Wainewright the Poisoner: The Memoir of Thomas Griffiths Wainewrightby Andrew Motion
In a time rich in unlikely characters, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) was one of the strangest of all. A painter, writer, well-known London dandy and friend of most of the major figures of the Romantic era (from Blake to Byron, from John Clare to John Keats, Lamb, De Quincey and Hazlitt), he was also almost certainly a murderer, possibly several times over.… See more details below
In a time rich in unlikely characters, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) was one of the strangest of all. A painter, writer, well-known London dandy and friend of most of the major figures of the Romantic era (from Blake to Byron, from John Clare to John Keats, Lamb, De Quincey and Hazlitt), he was also almost certainly a murderer, possibly several times over. Arrested and convicted of forgeryevidence was lacking to prove the murdershe was transported for life to the barbarous penal colony of Tasmania, where, years later, he died in obscurity. Behind him he left only rumors and fragments of documents, and a legend of evil that fascinated such writers as Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde.
With a brilliant blend of creative imagination and scholarly sleuthing, Andrew Motion evokes Wainewright's double life in a tour de force of the biographer's art. Cast in the form of a partly fictional "confession" written by the subject himself, buttressed (and sometimes contradicted) by the notes, background essays and other commentary setting out the known facts, it reveals the man as no straightforward history could dohis distinctive voice, his wit and charm, his callousness and unreliability, his pathos and, perhaps, his capacity for
As a distinguished biographer (of Philip Larkin and John Keats, among others), Andrew Motion has been notably successful in pinning down the often-elusive details of Wainewright's life. As a first-rate poet (he succeeded Ted Hughes as Britain's Poet Laureate), he shows himself equally skilled in the imaginative investigation of Wainewright's bizarre psyche. The result is a richly memorable exploration of the darkerside of human nature, of the roots of crime, of the nature of biography itself.
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Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) lived half his life close to the centre of the Romantic revolution, half in exile and disgrace. His grandfather-guardian was the founder of the Monthly Review, England's original "literary magazine"; he was educated by the great Classical scholar Charles Burney; he studied under two of the best-known artists of the day, John Linnell and Thomas Phillips; he painted Byron's portrait, and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy during the early 1820s; he was good friends with Henry Fuseli, William Blake and Charles Lamb; he knew John Clare, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey, Barry Cornwall and John Keats; he wrote art criticism for the London Magazine in its heyday; he was famously "amiable," "kind" and "good-hearted" -- silver-tongued, and a tremendous dandy.
He was also an ingenious and unscrupulous criminal. In 1822 and 1823 he forged the deeds on a trust fund left to him by his grandfather, in order to finance his extravagant life in London. In 1828 his uncle died in suspicious circumstances, whereupon Wainewright inherited the handsome family home in Chiswick, Linden House. In 1830 his mother-in-law also died unexpectedly. In the same year, Wainewright devised a complicated life-insurance scam which involved one of his wife's half-sisters, a young and healthy woman called Helen Abercrombie. Helen died as soon as the policies were in place.
Wainewright fled to France after this third death, and lived there for five and a half shady years. During this time, rumours about his crimes spread promiscuously. When he was eventually arrested on a visit to london in 1837 and tried at the Old Baile --not for murder, which could never be proved, but for forgery -- his reputation was already in tatters. The sentence of the court branded him a despicable outcast: he was transported for life to Van Diemen's Land.
Most of Wainewright's friends had long since disowned him; now they began recalling his flamboyance as something sinister, and the facetiousness of his prose as hollow flippancy. His London paintings (which anyway he had never signed) were scattered and lost. His marvellous collections of prints, china and drawings were sold. His wife and son emigrated to America and never contacted him again. The fifty or so "convict works" he produced in Hobart after 1840 were disparaged or neglected.
In the process, most of the materials essential to his biography were destroyed. All but a handful of his letters have disappeared. He was rumoured to have kept a diary at one time: if he did, it has vanished. His story, instead of being properly investigated, was told and retold without any regard for its truth. Newspapers and magazines repeatedly used him as a byword for evil. Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Dickens (who visited Wainewright in Newgate prison) both wove elaborate fictions around him; Oscar Wilde made him the subject of a brilliant and mischievous essay; and in this century, others have followed where they led -- notably the Australian writer Hal Porter, whose novel The Tilted Cross adapts Wainewright's story.
This means that anyone wanting to write about Wainewright today would face formidable difficulties, if he or she were to use orthodox biographical methods. Not only is the overlay of legends very thick, but Wainewright falls out of the historical record so often, and for such long periods of time, it is impossible to construct the complete linear narrative of his life. Equally, the shortage of intimate papers makes it hard to hear the voice in which he spoke to himself and his closest friends.
None of this would matter very much, if Wainewright himself did not matter. But he does -- not so much for his artistic achievements, as for his story. Sometimes this is for particular reasons. His contact with better-known contemporaries shines a bright light on their achievements, their personalities, their conscious aspirations, and their unconscious imperatives -- especially their preoccupation with the self. In other ways, Wainewright's value is more general. His career dramatizes ideas that deeply concerned Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, de Quincey, Lamb, and many other Romantic writers and artists. By combining a life in culture with a life in crime, he embodies an extreme version of what they regarded as a general truth: that good and evil grow on the same stem.
