Review of Frances Wilson's Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016
The gloomy, labyrinthine prisons dreamed up by the eighteenth century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi act as a kind of thematic backdrop throughout Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Not only did De Quincey compare “the endless growth and reproduction of the architecture in his dreams” to these images, but they also provide something of a visual correlate for his restlessly vertiginous prose style. As Frances Wilson, the author of this latest biography of the renowned English essayist puts it, De Quincey “thought in terms of accumulation and he piled his sentences high; he observed distortion rather than detail, crowds rather than individuals,” whilst, for Virginia Woolf, De Quincey “suffered from the gift of seeing everything a size too large and of reproducing his vision in words which are also a size too large.” Piranesi's vast and gloomy interiors do then seem an appropriate setting in which to contemplate the life and work of a man whose Gothic dungeon of an inner life was saturated with 10,000 drops of laudanum a day when his drug habit was at its worst.
As well as Piranesi's phantasmal Carceri d'Invenzione, Wilson's book identifies other recurring topics which serve as structural leitmotifs throughout her account of De Quincey's turbulent and (given his prolonged battle with opium addiction) surprisingly long life (1785–1859). It is with one of these, the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, that she begins her book. We are given a spine-tingling description of the gory events which took place in December 1811 near Wapping in London when members of the Marr family and, two days later, the publican John Williamson, his wife Elizabeth and maid Bridget were found battered to death. These horrific events would later inspire De Quincey to produce “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” one of his most notorious essays, in which he maintained that the man eventually convicted of the crimes, an alarmingly sinister figure named John Williams, was an artist and a genius who had raised murder to “a point of colossal sublimity.” Beneath the macabrely humorous veneer of such encomia, it appears that De Quincey harboured a deep-seated esteem for this “scourge of God who walked in darkness.” It would seem that De Quincey's attraction to all things morbidly unsettling had its origins in childhood, specifically the sudden death of his older sister Elizabeth from hydrocephalus. He would later recount how, as a six year old child, he slipped into the room where Elizabeth's stiffening body was laid out. As he stood contemplating the corpse, “a solemn wind began to blow – the saddest that ear ever heard. It was the wind that might have swept the fields of mortality for a thousand centuries.” Having encountered this sudden, mournful wind, and fearful of being discovered alone with the body by the adults, the young De Quincey kissed his sister's cold lips and then “slunk, like a guilty thing, with stealthy steps from the room.” The realisation of each individual's essentially lonely fate which this incident revealed to him seems to have made an indelible impression: he came to understand that there was “nothing on the stage but a solitary infant, and its solitary combat with grief – a mighty darkness and a sorrow without a voice.” In such lamentations one can sense the Piranesian shadows begin to inexorably thicken.
The fourth of eight children, De Quincey was born in Manchester, the son of a linen and cotton importer who died when his son was seven. Whilst he would always honour the memory of his father, the writer's relationship with his mother was decidedly more difficult, her “primary legacy to her children [being] a sense of guilt.” Under her care, De Quincey grew up “believing himself to be a great criminal” who was to blame “for his precocity and for any praise his intelligence might receive.” To make matters worse, his mother as described by Wilson was also a snob — the De in De Quincey being an affectation that she added once widowed — who moved her family to Bath soon after her bereavement with the aim of ensuring that her children were suitably equipped to enter fashionable society. In the shadow of such steely maternal ambition, the young De Quincey acquired a taste for the arts which developed into a characteristically overwrought passion, one that caused him to fall “into a downright midsummer madness” at the thought of there being “one hundred thousand books” that he would never be able to read, or pictures that he would never see, or pieces of music that he would never hear. With regard to literature in particular, he developed an abiding interest in the life, works and forgeries of Thomas Chatterton, strongly identifying with “the story of the half-educated prodigy who escaped from the real world by inventing his own poetic tradition.” Whilst Chatterton may have fuelled an adolescent yearning for quixotic escapism, it was in 1799 during the school holidays that De Quincey experienced what he would later call “the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind” —reading William Wordsworth's poem We Are Seven. With its themes of mortality in childhood and the efforts of the bereaved to maintain a relationship with the deceased, this poem clearly had a profound resonance for De Quincey. Lyrical Ballads, in which We Are Seven appeared along with poems by Wordsworth's co-author Samuel Taylor Coleridge (including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner), was a volume that De Quincey would return to and seek inspiration from for the rest of his life.
