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Saturday, June 28, 2003

Bollettino

I have never read a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth. LI's vast readership is astonishingly literate -- you all are out there devouring Alain Badiou's difficult essays on Dedekind's mathematical ontology and such, I know -- yet it is a good bet that none of you are familiar with the thrills of Rookwood, or the clever drama of Jack Sheppard.

Is this because of the Courvoisier murder?

Phillip Allingham provides a potted bio of Ainsworth on the Victoria Web site. It's an impressive 19th century life. As a boy, Ainsworth was inspired by the romances of Walter Scott, along with all of literary Europe and, to its misfortune (according to Mark Twain), the South. Ainsworth even knew Charles Lamb. He scored a big success with Rookwood, a historical that painted, among other things, a dashing highwayman, Dick Turpin. The money poured in, Ainsworth bought the appropriate gaudy pile, and then the wife dies. Beloved, of course, and young, of course, providing the standard unities for that pious exercise of melancholy Victorians liked in widowers and widows. Then came an even greater success, Jack Shepherd. Here Ainsworth makes the conscious artistic decision -- at least according to Allingham -- to break with the picaresque. This was especially interesting since Jonathan Wild is one of the main characters, taken less from history than Fielding -- or perhaps one can say that Fielding's Wild is more historically real than the historically real Wild himself. Such is the form of fate that generally befalls the celebrity.

Jack Shepherd has not been transferred to the less than silver screen by the good elves at Gutenberg, so I am relying on Allingham here:

"Jack Sheppard (1839) reveals Ainsworth at his best in terms of characterisation and plot construction. Wishing to avoid a loose succession of incidents in the picaresque style, Ainsworth introduces two characters (the historical Jonathan Wild and the fictional Thames Darrell) to create a unifying thread in this tale set in eighteenth-century England. In a manner reminiscent of various television and film versions of The Fugitive, the thief-taker Wild relentlessly pursues the subtle and cunning Jack Sheppard, thief and house-breaker. Because Jack's mother has rebuffed Wild's sexual advances, Wild seduces Jack's father and then Jack himself into committing crimes that will inevitably lead them to the gallows. While Jack chooses the path of vice, his foil, Thames Darrell (like Jack in youth apprenticed to Mr. Wood the carpenter, and like Jack, the son of a father who has died violently after abusing his wife) chooses the path of virtue. Thames ultimately prospers with the aid of Jack's second-in-command, Blueskin, and wins the hand of the lovely Winifred, his master's daughter. Although the protagonist, Jack, is reconciled with his mother and saves both Thames and Winifred from Wild, he is ultimately hanged for his crimes. Poetic justice, however, is served when the narrator reveals that within seven months Wild himself is hanged.

Thus, the book illustrates the Hogarthian theme of the lazy and diligent apprentices that Dickens vivifies in Great Expectations and elsewhere, and which had already been dramatised in George Lillo's The London Merchant, or the History of George Barnwell(1731), a domestic tragedy based on the seventeenth-century ballad which appears on Percy's Reliques. In the ballad, young Barnwell is a London apprentice who falls in love with a Shoreditch prostitute (Sarah Millwood). In return for her favours, the apprentice gives her �200 which he has stolen from his master; again to supply the harlot with cash, he robs his uncle, a Ludlow grazier, and beats him to death. The hussy and the varlet impeach each other, and are subsequently hanged at Tyburn. The literary progeny of the tale is the so-called Newgate Novel, popularized by Thackeray, Dickens, Ainsworth, and Bulwer-Lytton."

Allingham doesn't mention the ill consequences of Jack Sheppard. But this amusingly account of the murder of Lord William Russell -- amusing because it drops noble names and titles like some dotty butler doing door duty at a ball - does. We take this up because we are still in search of a response to Oscar's contention that art has no moral effect. Or, rather, we are in seach of the kind of moral panic that art can provoke.

If it is true that Ainsworth was shunned after the rumor circulated that Lord Russell's murderer was unduly excited by Jack Sheppard, then this explains, perhaps, why he never made the canon. We aren't totally satisfied that Jack Sheppard backballed the man, but after the Courvoisier trial, he certainly had to fend off charges, and he seems to have been deserted by the ever timid Dickens.

So consider this an effort to make some headway towards a rather Wildean truth -- which is that just because art has no moral effect doesn't mean that morality has no artistic effect. That effect is less in the text than in the selection -- the unnatural selection that evolves a canon.

To get to the case -- Courvoisier, like Sheppard, was a servant. And like Sheppard, he considered himself held down by brute force, and that force embodied in the riches and life of his employer, Lord Russell.

