Poet Laureate falls under the spell of an erudite poisoner

FOR THE new face of the literary establishment, it is a peculiar preoccupation. The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, has revealed his obsession with a little-known poisoner who murdered at least three people in the 19th century.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, once a darling of the Romantic literary movement, fell from grace after killing his mother-in-law, his uncle and his wife's half-sister.

He was arrested and tried for murder at the Old Bailey, but autopsy tests could not trace strychnine so he escaped the gallows and was transported to Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania) where he lived out the rest of his life in disgrace.

Society rounded on Wainewright, who had mixed with Keats, Blake and other key figures in the Romantic movement, striking out virtually every record of him. All but three of his many letters have vanished and there is no sign of the diary he is rumoured to have kept.

But Motion, a Whitbread prize-winning biographer of the poet Philip Larkin and of Keats, has disclosed how he is writing a book about the gifted murderer, who was an art critic for the London Magazine and whose paintings included a portrait of Byron.

"Everyone basked in the warmth of his generous spirit, relishing his wit, encouraging his extravagance," Motion said in a lecture to the Lake District's annual Wordsworth Summer Conference.

"They just as eagerly disowned him. His paintings were scattered and lost. His collection of prints, china and drawings were sold. His wife and son emigrated to America and never contacted him again. His friends denounced him."

Though Motion concedes his man was "silver-tongued, a tremendous dandy, a compulsive liar and a forger", his obliteration now makes an objective biography almost impossible.

Motion's solution is a fictionalised confession, Wainewright the Poisoner, to be published by Faber and Faber in February.

It purports to have been written by Wainewright in Van Dieman's Land shortly before his death on the chain gang in 1847 but is annotated with facts gleaned from his few writings and literary allusions to him.

It is a precarious task for Motion. One of the few Wainewright texts he draws on is his Ticket of Leave Appeal, written in Hobart in 1844. Even this, Motion admits, is "a rag-tag of fair comments, evasions and downright lies ... as reliably unreliable as Wainewright himself."

Some facts are clear, however. Wainewright did kill - for money. Encouraged by high-powered literary friends, he lived wildly beyond his means, buying art and dining extravagantly. He forged deeds to procure property and for the money he would inherit if he killed a George Griffiths, his uncle, a Mrs Abercrombie, his mother-in-law, and Helen Abercrombie, his wife's half-sister.

Wainewright fed the Romantics' obsession that crime and high culture went hand-in-hand and the moralistic Victorians' fascination with a criminal underclass.

Charles Dickens visited him in Newgate prison and based the character, Jonas Chuzzlewit, on him. But Oscar Wilde, who also made Wainewright the subject of an essay, seems closest to Motion's view that a man should not be erased from history because he murders. Wilde wrote in the essay: "The fact that a man is a poisoner is nothing against his prose style."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable