The Criminal Adventures of Jack Sheppard

The latest additions to the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists (C0171) include two volumes of manuscripts by William H. Ainsworth (1805-82), chiefly for his novel Jack Sheppard: A Romance. This lurid Newgate School novel was serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany (1839-40) and published by Richard Bentley (1839) as a “triple-decker” (3-volume novel). The novel was published with a series of 27 etchings by the eminent British illustrator George Cruikshank, a large collection of whose papers (C0256) is also in the Manuscripts Division. The novel’s protagonist is Jack Sheppard (1702-23), a London apprentice carpenter, who turned to a life of crime and in the course of just two years achieved notoriety as a housebreaker, pick-pocket, and outlaw, until he was executed at the Tyburn gallows. Sheppard’s audacious prison escapes made him an appealing “low-society” anti-hero for the novel, which became a bestseller and outsold Oliver Twist, also published around that time. Yet the novel’s popularity displeased many critics, who considered it unseemly for the publisher and author to profit from a sensationalized life of an unrepentant criminal.

A contemporary of Charles Dickens, Ainsworth was the author of 39 novels, mostly on historical themes, and some of his novels (including Jack Sheppard) were adapted to the stage. Ainsworth began researching the novel in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne. He drew on eighteenth-century press accounts and on popular literature about Sheppard’s criminal career, daring escapes, and ultimate punishment. The author made many revisions and corrections in his autograph manuscript, entitled “True Account of Jack Sheppard the Housebreaker,” in part at Bentley’s insistence. The text often differs from the published novel. Also included in the two volumes are Ainsworth’s research notes about Sheppard, a synopsis and early drafts of the novel, a letter of 1838 to Charles Ollier about Bentley and publication, portraits of Ainsworth and Sheppard, and fragments from the manuscript of the author’s later novel Old St. Paul’s (1841).

The Jack Sheppard manuscript has been added to the Manuscripts Division’s portion of the Parrish Collection. Ainsworth was one of the British authors comprehensively collected by Morris Longstreth Parrish (1867-1944), Class of 1888, a respected Philadelphia businessman, who bequeathed his extraordinary library of Victorian novelists to Princeton. Parrish’s library was at Dormy House, his residence in Pine Valley, New Jersey. In addition to Ainsworth, Parrish collected Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Charles Reade, Charles Kingsley, Dinah Craik, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Hughes, Charles Lever, George Meredith, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, and other Victorian authors.

In the many decades since the Parrish bequest, the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has continued to add to enrich Parrish holdings by gift and purchase. Alexander D. Wainwright, Class of 1939, a life-long curator and administrator at the Princeton University Library, played an instrumental role in this acquisitions effort. While the original Parrish bequest included only one Ainsworth letter, the holdings have grown to nearly 300 Ainsworth letters, including the author’s correspondence with Richard Bentley and 18 letters received from other people. The Parrish Collection includes major parts of the autograph manuscripts of Chetwynd Calverley (1876) and Beatrice Tyldesley (1878); and leaves of other manuscripts. The Rare Books portion of the Parrish Collection has editions of all Ainsworth’s novels. The Graphic Arts Collection has Daniel Maclise’s oil portrait of Ainsworth and 3 volumes with Cruikshank’s etchings for Jack Sheppard, with additional pencil drawings.

Other recent additions to manuscript holdings for Parrish authors include selected correspondence of Anthony Trollope, autograph manuscripts by Charles Lever and Wilkie Collins, and a large number of sermons by Charles Kingsley.

For more information about the holdings of the Parrish Collection, contact Public Services,

Ainsworth MS Draft
Manuscript draft of Jack Sheppard