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Building Consensus: London, the Thames, and Collective Memory in the Novels of William Harrison Ainsworth

Nicola Minott-Ahl

London, throughout most of its history, was approached from abroad by way of the Thames. So vital has the river always been to the City that Mr. and Mrs. S.C. Hall, in their late nineteenth century work, The Book of the Thames, include an anecdote about a chief magistrate of London who, threatened by a displeased king with the removal of the royal court, allegedly replied, “But your Majesty cannot remove the Thames!”[1] The Thames is the natural barrier that separates the north of England from the south and it must be bridged. But, more important, it is the waterway connecting people of all classes and bringing the disparate regions of England, and of London in particular, into contact with the rest of the world. Most Londoners depended on the Thames either directly or indirectly. And it is this unifying element that William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) underscores in his novels set in London or further along the Thames at Windsor. In 1840, the railways had not yet displaced it or the connecting canals from their vital role as England’s major pathway of commerce. The “forest of masts”[2] that crowded into London’s ports brought the world to England’s door and gave her people access to the wealth and resources of other parts of the world. Just as it was for his readers, the Thames in Ainsworth’s novels is a means to an end for his characters. It is a tool equally useful to heroes and villains, as are the buildings that are at the centre of so many of these narratives. The river is also a reflection of whatever age Ainsworth re-animates. Nineteenth century readers were invited to forget the urban sounds they were accustomed to and hear the “plash of oars,” smell the “tar and paint of the wherr[ies],”[3] and see the sun reflected on the water.

In Ainsworth’s The Tower of London, the Thames is the narrative means of shifting the scene from the splendour of Jane Grey’s royal convoy to a discussion between Archbishop Cranmer and Ridley, Bishop of London, about martyrdom for the Church of England in the event that she is deposed. As she approaches the Tower, the river becomes a moat dividing Jane from her doom. As Jane approaches the gorgeously appointed barge that will glide her into the maw of the fortress, an old woman warns her:

Go not to the Tower. Danger lurks therein … [if you] set foot within that galley — enter the gates of the Tower — and another year shall not pass over your head.[4]

Like the Tower, which Ainsworth describes as a “palace and prison of crowned heads,”[5] echoing Byron’s Childe Harold on the Bridge of Sighs, the river is equally ready to be complicit in her death or escape. It is Jane’s road into the castle; first to be crowned and then to be tried and beheaded for treason against Mary.

Without the complicity of the river, many of the events Ainsworth describes—both historical and fictitious—are simply not possible. In Old St. Paul’s, Leonard Holt is cured of the plague when he runs out of the cathedral, leaps into the river, and swims across it and back. His anxious doctor expects him to be killed by the current or poisoned by polluted water. The river threatens danger and disease and is clearly not man’s natural element. But the river proves to have miraculous curative powers in his case. When Leonard returns to the shore he is pronounced by his doctor “completely cured of the plague.”

In The Miser’s Daughter, the chapter entitled “The Folly on the Thames” gives a detailed description, and an equally detailed illustration by Cruikshank, of the barge constructed for the amusement of Charles II which, by 1744, had become the resort of “a very disreputable part of the community.”[6] Here normal rules of morality and decorum are suspended. A young man is described as “ dressed with much smartness, but [having] by no means the air of a gentleman,”[7] revealing that, in this environment, the usual indicators of social rank are unreliable and the rigid class stratification encountered on land becomes unstable on the river. The Folly is aptly named: the narrator presents it as a scene of license, rather than of innocent freedom. It is no place for respectable people and characters seen at ease there are suspect.