This helps to explain why Wainewright became such a notirious figure for much of the nineteenth century -- at once predictable and astonishing, appealing and appalling. In philosophical terms, it was just about possible for tolerant commentators (Alexander Gilchrist in his life of Blake, for instance, and Swinburne and Wilde) to keep the contradictions in balance. But when Wainewright's story was treated as a purely social thing, "astonishing" and "appalling" became the watchwords. Hence the fictional re-creations, which were not interested in examining the facts of his story, but merely in hardening the impression of deep-dyed evil. Hence too the suppressions and disownings, which have made an orthodox biography so difficult.
In such a case, the long-term result is all too predictable: neglect. As the juggernaut of nineteenth-century studies has rolled forward, it has left Wainewright slumped in a dusty corner: a cardboard villain with artistic pretensions and a pair of fancy moustaches. And unless biographers are prepared to think differently about their work, he is likely to stay there, his whole personality over-simplified and demonized, his once vivid experience faded, his art ignored, his voice lost, his role in the lives of more famous contemporaries overlooked. But "think differently" how? Clearly, our responsibility to history includes a duty to report on forgotten lives -- yet if the material simply isn't there, what can be done?
This book provides one possible answer. The bulk of it is a re-creation of that well-established nineteenth-century form, the confession, which purports to have been written by Wainewright in Van Diemen's Land shortly before his death in 1847. Although it often quotes or adapts his own words (taken mainly from his art criticism), and the words of his contemporaries, these could never be used to tell the whole story of his life. So the rest is my invention. Wherever appropriate, I have tried to ventriloquize his dandified, high-energy style -- with the intention of capturing his charm as well as his callousness, his wit as well as his wantonness. More often (bearing in mind that the Confession is meant to be written at the end of his life, when h e was broken and disillusioned), I have toned things down, and made him concentrate on telling "the truth." The example of his own prose that I kept most urgently in mind, and used as a kind of guide, was his ticket-of-leave appeal, written in Hobart in 1844, which appears on pages 265-7.
But this documentation was helpful to me in other ways as well. Although it seems to be reliable, it is in fact a ragbag of fair comments, evasions, and downright lies -- which made me feel that when I "made Wainewright concentrate on telling 'the truth,'" I should not let him succeed too well if I was going to portray him accurately. Even though his major crimes were committed in England, he was still pretty devious after living as a convict for ten years in Van Diemen's Land -- happy, as he always had been, to slip between different personalities.
In other words, the answer to the question "How reliable is the Confession?" is this: as reliably unreliable as Wainewright himself. In order that readers should not feel too disorientated by this, various things need to be emphasized. The great majority of scenes and encounters in the Confession, all the friendships, and all the main events, actually happened. Often (such as in chapter 9, when he organizes a dinner party for his fellow contributors to the London Magazine) I have used contemporary accounts, weaving them together with Wainewright's own words to make a consecutive narrative. (Chapter 9, for instance, uses extracts from Procter, Talfourd, Clare, Cary and others.) At other times, where no word from Wainewright survives (such as during his voyage to Van Diemen's Land, and the whole of his time on the chain gang) I have used other people's accounts of such experiences, and let myself add things that are typical and appropriate -- for instance the shooting of the albatross in chapter 17.
My "borrowed" words are a part of the orthodox biography that this book contains. A far larger part lies scattered through the many notes that appear at the end of each chapter. These notes are not designed to "correct" the Confession in any consistent way (though they do sometimes draw attention to the fact that it is not always completely honest). Rather, they provide the necessary background to characters and events, develop themes, and sometimes give mini-essays on subjects that were important to the Romantics in general and to Wainewright in particular.
So the book is an experiment. But while it contains a mixture of different forms -- some imaginative, some factual -- they all share a common purpose. They are dedicated to rescuing Wainewright from obscurity, and to bringing him back to life as a plausible and dynamic force. At the same time, they are designed to enjoy his achievements as an artist and critic, to explore his career as a criminal, and to investigate his self. The voice that I have given him is in some sense of confection, but it is nothing more nor less than the one I would have tried to characterize by more conventional means, had I decided to write a more familiar sort of biography. Exactly the same applies to my treatment of his personality.
This means that Wainewright the Poisoner goes public about matters that biography normally only implies. Readers are invited to accept its author at his word, but should always be prepared to take his honesty with a pinch of salt. I would have found it difficult -- impertinent, egotistical -- to have taken this line with someone who lived more importantly than Wainewright in the public mind. Philip Larkin, say, or John Keats. When I was writing about those two poets, I often found myself silently debating questions of biographical form, which I have more and more keenly wanted to ask aloud. Wainewright's Confession is meant to do just this, among other things, but in dramatic rather than theoretical ways.
Meet the Author
Andrew Motion is the author of three biographies and a number of books of poetry. In 1999 he was appointed Poet Laureate of Great Britain, and he is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Motion serves as head of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council and frequently broadcasts on the BBC.
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