Guilty Thing : A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 397 pp

De Quincey : So Original, So Truly Weird Richard Holmes

Guilty Thing : A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Frances Wilson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 397 pp. 1.

If you saun­ter or dream your way along the narrow streets run­ning east of London’s Covent Garden, drif­ting like a ghost amid the late-summer tou­rists, you may even­tually come to the Café Murano at 36 Tavistock Street. Look care­fully upward, and you will notice on the wall above, half-hidden bet­ween two tall win­dows, a dis­creet blue com­me­mo­ra­tive plaque that makes a start­ling and pos­si­bly sinis­ter announ­ce­ment. It was in this buil­ding (actually in a set of rooms at the back) that Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) wrote his dis­tur­bing mas­ter­piece, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, in 1821. Thomas De Quincey ; pho­to­gra­vure after an 1855 chalk dra­wing by James Archer National Portrait Gallery, London Thomas De Quincey ; pho­to­gra­vure after an 1855 chalk dra­wing by James Archer

Today this ele­gant quar­ter of bars and res­tau­rants seems an unli­kely loca­tion for opium eating. Yet it was behind this solid London bri­ck­work that De Quincey first opened up his asto­ni­shing “apo­ca­lypse of the world within.” Here he exul­tantly des­cri­bed his first expe­rience of drug-taking :

Heavens !…what an uphea­ving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit !…Here was a pana­cea…for all human woes : here was the secret of hap­pi­ness, about which phi­lo­so­phers had dis­pu­ted for so many ages, at once dis­co­ve­red : hap­pi­ness might now be bought for a penny, and car­ried in the waist­coat pocket : por­ta­ble ecs­ta­sies might be corked up in a pint bottle : and peace of mind could be sent down in gal­lons by the mail coach.

The truth of De Quincey’s ecs­ta­tic dis­co­very of opium is far more com­pli­ca­ted than this ligh­thear­ted (and rather attrac­tive) account would imply. For a start, the drug was not espe­cially rare or exotic at the time, but easily obtai­na­ble from any phar­macy as a hou­se­hold medi­cine and mild pain­killer, even given in small doses to babies. It was De Quincey’s sheer excess and unli­kely endu­rance (he lived to be a ghost­like seventy-four) that, cou­pled with his kalei­do­sco­pic lite­rary powers, made him so ori­gi­nal and so truly weird. Nor did he eat opium, but drank it in an infu­sion with brandy as a glo­wing, tea-colo­red, slightly bitter liquid called lau­da­num, and as a result he became an alco­ho­lic as much as an addict, and what would now doubt­less be called a dys­func­tio­nal per­so­na­lity.

In the last deca­des of his life he was spen­ding £150 a year on the drug (from an income of £250), per­ma­nently in debt and pur­sued by cre­di­tors, conti­nually adop­ting false names and shif­ting lod­gings (he would simply aban­don his rooms when they over­flo­wed with his books and papers), often dres­sed in cas­toffs and wri­ting bare­foot (a friend obser­ved “an army coat four times too large for him and with nothing on beneath”), and lar­gely unable to sup­port an ever-gro­wing family of eight chil­dren and a sui­ci­dal wife (who died pre­ma­tu­rely of exhaus­tion and typhus at the age of forty-one).

It was De Quincey’s pecu­liar genius to trans­form this patho­lo­gi­cal tra­gedy into some­thing rich and strange, and to create for him­self a uni­quely mar­ke­ta­ble sou­bri­quet in the jour­nals of the day as “The English Opium Eater,” which he used for the rest of his life. The truth is, his ori­gi­nal Confessions has no real loca­tion at all. The whole of the book is what De Quincey called “a palimp­sest,” many layers of fact and fic­tion, pain and exul­ta­tion, memory and dream, time and place, over­writ­ten one upon ano­ther, over many years. A sequel fol­lo­wed in 1845, and a series of revi­sions as Autobiographic Sketches in 1853.

His visio­nary opium world, com­po­sed of “orien­tal ima­gery and mytho­lo­gi­cal tor­tu­res,” remains essen­tially unearthly, savage, and dis­pla­ced :

I was stared at, hooted at, grin­ned at, chat­te­red at, by mon­keys, by para­quets, by cocka­toos. I ran into pago­das : and was fixed for cen­tu­ries, at the summit, or in secret rooms…. I was buried, for a thou­sand years, in stone cof­fins, with mum­mies and sphin­xes, in narrow cham­bers at the heart of eter­nal pyra­mids. I was kissed, with can­ce­rous kisses, by cro­co­di­les ; and laid, confoun­ded with all unut­te­ra­ble slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

This is one of the many rea­sons it is so hard to write a plain, fac­tual bio­gra­phy of De Quincey with any kind of convic­tion. It requi­res not merely scho­lar­ship, but a spe­cial mix­ture of ima­gi­na­tive agi­lity and nimble scep­ti­cism and, one might add, the patience of a saint.