Despite its polluted water, swift current, and sudden storms, in Ainsworth’s novels the Thames is less prone to change than the massive Gothic buildings that dominate his stories. The cathedrals and castles he writes about are vulnerable to destruction by people who are unable to appreciate their complex cultural significance. Their ambiguity of function and meaning is never really resolved. Queen Jane’s successors occupied the Tower both as prisoners and queens. But what possible need there was for the Tower of London in 1840 is another matter altogether. In 1841, (the year after The Tower of London first appeared), a fire destroyed the Great Storehouse, and something was needed to replace it. Still considering it a fortress and potential military target, the Duke of Wellington replaced the Storehouse with the Waterloo Barracks. Whatever other people might have thought about the fortress, he assumed that revolution, if — or when — it spread to England, would entail an attempt to capture or destroy the fortress, as had happened in France with the Bastille. As constable of the Tower, Wellington also had the North Bastion constructed in 1845. But the time when the capture of this fortress might mean victory for an aggressor was long past; perhaps medieval fortresses were no longer relevant. Similarly, by the mid-nineteenth century, Christianity, now broken into an increasing variety of sects, had also lost its privileged place at the centre of public life, so cathedrals—even Protestant ones—were also becoming relics of another time.

But if the Thames was a “constant” in London’s identity, the city’s buildings were not. And since one approached London from the Thames, the buildings one saw as one approached made a statement about the kind of city London was. For centuries, changes had been gradual as London grew and prospered. But, in 1666, the Great Fire changed all that. Apart from a few buildings, such as the Tower, Old London was gone. The old gothic cathedral of St. Paul’s was destroyed and replaced, in due course, by Christopher Wren’s famous neo-classical structure. The new cathedral and other buildings designed or inspired by Wren declared that London had survived fire and plague and was ready to be a modern world city. The novelist Ainsworth viewed the neo-classical buildings of London as the concerted effort of a resilient nation to emerge from catastrophe. The river that flowed past those buildings had made them necessary in the first place and, after the Great Fire, served as a reminder that a main source of London’s importance as a centre of commerce remained unscathed, whatever else might have been destroyed. In this respect, the comparison between Ainsworth the novelist and Wren the architect is instructive. Behind the novelist Ainsworth lurked the archivist and lawyer who approached St. Paul’s as a document. Behind the architect Wren lurked the mathematician, astronomer, anatomist, and inventor[8] who approached the task of rebuilding St. Paul’s as an engineer, from the perspective of someone interested in how things work and how they could be made to function more efficiently. For Wren, a building was a dynamic system that could and should be changed to improve it and correct past errors. That is why he saw the destruction of the city as an opportunity to implement a master plan for a modern, neo-classical London and to replace the labyrinthine streets with a more orderly network of thoroughfares. His plan for the city would have completed the work of the fire and erased all trace of medieval and Tudor London. However, the great expense of the project, coupled with the tenacity of Londoners in the assertion of their property rights,[9] prevented the wholesale appropriation of land by the Crown for the implementation of Wren’s scheme. St. Paul’s cathedral and the neo-classical parish churches became part of the city’s existing layout and remaining architectural fabric, not the models for everything else.

Here is where Wren and Ainsworth are at their most opposed. Wren had no interest in reconstructing the ruined past, but Ainsworth did. He used his pen to recreate buildings that had been lost and replaced, as in Old Saint Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire (1842). For Ainsworth, Wren’s new St. Paul’s was a challenge to rebuild the old as a literary artifact. However brilliant Wren might have been, his New St. Paul’s was no real substitute for its predecessor. It could not tell the ancient tales the Gothic building told and did not have the rich and problematic history of the old and was, as yet, a monument to the achievement of its architect not to the history of London, as Wren’s memorial tablet proclaims: “Si monumentum requires, circumspice”.[10] It could not, Ainsworth thought, inspire the same religious awe. At the end of Old St. Paul’s, the narrator tells us that the main character “lived to see the new cathedral completed…and often visited it with feelings of admiration, but never with the same sentiments of veneration and awe that he had experienced, when … he had repaired to OLD ST. PAUL’S [sic].”[11] Wren’s building was a new creation representing a new religion and could serve only as a placeholder for its predecessor until it, in turn, became old enough to have played its own role in the history of the nation.

