I searched for my family for months, but found not a trace. I had Grove hire agents to investigate; that, too, was all to no good purpose. Even in those days it was estimated that there were already almost two million people living in London, and anyone not wishing to be found could effortlessly disappear into the labyrinth, as Freddie had done, evidently dragging my family along with him into the shadows.
When I returned my attention to the literary life, I discovered that I was no longer welcome at most Society functions.
‘The thing of it is, Jack,’ Ainsworth tried to explain, ‘is that it’s very bad form to get all possessive about another chap’s wife like that.’
He had taken me aside for a heart to heart at one of his Kensal Lodge parties, where I knew I would always be welcome. He was not really helping though, but I was safe in his home as the d’Orsay set had tired of him quite quickly as well, especially after Crichton fell stillborn from the presses.
Cruikshank was not helping either. ‘The trouble with you common people,’ he was saying, ‘is that you don’t know how to have an affair.’
‘Pray do enlighten me,’ I said.
‘First off, you have to punch your weight,’ he said, helping himself to the claret and pouring about half the bottle into a huge glass. ‘Your Lady Abbess, see,’ he continued, ‘she’s a definite heavyweight, if you take my meaning.’
‘That’s true enough,’ said Ainsworth, ‘she has tremendous wealth and status.’
‘Exactly,’ said Cruikshank, warming to his subject, ‘and I mean no offence by it, my dear fellow, but you’re at best a middleweight.’
‘A welterweight,’ agreed Ainsworth.
‘If not a featherweight,’ said Cruikshank, exploding with laughter.
‘Enough! You sons of bachelors!’ I cried, though he was right, damn him.
‘You should find a pretty shop girl, Jack,’ Cruikshank advised. ‘Set her up in a nice crib, give her an allowance, and she’ll let you do whatever you want to her, I guarantee it.’
Well, you should know, I thought, keeping my own counsel.
‘I fear our Jack’s the last Romantic,’ said Ainsworth affectionately, ‘he’s looking for true love, not an easy tumble.’
‘Same thing,’ said Cruikshank, belching like a bag of nails. ‘More tea, Vicar!’ he exclaimed, helping himself to another reservoir of claret. ‘Jack’s trouble,’ he continued, ‘is that women make him stupid.’
He had insinuated himself into our conversation because he wanted to complain about Dickens without Forster or Thackeray hearing. They were on the veranda arguing about the novels of Henry Fielding. I would not have given this pair the run of my privy, let alone my house, but Dickens adored them, and as Ainsworth loved Dickens like a brother he accepted the entourage.
Thackeray was a clever man but he did not care for most things, and appeared to exist in a permanent state of explosive frustration. This was largely engendered by his lack of any real commercial success, ‘While the idiots and the charlatans prospered,’ as he would have it, usually adding, ‘present company excepted, of course.’
Forster, the Unitarian Geordie, had attached himself to Dickens like a barnacle. Ainsworth may have pardoned him, but I had neither forgive nor forgot the mauling he had given us both in the Examiner. Personally, I would not have cut him down if I found him hanging.
Cruikshank’s grievance concerned the collected ‘Sketches by Boz’ that were presently coming together. He felt himself to be the senior partner in the venture, and was doing Dickens and Macrone a huge favour by attaching his name to it, but Dickens kept finding fault with his drawings or rejecting them all together. The result was that the illustrations that were agreed upon were stunning, and Cruikshank knew that, but he was loath to admit that it was the young writer who was setting the standard. Dickens was not in attendance, and was presumed to be working.
‘You heard about Bob Seymour?’ he said.
‘Heard what?’ I said, although I did not really care. Seymour was working with Dickens on the Nimrod Club series for Chapman & Hall. Dickens was doing the letterpress around Seymour’s comic illustrations. ‘Are they bickering an’ all?’
‘Blew his head off with a fowling piece, day before yesterday,’ said Cruikshank. He paused for dramatic effect, and then added, ‘Dickens was the last person to see him alive, they say.’
‘Good God,’ said Ainsworth, ‘his poor wife.’
‘She blames Dickens, naturally,’ said Cruikshank.
‘That’s not on,’ said Ainsworth. ‘He’ll need another artist,’ he added.
‘Phiz says he’s up for it,’ said Cruikshank. ‘He’ll have to start again though, the delay will cost him.’
