- Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson
Bloomsbury, 397 pp, £25.00, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 4088 3977 5
De Quincey’s size mattered to him. He was uncommonly small. But he was also uncommonly clever, and his ambitions were large. As a young man, he idolised Wordsworth and Coleridge, and then sought them out and tried to make them his friends. For a while they all got on, but then increasingly they didn’t. Wordsworth was in the habit of condescending to De Quincey, but Wordsworth condescended to most people and anyway condescending to De Quincey was hard to resist: ‘He is a remarkable and very interesting young man,’ Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, ‘very diminutive in person, which, to strangers, makes him appear insignificant; and so modest, and so very shy.’ ‘Little Mr De Quincey is at Grasmere … I wish he were not so little, and I wish he wouldn’t leave his greatcoat always behind him on the road. But he is a very able man, with a head brimful of information,’ Southey wrote. As relations soured, the belittlements grew sardonic: for Wordsworth, De Quincey was ‘a little friend of ours’; for Lamb, ‘the animalcule’; Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth took to calling him Peter Quince. Even his friends tended to diminish him: ‘Poor little fellow!’ Carlyle exclaimed to his wife, Jane, who mused: ‘What would one give to have him in a box, and take him out to talk.’
Scarcely surprising, then, that De Quincey was touchy, quick to detect a snub and fiercely proud. He claimed he first took opium as a palliative for toothache. But it isn’t hard to imagine that he used it to muffle his social discomfort, coming to depend on it as a way of sidestepping the world. By 1815, hunkered down among his books in Dove Cottage (known at the time as Town End, the lease of which De Quincey had taken over from the Wordsworths when they moved out), he was fully addicted. He was 29 and he was never to be free of the drug again.
It must have looked to the Wordsworths as though this strange young man, who had irresistibly inserted himself into their lives, not exactly at his own invitation but also not exactly at theirs, was heading for deep trouble if not ruin. He was unquestionably brilliant – widely read and scholarly, but also funny and imaginative and with the promise of an unusual writing talent. But he had submitted nothing for publication and showed no sign of doing so. He slept all day and wandered the countryside at night. He was hopelessly impractical and a pathological procrastinator. He’d run through his patrimony and was already in debt. The prognosis, already bad, looked terminal when, in 1816, he got a local girl pregnant, moved her into his cottage and married her.
And then De Quincey did something quite unexpected. Circumstances dropped the editorship of the Westmorland Gazette on his doorstep and he picked it up. With zero experience of editing a paper and next to no track record as a writer, addicted to laudanum and apparently incapable of the simplest of decisions, he threw himself into the job and made a considerable success of it. In the 18 months of his time as editor, he turned out copy to order, gave the paper a new and daring editorial direction (more news, more sensation), drove up circulation at the expense of the Kendal Chronicle and delivered a profit.
De Quincey’s hesitancy in launching himself as a writer is puzzling. It was as though the glamour he had vested in Wordsworth and Coleridge had paralysed him. How could he compete? He lacked a medium. The realist novel didn’t interest him; he liked the Gothic novel and was later to try his hand at a couple, not very successfully. He had a wide knowledge of poetry and it was a source of special pride to him that he had recognised the genius of Wordsworth when Wordsworth was obscure and undervalued; but he was no poet. He decided that he was a philosopher and, like Coleridge, promised grandiose works of systematic thought that never appeared. It would have offended him as a young man to have been told that his metier was journalism, and he never fully accepted this, arguing that he had been subdued to a life of literary hackwork by the need for cash – to support his burgeoning family (he clocked up eight children) and to keep his creditors at bay and himself out of prison.
The periodical press made De Quincey a writer in the way the piano made Chopin a composer. Had it not been for the thriving magazine culture in the early decades of the 19th century, it’s not clear De Quincey would have come to anything. But, as Frances Wilson says, the benefit was reciprocal: ‘De Quincey helped shape a new kind of professional critic and a new literary genre.’ The ephemerality of the periodical essay suited his temperament. The conversational mode of the medium – its informality of tone and closeness to the reader – favoured writers who could carry a distinctive voice onto the page and De Quincey found that he had just such a voice and just such a talent.