It has now done so, thanks to its miraculous survival of the Blitz a century after the publication of Ainsworth’s novel. In the meantime, Ainsworth’s Old St. Paul’s gave back to Londoners the cathedral they had lost in the fire and restored some of the history that the new cathedral’s architecture could not narrate. He even provides us with historical characters, who are themselves so struck by the size and beauty of Old St. Paul’s that, in our mind’s eye, we can share their awe through his narrative reconstruction. Ainsworth did not want pre-neoclassical London lost as a model of what the city was and could be.

By this point some readers may be asking who this Ainsworth was and why his opinions should matter. William Harrison Ainsworth, Literary Lion of London from 1834 to the late 1840’s, wrote architectural novels. He followed the path Walter Scott and Victor Hugo had taken and looked to history for real narratives that fell nicely into the episodic, plot-driven, building-centred structure of Gothic fiction. In the preface to The Tower of London (1840), he expresses his intention to “make the Tower of London—the proudest monument of antiquity, considered with reference to its historical associations, which this country possesses—the groundwork of a Romance; and to exhibit the Tower in its triple light of a palace, a prison, and a fortress.” He also wished to “contrive such a series of incidents as should naturally introduce every relic of the old pile — its towers, chapels, halls, chambers, gateways, arches, and drawbridges — so that no part of it should remain un-illustrated.”

Here we have a fairly detailed definition of the architectural novel—a sub-genre peculiar to Ainsworth and Victor Hugo. This is a novel whose primary reason for existence is to acquaint readers with a real (or once real) building and to integrate their awareness of that building with a sense of a common national history. Ainsworth made each building familiar to his readers and, through this familiarity, imparted a sense of ownership. He also intensified this sense of ownership by reminding them that those who constructed it were their own ancestors. But Ainsworth also took pains to remind readers that such buildings would never be erected again,[12] and created a strong sense of their uniqueness and antiquity as part of the English national heritage to inspire people to become activists in their support of its preservation and proper restoration. He was widely read by all sorts of people who valued the historical accuracy of his novels. Thomas Macaulay once commented: “when I devour the pregnant pages of Ainsworth I am lost in amazement that his wonderful historical novels have not an abiding place in every house. His close adherence to established facts, woven together in such attractive form, renders his series of romances indispensable … he always charms, but never misleads.”[13]

But Ainsworth and his books did more than serve his readers’ imaginations. His personal popularity helped build London itself into a literary capital comparable to Paris, a metropolis fairly teeming with brilliant young stars. His good looks and fine clothing occasionally drew sarcastic comments from critics inclined to attribute his success to his appearance and lavish literary dinners, rather than to his writing. Indeed, he collected around himself a wide circle of journalists, artists, novelists, and booksellers, including John Macrone, Charles Dickens, and George Cruikshank and did not scruple to ask them to write positive reviews for his novels. He even wrote to longtime friend and would-be law partner James Crossley to ask him to “puff” his novels back home in the Manchester newspapers. That his novels were translated into French, Dutch, German, and Spanish[14] almost as soon as they were published in book form means his self-promotion was either extremely successful — or completely unnecessary.

Ainsworth, for all his dandified elegance, had a serious agenda. He wanted to save Gothic buildings where he could (and their memory when he couldn’t) and through them define what it means to be English. Since no one religion could unite the people of England, and since the different classes’ economic interests had increasingly diverged, Ainsworth followed the lead of Chateaubriand, Walter Scott, and Victor Hugo in asserting that history provides the unifying narrative.

Unlike Wren, Ainsworth didn’t view buildings as dynamic mechanical systems; he saw them as historical documents — illuminated manuscripts — written in stone. As a solicitor, he was trained to view documents with respect. Thus, alterations done to an old building were, to his mind, like changes made in a legal document. Alteration of the written record created a new and perhaps false or misleading document. We can see this in the literary as well as architectural content of his novels. In The Tower of London, the authenticity of the letters-patent that disinherit Mary and Elizabeth Tudor and make Jane Grey the successor of Edward VI is constantly called into question. Thus, the history of the Tower as a document is affected by the documents (be they true or false) created by those who used the Tower. A great many of Ainsworth’s novels feature characters disinherited because of lost documents or false wills drawn up by unscrupulous lawyers. In The Miser’s Daughter, an authentic will is suppressed and its reappearance is contingent on the complicity of the legatee in the great Jacobite uprising of 1745. Ainsworth takes pains to demonstrate that documents are safe only in the hands of honest people who know their value and can read them. Because he sees buildings as documents, at the centre of Ainsworth’s attitude to restoration is the idea that any change is inherently destructive, even if he could admit that change was sometimes necessary.

