Friday, 26 September 2008

The Real Dick Turpin

One of the essential aspects of writing is research. No matter what you write there has to be some element of research to it, whether it's five years of arduous study for that historical biography or five minutes to confirm the menu prices for that restaurant review. When I decided to write Dick Turpin and the Restless Dead one of the tasks I knew faced me would be to find out a bit more about the legendary highwayman himself.

Like Robin Hood, Turpin is a character who has become ingrained in the British consciousness and most people could rattle off few things about him. Highwayman. Robbing coaches. Black Bess. The ride from London to York. Flintlock pistols. "Stand and deliver!" Everyone knows that is what Dick Turpin is all about. But as it turned out, that isn't really what Dick Turpin was all about at all.

The facts are thus: The real Richard Turpin was born in Essex in 1705 to John and Mary Turpin. A butcher by trade, he became a notorious highwayman who was eventually captured in York and executed there in 1739. The real Dick Turpin was a scarred, violent thug who fell in with a number of other like-minded individuals and comitted robberies that were brutal and sadistic. He was, in reality, a nasty little bastard.

The trappings that we associate with Turpin are - but for the fact that he had a habit of taking things that didn't belong to him - false. He never had a horse called Black Bess. He was not some romantically attired gentleman of the road, all billowing cape and twirling flintlocks. He never made that fabled ride from London to York. And barely 100 years after he swung from the noose hardly anyone remembered him.

Discovering this about Turpin was a fascinating reveal. I had been suckered along with everyone else and felt a mild pang of disappointment that the legend of Dick Turpin was just exactly that. Fake. A made-up story. But then I found out some things that were really interesting. It seems that pretty much the entire re-imagining of Dick Turpin came from one man, William Harrison Ainsworth, and his novel Rookwood published in 1834. This featured highwayman Dick Turpin as a romantic anti-hero, a dashing rogue atop stallion Black Bess who rode the London York road in record time. This is where the modern interpretation of Turpin comes from, the popular images of whom have little changed since Ainsworth's novel.

Not many will know the name WH Ainsworth today outside scholars of early Victorian literature - it's almost as if the bitter price made by Ainsworth for his efforts to imprint Turpin back into our collective memory was that he himself be in turn be forgotten. How remarkable that is can only be appreciated once you know that Ainsworth was the biggest writer of his day, heads and shoulders above his rivals. One of those rivals was a certain Charles Dickens, who Ainsworth regularly trounced in the popularity and sales stakes, to the point where Ainsworth's novel Jack Sheppard outsold Dickens' latest work by three to one. That Dickens novel was Oliver Twist.

The Dick Turpin I wanted to write about was the one popularised by Ainsworth. I was pretty much certain that would be the Dick Turpin everyone would want to read about as well. I made certain concessions to the truth - the Turpin in Dick Turpin and the Restless Dead has an obvious ruthless streak. He's grim, hard, and can undoubtedly be a nasty bastard if he needs to be. But my Turpin has a sense of honour and would be the type to watch your back in a fight rather than thrust a knife into it.

The truth will out, but sometimes the legend is a far better bedfellow.

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