Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson

Reviewed by Harriet

DeQuincyThe sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to conceive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.

Most people who know a bit about British literary history will associate the Romantic period (roughly 1780s to 1830s) with the six great poets of the era: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. But there were prose writers too, most especially essayists, such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and, probably the greatest of them all, Thomas De Quincey. Best known, perhaps even notorious, for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), from which the opening quotation is taken, De Quincey produced what is arguably one of the most remarkable bodies of prose writing in the English language. Now Frances Wilson’s superb biography not only analyses the work and puts it in its literary context but also reveals the no less remarkable conditions under which it was produced.

Born in 1785 into a relatively wealthy trading family in Manchester, De Quincey was raised by his strong-minded mother after his father died when he was four. The family moved south, initially to Bath, and Mrs De Quincey set about educating her unusual second son. He went to several schools, the last of them being Manchester Grammar, where he was supposed to be spending three years preparing for a scholarship to Oxford. However, after about eighteen months, he took flight, the first of many such occasions. After some adventures living rough in Wales, he ended up in London, with no money, virtually starving and sleeping on the streets, a pattern that would be repeated throughout his life. He eventually went to Oxford, but left before taking his degree. Then began what was certainly one of the most important relationships of his life: he met Wordsworth. This in itself took him a long time to do, as several times he wrote to the poet, got himself invited to visit, but panicked at the last minute, even once having actually reached Grasmere itself. Eventually they did meet, and a friendship of sorts was formed, but over the years De Quincey’s obsession with the poet turned to hatred, without in any way diminishing in its intensity. He eventually took over the Wordsworths’ home at Dove Cottage, consumed an enormous amount of opium, filled the rooms with so many books that he finally had to move out, married a local farmer’s daughter and had eight children. And, always completely broke and in deep debt, he began his hugely successful career as a writer for the magazines.

The story of that career, during which De Quincey wrote essays for three highly celebrated literary reviews, The London Magazine, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and Tait’s Magazine, is fascinating in itself, and resulted in a massively original and impressive body of work. This seems something of a miracle when taken together with the fact that its author was living for a great deal of the period in a debtors’ sanctuary in Edinburgh, and when he wasn’t, was moving between increasingly poor and shabby lodgings, constantly on the run from his creditors, sometimes accompanied by his delicate wife and various of his many children. Given the almost constant abuse to which he subjected his body, he managed to live to the respectable age of 73, cared for during his final years by his surprisingly responsible daughters.

Frances Wilson tells the story of this extraordinary life with great verve, but there’s much more to this biography than just a blow-by-blow account of De Quincey’s domestic adventures.  Wilson also examines in great detail the most important of De Quincey’s writings, among them the Confessions, On the Knocking on the Gate in Macbeth, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, Lake Reminiscences, Suspiria de Profundis, The English Mail-Coach, and his final Autobiographical Sketches. She quotes just enough of their purple passages (though when are De Quincey’s passages not purple?) to make you long to read the whole thing. Her analysis of them is impressive, as is the way in which she shows both the influences on De Quincey’s writing of his hated idol Wordsworth and the ways in which his work has influenced such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, the Brontes and even Virginia Woolf. More recently, Jorge Luis Borges praised De Quincey’s dreams as ‘the best in literature’, and wondered ‘if I could have existed without De Quincey?’

So all in all, this is a truly magnificent biography. I enjoyed every minute of it, and so will you!

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Frances Wilson, Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Bloomsbury, 2016). 978-1408839775, 402pp., hardback.

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