Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, Frances Wilson, Bloomsbury, 397pp, 2016, £25 (hardcover)

His life was full of intrigue and adventure, but in some ways Thomas De Quincey must be a nightmare for biographers. In youth he circled the towering figures of his age, but he had a talent for putting himself in others’ shadows, and achieved little himself. When he did earn his reputation it was in works – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Suspiria de Profundis, the Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets – which play haunted fantasias on those early years. Any biography competes with a tale that has already been inimitably told.

Still, it is a good story, and Frances Wilson’s Guilty Thing pursues it with brio. De Quincey’s childhood was bruised by tragedy. Born in 1785 into a relatively well-to-do Manchester family, his earliest memory was of ‘violent termination’: the death from hydrocephalus of his older sister Elizabeth in the summer of 1792. De Quincey recalled entering the room where his dead sister lay, her forehead swollen, the sun pouring ‘torrents of splendour’ onto her ‘frozen eyelids’. From this day, says Wilson, he lived ‘inside his sense of loss’. ‘Is such a thing as forgetting possible to the human mind?’ he asked years later. Sufferings redoubled. The next summer, his father, away in the West Indies, contracted tuberculosis; De Quincey’s ‘chief memory’ of him, which shapes one of the most poignantly rendered scenes in the book, ‘was of learning, aged seven, that he was coming home from the West Indies to die’.

Such miseries temper any impulse to judge too harshly the mixture of arrogance and wayward potential that characterised De Quincey’s adolescence. He swerved opportunity with abandon. A gifted student, by his late teens he was boarding at Manchester Grammar, preparing for Oxford. But De Quincey felt the projected career stifled his independence. In a fit of rebellion, he fled to Wales. Stopping to visit is sister en route, he was collared by a no-nonsense uncle, who approved of his spirit (‘better to be alfresco than sweating over a Greek grammar’) and persuaded his mother to pledge a guinea a week in support of the trip: thus endorsed, ‘he was less a Romantic “pariah”’, says Wilson, ‘than a student on his gap year’. All the same, one imagines trudging the Welsh countryside in the autumn of 1802 as being a far cry from six months in Australia knitting yurts for pandas: the funds were barely enough for sustenance, and De Quincey soon forwent them anyway by neglecting to keep in touch. He dined on berries, and slept rough under a makeshift tent: ‘exposed to the stars he worried that a cow might tread on his face’.

By early 1803, De Quincey had made his way to London for a life of squalor and near starvation. He befriended a prostitute, Ann, and seems to have imagined himself her saviour. He wasn’t. One night, just off Oxford Street, he collapsed with hunger. Ann spent her earnings on a glass of spiced port to revive him, knowing that De Quincey could not repay her: ‘It was an act of kindness which he would never forget’.

Half a year after his bid for freedom, De Quincey was back home, ‘badly in need of mothering’. He eventually enrolled at Oxford, where he dazzled but felt himself superior, with some justification. ‘You have sent us today the cleverest man I ever met with’, remarked an examiner as De Quincey sat his degree in 1807. His appetite for reading was mind-boggling (in preparation for his examination he announced it would be necessary to read thirty-three Greek tragedies in one week); but so was his refusal to see through his success: he had expected his final viva voce to be conducted in Greek, but shortly beforehand it was decreed that De Quincey would have to give his answers in English. Considering the arrangement beneath his dignity, he scarpered.

De Quincey’s addiction to laudanum, which began as an undergraduate, is well known; or rather, he is well-known for it. Another of his obsessions was Wordsworth. He was among the sharpest early enthusiasts for Lyrical Ballads, which he admired as ‘an absolute revelation of untrodden worlds, teeming with power and beauty, as yet unsuspected amongst men’. He began a sporadic correspondence with the poet in 1803, and won an invitation to Dove Cottage yet repeatedly shrank from the encounter. On two occasions he got as far as the Lake District before turning back. He was, Wilson says, ‘as shy as an ibex’. But behaviour which is natural to a wild goat becomes annoying in a human, and De Quincey’s trembling infatuation with Wordsworth combines unimpressively with his otherwise inflated self-worth. Their eventual friendship was the culmination of De Quincey’s youthful aspirations, but what did it prove beyond his inferiority? The hollowness of hitching expectations upon one’s idols would later spur what Wilson calls De Quincey’s ‘greatest critical insight’:

Form no connections too close with those who live only in the atmosphere of admiration and praise. The love or friendship of such people rarely contracts itself into the narrow circle of individuals […] Gaze, therefore, on the splendour of such idols as a passing stranger […] but pass before the splendour has been sullied by human frailty, or before your own generous admiration has been confounded with offerings of weeds, or with the homage of the sycophantic.

