Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Tower of London--William Harrison Ainsworth (1840)

I am still intending to catch up on my reading list without wasting all of my marvelous notes. I now have a set of five mostly little-remembered English novels from approximately 1820-1850. I thought to dash these all off in one post, but I seemed to have a lot to to say about the first of these books, the prolific William Harrison Ainsworth's historical novel The Tower of London, which was concerned with the saga of Lady Jane Grey and Mary Tudor, though of course so much time has passed (I began the book March 18, 2009) that I don't remember much of the story, which was 455 pages and probably took me at least a month to read.

Ainsworth wrote 40 novels, and was one of the best selling writers of the Victorian period. He was good friends with Dickens and worked with or was well-known to most of the cosmopolitan literary figures of the time. He threw a dinner party to celebrate the success of the Tower of London that still is considered a noteworthy event in the social history of English literature. The Tower has usually been considered his best book, followed perhaps by Old St Paul's: A Tale of the Plague and Fire of London, which came out the following year. He was 35 and 36 at that peak, though his career would continue for another forty years. Other titles include Windsor Castle (1843), and "The Lancashire novels", The Lancashire Witches (1848), Guy Fawkes (1841), and Preston Fight, or The Insurrection of 1715 (1875). Also notable was Mervyn Clitheroe (1857) in which, according to the introduction to the 1909 Everyman edition "Mr W.E.A. Axton says that (Ainsworth) has accurate picture of the life of the ('famous old Manchester Grammar School') at that time." His fame and his books were already falling into obscurity within a few years of his death, though the authors of the GRE Literature exam are at least familiar enough with him to list one of his titles as a possible (though wrong) answer on their practice tests.

I enjoyed the book reasonably enough at the time I read it, though Ainsworth was subject to almost all of the conventional characteristics and attitudes held by the writers of his day, and lacked any distinctive strengths. As I say, I remember hardly anything of the book, though I am going to go over my copious notes and see what I had to say at the time:

1. "The austere course of life prescribed to, and pursued by, the fathers of the Reformed Church, had stamped itself in lines of unusual severity on their countenances." Page 5. A typical sentence. I noted that 'I hope this is supposed to be comedy'.

2. On page 8 we get our first sinister foreigners, a couple of French ambassadors who pepper their discourses with "Mortdieu!"s and "Pardieu!"s.

3. The speculation that Edward VI was poisoned by Lady Jane Grey's father, the Duke of Northumberland, was naturally incorporated into the story. I had not been familiar with this theory previously, which is well known among people who approach English history from the romantic standpoint, though I do not have the impression that it holds much weight or interest with real historians.

4. "Jane mentally ejaculated...'Whatever betide me, Heaven grant that that noble pile may never again be polluted by the superstitious ceremonies and idolatries of Rome!' Talking about the old (pre-fire) St Paul's Cathedral. Also another characteristic sentence.

5. p. 42 "Can it be possible you are the same Jane whom I left--all love, all meekness, all compliance--or have a few hours of rule so changed your nature that you no longer love me as heretofore?" You got it, dog.

6. The book is full of real men who not merely escape confinement, but burst chains in rage at the thought of another man possessing their lovers.

7. p.66 Another lament about the loss of Old St. Paul's ('the heaviest...sustained by the metropolis in the great fire"). It would be the topic of his next book as well.

8. p. 81 A tour of the bodies deposited in the grounds of the tower brings up Thomas More, of whom we are told "his body was afterwards removed, at the intercession of his daughter, Margaret Roper (played by the delectable Susannah York in the film A Man For All Seasons), to Chelsea." The consensus in the case seems to be that Margaret rescued her father's head, which by custom would have been pitched into the river after its ------cision from the body, and had it buried with herself in Chelsea Old Church, though both Margaret's remains and St Thomas's head have since been removed to St Dunstan's in Canterbury. The specific location of the rest of Thomas More's body is unknown but is assumed to be within the Tower grounds, and there is a memorial to him now in the Church of St Peter-ad-Vincula therein. The details of the remains of very ancient famous people especially are a subject of great matter with me. The reasons for this have to do with feelings and my sense of estrangement from everything, history, the physical world, learning, etc, and are not interesting. One's head must have some facts and dim line of thought to follow in it.

9. The book does not really explain why Popish Mary was so wanted by most of the populace, including the influential classes. I presume it was to avoid wars of legitimacy.

10. p.128 "Though a contrary opinion is generally entertained, Mary was not without some pretension to beauty."

11. pp. 129-30 Assessment of Elizabeth's hotness (with a further note by me in parentheses. 'Michele?' What does that mean?). "In personal attractions the Princess Elizabeth far surpassed her sister. She was then in the bloom of youth, and though she could scarcely be termed positively beautiful, she had a very striking appearance, being tall, portly, with bright blue eyes, and exquisitely formed hands, which she took great pains to display."

12. p.133 "The sun poured down its rays upon the ancient fortress, which had so lately opened its gates to an usurper, but which now like a heartless rake had cast off one mistress to take another."

13. p.143  M. Dulaire, quoted, in his description of the Grand Chatelet at Paris: "every old building, the origin of which is buried in obscurity, is attributed to Caesar or the devil." The witty French.

14. In 1241, the 'citizens of London' protested expansion of the Tower/prison. They weren't fools, but of course they were stearolled anyway.

15. "Edward the Second commanded the sherriffs of London to pay the keeper of his lions sixpence a-day for their food, and three half-pence a day for the man's own diet..."

16. The citizens protest the gallows erected by Edward IV, circa 1465. He was also all business, however.

In keeping with my goal of posting at least something every week, I will stop here and break this edifying visit into the romantic past into multiple parts.

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