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
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there