‘How very unfortunate,’ said Ainsworth, shaking his head sadly, ‘I do feel for Charles.’
‘Indeed,’ I agreed flatly, ‘poor Charles.’
Seymour had always been too sensitive for his own good, and too many years in our game had made him bitter and fatalistic. His first publishers had gone under, owing him a lot of money, and Gilbert à Beckett had recently given him the push from Figaro in London. If Dickens was cutting up rough as well (and he and à Beckett were close), then my guess was that Bob could not be bothered with going through it all again.
If I knew one thing that Bob Seymour seemingly had not, it was that when your entire world is collapsing around you it is best to focus on what you do well. I owed Colburn a third novel, so I got on with that.
I had abandoned the story about identify theft, as for the life of me I could not think of an ending. What came out of me instead was The Death Hunter, at once a change of direction and a return to source. Dickens described it as a ‘Manichean novel,’ which I suppose it is, although there is little doubt in the text which side is winning in my dualistic cosmology. The title comes from the old Flash term for an undertaker. It is also the common name given to freelance journalists who, as I once had, cover horrible murders, and my protagonist, referred to throughout only by his journalistic pseudonym, ‘J,’ is one of that profession. He is a hard-drinking, godless and cynical man who haunts the rookeries and thieves’ kitchens of contemporary London in search of a murder a day, his story thereby flying in the face of the conventional gothic narrative, my own included, which were in those days always set abroad and in the distant past, which was supposedly more barbaric. Also in common with his creator, ‘J’ was raised in a debtor’s prison, and I made much use of my own childhood memories in forming his hard, ruthless and embittered persona. (Even Bill and Nancy put in an appearance, although under different names.) I equally plundered my days in Grub Street, retelling many of the terrible deaths I had reported in order to depict an urban nightmare at the heart of the empire, in which the most obscene luxury is often only separated from the most appalling misery by a couple of streets. I portrayed the denizens of this fallen city as selfish, brutish and ignorant, regardless of gender and social class. Except for the victims of poverty and crime, no one was innocent.
The main plot concerns ‘J’’s relationship with Millicent, or ‘Millie,’ an older, sensual and financially independent widow he meets while investigating a death at St. Katharine Docks. Millie makes a living as an agent placing poor children in the colonies as servants, labourers and apprentices. The couple are fiercely attracted to each other physically, and embark upon a passionate affair. Whether or not they love each other is unclear, but as Millie is a woman of means and property, as well as an energetic lover, ‘J’ believes that his ship has come in and proposes. He moves into Millie’s rambling house in Tower Hamlets following a modest wedding, after which a series of mysterious and troubling occurrences lead ‘J’ to suspect that his new bride might not be quite what she seems.
The punch line is that ‘J’’s wife has been killing her charges, and then passing forged letters to the families to maintain the illusion that their children not only live but prosper in India, Africa, and Australia. Having grown up an East End beggar, and later prostitute, Millie has learned to waste nothing. In addition to her fee and the expenses for sea voyages that the children never take, she is also turning an extra profit by eating them, and selling what she does not consume herself to a local butcher. ‘J’ discovers the truth when he breaks into a mysterious locked room in the cellar. There he finds a young girl on the floor who has been rendered immobile by having her spinal cord expertly severed at the neck, and silenced by having her tongue cut out. The girl is being kept alive so that the meat stays fresh, and is missing both legs, which have been carefully tied-off to prevent her bleeding out. ‘J’ is violently sick as he realises that his wife must have been feeding him the flesh of living children. He attempts to rescue the suffering child, but misinterprets her agitated, animal grunts as signs of gratitude rather than a warning and is struck from behind and rendered insensible. The novel ends when ‘J’ awakens in the cellar next to the now dead girl, unable to move or speak, as his wife calmly amputates his leg. As she goes about her work she tells him of her life and crimes with a ghoulish pride. Before leaving him in the dark, she also removes his manhood, explaining that she had always liked this part, but, as was the case with her previous five husbands, the pity was that he had been attached to it.
The Death Hunter is bleak, disturbing and unpleasant throughout, which is exactly as I intended it to be. The novel’s principal killer remains at large at the conclusion of the narrative, with no suggestion that she is being investigated or that she or her accomplice will stop. No one is saved, there is neither message nor moral, and the hero’s journey means nothing.