For Ainsworth, the destruction of four fifths of London in 1666 resulted in loss, not, as it did for Wren, an opportunity for imposing one’s own stamp on the city. The great fire meant for Ainsworth the necessity of recovering whatever could be salvaged through images, descriptions, and memory. Fundamental to Ainsworth’s presentation of buildings in his novels is his awareness of their often lesser permanence than that of the printed word, though in Ainsworth’s case as opposed to that of Horace or Ovid, the bronze and marble have proved more durable than author’s reputation. Wren’s New St. Paul’s has outlasted Ainsworth’s reconstructed Old St. Paul’s. Massive stone castles and cathedrals look more substantial than books, but they require a great deal of maintenance and, from a functionalist’s perspective, are more cheaply and efficiently replaced than restored. Ainsworth was emphatic that it would be a loss to the entire nation if England’s Gothic past should be torn down, re-made, or reconfigured. His exhaustive disquisitions on the changes made to famous buildings throughout their existence demonstrated that they were constantly subjected to restoration which amounted to erasure of irreplaceable historical evidence. He also pointed out that inadequate repairs or outright neglect had already destroyed significant parts of ancient buildings, and that neglect would finish the job.

Ainsworth is determined to evoke and maintain the image of medieval London but cannot, and does not try to, discard either Wren’s London or the London of his own day.[15] In Old St. Paul’s, the focal point is the old cathedral itself, a building rendered obsolete as a centre of religion, but ideal as a pest-house during the plague, and at other times as a place for illicit assignations, commerce, drunken revels, murder, and sham weddings.[16] Sir Christopher Wren appears in the narrative only two chapters before the end:

“The old building shall rise again, like the phoenix from its fires, with renewed beauty, and under your superintendence, Doctor Christopher Wren.”
“I will endeavour to design an edifice that shall not disgrace your majesty’s city.”
“You must build me another city at the same time, Doctor Wren,” sighed the king.[17]

Ainsworth’s approach to the city in his novels reflects this notion of it as a palimpsest for he evokes all of these versions of London and allows images of each to show through as he presents the others.

In less than half an hour they reached the little village of Paddington, then consisting of a few houses, but now one of the most populous and important parishes of the metropolis, and speedily gained the open country … [Mr. Bloundel’s] eye roamed over the wide prospect; and the leafless trees, the bare hedges, and the frost-bound fields seemed pleasant in his sight.[18]

Even as he describes how drastically the landscape has changed, Ainsworth is careful to describe the open spaces and cleaner air just outside the walls of 17th century London, aware that his readers would have to reconcile it with the foggy, soot-stained city of their own experience.

He treats Gothic buildings in the same way. In The Tower of London, he takes us into rooms where prisoners have etched their names and lamentations into the stone, creating a personal narrative that cannot be separated from the building: “Let those who would know how much their forefathers have endured cast their eyes over the inscriptions in the Beauchamp Tower.”[19] When Simon Renard speaks of reading the history of England in the Tower of London, his guide’s reply reflects the author’s views: “If it is written in those towers it is a dark and bloody history…and yet your Excellency says truly. The building on which we stand, and those around us, are the best chronicles of our country.”[20]

Using a building as a layered text, and presenting the city around it as yet another layered text produces a narrative of nearly unmanageable dimensions. However, in Ainsworth’s novels, the one thing medieval London, Christopher Wren’s London, and Victorian London all have in common is the Thames. The only way to make such edifices relevant to everyone again was to persuade them that, as historical documents, they were part of the story of the English people. At the basis of Ainsworth’s novels is the recognition, later echoed by Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture,[21] that buildings are in a continuous process of alteration by time, restoration, and sometimes by cataclysmic events. What makes Ainsworth unique in English popular fiction is his insistence on using print, (a mechanism of mass communication through duplication of words and images) to preserve unique buildings as they appeared in successive ages and encourage readers to think of the actual buildings as worth preserving, in spite of their problematic historical and political associations. The minutely described buildings and incarnations of the city would be made permanent in multiple copies and, once read, would stock all of his readers’ memories with the same facts about English architecture and history.