As far as one can tell, De Quincey was nine­teen, a pri­vi­le­ged stu­dent at Oxford, when he first tasted the drug, one “wet and cheer­less Sunday after­noon” on a trip to London in 1804. But two years before he had run away from Manchester Grammar School, ano­ther expen­sive edu­ca­tion, and had an affair with a fif­teen-year-old pros­ti­tute in London, who became his famous roman­tic and retros­pec­tive inven­tion “Ann of Oxford Street.” His obses­sion with her (and many other young women and girls, which he called his “nym­pho­lepsy,” and which may or may not have been pedo­phi­lia) also became part of his drug expe­rience. Sometimes he looks rather like the ori­gi­nal dro­pout.

Yet he did not became seriously addic­ted to opium until 1813, when he was twenty-eight and living in the Lake District as the increa­sin­gly frus­tra­ted ama­nuen­sis of his one­time idols, Wordsworth and Coleridge. It was not until he was thirty-six, with his wife and chil­dren and a gro­wing mass of debts, that he again came to London and dashed off his Confessions. Presented as an art­less out­pou­ring—“guilt and misery shrink, by a natu­ral ins­tinct, from public notice”—it was actually com­mis­sio­ned as two highly pro­fes­sio­nal, well-paid arti­cles for the newly foun­ded London Magazine. He was still com­ple­ting its “sequel,” the Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Deep”), this time for Blackwood’s Magazine, when he was sixty and adrift in Scotland.

The true sub­ject of the Confessions, he now said, was not so much opium itself as the poten­tial gran­deur of the “human dreams” it ins­pi­red :

The machi­nery for drea­ming plan­ted in the human brain was not plan­ted for nothing. That faculty, in alliance with the mys­tery of dark­ness, is the one great tube through which man com­mu­ni­ca­tes with the sha­dowy…the magni­fi­cent appa­ra­tus which forces the infi­nite into the cham­bers of a human brain, and throws dark reflec­tions from eter­ni­ties below all life upon the mir­rors of the slee­ping mind.

Paradoxically, this inge­niously exten­ded meta­phor is in fact drawn from a modern science of the exter­nal world, obser­va­tio­nal astro­nomy, and the advent of the great Victorian reflec­tor teles­co­pes—­the “one great tube.” It turns out, as just one more sur­prise, that the pen­ni­less De Quincey had been lod­ging for many weeks in the Glasgow Observatory at the time he wrote Suspiria. He had simul­ta­neously writ­ten a long arti­cle about Lord Rosse’s forty-foot “Leviathan” teles­cope and the dis­co­very of an image of what he termed a cruel “mons­ter” in the cons­tel­la­tion of Orion.

Indeed it is easy to over­look De Quincey’s remar­ka­ble eru­di­tion, which stret­ched far beyond mere drug lite­ra­ture. He had an outs­tan­ding edu­ca­tion (des­pite his truan­cies) in Greek and Latin, and could deli­ver a speech in fluent clas­si­cal Greek. He had cove­red a vast range of mis­cel­la­neous rea­ding (hence his cons­tantly over­flo­wing lod­gings, in one of which he filled his bath—­pre­su­ma­bly unu­sed—to the brim with books and maga­zi­nes), and a dazz­ling speed and faci­lity in jour­na­lis­tic wri­ting. He was capa­ble of tur­ning out—or spin­ning out—a ten- or twenty-thou­sand-word arti­cle in a matter of days. Admittedly this pro­du­ced many lon­geurs, and his prose could be as inter­mi­na­ble as Coleridge’s talk, which De Quincey des­cri­bed as mean­de­ring “like some great river, the Orellana, or the St Lawrence.”

He cove­red in his arti­cles an asto­ni­shing spec­trum of sub­jects—­for exam­ple, Homeric lite­ra­ture, poli­ti­cal eco­nomy, the Chinese Opium Wars, California, free trade, emi­gra­tion, the French Revolution, Afghanistan, Irish libe­ra­tion, the Church of Scotland, the Corn Laws, mytho­logy, evil, or the anti­sla­very cam­paign. He could also write vividly about per­so­na­li­ties, not just the famous essays on Coleridge and Wordsworth, but on Judas Iscariot, Immanuel Kant, Joan of Arc, Malthus, Aristotle, Euclid, Lamb, Hazlitt, David Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Shelley, or the Sphinx. His mind star­ted as a huge Romantic echo cham­ber and fini­shed as a chao­tic Victorian pan­tech­ni­con of mis­cel­la­neous lear­ning. Altogether this makes his life pecu­liarly dif­fi­cult to define and contain. 2.

