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A masterful biography of one of England's most notorious literary figures.
Author of the famed and scandalous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) has long lacked a full-fledged biography. His friendships with leading poets and men of letters in the Romantic and Victorian periods—including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle—have long placed him at the center of nineteenth century literary studies. He was a man who ...
A masterful biography of one of England's most notorious literary figures.
Author of the famed and scandalous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) has long lacked a full-fledged biography. His friendships with leading poets and men of letters in the Romantic and Victorian periods—including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle—have long placed him at the center of nineteenth century literary studies. He was a man who engaged with nearly every facet of literary culture, including the roles played by publishers, booksellers, and journalists in literary production, dissemination and evaluation. His writing was a tremendous influence on Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and William Burroughs.
De Quincey is a fascinating (and topical) figure for other reasons, too: a self-mythologizing autobiographer whose attitudes to drug-induced creativity and addiction strike highly resonant chords for a contemporary readership. Robert Morrison’s biography passionately argues for the critical importance and enduring value of this neglected icon of English literature.
Victorian literature scholar Morrison presents the first biography oftheinfamous writerin three decades, and the first to include unpublished works.
Amagnetic and controversial figure in his time, Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859), like many creative intellects,combined literarybrilliance with drug addiction. His drug of choice, laudanum, provided alternating bouts of euphoria, lucidity and debilitating depression. Despite the negative side effects, De Quincey was able to build a provocative and influential body of work, from his iconic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) to the terrifying short fiction he wrote toward the end of his career, which inspired the likes of Poe and Dickens. In his work on drug use, he innovatively used confessional writing directed at a mainstream audience, speaking "directly to our ongoing fascination with habit, desire, commercialism, and consumption." His obsessive tendencies, towarddrugs but also toward books, languages and death, may haveoriginated during a childhood that wasfraught withthe loss of his sister, brother, and father, and a frustrating series of schools, none of whichsatisfied him. De Quincey also faced bouts of illness in his youth, which may have been treated with opium, a common ingredient in 18th-century medicines.At age 20, to treat a toothache, "one dose [of opium] changed everything," and he began to use the drug in earnest. Around this time, he also began friendships with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, relationships he would maintain for most of his life. Misconceptions persist about De Quincey and his work, but Morrison's adept narrative fills in many gaps and portrays the writer as a man struggling between the joys of writing and rigorous thought and the sorrows of addiction and debt. The author excels in his argument that De Quincey is an integral part of literary history, and above all, a "noble explorer of self."
A welcome, refreshing literary biography.
Life is Finished
During a chance meeting at Windsor, King George III asked a teenage Thomas De Quincey about his descent. It was a tender point. 'Please your majesty, the family has been in England since the Conquest.' De Quincey was proud of his family lineage, and always anxious to dispel the notion that his last name was either 'foreign or outlandish'. The story he liked to tell runs as follows. Originally Norwegian, 'the family of De Quincey, or Quincy, or Quincie' migrated south to Normandy, where it threw off 'three separate swarms – French, English, and Anglo-American'. De Quincey's kin attached themselves to William the Conqueror, following him into England, producing the earls of Winchester, and branching out splendidly into Scotland. More recently, from the same English stock had grown the distinguished American family of Quincy, while in Britain the remains of the Winchester estates were home to several squires, the last of whom was an elder kinsman of De Quincey's father. This account was undoubtedly part of family lore, and De Quincey rehearsed it with conviction. It gave him a strong sense of nobility and achievement, evident most clearly in his insistence that his last name was to be spelled with what he called 'the aristocratic De'.
Genealogical investigation, however, has revealed that De Quincey's claims about his grand ancestry cannot be proven, and are almost certainly apocryphal. At the same time, what is known of his origins is actually very slight. On his paternal side, there is a very dubious report that his grandfather was a wine-drinking, fox-hunting country gentleman who hailed from Ashby-de-la-Zouche in Leicestershire, and who fathered nearly two dozen children. The information concerning his father is more reliable. He was plain Thomas Quincey, born in 1753 or 1754, and most probably in or near Boston in Lincolnshire. Beginning with a patrimony of £6000, he went into trade, and before long he and his brother John had found their way to London, where by 1775 they had established themselves as linen drapers in Cheapside.