Cruikshank was then working on two serials for Bentley’s Miscellany, which Dickens was now editing, so my illustrations were drawn and engraved by George Stiff, whose dark, menacing and grotesque style perfectly complemented the overall tone of my narrative. Although my story may sound quite fanciful, it was actually based around what we nowadays call ‘baby farming,’ which I had witnessed many times as a death hunter myself. The unwanted children of the poor were placed in the care of (mostly) women who contracted with the parish at four bob a head, and then kept them in appalling and frequently fatal conditions in order to maximise profits. A brisk turnover was most desirable, meaning that these kids were quite literally worth more dead than alive.
When I showed Dickens the completed manuscript he pronounced it brilliant but impossible to market.
The latter opinion was shared by Colburn, but not the former. ‘Where are the jokes and the bloody pirates?’ he demanded, furious.
‘T’aint none,’ said I, ‘but there’s romance.’
‘There’s pornography!’ he snapped back. ‘The honeymoon scenes are scandalous.’
‘But true to life, as is the rest of the book.’
‘True to life be damned,’ said he, ‘I can’t sell true to life.’
‘There’s no hero,’ he pleaded.
‘There’s the journalist.’
‘He’s a bastardly gullion who gets what he deserves,’ said Colburn. ‘How is a drunk, a lecher, a hack, and an atheist to be presented to the public as a hero? He marries a tart who castrates and eats him for God’s sake.’
‘Captain Kidd was hanged, as was Dick Turpin,’ I countered.
‘But they died heroically,’ he said, emphasising the last word to ensure that his argument was got across.
‘Have you ever been to a hanging?’
‘That’s not the point,’ he said, looking away.
‘That’s exactly the point,’ I said, ‘now take it or leave it for I’ll not write you another.’
I had him there, for he had paid for this manuscript, a pittance given how successful I had become, but good money as far as he was concerned, and our contract had not specified a subject. Had he suppressed the book I would have been buggered. Although I had done all the work it belonged to him and not me. I had gambled upon his business acumen (he was as tight as a gnat’s chuff), and I was right to do so. He eventually published the novel, and puffed it as a ‘Shocking New Gothic Romance.’
‘Shocking’ was right. Ainsworth, who was then writing his what he called his ‘Hogarthian serial,’ Jack Sheppard, for Bentley’s, told me that he found the experience of reading The Death Hunter extremely distressing. ‘When I finished the damn thing,’ he said, ‘I felt quite dirty.’
‘But what did you think of it, Will?’ I had asked.
‘It’ll be tricky to market.’
After Crichton, Ainsworth had sensibly returned to the Newgate Calendars for inspiration, and had fictionalised the exploits of the dashing prig John ‘Jack’ Sheppard, who was briefly famous in the days of Defoe for several daring prison escapes before his luck ran out and he went up the ladder to bed. You all know Oliver Twist, but Jack Sheppard is not so well remembered nowadays. The basic plot and premise closely followed Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, being the story of two apprentices, one good, one bad, but with just enough of The Beggar’s Opera thrown in to make it clear that it was the ‘Idle ’Prentice’ that was Ainsworth’s favourite, not the industrious one. The novel covers the adolescent Jack’s fall from grace and into the clutches of the evil thief-taker and criminal mastermind Jonathan Wild (and the beds of Edgeworth Bess and Poll Maggot), his career as a housebreaker, his escape from the condemned hold at Newgate, and his eventual execution at the ripe old age of twenty-two. Ainsworth gives it all a redemptive veneer, having Jack turn against Wild in support of the titular hero (Thames Darrell), but these episodes are much less fun to read.
Jack Sheppard had begun its serial run in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1839, and it overlapped with Dickens’ latest, Oliver Twist, until the spring. Because of a certain amount of prevarication on the part of Colburn with regard to The Death Hunter, all three novels appeared at roughly the same time, even though mine had been written first, and the ‘three most popular writers in England’ all fought it out in the marketplace.
We all sold well, albeit to very different audiences, but those who remember that year will have to admit that it was Jack Sheppard that carried the day, and for a while at least Dickens’ star paled. Bentley reckoned he was shifting three thousand copies a week, and Ainsworth was rewarded by the sincerest form of flattery from the penny-a-liners, who rushed out plagiarised versions faster than the original Jack Sheppard could pick a lock. Ainsworth thought this tremendous sport, and he loved the inevitable theatrical adaptations, though he never saw a farthing in royalties.
