Opium can be eaten, injected, smoked, or dissolved in brandy to make laudanum. Despite his preference for the tincture (at the height of his addiction he took 10,000 drops a day), Thomas de Quincey achieved renown as the pseudonymous opium-eater, whose confessions, first published in 1821, sensationalised an unexceptional habit.
Whether in the dentist’s chair or at the pharmacy on the way home from the tavern, it was easy to get hold of the drug in early 19-century England, and many lost themselves to its dream-enhancing effects.
De Quincey, “Romantic acolyte, professional doppelgänger, transcendental hack”, as Frances Wilson calls him in this tremendous biography, first took the drug in London, where he also once found himself homeless after failing to secure a loan. Wilson’s portrait of the city from the perspective of its down-and-outs is strangely familiar, and many of De Quincey’s descriptions ring true, from the “tumult and blaze of Piccadilly” to “the great Mediterranean of Oxford Street”, which also became his “stony-hearted stepmother”.
De Quincey had fallen a long way from a well-to-do childhood in Manchester. Although his father died when he was seven, his mother raised the children in a beautiful home before moving them to Edmund Burke’s former house in Bath, where, Wilson observes, “De Quincey’s sense of entitlement set root”.
The first question you find yourself asking when reading De Quincey’s essays (there are 250 of them) is how far opium shaped his thought. While Wilson makes a good case for her belief that “opium was the making” of him — a perfect subject for his richly-textured, soaring prose — she is also excellent at conveying just how strange the young classics scholar was before he started seeing sarcophagi, turrets and sepulchres in drug-induced phantasmagoria. Morbid, anxious, shy but obsequious, De Quincey had his first experience of debt when, as a boy plagued by fear that he would never read all the books ever written, he fell into arrears at the local bookshop.
The “guilty thing” of the book’s title comes from Hamlet via Wordsworth, the poet De Quincey most idolised, but perhaps best describes De Quincey in his friendship with Coleridge. Wordsworth never touched the stuff but Coleridge took even more laudanum than De Quincey and felt that, with his Confessions, the morbid essayist had “made a boast of what was my misfortune”. Later, De Quincey would unearth Coleridge as a plagiarist, which was rich, as Wilson shows, for De Quincey himself borrowed from many writers, not least Wordsworth and Hazlitt.
Perhaps Coleridge and De Quincey shared a lack of conviction in their respective genius. While De Quincey had the temerity to tell the editor of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine that he was “determined to save the magazine from the fate which its stupidity merits” (he was told not to bother — journalists take note), he also emerges as far less comfortable in his own skin than Wordsworth or many of the other contemporaries who fill these pages with their travels and disputes.
This is a seamless, stirring, sublime biography, which takes you to the heart, or rather the head, of the opium-eater. Whether you are more repelled or mesmerised by him, it’s hard to dispute that De Quincey was the most complex and unpredictable writer of his times.
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