Early in the following year, however, the brothers migrated to Manchester, the centre of cotton manufacture in England, and in an 18 March advertisement in the Manchester Mercury respectfully informed 'the Ladies and Gentlemen, and the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood (as well as the public in general)' that they had 'opened a shop, No. 10, at the Bottom of Market-Street Lane'. The business was clearly a success from the start, for within a month the brothers announced that they had 'now added to their stock a regular assorrment of Haberdashery goods', and had also received from London 'a capital choice of printed Linens, Musslins, Furnitures, and other Cottons, all of the most approved spring patterns'. In July, they begged leave, 'once more, to remind Ladies of their Chip Hats, and especially of their Open Chips, which they sell so remarkably low', while in August 'an immense importation' of Drogheda linens was 'hourly expected'. More advertisements – or 'literary addresses', as Thomas Quincey referred to them – kept the public informed of buying trips to London and Chester, as well as '3 annual voyages to Ireland'. By 1780 the brothers were thriving both as linen drapers and as importers of Irish linen and West Indian cotton.
On the maternal side, De Quincey's grandparents were Sarah and Samuel Penson. She was 'gentle', in De Quincey's only recollection, while he was 'very aristocratic', and 'at one time held an office under the king ... which conferred the title of Esquire'. 'Traditional prejudice' in the family had 'always directed their views to the military profession', so he may well have been a soldier. The couple had two sons, Edward and Thomas, both of whom obtained lieutenancies in the East India Company's service in Bengal, where Edward died of sunstroke shortly after arriving, and Thomas went on to enjoy a lucrative career. The Pensons also had a daughter, Elizabeth, who seems to have been born in the late 1740s or early 1750s, and who lived with her parents in North Street, London. Elizabeth occupied a 'more elevated' social position than Thomas Quincey, and how and where she met him is unknown. But in November 1780 the couple were married at St George's, Queen Square in London, and began their life together, most probably in the rooms over Quincey's shop in Cromford Court, Market-Street Lane.
Within weeks of the wedding, the Quincey brothers dissolved their partnership for reasons that are not known, and Thomas ventured out on his own. Eighteen months later he was operating from at least two different locations – one in Manchester and the other at 'Linen Hall, Chester' – and in 1783, he announced his decision 'to decline all retail trade', and concentrate on the wholesale side of his business. 'My father was a merchant ... in the English sense,' De Quincey declared; '... that is, he was a man engaged in foreign commerce, and no other.' This may have been the case from 1783 onward, but Thomas Quincey began as a 'shopkeeper' who then worked his way up to the respectability of' merchant'.
De Quincey conceded that his father was not clever, but he was a man of great moral integrity. At a time when many West Indian merchants were making a fortune from the slave trade, he not only avoided any connection with it, but was so far 'from lending himself even by a passive concurrence to this most memorable abomination, that he was one of those conscientious protesters who ... strictly abstained from the use of sugar in his own family'. Years later a stranger would occasionally say to De Quincey, 'Sir, I knew your father: he was the most upright man I ever met with in my life.'
Before long there were children. William (born 1781/82) was followed by Elizabeth (1783), Mary (1784), and then Thomas, who was born on 15 August 1785. The exact location has long been a matter of debate, but it was almost certainly in a building later known as the Prince's Tavern (which stood formerly at the corner of Cross and John Dalton Streets), or at the house in Market-Street Lane (now under the present Arndale Shopping Centre). He was baptized on Friday, 23 September at St Ann's Church by the Reverend Samuel Hall, a close family friend, and named Thomas Penson, after his mother's brother. Four more children followed: Jane (1786–90); Richard, always known in the family as 'Pink' because of his beautiful complexion (1789); another Jane (1790/91); and Henry (1793/94).
Little of Thomas's childhood was spent in the city of Manchester, for shortly after his birth his father seems to have taken a town residence in Fountain Street, and moved his family outside the city limits to a place at Moss Side known as The Farm, 'a pretty rustic dwelling', as Thomas himself recalled, though elsewhere he more accurately refers to it as a 'countryhouse'. His earliest memories date from here, and occurred, he claimed, before he was two years old. One concerned feelings of 'a powerful character ... connected with some clusters of crocuses in the garden'; another involved a 'passion of grief' felt in 'a profound degree, for the death of a beautiful bird, a king-fisher'; and a third was 'a remarkable dream of terrific grandeur about a favourite nurse' that Thomas particularly valued because it demonstrated his 'dreaming tendencies to have been constitutional', and not dependent upon opium.
More distinctly, at three and a half years old, he recalled witnessing the illuminations to celebrate the recovery of George III from his first attack of insanity, and a year later he could remember trying to save vagrant spiders from the wrath of the housemaids. Perhaps his most revealing memory from these early years, however, was a recurrent dream about 'meeting a lion, and, from languishing prostration in hope and vital energy, that constant sequel of lying down before him'. Thomas came later to think that maybe all children had such a dream, and that it enacted 'the original temptation in Eden', where 'every one of us' has a bait offered to an infirm place in our will, and all of us completed for ourselves 'the aboriginal fall'. He set great store upon these early recollections. Children, he believed, were 'endowed with a special power of listening for the tones of truth – hidden, struggling, or remote'.
When Thomas was six years old, his family left The Farm for a much larger house about a mile outside of Manchester, on the edge of what is now Hulme. Christened 'Greenhay' by Mrs Quincey, it was designed almost entirely according to her views 'of domestic elegance and propriety', and gave its name to the district which is still known as Greenheys. Thomas remembered the home as 'elegant but plain, and having nothing remarkable about it but the doors and windows of the superior rooms, which were made of mahogany, sent as a present from a foreign correspondent'. Elsewhere, however, he referred to 'such circumstances of luxury or aristocratic elegance as surrounded' him in childhood. A contemporary painting of Greenhay shows it to be a handsome square box of a house, with a characteristically eighteenth-century façade of five windows and a portico, fronted by a sweeping drive and backed by trees and various outbuildings, including offices, a gardener's house, stables, and a coachhouse. It cost Quincey £6000, and clearly reflected his burgeoning prosperity. Indeed, in the 'internal economy' of Greenhay, Thomas claimed that his parents 'erred by too much profusion'. There were 'too many servants; and those servants were maintained in a style of luxury and comfort, not often matched in the mansions of the nobility'.
A small and shy child, Thomas was often ill 'with ague', a well-established, if vague, medical term usually associated with acute or violent fevers. At three he suffered too from 'hooping-cough', and was 'carried for change of air to different places on the Lancashire coast'. Riding on horseback was 'the remedy chiefly employed' for curing these maladies, and as a very young boy he was 'placed on a pillow, in front of a cankered old man, upon a large white horse'. Arsenic – widely prescribed by physicians throughout the nineteenth century – was 'then never administered', but opium was an ingredient in many conventional medicines for a large number of complaints, and as a young child Thomas may well have taken it, though he was confident that no medicine prescribed during his first twenty-one months contained the drug. Up until the completion of his sixth year, he was 'a privileged pet' who 'naturally ... learned to appreciate the indulgent tenderness of women'. Rather more dangerously, he came both to crave the attention that sickness brought him, and to use it as a device to avoid tasks that he disliked.
In 1788, the elder Quincey took on a new partner, Robert Duck, who managed the business affairs in Manchester, while Quincey himself began to spend more time travelling abroad, both to pursue trade opportunities and to seek out warmer climates, for he had begun to show early signs of tuberculosis. 'He lived for months in Portugal, at Lisbon, and at Cintra; next in Madeira; then in the West Indies; sometimes in Jamaica, sometimes in St Kitt's,' though he returned repeatedly to England, where he met his wife and children 'at watering-places on the south coast of Devonshire'. Thomas, however, was not 'one of the party selected for such excursions from home', and by the time he was seven he doubted – with evident exaggeration – whether his father 'would have been able to challenge me as a relative; nor I him, had we happened to meet on the public roads'.
Yet while health concerns forced him to spend more and more time away from home, Quincey had cultural and literary interests which made a deep impression on his son. Frequent guests to the house included the Reverend Hall, and the distinguished physicians Thomas Percival and Charles White, who served as the family doctor. All three men were founding members of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, suggesting that Quincey was at least on the cusp of an intellectual coterie. What is more, like many members of the merchant class, he 'applied a very considerable proportion of his income to 'intellectual pleasures'. Large gardens and a greenhouse provided a good deal of enjoyment. His small collection of paintings by the old Italian masters was scattered through the principal rooms of his home. He 'loved literature with a passionate love', especially the writings of William Cowper and Samuel Johnson.