It was in 1802 that De Quincey abruptly took it into his head to “run away from school and place himself outside the realm of established values.” His aim had originally been to head for the Lake District in order to meet Wordsworth. However, having carried out his plan to abscond, De Quincey demurred at the thought of actually meeting his idol, reasoning that, as a “grammar school drop-out in need of a loan and a good wash,” it was better to delay his poetic pilgrimage until he was better prepared for it. Instead De Quincey ended up in London, all but destitute, with only a meagre allowance from his mother on which to survive. He was saved from having to sleep on the streets by the charity of a friendly attorney who owned a large, unoccupied town house in which he allowed De Quincey to doss down. The tang of Dickensian indigence that these circumstances evoke is further heightened when we learn that the rambling old house was not, in fact, completely empty. De Quincey found himself sharing it with a “plain and hunger bitten” girl, who was grateful for his youthful protection as they huddled together amidst the old place's disturbing shadows.
De Quincey never gives this poor child a name, claiming that “she did not know [it] herself.” However, he suspected that she was the attorney's daughter, the shameful product, perhaps, of some secret liaison. During their time together De Quincey seems to have felt more pity than attraction for this young waif, in contrast to another girl whom he met in London, who would be immortalised in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater as the fifteen-year-old prostitute ‘Ann.' According to De Quincey, when he collapsed in the street from hunger Ann ran to get him a glass of port wine and spices to revive him. He would never forget this singularly charitable act, and thereafter he and his saviour would roam the streets of the Capital together. For a time they were inseparable, up until the day that De Quincey had to leave London in pursuit of a loan. Though temporarily separated, they vowed to meet again upon his return. In the event, although De Quincey returned to London and waited for Ann at the appointed place, she did not appear. Despite scouring their former haunts for a sign of her, De Quincey would only ever see Ann again as a figure in his visions.
Following this sojourn in London, the next momentous episode in De Quincey's life took place once he had become a student at Worcester College, Oxford. It was during the autumn of 1804 on a “wet and cheerless” Sunday afternoon that the young man sought relief from rheumatic pains in his face by visiting a local chemist, who became the first person to supply him with opium. De Quincey took it in liquid form as laudanum, a tincture once evocatively described as “dusky fire.” He describes how, on swallowing his first dose, the initial dissipation of pain was but a trifling prelude to the “abyss of divine enjoyment which had opened up before me...Here was the panacea...for all human woes, here was the secret of happiness [which] might now be bought for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket.” To his physical and psychological cost, De Quincey would spend many unsated years trying to reproduce the all-consuming intensity of this first rapturous experience.