When the same thing happened to Dickens he did not see the funny side, and flew into a rage in which he pronounced himself robbed every time a third party was reckless enough to mention the various stage versions of Oliver Twist. The Death Hunter, on the other hand, appeared to be inviolate, probably because nobody, not even an old crook like Moncrieff at the Surrey, would dare put it on, although there were soon several theatrical revivals of my piratical romances doing the rounds on the back of my new book.
It was clear from the reviews that Dickens had attracted the respectable middle class audience, while, as that old pirate Edward Lloyd told me, I was picking up his readers, the penny dreadful crowd, the literate costermongers and other working folk. Groups of them would club together to buy my book, and then pay one of their educated brethren to read it out aloud to them in the factory or the pub. Lloyd also reckoned that The Death Hunter was unusually popular with the ladies. Colburn’s relief was palpable, but he did not offer me another contract, not that I would have accepted one anyway. I had a feeling that, like Dickens, who seemed to write his own ticket with his publishers nowadays, I could do better next time. I fancied it might be time to go after an editorship myself. I knew that Dickens was privately keen to get out of his contract with Bentley’s Miscellany, and was considering putting myself forward. Ainsworth, meanwhile, was thrashing the pair of us, at least in terms of sales, by attracting readers from both classes.
That I was now reaching my own class was a source of great pride. There were more of ’em than there were middle and upper class fools in the country as well, so business was booming, even if there was only one book between half a dozen or so readers. I was on a fixed fee rather than a royalty, anyway, so it made no difference to me. After such an annus horribilis, it was nice to be shifting so much copy again.
As the Wheel of History teaches us, however, such periods of satisfaction and success are inevitably brief. The downturn began quietly and slowly. A few months after The Death Hunter was launched, the first part of a mysterious serial called Catherine appeared in Fraser’s, credited to the pen of ‘Ikey Solomons Esq. Jr.’ It was based on the life of the eighteenth century murderess Catherine Hayes, and was lifted from the original Newgate Calendar, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register. As I had met the notorious fence Ikey Solomon Esq. Snr., I doubted that any kin of his were writing for the literary journals. Instead it had Thackeray’s paw prints all over it.
I knew the original story. Well, I would, wouldn’t I? Catherine Hayes had talked her lover and her son into murdering her husband with an axe. They dismembered the body and dumped it in a pond in Marylebone Fields, with the exception of the head, which they threw in the Thames in the hope of making identification impossible. The head turned up though, as heads often do, and some bright spark in the local Watch decided to display it in the hope someone might recognise it, first on a pole in a churchyard, and later preserved in a glass of spirits. Mrs. Hayes claimed her husband was in Portugal, but his friends were suspicious. Eventually the killers confessed and the trio were executed at Tyburn a couple of years after Jack Sheppard. The men were hanged in chains and Catherine was burnt at the stake, as a wife killing her husband was petty treason under law. The flames caught so quickly that the executioner was not able to strangle the condemned as was customary, and the unfortunate woman was roasted alive. I have heard it takes several minutes for the nerves of the skin to be destroyed by fire, before which you feel everything.
Catherine was indeed the work of Thackeray. His intention was to savagely shame and satirise the whole of the so-called ‘Newgate School’ of writers and their audience, in which he included Lytton, Ainsworth, Dickens, and myself. ‘The public will hear of nothing but rogues,’ he lamented in print, continuing, ‘The only way in which poor authors can act honestly by the public and themselves is to paint such thieves as they are: not dandy, poetical, rosewater thieves, but real downright scoundrels. They don’t grow up in the Marshalsea quoting Byron, like that unbelievable author and carnal maniac “Jay,” or live like gentlemen like Kidd, Turpin or Jolly Jack Sheppard. Neither do they prate eternally about the Rights of Man like Paul Clifford, or die white-washed saints like poor “Biss Dadsy” in Oliver Twist. Men of genius have no business making these characters interesting or agreeable, and should stop feeding your morbid fancies—or indulging their own—with such monstrous food.’