The cadences rise to their own disillusioned splendour.

Wilson presents Guilty Thing as the first ‘De Quinceyan biography’ of its subject. What this means, in part, is that the writing moves with a volatility attuned to what Baudelaire called De Quincey’s ‘naturally spiral’ way of thinking. The prose whirls centrifugally, snagging upon characters, places, and events that enter into its orbit. Chapters fracture into prose shards to turn a many-angled mirror upon De Quincey’s world. That on ‘Childhood and Schooltime’, for instance, launches with an account of Georgian Bath; it picks up De Quincey’s story with his convalescence from a classroom misadventure in which he was struck on the bonce by a cane aimed at a troublemaking fellow pupil, his head razed and six leeches sucking at the wound (‘unhappy pate! worthy of a better fate!’ he joked); it then modulates to recount the death of De Quincey’s brother William, journeys west to Bristol, where it morphs into a potted biography of Thomas Chatterton, before finishing with De Quincey’s discovery of Wordsworth’s ballad ‘We Are Seven’, which he would later describe as ‘the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind’.

The capriciousness of Wilson’s narrative serves a writer enthralled by ‘suddenness’, who relished the ‘electric thrillings’ of coach travel, where velocity is not registered ‘as a fact of our lifeless knowledge’ but as ‘vital experience of the glad animal sensibilities’. De Quincey’s language sought to radiate an inward sense of things; it disdained, as Virginia Woolf put it, ‘the hard fact’. Wilson’s mode is happily supple enough to retain contact with the track of common occurrence. Except the day-to-day texture of De Quincey’s life was far from common, and the effect of the biography’s best anecdotes is to accentuate his eccentricity. Late in 1807, for instance, in a panic about ‘a determination of blood to the head’, De Quincey consulted a surgeon who recommended that he refrain from bending his neck: ‘for the next few months he transported himself like an automaton, his chin rigid, his shoulders stiff, his eyes, when not aimed straight ahead, flicking to the left and right.’ Ordinarily a minor function of biographies of historical figures is to top up our reserves of gratitude for modern medicine, but on this occasion it seems a shame doctors are no longer dispensing such advice. Time and again De Quincey’s behaviour falls between ridiculous, touching, and exasperating. Years later, Jane Carlyle enquired of De Quincey’s eldest son, William, how his efforts to learn Greek were progressing: he answered that ‘his father wished him to learn through the medium of Latin and he was not entered into Latin yet because his father wished to teach him from a grammar of his own which he had not yet begun to write’.

By this point De Quincey was in Edinburgh, writing for Blackwell’s Magazine (after dalliance with its London rival – this very publication). He spent his final years in the city, dividing his time between journalism, dodging invitations to dinner parties, and fleeing debts. He lived frenetically, scurrying from lodging to lodging, and Wilson’s narrative naturally becomes less close-focused during this period. De Quincey survived into the winter of 1859, long enough for this most restless of Romantic figures to be caught on photograph: his mean-mouthed countenance looks obliquely from the book’s final pages.

For someone who endured such unhappiness, De Quincey proves difficult to have patience with. He was self-destructive and careless. But what De Quincey discovered about the separation of man and poet through Wordsworth applies to him. His prose is terrific, its counterflowing dynamics pulsing to his sense of consciousness as, in Wilson’s words, ‘a guilt ridden voyage’. And he matters, too, for his startling readiness to expose himself to experience. Wilson’s closing assertion that ‘We are all De Quinceyan now’ is surely doubtful. The book’s energies go into showing De Quincey to be far too strange a figure for that to be true, and Wilson sells her own De Quinceyan achievement short in saying so.

Thomas De Quincey was a frequent contributor to The London Magazine. Most famously the magazine orginally serialised his Confessions of an Opium-Eater in 1821.

Andrew Hodgson lives in Tynemouth in the North East of England. He has a PhD in nineteenth-century poetry and works part time for the Department of English Studies at the University of Durham.

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