Francis Wilson, Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey (Bloomsbury, 2016) 397 pages.
The English essayist Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) was an infuriating person to know. Frances Wilson tells of how he might drop in on a person for a meal and still be at the table the next morning; he could then become a semi-invited or uninvited lodger for months. He would fill up rooms or houses he rented with books and papers, neglect to pay the rent, and then flee to a new lodging, leaving behind many of his possessions. He was, famously, an opium addict (author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater), and obsessed with William Wordsworth; his discipleship of the great Romantic poet turned to an intense disenchantment. It’s not a ‘journey into hell’ as the reviewer-quote on the front suggests, but it is a journey into the life and pain of an addict, and one who seems peculiarly contemporary.
Wilson writes that, ‘There have been several fine biographies of De Quincey but so far no De Quinceyan biography’. I feel I need to have read one of the more conventional biographies to better understand her subtle portrait of De Quincey. She spends much of the book unpacking his interests and obsessions – as well as Wordsworth and opium, these included murders and books. Wilson works harder than many biographers; she intimately knows the books, people, cultural trends, and historical events which shaped him and narrates his development in terms of them. It makes for a complex, demanding biography despite her wit and clear prose.
I knew nothing of De Quincey before I read the biography; I wanted to read it because I was so impressed by Wilson’s previous book, How to Survive the Titanic: Or the Sinking of Bruce Ismay (2011), a study of cowardice and public shaming through the case of the White Star shipping magnate who jumped into one of the Titanic’s lifeboats. Her method in that book was similar, although the tone was perhaps more humorous. In both cases she has, bravely, chosen rather unsympathetic subjects to write about. I want to believe that it’s possible to write enjoyable biographies about unsympathetic subjects, but the fact I admired the De Quincey biography more than I enjoyed it suggests otherwise – coming as it did after I abandoned well written biographies of Princess Margaret and Anthony Burgess because I didn’t want to spend any more time in their company.
One of the pleasures of this biography is to experience the the strangeness of the world De Quincey inhabited, conveyed so well by Wilson. Dreams, co-incidences, the macabre are never far away. In a fitting De Quinceyan detail, toward the end of his life he lodged several times with a woman named Frances Wilson; Frances Wilson the biographer doesn’t draw particular attention to it in the text, but I could sense her delight.
Saturday 10am #11