The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Rookwood: A Romance (1834)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Rookwood: A Romance was written by Harrison Ainsworth. William Harrison Ainsworth (1804-1882) was a successful commercial writer who specialized in catering to popular taste. He can be fairly described as a less talented Bulwer Lytton without the prophetic sense of what is going to be popular and who lacked an interest in the occult or literary experimentation.

One of the main characters in Rookwood is the highwayman Dick Turpin. There was a historical Turpin (1705-1739), but he was not the gentleman highwayman of folklore and fiction. He was a vicious bully who did not scruple at torture to get money.

Rookwood is the story of the disputed Rookwood estates and the efforts of dispossessed heir Alan Rookwood to gain title to the estates and to avenge himself on the rest of the Rookwood family. Figuring into the story is Lady Rookwood, a ferocious Lady Macbeth-like figure who schemes to gain and keep power. Dick Turpin is a part of these schemes, and works for Lady Rookwood for a brief while but then leaves her service. Turpin considers himself a friend of Luke Rookwood, one of those Alan would avenge himself on, and Turpin takes pains not to harm Luke, even at the risk of endangering himself. Eventually Dick is chased by a group eager to capture him for the reward, and he makes an astounding overnight ride from London to York, a trip of over 200 miles, escaping his pursuers but killing his beloved mare Black Bess in doing so.

Rookwood is entertaining, in its way, but Ainsworth’s style has not aged well. The novel has some memorable scenes and some entertaining characters, Turpin and Barbara Lovel among them, and Turpin’s ride to York is still absorbing reading, but the book’s many flaws negate much of the reader’s enjoyment of the novel. Ainsworth churns out greats wads of text in the heavy early-Victorian rhetorical style, which make even the descriptive scenes slow going. Far too much of the dialogue is stiff, overly verbose, and written in an outdated “eloquent” style. There is a great deal of Thieves Cant and “Gipsy” talk, and while these do give the feel of a bygone culture, Ainsworth over-indulges in both. Finally, Ainsworth romanticizes the profession of highwayman, whitewashing a group of brutal thugs and making them chivalrous knights. Ainsworth does describe Turpin as the last of his kind, compared to the modern, “honorless” robbers, but Ainsworth’s description of highwaymen as men of good conscience who do little harm and much good to society is so at odds with the reality that the reader will want to shake Ainsworth hard.

Rookwood is a Gothic. Although in 1834 the Gothic genre was long since outdated, Ainsworth deliberately wrote Rookwood as a Gothic in an attempt to recapture the style and popularity of earlier Gothic writers like Ann Radcliffe (see: The Mysteries of Udolpho). Ainsworth did not write a pure Gothic; the influence of Walter Scott (see: Rob Roy, Waverley) was too strong, on both writers and readers, for a pure Gothic to have succeeded in 1834. Ainsworth was too aware of the tastes of the contemporary audience to give them something entirely in the style of Radcliffe or Horace Walpole (see: The Castle of Otranto). So Ainsworth wrote Rookwood as a Gothic in the form of a historical romance. Ainsworth departed from the traditional plot structure of the Gothic and set the action of Rookwood in considerably more recent times than most Gothics. But he made use of numerous Gothic elements and motifs, including a dispossessed heir, an ancient hall, a family curse, skeleton hands, sliding panels, frightening burial vaults as the location for scenes, candles suddenly going out, a secret marriage, and a conflict between two half-brothers for a family inheritance. Although the critics were not kind to the Gothic elements in Rookwood, reviews of the novel were generally positive, and the novel became popular enough with the public to create a mini-revival in Gothic-influenced historical novels.

Rookwood was also the beginning of the modern, romanticized version of Dick Turpin. Rookwood was far from the first novel to have a heroic thief; English folklore had provided heroic thieves for centuries, and the räuberroman craze in England at the turn of the nineteenth century and Bulwer Lytton’s Paul Clifford (1830) had provided many more recent examples (see: Proto-Mysteries). Finally, Turpin himself, though dead for almost a century, was the subject of many popular ballads and chapbooks. All of these prepared the groundwork for Rookwood, but it was Ainsworth who took the character of Turpin and the folklore around him and turned them into something hugely popular: "the success of Rookwood in 1834, and the immediate popularity of what came to be considered that novel's central figure, Dick Turpin, initiated a massive vogue for the literature of highwaymen."1 

Although the plot and the Gothic architecture of Rookwood will probably be uninteresting to the modern reader, Turpin comes to life and becomes memorable. He carries himself with style, he has verve and élan to spare, he has rousing adventures, and the ride to York remains exciting reading. (Ainsworth did not create the Ride to York—it was already in existence in the chapbooks when Ainsworth wrote Rookwood—but it was Ainsworth who propagated the myth of the Ride as well as gave Black Bess her name). Even today it is understandable why Ainsworth’s Turpin was so popular and why so many other writers imitated Ainsworth’s portrayal of him. The historical Turpin was a brutal, ugly thug. Ainsworth’s Turpin is charismatic, and the events of his life, as filtered through Ainsworth’s myth-making, cried out for embellishment and sequels. Other writers were happy to pen these, most notably Edward Viles’ and John Frederick Smith’s Black Bess; or the Knight of the Road, which ran for 254 chapters across five years, from 1863 to 1868, and is the single longest penny weekly serial ever published.

