“Romantic acolyte, professional doppelganger, transcendental hack”: thus Frances Wilson characterises Thomas De Quincey at the beginning of her new biography. It is a bravura opening to a book that captures in both form and focus something of its subject’s disorienting, brilliant unpredictability. “There have been several fine biographies of De Quincey,” Wilson writes, “but so far no De Quinceyan biography.”
There are plenty of stylistic fireworks worthy of De Quincey here. Comets whiz through the pages, as do snippets of poetry, narrative diversions and gruesome details of the various contemporary murders by which De Quincey was fascinated. Wilson maps her account of De Quincey’s life on to the structure of Wordsworth’s Prelude and then proceeds to pull apart that crowning glory of Romantic autobiography according to the messy dictates of De Quincey’s life. The result is a great, complicated book, in which a host of competing ideas and images jostle for supremacy.
Wilson begins her chronological account of De Quincey’s life not with his birth in 1785 but with the death of his sister Elizabeth in 1792. Elizabeth was nine, De Quincey was six. In his autobiographical writings he identified her death as the moment he came to a true realisation of the human condition: “All men come into this world alone; all leave it alone.” This sharpened sense of isolation, fostered in both reality and imagination, stayed with De Quincey throughout his childhood and adolescence. So did a heightened appreciation of the literary qualities of his own life. He found an early version of his literary voice by readingLyrical Ballads, along with a sense of both the danger and the possibility of a life passed away from the confines of home.
Wordsworth became an obsession, and as a young man De Quincey embarked on a frantic journey to Grasmere where he hoped to meet his hero. He fled without introducing himself. He unmoored himself on the streets of London, disappearing among the poor in order to discover his essential self. He bolted from undergraduate life in Oxford without completing his degree, possibly because laudanum was already making him suggestible and impulsive. Finally he installed himself as Wordsworth’s tenant and hanger-on at Dove Cottage, replacing Coleridge “as Wordsworth’s inferior friend”. There he learned that to be Wordsworth’s friend was no easy thing and the fraught relationship between the two men is at the heart of Wilson’s story. De Quincey was driven half mad by discovering that his idol could be vain, unkind and demanding. “Never describe Wordsworth as equal in pride to Lucifer,” he wrote, “but, if you have occasion to write a life of Lucifer, set down that possibility, in respect to pride, he might be some type of Wordsworth.”
For his part Wordsworth found De Quincey intriguing and infuriating by turns. De Quincey offered the kind of obsessive admiration on which the poet thrived. He also disrupted family life, made incessant emotional demands, and, in Wilson’s words, plagiarised the death of Wordsworth’s daughter Catherine into his own tragedy. When De Quincey announced his intention of marrying a local girl called Margaret Simpson, Wordsworth’s disapproval was so intense that he turned from pursued into pursuer, shadowing De Quincey day and night in an attempt to break off the match. “It drove me crazy then, it drives me crazy now,” De Quincey later wrote. “I found myself in the same situation almost every night.”
De Quincey’s marriage to Margaret marked a turning point in his relationship with Wordsworth, triggering increasing animosity between their households. Freed from the burden of being the chief admirer of genius, De Quincey finally found his own voice and began producing the dazzlingly unstable confessional writing that brought him fame. He made his name with Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, an essay sometimes credited with making the drug fashionable. In fact, as Wilson shows, opium already saturated British life: “Middle-class women collapsed on their sofas in its haze, even dogs and children were dosed up with it.”
De Quincey’s genius was to take something sordidly familiar and make it arresting and strange. He would do the same in his masterpiece, The English Mail-Coach, and in On Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts. Murder is a constant theme here, reflecting the way De Quincey responded imaginatively to violence. Murder, he thought, insulated both perpetrator and victim from “the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs”. It made all those touched by it aware that “the world of ordinary life is suddenly arrested – laid asleep – tranced – racked into a dead armistice: time must be annihilated; relation to things abolished.” Murder created for De Quincey what Wilson elsewhere calls “a theatre of immensity”, a moment when the magnitude of existence might briefly be glimpsed.
In his final years De Quincey’s fame was eclipsed only by the scale of his debts, which eventually drained colour and intensity out of every other aspect of his life. He died aged 74 in 1859. On his deathbed he was confronted by a vision of his long-dead sister: his daughter watched him throw his arms open and cry “Sister! Sister! Sister!” as he died. It was a fittingly theatrical end to a life that made great art out of living.