Book review: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson

April 20, 2016
Thomas De Quincey, wrote the magazine John Bull in 1824, was the “Humbug of the Age”—an affected posturer, desperate for celebrity, and a sycophantic hanger-on to the Lake Poets.

The stinging verdict had some truth to it, yet there were many other sides to De Quincey, who, writes his biographer Frances Wilson, “was inordinately preoccupied with the idea of multiplicity.” He wrote nothing until he was 35, then turned out 250 essays on a dazzling array of subjects for the literary-political magazines of the day. His book The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater shot him to literary fame, and got him a reputation as the “nation’s drug-pusher.” De Quincey, wrote his affronted and drug-addicted friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had “with morbid vanity… made a boast of what was my misfortune.” An insatiable reader in childhood, De Quincey’s first experience of debt came at the booksellers (he would spend the last decade of his life hiding from bailiffs). Yet books also provided an early sensation of escape, which he would discover again in opium.

Wilson’s artful and nuanced biography locates a key to De Quincey’s torments in the early death of his sister from hydrocephalus, which to his mind was brought on by “excessive intelligence, a condition from which he also suffered.” She traces the twin obsessions that possessed De Quincey across his life: the sensational Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, and his intense relationship with William Wordsworth.

“There have been several fine biographies of De Quincey, but so far no De Quinceyan biography,” writes Wilson. Hers is as complex, intriguing and multifarious as “the last of the Romantics” himself.