Thomas De Quincey him­self had strong views on the short­co­mings of conven­tio­nal bio­gra­phy. He belie­ved it was “wea­ri­some and use­less” when merely “chro­no­lo­gi­cally arran­ged,” as a sla­vish nar­ra­tive of events. This merely pro­du­ced “‘the hack­neyed roll-call’ of a man’s life.” The essence of any life was its “dou­ble­ness,” its exte­rior and inte­rior exis­ten­ces, and the access to these was gover­ned by “single” scenes and “deep impres­sions.” Thomas De Quincey ; accor­ding to Frances Wilson in Guilty Thing, he ‘was the only Romantic to have had his pho­to­graph taken’ Trustees of Dove Cottage Thomas De Quincey ; accor­ding to Frances Wilson in Guilty Thing, he ‘was the only Romantic to have had his pho­to­graph taken’

Frances Wilson is not a conven­tio­nal bio­gra­pher, and she seems to know ins­tinc­ti­vely about this dou­ble­ness. She has set out, with immense energy and flair, to “hunt” De Quincey “through all his dou­bles,” and unlike pre­vious bio­gra­phers, nota­bly Grevil Lindop (1981) and Robert Morrison (2009), she intends to write what she calls the first “Quinceyan bio­gra­phy.”

Much to the pur­pose, she has writ­ten won­der­fully about the Lake District circle, in The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008). This book achie­ves a stri­kin­gly empa­the­tic account of Wordsworth’s “wild” sister, in all her mix­ture of pas­sions and frus­tra­tions. Young De Quincey already has a signi­fi­cant walk-on part here, and Wilson des­cri­bes him as “ever the most acute” of the com­men­ta­tors on Dorothy, and gives him the final envoi on the last page of the bio­gra­phy : “fare­well, impas­sio­ned Dorothy !”

It might seem less rele­vant that Wilson’s most recent book was about the sin­king of the Titanic (2012). Yet this may be curiously appro­priate. In it she restruc­tu­res a well-known story from a highly unu­sual point of view, that of the mana­ger of the White Star Line, J. Bruce Ismay, who was doomed not to drown in the wreck, but to sur­vive, by taking to a life­boat inten­ded for “women and chil­dren first,” and suf­fe­ring a life­time’s shame and oblo­quy in conse­quence. The book expe­ri­ments with time and fata­lity, so dif­fe­rent kinds of secret guilt and moral ambi­guity stea­dily accu­mu­late behind the sur­face nar­ra­tive.

All this makes Wilson espe­cially pre­pa­red for the ambi­guous, shape-shif­ting, chan­ge­ling, illu­sive qua­lity in De Quincey. She sees the need for sty­lis­tic fire­works as well as steady scho­lar­ship to illu­mi­nate his life. She writes with speed, flam­boyance, and cons­tant chan­ges of view­point and pers­pec­tive, offset by moments of calm, shrewd ana­ly­sis :

His Confessions and his Autobiographic Sketches pre­sent two selves : the man of expe­rience who holds the reader in the palm of his hand, and the child of inno­cence who is the sub­ject of the story…. What makes De Quincey’s wri­ting so unner­ving is that he felt rival­rous with this other self ; his mind was “haun­ted” by jea­lousy of the “ghostly being” who walked before him.

She is deter­mi­ned to keep pace with both figu­res.

One par­ti­cu­lar method she employs to cap­ture her Quinceyan prey is to net him with snap­shot phra­ses and pin him with pro­vo­king apho­risms. He is first intro­du­ced briskly, in bold thick out­line, as the “Romantic aco­lyte, pro­fes­sio­nal dop­pelgän­ger, trans­cen­den­tal hack.” But soon his shape is begin­ning to shim­mer and dis­tort, “a figure on a per­pe­tual stair­case,” and a man living in a world “desi­gned by Piranesi.” These trans­for­ma­tions conti­nue throu­ghout the bio­gra­phy and give it much of its fas­ci­na­tion and ori­gi­na­lity. As a young man visi­ting Grasmere, De Quincey is a polite, shy, dimi­nu­tive guest (under five feet tall) with man­ners of “por­ce­lain.” Then he is the bid­da­ble lite­rary grou­pie, first to Coleridge and then to Wordsworth : “used as a library, a baby­sit­ter, a tutor, a secre­tary, and even at times…a bank.” But this “façade of meek­ness dis­gui­sed tur­bu­lence and fero­city.” The epi­sode in which De Quincey takes over Dove Cottage, fills it with thirty chests of books, and then sava­gely cuts down the orchard and the moss hut belo­ved of Dorothy (and symbol of her love for Wordsworth) is psy­cho­lo­gi­cally one of the most revea­ling and dis­maying pas­sa­ges in the whole book.

