Thomas de Quincey is best known for having written one of the first memoirs of drug abuse – Confessions of an English Opium Eater – a handbook for heroin users that has never been out of print since it was first published. But he was also the author of scandalous biographical anecdotes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and other Lakeland literary figures, a sought-after journalist, and crime-writer.
Thomas de Quincey was a Manchester merchant’s son, but his father died of TB while he was still a child and his mother was a difficult personality, not equipped to deal with sensitive boys. De Quincey was precociously brilliant, but constantly taken away from schools where he was happy and sent to inferior institutions where he was not. His mother seemed to have a dread of her son being ‘noticed’. De Quincey ran away from school and home at the age of 16 and lived rough in London until he became penniless and was forced to go back.
He loved books and read voraciously. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads impressed him so much that he summoned up the courage to write to Wordsworth, who replied kindly, with an invitation to visit, if de Quincey was ever in Cumbria. De Quincey was desperately short of money – the allowance granted by his trustees out of his father’s estate (which was being negligently managed) was only £100 a year. Neither the trustees, nor his mother (who sounds dreadful) seemed to care about getting him an education. In the end he went up to Oxford and enrolled himself in the cheapest college and spent four or five years reading and studying – largely by himself. He was reprimanded for having threadbare clothes but spent most of his money on books, without caring what he looked like.
While at Oxford de Quincey’s younger brother also ran away from school to escape repeated floggings – the whole family story of the de Quincey’s is one of mismanagement and a lack of care for the well-being of the fatherless children. The boys in particular felt unloved and unappreciated. Grevel Lindop makes a good case for this being one of the major factors in making de Quincey permanently lacking in self-confidence, and susceptible to substance abuse. Opium was the only effective pain-killer in the 19th century and it was freely available, both as raw heroin and distilled with alcohol into Laudanum.
It was during his period at Oxford that de Quincey first noticed the effect of Laudanum after he took it for a particularly bad abscess on one of his teeth. He observed the feeling of calm and well-being and the enhancement of observation. As a troubled, lonely and extremely shy young man, he began to take it regularly to lift his spirits. De Quincey was so shy he went to the Lake District 3 times and, despite his invitation from the poet, couldn’t pluck up the courage to knock on the door. He was similarly timid about his degree. Fearing, on the first day of his examinations, that he hadn’t done very well (he had been outstanding) he failed to appear for the rest of the exams and left without a degree.
Meeting Coleridge in the west country while staying with a mutual friend, de Quincey overcame his shyness, moved to the Lake District and began to make himself useful to Wordsworth and Coleridge. But his willingness to be a literary dogsbody led both men to distrust him instinctively – there were numerous misunderstandings and clashes of ego. The women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge families liked him – he may possibly have been in love with Dorothy, despite the age difference – and he adored the children and they him.
Grevel Lindop makes a good case for Wordsworth’s daughter Catharine having had Down’s Syndrome; their little ‘Chinese Maiden’ who was different from the others and died before she was 5 from convulsions. De Quincey had been very fond of her and went into such paroxysms of grief that local people believed him to be her natural father. But her death seemed to re-awaken in de Quincey his suppressed grief at the death of a beloved sister when he was a child.
Wordsworth comes over as dour, egotistical, quick to take offence, a man of decided opinions and an incurable worrier. De Quincey went to London to oversee the publication of a pamphlet for him, but between Wordsworth’s constant afterthoughts and anxieties about libel, and de Quincey’s perfectionism in punctuation and prose, the printer was driven half mad, publication was late and the pamphlet satisfied none of the parties involved. The public didn’t like it either. The relationship continued to sour and broke down completely when de Quincey began to publish his frank revelations of the friendship – ‘Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets’ – in various periodicals.
De Quincey married a Cumbrian farmer’s daughter to the disgust of his friends and family. ‘De Quincey is married,’ Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, ‘and I may say he is ruined.’ Class divisions meant a great deal in those days. But his wife struggled to provide him with a comfortable, settled home life, loving and caring for him through all the phases of his opium addiction. When you read what she went through, you feel like giving her an award for ‘wife of the century’.
De Quincey – who quickly spent his way through the small inheritance which was all that was left of his father’s fortune – was always in debt. And his addiction was not conducive to regular working habits. He earned money from journalism, but was usually late for his deadlines, often failing to produce any copy at all. But his work was sought after because of its originality and the breadth of his learning. De Quincey had no business sense at all, and sold the most popular of his works ‘The Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ outright for less than £50. It made a great deal of money for the publisher, while the writer was in penury.
De Quincey found himself unable to write in the Lake District – left to himself he fell into an abyss of depression and laudanum consumption. When he went to London he was surrounded by friends and colleagues who cajoled him into producing copy and there were no family distractions. So de Quincey see-sawed between home life in Cumbria – until the money ran out – and working life in London – until either his wife became too depressed to remain alone or he became too homesick to stay away.
Eventually, as the debt spiral began to catch up with him, he moved to Edinburgh, where he was published by Blackwood’s Magazine. His wife and children joined him there, but de Quincey was more often a refugee from the bailiffs in a debt sanctuary at Holyrood Park where he was only allowed out on a Sunday. Life was tragic – his eldest son died of a rare form of cancer and his wife died shortly afterwards, leaving de Quincey – still in Holyrood to avoid debtor’s prison – in charge of 6 children he wasn’t able to live with. But, with the help of his eldest daughter he managed to stabilise his finances and his opium intake, rejoin his family and enjoy several relatively prosperous years before he died at the age of 74.
Grevel Lindop’s biography highlights the new accessibility of de Quincey’s work to readers of fantasy fiction and magic realism. He is a ‘classic of Underground literature’; an explorer of ‘visionary states’. His essays on the criminal mind, particularly ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’, were a big influence on Edgar Allan Poe, R.L. Stevenson, Dickens, Baudelaire, Proust, Dostoevsky, Borges, William Burroughs and many others. And his ‘Confessions’ were the inspiration for Berlioz’ ‘Symphonie Fantastique’. Opium addiction was the tragedy of his life. Wordsworth described de Quincey as ‘a pest of society and one of the most worthless of mankind’, but after reading this biography I have to agree with Grevel Lindop that Thomas de Quincey was ‘a man both lovable and oddly heroic’ as well as one of the great literary minds of the 19th century. This is a beautifully written and researched biography and a joy to read.
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