George Cruikshank’s elaborate illustrations made the novels still more memorable. For The Tower of London, both author and artist frequently met at the fortress to examine it, decide where various incidents in the novel might take place, and discuss how to present the buildings most effectively. So close is the relationship between written text and illustration in this novel that Cruikshank felt justified in claiming that it was actually his creation, a series of illustrations for which Ainsworth wrote text, as though the novelist were writing captions for one of the illustrator’s political cartoons. Ainsworth biographer S. M. Ellis points out that Cruikshank’s claim got a lot of attention but was never taken seriously.

Indeed, the idea that his drawings were the narrative and only needed text to enhance them reveals that, like many readers since, he failed to understand the complexity of Ainsworth’s approach to writing. Ainsworth wrote for people who were not accustomed to subtle historical analysis. If they were literate, they probably acquired the skill in the context of a trade to which they had been bred, not because they had been educated to think independently. Ainsworth had a clear idea of his readership and made himself comprehensible to the least sophisticated among them. That the educated upper classes also read his novels and enjoyed them is testament to the fact that there was much to interest the more sophisticated intellect, even if the language was sometimes tedious. A remark to James Crossley in a letter dated 1838 expresses Ainsworth’s sense that Dickens is writing at a higher level than his readers will fully appreciate: “the truth is, to write for the mob, one must not write too well. The newspaper level is the true line to take.”[22] True to his word, he presented history and architecture to “the mob” in straightforward declarative sentences that were full of cues telling the reader how they were to be understood. He shocked the literary world by bringing out The Tower of London in serial form in the London Illustrated News along with Cruikshank’s illustrations, ensuring that people who could not or would not ordinarily buy books might have access to the novel. Ainsworth was not writing for the intelligentsia. He invited ordinary people to claim national history and national treasures by reminding them that the nation’s past, which he presented in vivid and exciting detail, was also their own. His works inspired other efforts to preserve old England in print. Subtending the Hall’s Book of the Thames is the idea of a vanishing way of life in the face of industrial and technological progress.

Though readers of Old St. Paul’s could never visit the Gothic cathedral that once occupied the place of the present building, they acquired detailed information about it. They could, like the intellectuals whose works they might never approach, begin to think historically and be aware of their own age as a moment in the history of England that might itself be the beginning of future national achievement.

The view of London in novels like The Tower of London and Old St. Paul’s is a panoramic one. In Old St. Paul’s, an entire chapter, entitled “Old London from Old St. Paul’s” is devoted to the depiction of London before the fire: “The whole of the city of London was spread out like a map … and presented a dense mass of ancient houses, with twisted chimneys, gables, and picturesque roofs.”[23] When, in The Tower of London, Ainsworth has the Spanish ambassador stand on the roof of the White Tower and survey the entire fortress, he uses this moment to provide a comprehensive view of English history. Ainsworth was one of the first English novelists to teach readers to read the national past in terms of buildings, landscape, and monuments, rather than in terms of signal events, great movements, or great men.

That he trusted the novel to contain all these elements and still be coherent attests to his sense of his own abilities and of the capabilities of the form itself. In Ainsworth’s architectural novels, the plots, characters, and historical detail all centre on the buildings that give the novels their titles; however, because the buildings themselves are subject to drastic, even catastrophic change, the river becomes valuable because its future existence is never in question. The Thames is the thread that connects the past and the present, the lofty and the lowly in Ainsworth’s novels. It is a constant presence and the artery of a city that contains within it the sources of its greatness as well as the instruments of its own destruction, be they hearth fires, gunpowder, disease, or the citizens themselves. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to Ainsworth’s success in his novels set along the Thames is that most people now take for granted what he had to argue with passion against often determined opposition: that the great buildings of the past are the national heritage and should be preserved. Sadly, his reward has been literary oblivion.


