulty. He will have no further occasion to halt. Bess carries her forage along with her. The course is straightforward—success seems certain—the goal already reached—the path of glory won. Another wild halloo, to which the echoing woods reply, and away—! Away!—away!—thou matchless steed!—
Matchless steed, indeed. It is not too much to say that Black Bess is the real heroine of Rookwood. She spends as much time before the reader as either Sybil Lovel or Eleanor Mowbray, and is described in terms perhaps even more glowing: her beauty, her strength, her courage, and her loyalty and devotion to her master are dwelt on time and again.
But alas, Bess no less than Sybil herself is one of the “dark unhappy ones”, being likewise doomed by man’s love and man’s selfishness. While it is impossible not to respond to the description of Turpin’s ride, these days I suspect the reader’s enthusiasm is likely to be tempered by the grim reflection that what we actually have here is a graphic, blow-by-blow description of Dick Turpin deliberately riding his horse to death.
Ainsworth does acknowledge the tragedy of Bess’s pointless death, but clearly he was too dazzled by his vision of Turpin’s mad ride to feel for the unfortunate animal as we might today; or, at least—I suppose I shouldn’t speak for others—as I did. Indeed, ultimately I found myself rather in sympathy with the critic from the Weekly Dispatch, whom Ainsworth holds up to mockery in his preface, who protested in his appalled review of Rookwood, “What is there to admire in the tale of a scoundrel outlaw thus torturing a noble animal to save his own rascal carcase from the gallows…?”
Footnote: What did I saw about being unable to escape the Stuarts and their times??—
…the espousal of the royalist party, with sword and substance, by Sir Ralph Rookwood, the then lord of the mansion (a dissolute, depraved personage, who, however, had been made a Knight of the Garter at the Coronation of Charles I) ended in his own destruction at Naseby, and the wreck of much of his property; a loss, which the gratitude of Charles II, on his restoration, did not fail to make good to Sir Ralph’s youthful heir. The young Sir Reginald had attended Charles in the character of page during his exile… One anomaly in Sir Reginald’s otherwise utterly selfish character, was uncompromising devotion to the House of Stuart; and shortly after the abdication of James II, he followed that mornarch to St. Germain…