The English Opium-Eater, By Robert Morrison

Breaking down England's most famous drug pusher
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The Independent Culture

Thomas de Quincey is frequently to be met on the fringes of other, greater, writers' biographies; he is never far from any life of Wordsworth or Coleridge, albeit a relatively bit-part player in both these stories, just on the periphery of a biographer's vision. Robert Morrison has sought to remedy this with The English Opium-Eater, a work that brings De Quincey centre-stage and relegates all the assorted Wordsworths into (sometimes pretty unsympathetic) supporting roles.

This is a harder task to achieve than one might imagine, not for any paucity of actual biographical data – there is plenty of information (including De Quincey's own records, about which more later) and the fine work of earlier biographers on whose shoulders Morrison can stand; rather, the difficulty, especially in the first half of the life, is to make a case for the subject's significance and his genius (as more than just a hanger-on of the Lake Poets), when these things are dependent on his oft-described skills as a conversationalist and the sharpness and originality of his writing in pieces of prose that he often never quite got round to finishing. There are plenty of reports of his brilliance, but not much substance for a biographer to show for it.

So while Morrison's portrait of De Quincey's youth – the years that defined him through adolescent rebellion, suffering, exploration, Wordsworth-worship and, crucially, the beginnings of a descent into opium addiction – is an engaging and well-told story, it is only really at the mid-point of the book, with the beginnings of his brilliant (if erratic) writing career, that he begins to emerge from the shadow of his famous contemporaries and shine by his own light, as a shrewd critic, an original and witty essayist, a sophisticated conservative political commentator and polemicist.

As is often the way with biographers and their subjects, Morrison's understanding of De Quincey makes him very forgiving of him, too; for while it is clear that this remarkable and unfortunate man deserves a reader's sympathy he is also a staggeringly unreliable colleague and husband, arrogant, self-absorbed, deceitful, paranoid and irresponsible.

Though born to an affluent family, with the best educational opportunities, Thomas was an unhappy, rebellious teenager, who ran away to a drifter's life of struggle, ill-health and financial instability. Threats of destitution overshadow most of his life, and Morrison's biography is a litany of debts unpaid, dramatic pursuits by creditors and shockingly poor financial management.

Though frequently bailed out by his mother, the coldly critical, but endlessly forgiving Mrs Quincey (the "De" comes and goes depending on individual family members' social aspirations), Thomas's financial troubles just keep deteriorating, his attempts to remedy them frequently exacerbating the problem – he moves house, then simply ends up bound to pay rent in two places at once (at a particularly low ebb he is trying to meet rent commitments in no fewer than four properties simultaneously).

Ill health kick-started the opium-taking, which became not only physically debilitating (the addiction and withdrawal attempts, by turns) but yet another drain on his finances; the only possibility for subsistence was to write copiously for the flourishing periodical press, but the opium (and De Quincey's own high standards) made this harder still.

Out of all this came 1821's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the success of which encouraged countless new readers to try the drug. With the later Suspiria, it is a significant source of biographical information, but one whose claims to credibility are only intermittently sound, so one of Morrison's tasks is carefully to unpick a plausible truth from a tangle of lies and half-truths and composite truths used by De Quincey very deliberately (and to great effect) to create a public persona. The self-justifying, self-mythologising in De Quincey's own writings produces a fascinating self-portrait, whose very suffering and grim addiction is almost appealing; but once these have been peeled back, the damaged De Quincey we read in Morrison is barely recognisable – complex, contradictory, troubling and profoundly sad.