When the serial ended, there was also a companion article in the same issue devoted to Jack Sheppard and The Death Hunter that suggested that the novels could turn impressionable boys, and, worse, girls to a life of crime. Dickens and Lytton escaped this accusation, but were instead attacked for sentimentalising crime.
Generally speaking, nobody got the joke. Catherine was not well received, being neither fish nor fowl. This just made Thackeray even angrier with everyone, but mostly at what he saw as his own failure to succeed as a novelist, while what he believed to be simple-minded books for simple-minded people made their authors both rich and famous, present company, it appeared, no longer excepted. I, in turn, tried not to mention my own continued good fortune in his presence, and could go as long as a minute without doing so.
The dinner parties at Ainsworth’s house became somewhat strained after this, but still we all tried to be pals, and although the half-cocked Catherine failed to find popular favour either as a satire or a romance, I remember it still, for it was to be the first shot of a very long war of words indeed.
‘Biss Dadsy’ had caused a grumble in my gizzard as well, but not for the same reason as Thackeray. At least I had had the tact to change the names in my book. Dickens had just sucked the king and queen of the snuggery into his text and then made out they were a complete invention, whereas only the dog was actually a fiction. That she ultimately became such a literary icon would have tickled Nanse, as would Dickens’ portrayal of her as the fallen woman redeemed. Were her spirit to manifest at one of the author’s famous readings, she would have called this a fine piece of cheese screaming.
She would not have thought much of Cruikshank’s illustrations either. Even though he had known her during the Regency he drew a fairly large lass, and Nancy was always proud of her figure. ‘I’m damned if I can remember what the woman looked like,’ he told me, when I asked him why. (His depictions of Bill Sikes, however, are the dead spit of the bastard.) The rendition of Flashy Nance in Egan’s Life in London is much more true to life, if you can find a copy these days.
The next critical salvo was harder to ignore. This one was launched from the pages of the Athenaeum, which ran a long piece on the declining moral standards of the nation. Ainsworth brought it over one morning, and I read it while he paced about my kitchen. The author was unidentified, but we suspected it was the editor, Wentworth Dilke.
‘The problem in the present age,’ I read, ‘is that writers take their tone from the readers, instead of giving it; and thus pains are taken to write down to the mediocrity of the purchasing multitude.’
‘Does he mean us, do you think?’ I asked my friend.
Ainsworth looked positively seasick. ‘Keep reading,’ he said.
‘If we consider Mr. Ainsworth and Mr. Vincent in the usual light of mere caterers for the public appetite, and as devoting their talents to a popular work either at their own or their publisher’s suggestion,’ wrote the anonymous dandy prat, ‘then we must freely admit their books to be on a level with the usual specimens of the class, and at least as good as the occasion required. It is not their fault that they have fallen upon evil days, and that, like other tradesmen, they must subordinate their own tastes to those of their customers.’
‘Shit,’ I said.
‘That’s exactly what I said. Keep reading, I’m afraid it gets worse.’
‘These books then,’ I read aloud, ‘are simply bad books got up for a bad public; and should an ambassador from some far distant country arrive on our shores for the purpose of overreaching us in a convention, we know not where he could find a better clue to the infirmities of the national character than in the columns of our book advertisements.’ He didn’t like the pictures either. ‘In these hideous representations,’ he continued, ‘are embodied all the inherent coarseness and vulgarity of the subject, and all the unnatural excitement which the public requires to awaken sensation.’
‘The Georges will not be best pleased,’ said Ainsworth, ‘although I suppose Stiff’s used to this sort of thing.’ He was alluding to the fact that my artist mostly drew for the penny magazines. I let this go for I am sure he meant nothing by it.
‘Does he mention Dickens?’ I asked, in all honestly hopefully, for the sinking ship is not quite so terrible if one is among friends.
He did indeed mention Dickens, but only as a shining contrast to peddlers of filth and perversion such as myself. ‘In thus introducing Mr. Dickens’s name,’ I read, ‘we are far from classing him with his imitators, or ranging his works with the Death Hunters and the Jack Sheppards, —in external appearance so similar. If Boz has depicted scenes of hardened vice, and displayed the peculiar phases of degradation which poverty impresses on the human character, he is guided in his career by a high moral object; for, instead of sullying the mind of an intelligent reader, he leaves him wiser and better for the perusal of his tale.’
