William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, a Romance (1839-40)

Amidst my dissertation work, I have managed to read another Victorian novel. If you knew me, this would not surprise you. My fellow graduate students now roll their eyes at me when I talk about the amount of work that I complete. Yes, it is amazing how much work one can accomplish when one puts forty hours of effort in per week (just saying – writing a dissertation is really about schedules, organisation, and commitment to work EVERY DAY).  However, enough about that nonsense; I want to tell you about this fantastic novel that I have read.

Jack Sheppard is a Newgate Novel – that is a crime novel centred around characters who have committed a crime and are either trying to avoid being sent to Newgate Prison and /or trying to escape from Newgate after they’ve been sentenced. Jack Sheppard is a historical figure – also known as John Sheppard – a thief who was famous for breaking out of Newgate. He became a popular anti-hero or Robin Hood figure for working class and poor Victorians who were frustrated by the injustices that the wealthy and upper-middle classes could get away with while, the poorest citizens were convicted to ridiculous sentences because of theft. While it was not exactly Jean Val Jean serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, it was not a just or equal system.

Jack Sheppard Sir James Thornhill 1723

(alleged to be a drawing of Jack Sheppard by Sir James Thornhill)

Jack Sheppard, born of a gin-guzzling woman and Tom Sheppard, a criminal himself killed by the famous thief-catcher Jonathan Wild, is essentially an orphan. Mr. Wood, a Carpenter takes the child from the mother who is in no condition to care for her son and raises him, along with another orphan boy named Thames Darrell, as a brother to his daughter Winifred Wood, and eventually as his carpenter’s apprentice. Mr. Wood is trying to turn Jack away from his dissolute heritage and make him a respectable tradesman. Wood also cares for his mother who, years later, has sobered up and lives a life of repentance.

Ainsworth makes a couple of interesting choices in regards to Jack’s turn to crime. First, he has bad influences, hanging around on the streets with pickpockets, prostitutes, and other nefarious people. Ainsworth also makes a point about Jack’s physiognomy, the shape of his head and the expressions of his face indicate that he is untrustworthy and a reprobate. Mrs. Wood, untrusting of her husband’s fidelity and suspicious that the boys are secretly his bastards hates Jack (she is not much of a Thames fan either), and wants him out of the house by the time he is twelve.

At the same time, despite his desire to be a thief, Jack is doggedly loyal to his fellow orphan Thames. Thames is an ideal apprentice who takes his work with Wood seriously and regrets any perception that he is taking advantage of his place. Jack respects Thames’s ideals and regrets not being able to live up to them. He also uses his nefarious knowledge to help Thames who becomes a central figure in the novel’s plot, which involves Jonathan Wild’s evil plot to steal a fortune from a French nobleman. Jack, while trying to escape the law for both his own crimes, and crimes that Wild wrongly accuses him of, spends the novel trying to save his comrade’s life and fortune.

The novel is a suspense-thriller with lots of chase scenes, prison breaks, bloody fights, and a sense of fun comradery amongst Jack’s gang of thieves: Blueskin, Mrs. Maggot, and Edgeworth Bess. Blueskin’s loyalty is especially important and interesting as he commits crimes and sacrifices himself multiple times in order to gain Jack’s freedom.

The homosocial bonds between Jack and Thames, Jack and Blueskin, and even Jack and Wild are fascinating studies of male friendship and competition worthy of analysis by the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The portrayal of women is also interesting. Maggot and Edgeworth Bess both help Jack on multiple occasions and ensure that they help themselves throughout the novel. While Ainsworth has Jack and others lament the inconstancy of women, at the same time, these women show how such inconstancy means survival and freedom from dependence on men. Winifred, while in many ways a typical heroine, is also somewhat clever and brave. On more than one occasion, she is the one who opens the front door of the house when all the men are too cowardly to face who may be on the other side.

I really enjoyed the novel. If you enjoy modern true-crime books, try Jack Sheppard. If you enjoy interesting character studies that seek a depth that goes beyond good/evil binaries, then this may be the novel of you. It is also a good geographical study of the city of London. Set in the early eighteenth century, it is also a study of England of that period with lots of cameo appearances by Hogarth, Gay, and Sir James Thornhill.

Jack Sheppard (Broadview Literary Editions)


I recommend the Broadview Edition of the novel because of the wonderful introduction by Edward Jacobs and Manuela Mourão and for the contextual material contained in the back. Use the link above where you can buy this edition directly from Broadview Press.


Until next time,


Happy Reading!


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