I see how Ruin, with palsied hand
Begins to shake our ancient house to dust.
Yorkshire Tragedy. — from the 1878 and earlier title-pages.

In 1831, twenty-six-year-old William Harrison Ainsworth, an amateur dramatist and practising attorney, transformed Cuckfield Place, Sussex, owned by his friend William Sergison, into gloomy Rookwood Place for his first mature novel after the minor gothic work Sir John Chiverton (1826). The novel went through five large editions in only three years, making Ainsworth's name and fortune, and leading directly to his having sufficient literary gravitas to assume the post of editor of Bentley's Miscellany (1837) after the twenty-five-year-old Charles Dickens quarrelled with the publisher and resigned the post in 1838.

Despite its convoluted plot, the book is memorable for its handling of atmosphere and its anglicizing the gothic of Anne Radcliffe, and for its introducing an entirely English element as the insertion of the highwayman Dick Turpin into the inheritance plot helped to establish the Newgate novel of the 1830s.

Rookwood (1834) is very much a prose romance (as opposed to a realistic novel) in the manner of Horace Whalpole's original gothic tale, the far-fetched The Castle of Otranto (1764), the more recent The Bride of Lammermoor (1817) by Sir Walter Scott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables (April 1851, published by Ticknor and Fields of Boston). The reader encounters the initial problem posed by the death of Sir Piers Rookwood, for it has left in doubt who will succeed him as lord of the manor: Ranulph (his son by Lady Rookwood) or Luke (his apparently illegitimate son, to whose mother, Susan Bradley, Sir Piers was secretly married prior to his marriage to Lady Rookwood). Since Luke is the elder, if his legitimacy can be established, he will inherit the estate and marry Eleanor Mowbray, who stands to inherit estates from Sir Reginald Rookwood, Sir Piers' father. In order to court Eleanor, Luke abandons Sybil Lovel, a gypsy girl who was his fiancée. The crazed sexton Peter Bradley (in fact, Alan Rookwood, Sir Reginald's wronged brother in disguise) and the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin offer to assist Luke, who is poisoned when he kisses a strand of Sybil's hair sent him by her grandmother, Barbara Lovel, queen of the gypsies. Thus, Ranulph wins Eleanor and his father's estate. Finally, the curse upon the house of Rookwood is lifted when the widow, Lady Rookwood, discovers the very dagger with which the founder of the family murdered his wife.

Into the convoluted inheritance plot involving sibling rivalry, disguise, and deception Ainsworth injects the historical figure of "Jack Palmer," the Yorkshire alias for the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin (1705 – 1739), who becomes embroiled in the Rookwood family plot but whose allegiances are never clear. Although his ride has little to do with the main inheritance plot, Turpin determines to give himself a plausible alibi by riding his remarkable mare, Black Bess, the 200 miles from London to York in a single night — a feat entirely of Ainsworth's own making. The historical Turpin, as Ainsworth notes in his conclusion, was hanged for horse thievery, one of some two hundred capital offences in eighteenth-century England. Like gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin the highwayman was venerated as a hero of the people, his feats real and legendary, exploits recorded by Richard Bayes in The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin (1739). London water-colourist and engraver Edward Hull (1823-1906) capitalised on the popularity of Ainsworth's story, publishing six prints of notable events in Turpin's career. Those engravings and Ainsworth's novel were in turn undoubtedly the impetus for George Dibdin-Pitt's recreating Turpin's notable exploits in an 1845 melodrama staged at The City of London Theatre, and for Marie Tussaud to include a wax sculpture of Turpin in her public exhibition of historical personages.

. . . it was probably as much owing to its Newgate as to its Gothic features that Ainsworth's Rookwood created such a sensation on its publication in 1834. The criminal underworld makes numerous appearances in Rookwood, most notably in the person of Dick Turpin, an actual Newgate denizen executed in 1739. Not altogether accurately, Turpin had long been known to a vast popular audience as the type of the romantic highwayman; and his rather contrived presence in the novel — he has virtually nothing to do with the main action — was immediately seized upon as a great virtue by the public, if not by the critics of Ainsworth's day. — George Worth, 36.

Ironically, although he is a peripheral character, the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin is one of the novel's most engaging personages; his ride on Black Bess from London to York with the minions of the law in constant pursuit and the tragic death of Turpin's faithful black mare are the best things in the romance. Unfortunately, in Rookwood, Ainsworth seems unable to choose between the historical novels of Scott and the gothic romances of Anne Radcliffe as his model.

It is not insignificant that the novel is interspersed with ballads, for one feels that Turpin belongs properly to the ballad tradition. Consequently, Ainsworth's famous description of Turpin's ride, good as it is, clashes with the Gothic atmosphere of Rookwood Place. — Patrick Kelly, DLB, p. 8.

Although extremely successful in their own day, such historical romances as Guy Fawkes (1840), The Tower of London (1840), and Windsor Castle (1843) failed to sustain Ainsworth's as a household name and a stage presence. He resigned the editorship of Bentley's Miscellany in December 1841, and founded his own Ainsworth's Magazine (1842-1854), but never again achieved the celebrity that the 1839 novel conferred upon him.

Although published in three volumes by Richard Bentley in April, 1834, with a few illustrations by Daniel Maclise, the novel's fourth edition was the first that contained a full program of illustration, including George Cruikshank's atmospheric rendering of the setting, The Old Manse, otherwise, Rookwood Place, a seventeenth-century Yorkshire mansion, viewed through an archway of lime trees that suggests the long vista of a century, for the action occurs in 1737. Sir John Gilbert's 1852 wood-engravings, although much more realistic, lack the lightness and vivacity of George Cruikshank's copper engravings of 1836.