Guilty Thing by Frances Wilson

If it’s possible to be luminous and dark at the same time then Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) fits the bill. He always stood aside from the curriculum approved parade of literary greats whom it was our duty to read and revere at school. The A-Level Summer reading list of 150 titles nowhere featured Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). Later, I was to discover that our parents, who paid high fees to shield us from disgraceful influences, were themselves tucking into all the mind-altering substances that money could buy. But that’s another story.

Thomas de Quincey achieved renown by tucking into opium, which was not an unusual habit in the 19th century. 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 narcotic at that time in England. Our freedoms have subsequently been curtailed. De Quincey, “Romantic acolyte, professional doppelgänger, transcendental hack”, as Frances Wilson calls him in this superb biography, first took the drug in London, where he had found himself homeless after failing to secure a loan. Wilson’s portrait of the city from the perspective of its vagrants is strangely familiar. 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 one asks 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 does well in showing 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.

Unlikely as you are to fall into debt at Lanark’s local bookshop (because there isn’t one), reading about De Quincey’s life from then on is a cautionary tale. His fateful ‘resort to opium’ began on a cheerless Sunday in 1804, when he swallowed it to relieve rheumatic pain. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater presents this ordinary enough event into a personal odyssey of taboo, transgression, divine enjoyment and demonic agony: ‘In an hour, oh! Heavens!’ he recalled. ‘What an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me! … Here was a panacea … for all human woes.’ A few drops of laudanum created reveries of ‘most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony’; his pain vanished, self-possession gathered and all the conflicts, self-recrimination, fears and anxiety that had assailed his life dissolved into visions of beatific calm. Visionary scenes from his childhood revived amid torrents of sunlight, ‘exalted, spiritualized, and sublimed’. No longer a guilty thing constantly running away, he could voyage forever through oceans of elaborate intellectual pleasure. Such were the astonishing effects of laudanum, until addiction and terrifying ‘Pains of Opium’ initiated the long farewell to happiness and peace of mind. The ‘guilty thing’ of the book’s title comes from Hamlet via Wordsworth. It was Wordsworth De Quincey most idolised, but the epithet best describes De Quincey in his friendship with Coleridge who scoffed even more laudanum and felt that, with his Confessions, the morbid essayist had “made a boast of what was my misfortune”.

After befriending Wordsworth, De Quincey took out a lease on Dove Cottage ( in 1809 which he retained until 1835. He emerged as an independent writer and thinker, going on to compose perceptive essays on Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poetry; he also opened their pasts to public scrutiny in his scandal-raking ‘Autobiographical Sketches and Recollections of the Lake Poets‘. His last years were spent with his family at Lasswade where Margaret took care of his financial affairs. He received royalties from American and British editions of his work. When he died at the age of seventy-four, still doused in laudanum, he had outlived almost all his contemporaries – even Leigh Hunt, who went to his grave in August 1859, four months before him. De Quincey’s achievement has endured. His introspective techniques have influenced numerous later writers, from Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Nikolai Gogol, Virginia Woolf, and Jorge Luis Borges to Bob Dylan and Paul Muldoon. He should have been on that A-Level reading list after all. It’s for you to judge whether his was a life well lived.

Enquire at your local library to check if this important title is in stock.

416 pages in Bloomsbury

First published 2016

ISBN  978-1408839775

Frances WilsonImage result for thomas de quincey

Frances Wilson      Thomas de Quincey

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