He read voraciously. His library was immense. When he moved into Dove Cottage, the arrival of cartloads of books astonished the Grasmere locals; Coleridge would borrow as many as five hundred books from him at a time. His omnivorous reading was matched by a formidable memory; even after he had sold off his books to pay the bills, he was able to cobble together cod scholarly essays on the back of his memory for curious facts and quotations. The provisional standards of magazine publishing were easily satisfied by his kind of writing – work that didn’t bear too close scrutiny, but didn’t need to.
After his time at the Westmorland Gazette, one could say that De Quincey never looked back, but it was the progress of a man falling forward, in headlong flight from a riot of frightful demons. For upwards of forty years, his path hugged the brim of the abyss. At its most desperate, his existence looked unbearable and unsustainable, but he bore it and hung on. He spent the 1820s shuttling between the Lakes and Edinburgh and London, where he camped out on the doorsteps of the literary rags – Blackwood’s, Tait’s and the London Magazine – feeding copy to the printers’ boys like a man throwing scraps of meat to the attack dogs at his heels. Harried by creditors, he lived on the run, going to ground for days in seedy boltholes. His Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was published in the London Magazine in two parts in 1821 and the next year as a book. He’d written it perched at tables in noisy coffee houses. He was 36 and suddenly famous, but the success of the Confessions bought him only a brief reprieve. The magazines paid a standard fee of ten guineas a sheet (eight pages) and De Quincey’s debts accumulated faster than his ability to write his way out of them or the capacity of the magazines to absorb his torrent of copy.
He worked in conditions of creative chaos. Visiting him in his lodgings in 1823, Thomas Hood found him ‘quite at home in the midst of a German ocean of literature, in a storm, flooding all the floor, the table and the chairs – billows of books, tossing, tumbling, surging open’. His friend Matthew Hill recalled De Quincey turning up for breakfast ‘wet and shivering, having slept under a hayrick in the Hampstead fields’ to avoid arrest.
In 1826, he moved to Edinburgh, leaving his wife, Margaret, in Grasmere with the children. Lonely and anxious, not knowing from one week to the next whether she’d have the wherewithal to support her family, Margaret suffered periods of depression. In 1830, she threatened to kill herself. So De Quincey brought the family to Edinburgh, where they led a semi-nomadic existence, stumbling from one cramped lodging to another. As the debts piled up behind them, the family lurched close to utter destitution. De Quincey was repeatedly ‘put to the horn’, a practice native to Edinburgh, whereby a debtor was publicly denounced and made eligible for arrest. In October 1832, he was briefly imprisoned and only avoided further arrests by taking refuge in the Sanctuary of Holyrood, out of the reach of his creditors. Margaret was often ill and De Quincey suffered continually from the effects of his addiction and his attempts to break it – typically, periods of constipation alternating with debilitating bouts of diarrhoea. He sold or pawned everything he could, including most of his books. Two days before the birth of his eighth child, he filed for Cessio Bonorum, a kind of bankruptcy proceedings. In September 1833, his three-year-old son, Julius, died: he had to flee the child’s wake to give the slip to a creditor who’d discovered his whereabouts. Less than a year later, William, his eldest son, aged 18, fell ill. De Quincey wrote to his publisher William Tait:
Gradually over each eye a film of darkness has been spreading, until at length some days since … this poor boy is totally blind. He had begun with being totally deaf. And to the consummation of my despair I understand that – should he ever recover – both these affections may remain with him for life. Good God! What a destiny of horror! Scarcely 18 years of age, just entering the portals as it were of life, and already cut off from all intercourse with his fellow-creatures, and immured in endless darkness! He himself, poor boy!, anticipates this fate – a fate far worse in the eyes of us all than death – and for which I see no alleviation.
These things have so harrowed up my heart with grief and agitation that even to write a note was for some days impossible to me. Doubtless you are right: the Article requires a very different conclusion: and I have repeatedly laboured to write one.
William, the ‘crown and glory’ of De Quincey’s life, died a few weeks later. Afterwards, Margaret was even more frequently ill. In 1837, she died of typhus, leaving De Quincey heartbroken and beside himself with anxiety about how to look after his six remaining children and his in-laws.