‘High moral object my arse,’ said I.
The problem, apparently, lie not with Dickens (although Ainsworth and I were as guilty as sin), but with his readers, who were too thick to appreciate the difference between our ‘criminal romances’ and the sermons of the great and powerful Boz.
‘Without a familiarity with the noble and the beautiful,’ the article concluded, ‘the irony is lost, the spirit is overlooked, and The Beggar’s Opera becomes a mere “Tom and Jerry.”’
‘The sanctimonious hog’s pizzle,’ I said, screwing up the paper and throwing it into the fire. Ainsworth looked aggrieved; it was his copy, after all. ‘They’ll be wrapping fish in it next week,’ I assured him.
He appeared far from convinced. ‘What should we do, Jack?’
‘Fancy a drink?’
A show of strength was, I felt, required. So, protesting all the way, I managed to get Ainsworth into the Athenaeum Club for an apéritif. Upon our arrival, brother members that we had always called friends turned their backs and muttered, ‘Shame.’ We held our nerve and enjoyed a very good breakfast, until an embarrassed looking waiter came over and discretely handed us both black balls.
Ainsworth took it like a proper gentleman. He rose, a little stiffly perhaps, and then bade the onlookers, ‘Good Morning,’ before making his exit with a quiet dignity.
‘And may rabid dogs copulate upon your mothers’ graves,’ I added, following my friend out onto the Mall.
Sensing blood in the water, Forster struck a couple of days later in the Examiner. My novel, he wrote, was ‘in every sense of the word bad,’ and ‘the very worst specimen of rank garbage thus stewed up in the sewers of the popular press,’ while Jack Sheppard had been ‘recommended to circulation by disreputable means,’ by which he meant the stage versions for the working folk. Ainsworth, he argued, in the tone of a disappointed headmaster, was capable of far better things. It was notable that he did not say the same of me. What lay behind all this, I reckoned, was that Ainsworth and I were out-selling his beloved Dickens.
Ainsworth remained damned decent about the whole thing. ‘Forster’s article has been perfectly innocuous, and has done no harm whatever,’ he reassured guests still prepared to dine with him at the Lodge that weekend. ‘In fact,’ he continued, throwing me a Grimaldian wink, ‘both the Jacks are carrying everything before them.’ That was true. We were getting more press between us than the Bedchamber Crisis.
‘And what, pray, of the affair at the Athenaeum, Jack?’ said Cruikshank, turning his formidable attention to me, his face a mask of severity. ‘Did you really tell Wellington, twice Prime Minister, and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army—’
‘The Iron Duke,’ chimed in Ainsworth.
‘That,’ Cruikshank continued, ‘his mother was known carnally by dogs in Hell?’ By end of the question he was positively quaking with merriment.
‘Not exactly,’ I stammered.
‘He did, he did!’ Ainsworth was saying, his eyes tormented by tears of mirth.
Sam Blanchard was quick to join in. ‘I heard it was Lord Haddo,’ he said, ‘and that your words were to the effect that he fornicated with his mother on a regular basis.’
‘Wasn’t it Palmerstone?’ said Dick Barham, ‘something about his wife?’
‘Oh Christ,’ I said, ‘was he there?’
The whole table was now howling with laughter. ‘I’d say that’s your knighthood out the window, Jack,’ said Thackeray, almost choking on the port.
He was the only one of the so-called ‘Anti-Newgate’ crowd who still maintained a presence in our circle. Dickens, although thus far keeping his opinions to himself, was giving us a wide berth. Forster was similarly significant by his absence, perhaps on account of a rumour currently circulating, that I had not bothered to contradict, that I had vowed to shoot him on sight. But Thackeray’s way was more insidious. He would play your friend, eat at your table, and then stab you in the back while you slept with another damning article in the name of Mr. Punch or whomever.
I thought it best to brazen things out, and to make the most of my new reputation as a bit of a wild one. ‘If you can’t sell it,’ said I, of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, ‘drink it, smoke it, or shag it then it’s of no damn use to me.’
‘Well said, old boy,’ said Thackeray, thumping me on the back to prove to those there assembled that he was my one true friend.
His touch made me squirm. And although I took it all in good humour and had another drink, I inwardly realised I was doomed. I was making some very powerful enemies.
Click here for the next chapter