The Notice for Mervyn Clitheroe (1 December 1857) by W. Harrison Ainsworth. Mr. Ainsworth's new serial in shilling numbers. In monthly numbers. The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe. With illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne. London: George Routledge and Co., Farringdon Street.

Bibliographical Information

Hoping to take his fiction in a more contemporary and less historical direction, William Harrison Ainsworth used as his model Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, which Chapman and Hall had serialised between May 1849 and November 1850. The same publishers, attracted perhaps to Ainsworth's consciously emulating the Dickens novel, began serialisation of Mervyn Clitheroe in December 1851. As Stephen Carver observes, "The central character is very recognisably the author himself." The physical setting of the opening of the story, early 19th c. "Cottonborough" (that is, the manufacturing north of England city of Manchester), and the book's dedication to "My contemporaries at the Manchester School" both suggest that Ainsworth has developed a protagonist who is very much like himself as a grammar school student. Although the reading public and the critics at first accepted this new direction from Ainsworth, sales fell so dramatically that Chapman and Hall decided to terminate the project in March 1852. Perhaps even his most faithful readers yearned for a more conventional Ainsworth historical romance, with criminal exploits, dashing escapes, and costume melodrama. In fact, Ainsworth dropped the whole idea until his friend, Crossley, suggested he revive it with some of the usual ingredients in 1858.

At the conclusion of the fourth monthly instalment, issued in March 1852, appeared the following notice to alert serial readers to what the publishers seem to be envisaging will be a temporary interruption:

The first part of the ADVENTURES OF MERVYN CLITHEROE — 'part of a whole, yet in itself complete' — is now concluded. Some delay will probably occur in the continuation of the Story. The Author regrets it, but the delay is unavoidable on his part. Unforeseen circumstances are likely to compel him to suspend, for a while, his pleasant task; — pleasant, because many of the incidents and characters have been supplied to him by his own personal recollections, while the scenes in which the events are placed have been familiar to him since childhood. Ere long he hopes to meet his friends again; bidding them, meanwhile, a kindly farewell!" [cited by Vann, pp. 27-28]

However, Chapman and Hall in fact abandoned the project because, as John Sutherland remarks, sales were not indicative of widespread interest in the serial. "In December 1857, Routledge undertook to complete the work, in twelve numbers, following up with a one volume edition" (431).

When, after an hiatus of five years and seven months, Phiz returned to the project with new publishers, he had become enamored of the so-called "dark plate," an atmospheric treatment he relied upon heavily in the illustrations for Bleak House (1853). Consequently, he employed this engraving technique for a significant number of the illustrations in Books Two and Three (December 1857 through June 1858), including the frontispiece and title-page vignette. Of the twenty-four steel-engravings for Mervyn Clitheroe, none of the eight are dark plates in Book the First (December 1851 through March 1852), but twelve of the sixteen plates for the second and third books demonstrate Phiz's mastery of this engraving technique.

Scanned image by Special Collections at the McPherson Library, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; colour correction, sizing, caption, and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the institution which scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.] Click on the image to enlarge it.


Ainsworth, William Harrison. The Life and Adventures of Mervyn Clitheroe (1851-2; 1858). Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne ('Phiz'). London: Routledge, 1882.

Carver, Stephen. The Life and Works of the Lancashire Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, 1805–1882. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003.

Ellis, S. M. William Harrison Ainsworth and His Friends. Volume 2. London: Garland Publishing, 1979.

Lester, Valerie Browne. Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens. London: Chatto and Windus, 2004.

Lever, Charles. Davenport Dunn: The Man of The Day. Illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Browne). London: Chapman and Hall, July 1857 through April 1859 with twenty-one instalments and twenty-two parts Image courtesy of Special Collections, The McPherson Library, University of Victoria, B. C., Canada. In the volume form, the novel was re-titled Davenport Dunn: A Man of Our Day (April 1859).

Steig, Michael. Dickens and Phiz. Bloomington: Indiana U. P., 1978.

Sutherland, John. "Mervyn Clitheroe." The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stan

Vanden Bossche, Chris. Reform Acts: Chartism, Social Agency, and the Victorian Novel, 1832-1867. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2014. [Review by Andrzej Diniejko].

Vann, J. Don. "William Harrison Ainsworth. Mervyn Clitheroe, twelve parts in eleven monthly installments, December 1851-March 1852, December 1857-June 1858." New York: MLA, 1985. Pp. 27-28.

Worth, George J. William Harrison Ainsworth. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Last modified 24 September 2021