How he didn’t buckle under the weight of his circumstances, how he remained unbroken by such pain and loss, how, despite it all, he kept writing, would seem almost a miracle of fortitude were it not for the suspicion that his creative life required him to live on the cusp of ruin, to the extent even of an unconscious calibration of misfortune with productivity. Florence De Quincey wrote of her father:
It was an accepted fact among us that he was able when saturated with opium to persuade himself and delighted to persuade himself (the excitement of terror was a real delight to him) that he was dogged by dark and mysterious foes, at the same time this persuasion gave a sanction to his conscience for getting away from the crowded discomfort of a home without any competent head … where … he could by no possibility have done any work had he remained.
De Quincey’s financial difficulties and everything that followed from them were more than a little of his own making. As Wilson puts it, ‘Money would always remain for him an abstract idea.’ On taking out an ill-advised mortgage on his wife’s family’s Lake District farm, he wrote: ‘You know there is such a thing as buying a thing and yet not paying for it.’ This from the author of The Logic of Political Economy, an exposition of the ideas of David Ricardo, which John Stuart Mill, for one, thought ‘very successful’. He wouldn’t have needed to owe rent on multiple rooms and houses, had it not been that the landlords held his drafts and papers hostage as collateral for his debts. Things improved steadily when his daughter Margaret took over the running of the household.
Grevel Lindop, the general editor of The Works of Thomas De Quincey, speaks in The Opium-Eater, his 1981 biography, of De Quincey’s ‘curious optimism’ and his capacity for feats of sustained creative work. For all his sickly appearance, his opium-raddled frailty, his real and imagined disorders of body and mind, he had access to twin springs of psychic and animal energy that bubbled up from within him until the day of his death, at the surprisingly old age of 74.
The prevailing tenor of De Quincey’s writing is upwards: a spirit of lightness pervades it. He was famously fussy and fastidious (Coleridge spoke of his being ‘even to something of old bachelor preciseness accurate … in all he does’). He was also incurably facetious and apt to flippancy. Children adored him, not excepting his own. In his writing persona, he turned all this to advantage. The material conditions under which he wrote may have caused him excruciating stress, but the writing itself came naturally to him. His command of the symbolic order of grammar was his answer to the disorder of his life. On the page, he could shape himself as he wanted to be known and believed himself to be, turning the traits which brought him censure and reproof into a source of entertainment and the occasion for applause. Both parts of the Confessions celebrate a life of truancy and delinquency: the first part, in telling the story of how he ran away from school and went wandering about Wales, and of his time as a young down and out in London; the second, in its picturesque account of his opium experiences, topped off by the rehearsal of his artfully scary dreams. Through writing about himself, De Quincey salvaged the wreck of his existence and fashioned unusual and amusing artworks from it. But whatever his subject, he performed himself in every sentence he wrote.
He took pains over the task of capturing his voice on the page, writing slowly and calculating his effects with a meticulous eye. He’d been thinking about the technical aspects of writing since he was a child. Born in 1785, he learned to write in schools where study of the classics dominated a curriculum that hadn’t changed in essence for centuries and wasn’t to change for a while yet. Clever and competitive, he excelled in the construing and pastiche of Greek and Latin texts and in the rhetorical techniques required to write model essays on set themes. By the time he was in his mid-teens, he could run effortlessly up and down the scales of late 18th-century idiom.
Prose style arises out of an accommodation between the competing claims of brevity and ornament. Everything we write tends either to the epigrammatic or to the periphrastic, the terse or the expansive, the lapidary or florid, stone or flowers. De Quincey was on the side of the flowers. Stone had reached its consummation in Johnsonian apophthegm. Amplified and projected onto the world by Boswell, it would exert its influence for decades after Johnson’s death. De Quincey grew up in the Johnsonian force field, but resisted it, developing a style that took its sustenance from pre-Augustan writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Browne. It was as if he had struck water from the Johnsonian rock, liberating the spirit of loquacity from the inert and massy block in which it had been imprisoned. Humour is integral to this radical and insurgent turn and, if we want to place De Quincey in a tradition, he flows with the current that streamed from Sterne to Dickens and onward to Joyce.
