Poet Laureate falls under the spell of an erudite poisoner
Wednesday 25 August 1999
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."
- 1 James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns aged 27
- 3 Cilla Black defends Cliff Richard: 'I am positive that the allegations are without foundation'
- 4 Nicki Minaj finally releases predictable 'Anaconda' video
- 5 James Foley 'beheading': Met police warn public watching murder video could be criminal offence
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish Independence Referendum: Salmond described as 'arrogant, ambitious and dishonest' by Scottish women
£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...
Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...
Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...
£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...