Sunday, February 13, 2005


Tricky Dick

Writing recently in The Guardian, James Sharpe describes how in writing his new book Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, he found the Turpin legend is not all it's cracked up to be. (For stateside readers, Turpin is sort of their 18th century Jesse James):

Intriguingly, what I could reconstruct of the historical Turpin was totally unlike his modern image. He was just another fairly unpleasant career criminal, and the 18th century had plenty of those. What puzzled me even more was that he attracted no real notoriety in the years after his death. Turpin is the only 18th-century criminal of whom anybody these days has heard. At the time, nobody seemed very interested in keeping his memory alive.

Enter William Harrison Ainsworth. About 20 years ago, the relevant committee at my university fingered me to deliver a public lecture on Turpin, and I had to sit down and find out why and how this nasty thug became a romantic hero.... The answer lay in the book that first shot Ainsworth to fame. This was Rookwood, first published in 1834 and instantly a massive success.

Ah, the vagaries of fame. I've come across Ainsworth books in used bookshops, but I've never actually read his stuff. Turns out I'm not only one. He's long out of print, and as Sharpe points out, "Turpin lives on, but Ainsworth, his great re-inventor, is forgotten. His career went downhill from about 1850, and he lies in an obscure grave in Kensal Green cemetery, where he was buried in 1882."

Reading Sharpe's account, I found myself wondering why, of all people, didn't Jack Sheppard become a folk figure instead? Here was a criminal whose Newgate Calender writeup really is the stuff of fiction: he was the original Man No Prison Could Hold.

Well, well: a look through Ainsworth's bibliography reveals that in 1839 he also published Jack Sheppard: A Romance, and illustrated by the formidable George Cruikshank, no less. It appears the original editions go for hundreds now, but later editions turn up at least until the 1940s, and they sell quite cheaply. It'll be interesting to see whether Sharpe's new study gets Ainsworth back in print -- or, perhaps, nudges some screenwriter into looking at Turpin or Sheppard's stories.

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