For De Quincey, writing, like conversation, was a social stage. ‘De Quincey talks to us,’ Wilson writes, ‘in the way people talk after dinner, several bottles down, when the table is cleared and the night is young.’ He thought that good prose should consist of a ‘graceful succession of sentences, long intermingled with short, each modifying the other, and arising musically by links of spontaneous connexion’. But writing also has to perform the act of thinking. Tucked away in a footnote to his essay on rhetoric, published in Blackwood’s in 1828, we find this: ‘Every truth, be it what it may, every thesis of a sentence, grows in the very fact of unfolding it … Hence, while a writer of Dr Johnson’s class seems only to look back upon his thoughts, Burke looks forward, and does in fact advance and change his own station concurrently with the advance of the sentences.’ For De Quincey, Wilson writes, ‘to see a thing grow was to catch it in a state of grace.’
De Quincey returned to the idea of writing as an organic process in an exuberant excursus on the nature of his own writing practice, at the beginning of his Suspiria de Profundis, an autobiographical essay published in 1845 as a sequel to the Confessions. Responding to ‘cynical’ and ‘surly’ readers who objected to the narrative arrangement of the earlier work, he launched into a thousand-word digression on the virtues of a digressive style. Kind readers, he said, would understand that the childhood narrative in the Confessions was included not for the ‘mere facts’ of the case ‘but because these facts move through a wilderness of natural thoughts or feelings; some in the child who suffers; some in the man who reports; but all so far interesting as they relate to solemn objects’.
His ‘sullen critics’ put him in mind of the Lake District tourist so eager to find the ‘shortest road’ to Keswick that he misses the beauties of the landscape he has come to see. We should think of his narrative as a ‘caduceus wreathed about with meandering ornaments, or the shaft of a tree’s stem hung round and surmounted with some vagrant parasitical plant’. Just as the streets of Cheapside give the illusion of having been imprisoned by the brickwork of the houses that supervene upon them, so ‘the ugly pole – hop pole, vine pole, espalier, no matter what – is there only for support. Not the flowers are for the pole, but the pole is for the flowers.’ We are to view him, he said (quoting Valerius Flaccus), as ‘viridantem floribus hastas’ – ‘making verdant, and gay with the life of flowers, murderous spears and halberts’. ‘The object in my “Opium Confessions”,’ he concluded,
is not the naked physiological theme – on the contrary, that is the ugly pole, the murderous spear, the halbert – but those wandering musical variations upon a theme – those parasitical thoughts, feelings, digressions, which climb up with bells and blossoms round about the arid stock; ramble away from it at times with perhaps too rank a luxuriance; but at the same time, by the external interest attached to the subjects of these digressions, no matter what were the execution, spread a glory over incidents that for themselves would be – less than nothing.
De Quincey’s defence of his compositional style was at the same time an apology for his way of life. He mapped the one onto the other in the vignette about the Lakeland tourist which wittily illustrates the superior claims of the ornamental by being the thing we most remember from the passage:
Figure to yourself an energetic tourist, who protests everywhere that he comes only to see the lakes. He has no business whatever; he is not searching for any recreant indorser of a bill, but simply in search of the picturesque. Yet this man adjures every landlord, ‘by the virtue of his oath’, to tell him, and as he hopes for peace in this world to tell him truly, which is the nearest road to Keswick. Next, he applies to the postilions – the Westmorland postilions always fly down hills at full stretch without locking – but nevertheless, in the full career of their fiery race, our picturesque man lets down the glasses, pulls up four horses and two postilions, at the risk of six necks and twenty legs, adjuring them to reveal whether they are taking the shortest road. Finally, he descries my unworthy self upon the road; and, instantly stopping his flying equipage, he demands of me (as one whom he believes to be a scholar and a man of honour) whether there is not, in the possibility of things, a shorter cut to Keswick. Now, the answer which rises to the lips of landlord, two postilions, and myself, is this – ‘Most excellent stranger, as you come to the lakes simply to see their loveliness, might it not be as well to ask after the most beautiful road, rather than the shortest? Because, if abstract shortness, if tò brevity is your object, then the shortest of all possible tours would seem, with submission – never to have left London.’