Ainsworth’s Turpin is also an early precursor to the Gentleman Thief character of the late-Victorian age. Of course, when Ainsworth wrote Rookwood he was probably thinking of Claude Duval (see: Claude Duval, the Dashing Highwayman), who was suave and gentlemanly and everything the real Dick Turpin was not. And Ainsworth’s Turpin pays tribute to Duval. But the stories of Duval were well over a century old when Rookwood was published. It was the new version of Duval, the Dick Turpin of Rookwood, influenced other writers and readers and set the stage for the later Gentleman Thieves.

Ainsworth’s Dick Turpin is a “Knight of the Road.” He prides himself on conducting himself like a gentleman at all times, like one of the old-fashioned highwaymen, like Claude Duval. Turpin knows that he is the last survivor of that breed. Ainsworth says of him,

With him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road; with him died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex, which was first breathed upon the highway by the gay, gallant Claude Du Val, the Bayard of the road–le filou sans peur et sans reproche–but which was extinguished at last by the cord that tied the heroic Turpin to the remorseless tree.2 

Turpin is always polite to those he robs, especially women, who he always treats gallantly. He never steals from women or the poor, and never kills anyone during a robbery. Not being an assassin is something he prides himself on, in fact, and it is one of the things which separates him from Lady Rookwood.

The other character of note in Rookwood is the Romany “queen” Barbara Lovel. One of Rookwood’s secondary features, and something of more interest to the modern reader than the novel’s clichéd plot, is the novel’s portrayal of the Romany. Although the Victorians often saw the Romany as dangerous vagrants, their portrayal in popular fiction was considerably different. In story papers they appeared as swarthy villains, but in Gothics (see: The Blue Dwarf) and historical novels (see: Guy Mannering, Heathens of the Heath) they appeared in a more positive light, so that by the end of the century they could be portrayed as heroines (see: Hagar of the Pawn-shop). Ainsworth distorts the personalities of the Romany in Rookwood, just as he distorted the personality of Dick Turpin and the realities of the highwaymen. But like Walter Scott Ainsworth makes the Romany relatively benign. Ainsworth’s Romany are freedom-loving wild men who live in the wilderness of England. They are outcasts of society but more innately noble than the English who look down on them.

Ruling over the clan of Romany which Dick Turpin encounters is Barbara Lovel, the clan’s queen. Lovel rules the Romany from a ruined priory, and her tribe obeys her without hesitation, seeing her “with some such feeling of inexplicable awe as is entertained by the African slave for the Obeah woman.”3 They “shrank with terror from her anathema, which was seldom pronounced; but when uttered, was considered as doom.”4 For her part, Lovel views her tribe as “her flock,” her children, and she acts in a maternal way toward them, caring for them but being strict and chastising them when needful. She is far nastier toward those who hurt the Romany of her clan, engineering elaborate and gruesome vengeances upon them. Lovel is rich and is willing to spend her money to punish the tormentors of the Romany.

Lovel is a powerful sorcerer and can work magic, including love spells, curses, magical potions, and prophecies. Her familiar is a “monstrous owl” roughly the size of a large dog. Her assistant in working sorcerous wonders is Balthazar, the clan's “patrico, or hierophant,” an old Romany with a long white beard. Balthazar is the tribe's “principal professor of divination,” and although he gained most of his “magical skill” from Lovel his powers are little short of her own.

Lovel and Balthazar are departures from the standard sorcerer characters of nineteenth-century popular literature, who were generally Rosicrucians and Theosophists.5 Although the archetype for this sort of character were the main characters of Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni (1842)–and Zanoni was the primary influence on later portrayals of sorcerers during the century–fictional sorcerers preceding Rookwood, including the titular characters in William Godwin’s St. Leon. A Tale of the Sixteenth Century (1799) and Percy Shelley’s St. Irvyne, or, The Rosicrucian (1811), were Rosicrucians and Theosophists. Lovel and Balthazar were throwbacks to the sorcerers of the Gothics, whose power sprang from more traditional (i.e., Satanic) sources.

Recommended Edition

Print: William Harrison Ainsworth, Rookwood: A Romance. Abingdon: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1998.


For Further Research

Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of Modern Gentlemen in the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.


[1] James Sharpe, Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman (London: Profile Books, 2004), 172.

[2] William Harrison Ainsworth, Rookwood: A Romance, volume 2 (London: R. Bentley, 1834), 307.


[3] Ainsworth, Rookwood, volume 2, 269.


[4] Ainsworth, Rookwood, volume 2, 269.


[5] Nevins, Costumed Avenger, 134-136.