William Harrison Ainsworth may no longer be the household name that his occasional associates and acquaintances Mary Shelley, Walter Scott or Samuel Taylor Coleridge remain, but the city of York still owes a debt to this writer of rambling serialised historical gothic romances. Born and raised in Manchester and living most of his life in London, Ainsworth had little direct contact with our home town, but he had more influence than anyone else in rehabilitating the reputations of our two most famous residents. Both violent criminals who met their end in violent execution, one died here (his burial place is just round the corner from our flat), the other born here (the pub that claims to be his birthplace opposite the church of his christening was where we had our first date), Dick Turpin and Guy Fawkes both got to play a leading role in one of Ainsworth’s Newgate Novels.
Ainsworth was one of the leading purveyors of this genre, a world of melodramatic stories that romanticised the lives of famous real life criminals. The Newgate Novel’s popularity probably reached its peak when his version of the story of thief and escape artist Jack Sheppard (the inspiration for The Beggars Opera and The Threepenny Opera and, thus, essentially the real life “Mack the Knife”) was serialised in Bentley’s Miscellany. Unfortunately for Ainsworth’s lasting fame, his story was somewhat eclipsed by the other book Bentley’s were then running as a serial: another Newgate Novel subtitled The Parish Boy’s Progress and written by a friend of Ainsworth’s under the pseudonym “Boz”. Boz, of course, was the nom de plume of the young Charles Dickens and the book was Oliver Twist.
Like the Penny Dreadfuls that succeeded them or violent films and games today, the Newgate Novels were somewhat implausibly blamed for copycat violent crimes. When Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard was implicated as inspiring the murder of Lord William Russell in 1840, it predicated the decline of both the genre and Ainsworth’s relationship with Dickens. Years later their relationship became further strained after George Cruikshank, the famous caricaturist and illustrator that Ainsworth had introduced to Dickens, claimed to have come up with both Oliver Twist and most of Ainsworth’s Newgate Novels, all of which he illustrated.
Ainsworth’s Rookwood, a name borrowed, incidentally, from another of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators Ambrose Rookwood, established the image of Turpin the dashing dandy highwayman in the popular imagination when it was published in 1834. Meanwhile, 1841’s Guy Fawkes presented a view of the explosives expert that was much more sympathetic than previous generations. Ainsworth’s Fawkes is a victim of circumstance and rebelling against an unjust society. After Ainsworth’s works, both Turpin and Fawkes became acceptably heroic figures it was worth admiring.
Of course the similarities between Turpin and Fawkes kind of end there. The real Dick Turpin was motivated entirely by greed and used methods of murder and torture to achieve his ends, a thoroughly unpleasant individual in every way. The real Guy Fawkes, though, is somewhat harder to pin down. Fawkes’ crimes were committed for a wider cause against government repression. Fawkes is caught in the age old “one man’s terrorist is another’s revolutionary” dichotomy. Both the universally revered Nelson Mandela and the universally reviled Osama Bin Laden used terror tactics to achieve their political ends. Where Fawkes comes on a scale of Mandela to Bin Laden is largely a subjective, personal position.
The tradition of commemorating the failed Gunpowder Plot on Bonfire Night dates right back to an Act of Parliament passed in 1606 known as the Thanksgiving Act or Observance of 5th November Act, which called for an annual day of thanksgiving for the Gunpowder Plot’s failure. This Act was not repealed until March of 1859. The tone of the Thanksgiving Act, written by the puritan Edward Montagu, gives no doubt that Bonfire Night originated in anti-Catholic fervour, describing how: “many malignant and devilish papists, Jesuits, and seminary priests much envying and fearing, conspired most horribly“.
Because of this there will always be a debate around whether the continuing celebration of Bonfire Night is “anti-Catholic” or “a celebration of religious persecution”. Certainly this would seem to be the case with the continuing tendency to burn effigies of the Pope in Lewes, around where my dad grew up in East Sussex. On Wednesday I alluded to the possibility that here in Fawkes’ home town we don’t celebrate for the same reason as his old school locally, St. Peter’s, who say: “We don’t burn effigies of old boys“. But should we, does celebrating Bonfire Night involve condemning and burning a heretic in effigy, or has its meaning and the ideas we associate with Guy Fawkes shifted through time?