Just a year before De Quincey started to take opium he had finally plucked up sufficient courage to write a letter of introduction to Wordsworth which, to his surprise and perturbation, had received a reply, thus initiating a correspondence between him and his hero. The next step was to meet the blessed bard face to face, a goal which in 1805 led De Quincey to travel as far as Coniston, eight miles from the poet's home in Grasmere. On that occasion De Quincey's courage deserted him the moment he stepped out of the coach, so that he was soon beating a crestfallen retreat back to Oxford. He repeated this journey again in 1806 and once more failed to make his way to Wordsworth's house by his own efforts. However, it was in this year that De Quincey managed to meet Coleridge for the first time, as he was wandering around the market town of Bridgwater in Somerset. Within hours the two of them were having dinner together, and then afterwards took a walk whilst comparing notes about their respective opium habits. Before long they became such firm friends that when, in November 1807, the fitfully peripatetic Coleridge made one of his sporadic visits back to the wife and family whom he had installed at Greta Hall, Keswick, De Quincey accompanied him. That journey constituted the third time that he had come within close proximity of Wordsworth's home, but it marked his first actual meeting with his idol. The hesitant acolyte would later describe how, on pushing open the garden gate at Dove Cottage, he “heard a step” and then “a voice,” after which, like “a flash of lightning,” he saw emerge from the house “a tallish man who held out his hand and saluted me with the most cordial manner.” Justifiably, given the momentous influence that Wordsworth had exerted on De Quincey's life up until that point, Wilson makes this meeting the fulcrum of her narrative. Finally, this restless youth turned scholarly, impoverished drifter had been welcomed into the inner circle of his poetic beau ideal, a consummation all the more spiritually enriching for being set within the sublime Westmorland landscape. Before long De Quincey had made himself indispensable to Wordsworth as his regular companion and one-man audience during the poet’s restless journeyings throughout the local area. Indeed, the young votary considered himself to be “more intimately connected” with Wordsworth “than any other person, not being a member of the family, can pretend to have been.” As well as his ardent reverence for William, De Quincey also forged an immediate bond with Dorothy Wordsworth, an affinity which, Wilson speculates, may have had sexual undertones. Whether or not this was the case, in her letters Dorothy described De Quincey as to all intents and purposes “one of the family,” and also found him “loving, gentle and happy.” Indeed, such was her regard for De Quincey that when the Wordsworths moved out of Dove Cottage in 1808, it was at Dorothy's prompting that their beloved friend took over the tenancy for the next seven years, an honour which, as Wilson says, was the greatest that she could have bestowed on the young man.
Sadly, such heartfelt amity was not to last, as De Quincey very gradually began to feel a mounting indignation at being treated by Wordsworth as a combination of amanuensis and errand boy. Eventually this would lead De Quincey to conclude that, as Wilson puts it, “the poetry and not the poet...contained the visionary gleam.” Relations deteriorated to such an extent that by 1811, the year of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, De Quincey and the Wordsworths were no longer on speaking terms. However, in June of that year the death of Wordsworth's young daughter brought about an unexpected reconciliation: De Qunicey had been close to four-year-old Catherine for most of her short, ailing life, whilst her passing almost inevitably summoned up memories of his own sister's death so many years before. Unfortunately, this tragedy-fuelled rapprochement does not seem to have given De Quincey the impetus to resolve his own personal battles. By 1813 he was firmly ensconced in Dove Cottage with a prodigious opium addiction. His descriptions of the fantastic visions induced by his drug-taking show the extent to which he was plunged into a vast subliminal netherworld. As De Quincey tells it, each night he would “not metaphorically but literally” descend “into chasms and sunless abysses,” feel as if he had “lived for 70 or 100 years in one night,” find himself fleeing “from the wrath of Brama (sic) through all the forests of Asia” or be suddenly transported to Ancient Egypt where crocodiles would assail him with “cancerous kisses” before leaving him to lie “confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.” Such was the scale of De Quincey's habit at this time that to have asked him if he had taken opium on “any particular day” was like asking him “whether his lungs had performed respiration.” It was all the more remarkable, then, that despite leading such a reclusive, desperate existence, he somehow managed to attract the attentions of a local farmer's daughter called Margaret Simpson. As Wilson puts it, “a courtship began between this strapping young woman and the battered incumbent of Dove Cottage.” Wordsworth disapproved of his wayward friend's involvement with such an ill-bred female from the lower orders and wrote to De Quincey's mother to tell her all about her son's scandalous liaison. Unsurprisingly, this caused a furious De Quincey to once more break off relations with the poet and his sister. By then Margaret had moved in as De Quincey's servant and the full nature of her role was soon the topic of much prurient speculation. Not that all the tittle-tattle was without foundation, Margaret having given birth to the couple’s son (interestingly named William) in November 1816. In February 1817 De Quincey and Margaret were married, “and I fear,” Dorothy Wordsworth disdainfully told a friend, that, as far as the bridegroom was concerned, “I may add he is ruined.” For Wilson, the attraction between the newlyweds was that Margaret saw in her spouse “a man-child filled with stories, who unswervingly, unreservedly, needed to love and be loved,” whilst De Quincey saw in his wife “the incarnation of a Wordsworthian heroine.” In between consoling him through the fearful depths of his addiction, Margaret would bear her husband eight children before her death in 1837, and the fact that she was never once asked to take tea with Dorothy Wordsworth did not seem to bother her one bit.
