William Harrison Ainsworth, a prolific writer now as obscure as he once was famous, reinvented the gothic novel in an English setting, a radical re-write of Scott's model of the historical romance and an antecedent of the contemporary urban gothic of Dickens and Reynolds. This study examines Ainsworth's literary career from a writer of magazine tales of terror in the 1820s to the massive influence of his gothic/Newgate romance of 1834, "Rookwood"; his friendships with Lamb, Lockhart, and Dickens; his fall from literary grace during the Newgate controversy (a moral panic engendered by the supposedly pernicious effects of cheap, theatrical adaptations of Ainsworth's underworld romance "Jack Sheppard"). The second half of the book examines the later "Lancashire novels" and the legacy of Ainsworth's subsequent historical novels, taking "The Lancashire Witches" to be his final, major work and the last of the "original" gothic novels. The novels "The Tower of London", "Guy Fawkes", "Old St. Paul's" and "Windsor Castle" are read as epic tragedy rather than simply as bad romance.
The study re-examines Ainsworth's singular vision of the outlaw, English history and religious intolerance as being at political odds with the new Victorian value system, particularly with regard to Catholics and the urban poor. A final chapter explores Ainsworth's later life and fiction and his adoption by his native Mancunians as "The Lancashire Novelist". The book includes extracts from Ainsworth's correspondence and journalism, detailing his close relationship with, among others, Scott, Dickens, Forster, Thackeray, Cruikshank, Bulwer-Lytton and G.P.R. James.