Ainsworth’s novels were written in a period where England’s over 200 years of religious intolerance towards the country’s Catholics was finally beginning to erode. Guy Fawkes‘ publication occurred between the 1829 Roman Catholic Relief Act and the Universalis Ecclesiae of 1850, the papal bull that re-established the Catholic hierarchy in England. Meanwhile, in Professor Plum’s childhood home of Guildford, Bonfire Night became an excuse for the “Guy Riots“. The Guildford Guys indicate that the image of Guy had already come to be associated with wider forms of unrest than simply sectarian religious rivalry.
If Ainsworth is less well known than his former illustrator Cruikshank, then the opposite is true of artist David Lloyd, the second person responsible for a positive pop cultural image of Fawkes. Lloyd the comic book artist is not nearly so famous as his most significant collaborator Alan Moore, perhaps the most acclaimed name in writing comics. However it was Lloyd who was responsible for suggesting, imagining and designing the iconic Fawkes mask and imagery when Moore wrote his anarchist pulp hero V in V for Vendetta. Written against the grim backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, V for Vendetta‘s particular brand of dystopia and its pro-anarchy political discourse are very much of their time, it has not aged so well as Moore’s later masterworks Watchmen and From Hell.
Despite some occasionally heavy criticism for departing from the anarchy-order political dichotomy of the original book, not least from the increasingly curmudgeonly Moore, the 2005 film of V for Vendetta actually proved mostly successful by engaging with the current climate of politics in the age of the War on Terror and the American Patriot Act (in contrast to the film adaptation of Watchmen‘s slavish recreation of the original’s 80s setting and ideas).
As written by The Matrix‘s Andy and Lana Wachowski, the V for Vendetta film replaces Thatcher’s world as inspiration with that of George W. Bush. This American take on a British story occasionally has its British-ness just a little bit off (there seems to be an errant extra “the” in the famous rhyming mnemonic), but does manage to convey a more nuanced view of the masked comic book vigilante than most superhero pictures. The film suffered when its planned November 5th 2005 release was pushed back. There was little appetite for a film that made its hero a terrorist bombing London from a tube train in the wake of the July 7th bombings.
Despite its only modest initial success in cinemas, the V for Vendetta film won more of an audience over time and its legacy is obvious in the way Fawkes is now widely portrayed and perceived. While much of Moore’s writing did not survive the adaptation, Lloyd’s design did. His white mask with rosy cheeks and thin pencil moustache and beard has developed a life of its own outside of either the book or the film. It has become symbolic of the hacktivist group Anonymous and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Fawkes has become representative of a struggle to preserve civil liberties.
For many outside Britain, when they suggest that they should “remember the 5th of November” or celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, they are suggesting celebrating this image of Fawkes not celebrating his demise or burning his effigy as a traitor and heretic. While the idea of Fawkes the crusader for justice and civil liberties may be as inaccurate as that of a “malignant and devilish papist” and the real Fawkes was probably a much more complicated human being than either, it is a significant and powerful image. Increasingly over here in Britain we are coming to adopt the positive view of Guy Fawkes that has gone over to America via Ainsworth, Lloyd and the Wachowskis and is now being given back to us with a different significance for one of our popular celebration days.
In many ways this reflects the etymology of the word “guy”. Prior to the V for Vendetta, Anonymous, Occupy era, the word “guy” was Fawkes’ major influence on American culture. While over here it had come to mean any weird or odd looking person (after the ragged “guys” made for burning on the bonfire), when the word was exported to America it became a far more general term for any man. Being a guy, or one of the guys, is a largely positive term, it’s about belonging, being one of the 99%. The US sent us back this version of our word and now it would not ever be used in its derogatory archaic fashion.
In the same sense it is only a matter of time before this version of Fawkes and the 5th of November is the one that children are called on to remember. The sign hanging above the aforesaid pub which claims to be his birthplace has already changed to represent the V for Vendetta face of Fawkes more than the old fashioned one.