His library was rather more modest than Thomas remembered, but it laid the foundation for a number of his subsequent interests, and contained sections devoted to theology, biography, history, geography, travels, 'Novels and Romances' (including works by Fielding, Goldsmith, Lesage, Smollett, and Mackenzie), 'Poetry and Plays' (editions of Ovid, Shakespeare, Congreve, Swift, Pope, Gray, Young, and many others), and a wide range of titles listed under 'Miscellaneous' (such as Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful). Quincey even published a book, A Short Tour in the Midland Counties of England (1775), in which he moves rather prosaically over such topics as drainage, emigration, architecture, and inclosures, but in which he also quotes Milton, surveys Oxford University with enthusiasm, and – 'growing poetical' – links the pioneer canal builder James Brindley with Shakespeare as 'the darling heirs of fame'. Looking back, Thomas had only two complaints: his father did not introduce enough music into the home, and he was rather too deferential of a college education.
Thomas's mother had a more profound and less positive impact. She was attentive, tranquil, generous, and devout. But she was cold. The intense and often Calvinistic piety which governed her actions led her to assume guilt in those around her, and eventually culminated in her enduring commitment to Evangelicalism, a movement that had begun within the Church of England only a few decades earlier, and that emphasized biblical faith, personal salvation, and social welfare. 'Amongst her faults never was numbered any levity of principle, or carelessness of the most scrupulous veracity; but, on the contrary, such faults as arise from austerity, too hard perhaps, and gloomy – indulgent neither to others nor herself.' To her friends, she was an 'object of idolizing reverence'. To the servants at Greenhay, however, she was a source of both trepidation and amusement, for her insistence on the marked difference between her social position and theirs meant that she 'never communicated with them directly but only through a housekeeper'. One maid was asked 'why in a case of supposed wrong she had not spoken to her mistress'. 'Speak to mistress?' she retorted. 'Would I speak to a ghost?'
When it came to her role as a mother, Mrs Quincey was similarly severe. To some extent, the situation demanded it: there were eight children in thirteen years, and she was often forced to parent them without the assistance of her ailing husband. Yet at the same time, she clearly found little pleasure in motherhood: 'she delighted not in infancy, nor infancy in her', as Thomas memorably put it. Her approach was to govern the nursery with a combination of detachment and regimentation that undoubtedly owed a good deal to her family's military background. Every morning for some six years she had her children marched or carried into her dressing room, where they were minutely reviewed in succession for posture, dress, cleanliness, and health, before being dismissed with 'two ceremonies that to us were mysterious and allegorical – first that our hair and faces were sprinkled with lavender-water and milk of roses, secondly that we received a kiss on the forehead'.
Thomas, even at that early age, seems to have known that something was missing in his relationship with his mother. He wanted love. She wanted duty. He wanted understanding. She wanted discipline. He wanted praise. She wanted humility. 'Usually mothers defend their own cubs right or wrong ... Not so my mother ... Did a visitor say some flattering thing of a talent or accomplishment by one or other of us? My mother protested so solemnly against the possibility that we could possess either one or the other, that we children held it a point of filial duty to believe ourselves the very scamps and refuse of the universe.' In retrospect, Thomas could see only two qualities in his mother that he was able to turn to advantage: her 'polished manners', and the 'singular elegance' with which she 'spoke and wrote English'.
Given his father's many absences and his mother's relentless austerity, it is perhaps not surprising that Thomas retreated into the feminine world of the nursery, where he bonded more closely with his three sisters – Mary, Jane, and especially Elizabeth – than he did with either of his parents. He basked too in the pleasure of being the only boy in this world. His elder brother William had at 'an early stage of his career ... been found wholly unmanageable', and his parents had sent him away to Louth Grammar School in Lincolnshire, while his younger brother 'Pink' was still an infant, and unable to join in the activities of the group. 'With three innocent little sisters for playmates, sleeping always amongst them, and shut up for ever in a silent garden from all knowledge of poverty, or oppression, or outrage', Thomas recalled this existence as a kind of paradise.
Excerpted from The English Opium-Eater by Robert Morrison. Copyright © 2010 Robert Morrison. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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