Soon after their marriage, De Quincey at last managed to conquer his opium addiction sufficiently to take on the editorship of the Westmorland Gazette, a role in which he was described as “pugnacious, eccentric, opinionated and unpredictable,” all of which qualities would contribute to his unconventional success in the role. (Ed.--!) Before long De Quincey began to test his literary skills on the national stage, in the process producing a number of essays which would immortalise him. Chief amongst these was his “Confessions of an English Opium Eater: Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar,” which first appeared in the London Magazine in 1821. The essay earned glowing reviews almost as soon as it was published, not, as might be expected, because its author had managed to give his unwitting audience a glimpse into the hitherto uncharted world of recreational drug use but rather because, as the historian Mike Jay puts it, De Quincey was “recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening” at a time when, according to Wilson, “the whole country was marinated in opium, which was taken for anything from upset stomachs to sore heads.” Even so, De Quincey's essay is stylistically much more than just a novel exposé of the nation’s chemical dependency, being an object lesson in how to sustain readers’ attention by bestowing carefully judged confidences on them, as a means of generating an enthralled rapport with the author.
However, despite his growing reputation as an essayist, De Quincey and his growing family still found it hard to make ends meet. Opium remained a significant drain on both his pocket and general well-being despite short-lived, nausea-racked periods of abstinence. Yet somehow, amidst such torments, he still managed to produce a number of remarkable essays, including, in 1823, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” with its meditation on how that particular stage cue seems to herald the opening up of a chasm in the play between the ordinary world and that of the murderous nightmare realm which the Macbeths inhabit. Meanwhile, the world that De Quincey inhabited, circumscribed as it was by his own physical and psychological maladies, saw him shuttling between the Lake District, London and Edinburgh, whilst producing some of his finest work. For pretty much the rest of his life De Quincey's nomadic lifestyle involved him sporadically reuniting with his family only to wander off again, usually in order to escape those to whom he owed money. This kind of evasive action was not always successful, particularly, it seems, in Edinburgh, where he was several times “put to the horn” – a public humiliation in which, with three blasts of a horn, he was denounced in the marketplace as a rebel to the king because he could not pay his debts.
Of De Quincey's later works, it is the ambitiously conceived series of autobiographical fantasias or “noonday visions” known as Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Depths”) of 1845 which have often been seen as his greatest accomplishment. In the Suspiria De Quincey examines the strange complementarity between the rational and irrational self, in the course of which he touches on many of his most deep-seated preoccupations, “fuelled by spontaneous overflows of powerful feeling, longings for the infinite and unbounded, fearless descents into the childhood imagination, and a deep knowledge of the numinous.” As such, it is a fitting culmination to a body of work which interrogates the Piranesian grandeur of human psychology.
De Quincey died in 1859, aged seventy-four. In a particularly noteworthy anecdote found afterwards amongst his papers, he tells the tale of how a sultan once dipped his head into a bowl of enchanted water and was immediately transported to another world. There the sultan experienced being born into poverty, growing up, getting married, struggling to provide for a wife and seven children, and generally having to endure a life of “many persecutions.” One day, whilst strolling along the beach, musing on how to escape his mounting tribulations, this troubled man decided to bathe in the sea. Having plunged into the water, he lifted his head from the waves to find himself standing in front of the basin, a sultan again. As De Quincey relates it, “The life he had just lived lasted for thirty three seconds.” This curious little vignette is strikingly redolent of De Quincey's own taste for plunging into other worlds which temporarily rendered him almost completely lost to his everyday life – almost, but not quite, given that, as Wilson engrossingly shows in her book, certain obsessions seem to have dogged him no matter how altered his circumstances or consciousness might be. Murder as a source of profound contemplation, De Quincey's powerfully conflicting feelings about Wordsworth, and the strange mixture of grief and guilt that he endured for a lifetime following his sister's early death—all of these fixations resonated throughout his monumental dreams and indelibly haunting prose. --Mark Jones