Thommy Ford Reads

A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library

Free eBook Review: Jack Sheppard (1839) by William Harrison Ainsworth

Looking for some free books to fill your eReader?  You may already know that there are plenty of classics available as free downloadable eBooks, but if you explore enough you’ll find some free titles you might not expect: forgotten bestsellers, early genre classics, pulp fiction and more.  Here’s a free title that has caught my attention lately, with links to the download below.

One of George Cruikshank’s illustrations from the first edition of Jack Sheppard.

Poor Jack Sheppard seems destined to come to a bad end.  He is born on the same day his father is hanged for thievery and with two ominous birthmarks: one shaped like a coffin, the other like a noose.  Although he is lucky to escape poverty by being apprenticed to a carpenter at an early age, he still finds himself inexplicably drawn to a life of crime.  Can Jack use the natural charm and daring that make him a great thief to avoid the same fate as his father?

Based on the true story of an infamous 18th century criminal, William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1839 novel Jack Sheppard was a runaway success in its day.  It even managed to outsell Oliver Twist when it was first published.  I dug up a contemporary review (Fraser’s Magazine; Feb, 1840) by none other than Vanity Fair author William Thackery, who worried that the book’s immense popularity would corrupt British youth: “The popular exhibition of Jack Sheppard, metamorphosed from a vulgar ruffian into a melodramatic hero… will tend to fill many a juvenile aspirant for riot and notoriety with ideas highly conducive to the progress of so ennobling a profession as that of housebreaking.”

William Harrison Ainsworth

I don’t think we can share Thackery’s qualms with Jack Sheppard.  These days it’s not so hard to keep 19th century fiction out of the hands of riotous youths.  In fact, the very same lack of moralizing that Thackery laments, is what now makes the book hold up so well despite its age. Jack Sheppard turns out to be among the most exciting, and least preachy, of 19th century English novels.  There’s burglary, of course, but there’s also jailbreaks, kidnappings, cases of mistaken identity, political corruption, espionage, and a couple of love stories to boot.   The novel moves from one adventure to another seamlessly, fills each incident with fascinating characters, and features a well rendered historical setting.  Jack Sheppard proves to be excellent reading if you’re in the mood for either historical or adventure fiction.  Just don’t blame me if it drives you to a life of crime.

Available for Kindle, Nook (ePub), and just about every other eBook format from Project Gutenberg.

Review by Matthew

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2012 by in Adventure, Book Review, eBook, Fiction, Free eBook Reviews, Historical.
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