When he picked up his pen, De Quincey left the world of ‘mere facts’ and entered a field of free unstructured space in which to create a world of his imagining. Writing was a form of vagrancy, the page an open road, grammar the generator of limitless possible routes through thought. To be a writer was to be a flâneur, to be a flâneur was to embody the movement of imagination itself.
The ‘Introductory Notice’ to Suspiria occupies nine pages, to which the passage on the virtues of digression forms the peroration. The prose carries us along irresistibly, but it’s also faintly tiresome. The possibilities for fractal division of syntax and idea seem endless. We itch for a less divergent thought process, to head for a point on the horizon rather than to follow winding paths into an ever widening landscape. Perhaps the shortest road to Keswick wouldn’t be so bad. De Quincey, waking and sleeping, was haunted by the nightmare of infinite ramification, of being lost in a labyrinth of paths or stairways without end (Borges worshipped him). In the joke that the shortest of all possible routes to Keswick is ‘never to have left London’, there is more than a faint echo of Zeno’s paradoxes of motion.
De Quincey used appositions to smooth out the line and rhythm of his sentences. He treated syntax as a mould with expandable compartments. The grammatical logic was impeccable, the semantic picture smudged. Like heterophony in music, where slightly different versions of a melody are played together, De Quincey’s parallelisms encircle a reality that is never named. This is true at the level of individual phrases (‘hop pole, vine pole, espalier, no matter what’, ‘the ugly pole, the murderous spear, the halbert’) as also in the larger span of an exposition. The different analogies he uses to illustrate his point about ‘mere facts’ create a blurred image, ‘out of register’ as printers would say. The implication is that there is no pole for the flowers to adorn, just flowers. To live in six places at once was to live nowhere.
The experience of reading De Quincey is one of parsimony and excess: the merest hint of an idea was to him a drop of perfume whose fragrance he spread through several pages before it faded. The exorbitance of his style suited comedy better than pathos. At his best – where his work springs up out of the confluence of grammar and gaiety, of logic and facetiousness, of structure and silliness – he can be one of the funniest writers in the language. When he’s on a roll, his riffs approach the written equivalent of stand-up comedy. And, like stand-up comedy, it’s a high-wire act without a safety net. There are passages in De Quincey which I find funny however many times I read them: his account in ‘The Saracen’s Head’ of going with William and Dorothy Wordsworth to dinner with a certain literary lady in the neighbourhood of Grasmere and being served a meagre dinner while the hostess gobbled up the only pheasant; Coleridge’s old father, the vicar of Ottery St Mary, badly short-sighted, mistaking a lady’s gown for his shirt and stuffing it back into his trousers ‘so voluminously, that a very small portion of it, indeed, remained for the lady’s own use’; the curious tale of a ‘man-mountain’ whom De Quincey came across on one of his nocturnal rambles, sitting in an armchair in his garden on a bitter March night in his shirt sleeves, ‘positively … mooning himself – apricating himself in the occasional moonbeams’; or his bizarre argument that the best portrait of Wordsworth was in fact a portrait of Milton.
The anarchic energy of De Quincey’s comic writing depends on an inflationary rhetoric which, when deployed in the service of high seriousness, makes for an enervating windiness. It’s a flaw in his work that he is liable to lose his sense of humour when he is his own subject. Making fun of others, he idealises himself, but, whether consciously or not, his writing always presses at the limits of seriousness, where solemnity cracks up in a snort of poorly supressed hilarity. His style tips his grander effects into self-parody.
Wilson is gripped by De Quincey’s agonistic relationship with Wordsworth, the strong precursor against whom the younger writer defined his creative personality. In 1811, Wordsworth let De Quincey have sight of The Prelude, which Wordsworth didn’t wish to be published until after his death. Wilson thinks that The Prelude had a shaping influence on the way De Quincey wrote about his own past (for example, she sees his Autobiographical Sketches as borrowing the poem’s structure) and she writes particularly well about the verbal echoes of Wordsworth’s poetry in De Quincey’s more self-consciously poetical passages.