[1] Mr. & Mrs. S. C. Hall, The Book of the Thames: from its Rise to its Fall (London: J.S. Virtue and Company) 2.

[2] William Harrison Ainsworth, The Tower of London (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1941) 142.

[3] William Harrison Ainsworth, The Miser’s Daughter, with illustrations by George Cruikshank (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd.) 49.

[4] Ainsworth, Tower of London 15.

[5] Ainsworth, Tower of London 4.

[6] Ainsworth, Miser’s Daughter 78.

[7] Ainsworth, Miser’s Daughter 79.

[8] Kerry Downes, The Architecture of Wren (New York: Universe Books, 1982) 1.

[9] V.S. Pritchett (1900-1997), London Perceived (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962) 116.

[10] Downes 1.

[11] William Harrison Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire (London and Glasgow: Collins, Clear-Type Press) 637.

[12] This, even as A.W.N. Pugin held out the hope that a return to England’s medieval and Catholic roots would create the necessary climate for the construction of authentic Gothic buildings, rather than buildings merely created in the Gothic style.

[13] This remark is taken from Macaulay at Lady Holland’s Salon (vol. 1, 269), the title referring to both the great historian and the noted nineteenth century literary hostess. Quoted in Ellis [William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends. vol. 1 (London, New York: John Lane, 1911) 432.]

[14] Samuel Marsh Ellis William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends. vol. 2 (London, New York: John Lane, 1911) 58, 60.

[15] David Daiches and John Flower, Literary Landscapes of the British Isles: a Narrative Atlas (New York and London: Paddington Press, Ltd., 1979) 45. Downes 57,60.

[16] Yet, this was also the place where England grasped the concept of longitude and learned to build better ships, since treatises on these and other subjects were first offered at the bookstalls of St. Paul’s, rather than at the universities. I thank my colleague, Dr. Linda Robertson, for raising this issue.

[17] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s 624.

[18] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s 532.

[19] Ainsworth, Tower of London 149.

[20] Ainsworth, Tower of London 142.

[21] “It [restoration] means the most total destruction which a building can suffer…Watch an old building with an anxious care…Its evil day must come at last; but let it come declaredly and openly, and let no dishonouring and false substitute deprive it of the funeral offices of memory.” (John Ruskin. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. “The Lamp of Memory.” London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1849. § XVIII-XX)

[22] Ainsworth, Letter to James Crossley, April 7, 1838. Ainsworth refers to Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

[23] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s 178.

Works Cited

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Old St. Paul’s: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire. 1841. London and Glasgow: Collins, Clear-Type Press.

—, The Tower of London. 1840. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc., 1941.

—, The Miser’s Daughter,. 1842 with illustrations by George Cruikshank. London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd.

—, Letter to James Crossley. 7 April 1838. William Harrison Ainsworth’s Letters. Manchester Central Library, Manchester, U.K.

Daiches, David and John Flower. Literary Landscapes of the British Isles: a Narrative Atlas. New York and London: Paddington Press, Ltd., 1979.

Downes, Kerry. The Architecture of Wren. New York: Universe Books, 1982.

Ellis, Samuel Marsh. William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends. 2 vols. London, New York: John Lane, 1911.

Hall, Mr. & Mrs. S. C. The Book of the Thames: from its Rise to its Fall. New Edition. London: J.S. Virtue and Company.

Pritchett, Victor Sawdon. London Perceived. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1962.

Ruskin, John. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. “The Lamp of Memory.” London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1849.

To Cite This Article:

Nicola Minott-Ahl, ‘Building Consensus: London, the Thames, and Collective Memory in the Novels of William Harrison Ainsworth’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 4 Number 2 (September 2006). Online at Accessed on [date of access]