The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De QuinceyBy Robert MorrisonWeidenfeld & Nicolson £25, 462 pagesFT Bookshop price: £20
If he had lived today, Thomas De Quincey, a life-long abuser of Class A drugs, might have been too busy keeping out of the clutches of the law to have written his masterpiece, The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Along with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, De Quincey posed a teasing question that literary history has never been able to answer. Does intoxication (Baudelaire’s hashish, Scott Fitzgerald’s booze, Charlie Parker’s heroin) take creativity to places sobriety cannot reach, or does it merely befuddle and destroy it?
For the past quarter of a century, those interested in De Quincey have had Grevel Lindop’s eminent 1981 biography. Though new letters and primary materials have recently come to light, the primary value of Robert Morrison’s book is that it will make a later generation look anew at this fascinating man.
For Morrison it is the sublime junkie and his one great work that above all warrant our attention. There are other worthwhile things; his essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” was the source of inspiration for innumerable crime novelists. But what puts De Quincey into the very first rank of British Romantic writers is The Confessions.
Thomas Quincey (the “De” was an affectation) was the son of a prosperous linen merchant who died early. Young Thomas was set up for life by the wise provisions of his father’s will. One of his missions in life was to waste that money so effectively that his final decades would be passed in destitute literary hackery.
Sent to a good boarding school, young Thomas ran away and shacked up in Soho, befriending a 15-year-old prostitute, Ann. He later spent some time at Oxford University, but walked out when he discovered that the final viva voce exam was not to be conducted, as promised, in Greek but English. Few undergraduates can have flunked their courses more high-mindedly.
He did not need university. While debauching his constitution with opium tablets washed down with copious draughts of wine, he was forever stocking his mind. He wrote nothing of significance until he was in his mid-30s and that mind full to bursting.
When he was able, he migrated to the Lake District to be near his idol, Wordsworth. He helped Coleridge with money (impoverishing himself in the process) and Wordsworth with child-minding, proofreading and points of punctuation. He was renowned for his conversation, slurred though it was after 4pm.
After a decade living among the “Lakers” and having married his young housekeeper, De Quincey drifted back to London, getting by with grudging handouts from his devoutly Christian mother and what he could earn by his pen. It was in this period he produced The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. It caused a sensation. Doctors reported an epidemic of deaths from copy-cat overdoses among the young and impressionable.
Despite wretched health, and his own poisonous self-medication, De Quincey lived to a great age, latterly in Edinburgh. Toothless, racked with chronic rheumatism, shattered by the premature death of his wife and two of his children, he turned out a regular supply of journalism and a less-read sequel to his great work, Suspiria de Profundis. When he died in 1859, aged 74, the Athenaeum, the leading critical journal of the time, noted, bleakly: “Death has brought a close to the sad and almost profitless career of ‘the English Opium-Eater’. ”
Morrison forcefully contradicts that verdict: “Far more than the other great essayists who were his contemporaries, De Quincey speaks to us directly about our divisions, our addictions, our losses, our selves.” It’s a large claim, but one that is borne out by this fine survey of a remarkable life.
John Sutherland is the author of ‘Curiosities of Literature’ (Arrow)