De Quincey was especially proud of his high-toned style, his ‘impassioned prose’, as he called it. It was here that he tried for the gravitas of the Wordsworthian poetic melisma. At those moments in the narrative of his life where he judged the pathos to be overwhelming, he inserted extended passages of prose poetry, recitative giving way to aria: ‘So then, Oxford-street, stony-hearted stepmother! Thou that listenest to the sighs of orphans, and drinkest the tears of children, at length I was dismissed from thee’; ‘O! just, subtle, and mighty opium! That to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel”, bringest an assuaging balm’; ‘Grief! Thou art classed amongst the depressing passions. And true it is that thou humblest to the dust, but also thou exaltest to the clouds. Thou shakest as with ague, but also thou steadiest like frost’ – and so on.
The default use of apostrophe in poetry, the lexicon of schematic gesture in the early 19th-century theatre, the fashion for melodrama on the stage and in the Gothic novel: all defined a register of heightened feeling which now seems stilted and sentimental, but De Quincey was fully signed up to that aesthetic. He depicted himself as someone of exquisite sensibility, of high sensitivity to pain and to beauty, and he needed to demonstrate this in what he wrote. The operative notion here, and a favourite among the early Romantics, was derived from Plotinus, and cited by Coleridge in a footnote to Chapter Six of Biographia Literaria: ‘Never could the eye have beheld the sun, had not its own essence been soliform, neither can a soul not beautiful attain to an intuition of beauty.’ To De Quincey this was an article of faith and it implicitly underpinned everything he wrote. It surfaces explicitly in his conception of dreaming.
Not just anyone can hope to have impressive dreams: ‘He whose talk is of oxen, will probably dream of oxen.’ To dream ‘magnificently’ you have to have ‘a constitutional determination to reverie’ and if this faculty is not to degrade, you must abstain from the hectic onrush of the modern world and seek solitude. That De Quincey had the soul of a poetic dreamer is taken as read: the dream sequences are his QED. Their imagery is assumed to be self-evidently ‘tremendous’ and ‘sublime’, and we must see them, as he saw them, as gateways on realities other than our own. Like all good Romantics, De Quincey believed his deeper spiritual receptors to be sensitively tuned to the numinous, as it might be detected in such phenomena as the Spectre of the Brocken or the statue of Memnon in the Valley of the Kings which was said to emit an unearthly sound when the wind blew at sunrise, and it disturbed him not at all to know that the Spectre was caused by a freak of the weather and the Memnonian intonations by ‘artificial arrangements of tubes’. Lindop recounts an exchange between De Quincey and Pringle Nichol, professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, in which De Quincey confessed himself baffled by the professor’s attachment to the consequences of observable fact. De Quincey’s imagination had taken flight in an essay inspired by a particular theory of the nebula, which the professor pointed out had been disproved by subsequent astronomical findings: ‘Nichol apparently misunderstood the case as though it required a real phenomenon for its basis,’ he wrote.
For De Quincey, knowing how the ghost got into the machine didn’t evict it. How dreaming was induced was of no consequence: opium, raw pork, whatever – it had no bearing on the genius of the dreamer. His dreams spoke for themselves and they spoke for him, but they didn’t speak of him. And, in a certain sense, the same could be said for everything he told us about himself. Borges wrote of De Quincey’s ‘self-novelisation’, which suggests that his self-presentation was ironic. But De Quincey’s self-portraiture isn’t arch; it’s not an arms-length persona. His self-image was seriously meant. We are not to imagine he took his mask off when he went home for the day.
What happened at home was not for us to know. He was an exceptionally formal and conservative person, conscious to a fault of what was considerate and polite. There were things it was not proper to speak about. You neither asked people about their private lives nor did you bore them with your own. On the first page of the Confessions he made it clear that self-disclosure was the last thing we were to expect: ‘For any such acts of gratuitous self-humiliation,’ he said, ‘we must look to French literature, or to that part of the German, which is tainted with the spurious and defective sensibility of the French.’ The premises of Rousseau’s startling experiment in self-knowledge were quite foreign to De Quincey, for whom autobiography was not about the ‘mere facts’ of an inner life but about a public performance of the self. He wouldn’t have understood the notion of defence, but neither can we easily shed our sense that his representation of himself is defensive. We hear his heartbeat most clearly when he’s being skittish, often at other people’s expense. But when he recalls the things that caused him pain the surface of his writing glazes over. He reveals his insides like a man who wears a skeleton suit. The signifiers of feeling point into empty space. If we want to find the man in pain, it will not be in ‘Grief! Thou art classed amongst the depressing passions,’ but rather in ‘These things have so harrowed up my heart in grief and agitation that even to write a note was for some days impossible to me’ – in his letter to Tait on the death of his son. The manner in which De Quincey wrote about loss, including the loss when he was six years old of his beloved older sister Elizabeth, an event which he considered the defining experience of his life, leaves us on the outside: the writing is like beautifully worked bone with no marrow.