The crime and its detection are described amply by McCann. We like his description of the scene of Courvoisier's execution:

"The execution was carried out at Newgate, on the 6th of July, 1840. The hangman was the notorious Jack Ketch and the trial was attended by both Charles Dickens (a regular at these events) and William Makepeace Thackeray. The latter published an article about the execution in Frazer's Magazine later in the month. A third novelist of the period had a rather different experience. This was William Harrison Ainsworth, then famous for his nlovel about the higwayman Dick Turpin. However, he had also published, in the previous year, a sensational novel about another notorious criminal, Jack Sheppard. The latter had been a violent robber who escaped from Newgate four times before he was finally hanged at Tyburn in 1742. The novel was adapted to the stage by John Buckstone and it opened at the Adelphi in the Strand on October 28 1839. It was the hit of the season and ran for 121 performances finishing the run on April 11th 1840. It went on a tour of the Provincial theatres in May, not long after the murder. During Courvoisier's trial it was put about that he had either read Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard or attended the play before committing the murder. This provoked a wave of concern at the effects of cheap, theatrical adaptations on working-class youth culture. The popular opinion was that the charge against Ainsworth seemed incontrovertible. Unfortunately, his status as a good Victorian and a serious literary novelist never fully recovered even though he went on to write some of his more famous historical romances in the following years. Dickens managed to avoid similar problems, but, despite the fact that Ainsworth had been a major influence on his early career, with his characteristic selfishness he publicly and privately distanced himself from Ainsworth."

Thackeray's account, entitled "Going to See a Man Hanged", is on the Net -- oh, there are so many things on the Net nowadays. It is an interesting piece. For one thing, Thackeray politicizes the crowd -- it is odd that Benjamin never, to my knowledge, referred to this piece, but it would have done his heart good. Or perhaps not -- unlike Hugo, Thackeray was completely secular. No messianic moment in the character, just that puzzling English confidence in Good Will . Thackeray is a writer who always surprises us -- both by his accesses of sentimental swill, and his hard-edged comedic vision. Here's a bit of a rather long political passage re the crowd:

Throughout the whole four hours, however, the mob was extraordinarily gentle and good-humoured. At first we had leisure to talk to the people about us ; and I recommend X-'s brother senators of both sides of the House to see more of this same people and to appreciate them better. Honourable members are battling and struggling in the House; shouting, yelling, crowing, hear-hearing, pooh-poohing, making speeches of three columns, and gaining "great Conservative triumphs," or "signal successes of the Reform cause," as the case may be. Three hundred and ten gentlemen of good fortune, and able for the most part to quote Horace, declare solemnly that unless Sir Robert comes in the nation is ruined. Throe hundred and fifteen on the other side swear by their great gods that the safety of the empire depends upon Lord John; and to this end they quote Horace too. I declare that I have never been in a great London crowd without thinking of what they call the two "great" parties in England with wonder. For which of the two great leaders do these people care, I pray you? When Lord Stanley withdrew his Irish bill the other night, were they in transports of joy, like worthy persons who read the Globe and the Chronicle? or when he beat the Ministers, were they wild with delight, like honest gentlemen who read the Post and The Times? Ask yonder ragged fellow, who has evidently frequented debating clubs, and speaks with good sense and shrewd good-nature. He cares no more for Lord John than he does for Sir Robert, and, with due respect be it said, would mind very little if both of them were ushered out by' Mr. Ketch, and took their places under yonder black beam. What are the two great parties to him, and those like him? Sheer wind, hollow humbug, absurd clap-traps; a silly mummery of dividing and debating, which does not in the least, however it may turn, affect his condition."

And so it goes, Thackeray capturing the political as a question of the balance between two crowds -- a thought that is much deeper than he himself could plumb. Still, there it is.

Famously, at the end of the essay, Thackeray reflects on his repugnant participation in killing a man:

"There is some talk, too, of the terror which the sight of this spectacle inspires, and of this we have endeavoured to give as good a notion as we can in the above pages. I fully confess that I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder ; but it was for the murder I saw done. As we made our way through the immense crowd, we came upon two little girls of eleven and twelve years. One of them was crying bitterly, and begged, for Heaven's sake, that someone would lead her from that horrid place. This was done, and the children were carried into a place of safety. We asked the elder girl - and a very pretty one - what brought her into such a neighbourhood? The child grinned knowingly, and said, "We've koom to see the mon hanged!"

Tender law, that brings out babes upon such errands and provides them with such gratifying moral spectacles!"


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