De Quincey’s extensive writings about himself – the Confessions, Suspiria, the Autobiographical Sketches and his wonderfully lively reminiscences of Wordsworth and Coleridge and literary society in the Lakes – are, for a biographer, more a curse than a blessing: as the main source for De Quincey’s formative years (Wilson observes that he only wrote about his more distant past), they are of limited use as repositories of historical fact, yet refractory as texts for analysis. The typical unit of De Quincey’s prose is several pages long, which is a big obstacle to any attempt at critical biography. Conceding this, Lindop confined himself to a scholarly and judicious account of the life as it can be known from the facts. Wilson, chafing at the historian’s bit, aims at something more ambitious. In the deeper regions of De Quincey’s mind and work, she descries shadowy and unsettling shapes.
It’s hard to tell if she actually likes De Quincey’s writing – she seems undecided, but her lack of affection for the man can be read on every page. She has previously written on Dorothy Wordsworth, and the air of parti pris in her approach to De Quincey has something of unfinished business about it. In the early days, Dorothy Wordsworth was very fond of De Quincey and may have had hopes of marrying him. By the time he married Margaret Simpson, relations between De Quincey and Dorothy had cooled; nonetheless, Dorothy had reason to feel hurt (‘a stupid, heavy girl … reckoned a dunce at Grasmere school’, she wrote of Margaret). The story of De Quincey’s friendship and falling out with the Wordsworths is one of the best in English literary history. No one emerges from it entirely blameless, but for being exasperating De Quincey surely takes the prize. Still, Wilson’s disposition to dislike him goes beyond impatience to something much darker. She senses a violence in him not far short of the pathological. This is the foundational insight of her book, and her need to convince us of it, especially in relation to De Quincey’s feelings about Wordsworth, leads her to press its claims beyond the evidence.
Central to her case are De Quincey’s essays on murder, which she thinks show a worrying preoccupation with psychotic violence. But as a proportion of his total output the essays in question are not especially significant, and the predilection he showed in them for the gruesome and macabre is, by Wilson’s own account, not untypical of the attitudes of his age. Then again, a single observation of Coleridge’s about the fever, fear and distress he saw in De Quincey’s eyes when he first met him, is blown up by Wilson into the idea of De Quincey as ‘a figure of fearful immensity’. In the course of Guilty Thing, De Quincey is compared to a homicidal psychopath, Iago and, implicitly, Humbert Humbert.
An incident which Lindop largely overlooks gets Wilson’s antennae twitching. Some time after he moved into Dove Cottage, the 26-year-old De Quincey made some drastic changes to the orchard, thinning and pruning the trees and dismantling the moss hut. Of course he knew of William and Dorothy’s sentimental attachment to the little garden and especially to the hut, and his gardening activity was at the very least insensitive and smacks of defiance. Here, though, is Wilson: ‘On 3 December … De Quincey … had carried his woodman’s axe up to the orchard and plunged it into the green mossy side of Wordsworth’s charming little temple, slashing at its structure until it was nothing but a ruin.’ No one witnessed De Quincey’s actions on that afternoon in 1811 and Wilson’s account is entirely fictional. Why did De Quincey cut back the orchard and dismantle the moss hut? Was it to make what he thought were improvements to his garden or to punish the Wordsworths? Did he proceed methodically and with care or did he lay about him like a mad axeman? Was he in a patricidal rage or just being thoughtless? As the circumspect Lindop is apt to say: ‘There’s just no way of telling.’