Later, after he fled to Scotland and publi­shed in Blackwood’s Magazine, De Quincey is a “car­toon of poverty,” with a moth-eaten jacket “a size too large” and a neck­tie that looks “like a piece of straw.” The ven­ge­ful bio­gra­phi­cal writer, who now sells his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1834–1840) as an occa­sio­nal series to Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, beco­mes master of “the fine art of cha­rac­ter assas­si­na­tion.” These essays are in rea­lity “tale[s] of pur­suit and revenge.” Yet his por­trait of Dorothy Wordsworth, “all fire…Egyptian brown …wild eyes,” is by contrast tender and extra­or­di­na­rily per­cep­tive. He prai­ses her “sexual sense of beauty” but laments the way her love for her bro­ther even­tually limi­ted and dama­ged her own undoub­ted genius. Perhaps De Quincey might have mar­ried Dorothy, Wilson spe­cu­la­tes, rather than the “strap­ping” farmer’s daugh­ter, the long-suf­fe­ring Margaret Simpson.

But by the end he is living in a dream world that “resem­bled a place like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland or JM Barrie’s Neverland.” He is a boy who never grew up, “the quin­tes­sen­tial Peter Pan.” Yet he is also the sophis­ti­ca­ted, auto­bio­gra­phi­cal genius whose works will influence the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde, as well as William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Peter Ackroyd, and even Alfred Hitchcock. He is the man whose dreams were hailed by Borges as “the best in lite­ra­ture.” He is one of the few English authors now issued in the clas­sic French Éditions Pléiade (2011).

So ano­ther pro­blem emer­ges : How to bring all these para­doxes, all these scin­tilla­ting and cons­tantly shif­ting images, into a steady bio­gra­phi­cal focus. How far can the bio­gra­pher really improve on the blue plaque in the Café Murano ? 3.

Charles Baudelaire, after partly trans­la­ting the Confessions as Les Paradis arti­fi­ciels (1860), thought that nothing could pos­si­bly be added to De Quincey’s auto­bio­gra­phy. Its defi­ning shape was enclo­sed, invo­lu­ted, and “natu­rally spiral.” Yet the dif­fe­rent tra­di­tions of De Quincey bio­gra­phy are sur­pri­sin­gly rich and varied. There is his friend David Masson’s brisk, defen­sive life of 1881, jus­ti­fied shortly after by the four­teen-volume Collected Writings (1889). There is Edward Sackville-West’s dreamy A Flame in Sunlight (1936), even­tually cor­rec­ted by Grevel Lindop’s scho­larly and skep­ti­cal The Opium-Eater (1981) with “modern medi­cal and psy­cho­lo­gi­cal views of addic­tion” and much “scru­ti­ni­zing” of the tes­ti­mony and “che­cking” of the exter­nal evi­dence.

This in turn was fol­lo­wed by a spec­ta­cu­lar new edi­tion of the Works (2000–2003), under Lindop’s gene­ral edi­tor­ship and now run­ning to an alar­ming twenty-one volu­mes, inclu­ding some 250 exten­ded essays writ­ten over forty years. “Reading his col­lec­ted works,” remarks Frances Wilson glee­fully, “is like fal­ling into Pandemonium.” The ful­lest bio­gra­phy is still that by Robert Morrison (2009), who has writ­ten many cri­ti­cal essays and intro­duc­tions on the sub­ject, makes confi­dent use of the new Works, and also gives us the most detai­led and sym­pa­the­tic account of De Quincey’s chao­tic domes­tic life, espe­cially with his sweet, haras­sed wife Margaret and his eight hapless chil­dren (only three daugh­ters even­tually sur­vi­ved). It is a fine and lear­ned study, yet per­haps it keeps too close to the bri­ck­work.

Cultural and psy­cho­lo­gi­cal inter­pre­ta­tions have also flou­ri­shed, nota­bly Angela Leighton’s essay “De Quincey and Women” (1992) and John Barrell’s The Infection of Thomas De Quincey (1991), both of which inge­niously explore the com­plex mytho­logy of De Quincey’s self-pro­clai­med “nym­pho­lepsy,” the wor­ship of the series of unat­tai­na­ble, lost, dama­ged, or frankly dead girls or young women that recurs throu­ghout his works and that may or may not be sexual. These stu­dies move in dif­fe­rent direc­tions (Barrell’s is a dazz­ling ana­ly­sis of De Quincey’s “orien­ta­lism”), but both agree on a psy­cho­lo­gi­cal key. This is the death of De Quincey’s eight-year-old sister Elizabeth in 1792, when he was only six, and his account of a trau­ma­tic visit to her beau­ti­ful corpse in a locked but sun-filled front room, and a stolen last kiss of her marble lips until, hea­ring foots­teps on the stairs, he slinks away “like a guilty thing.” From then on, we are to unders­tand, he was a haun­ted crea­ture.

The phrase (an echo from both Hamlet and Wordsworth) gives Wilson her title and ano­ther bio­gra­phi­cal key. But true to the Quinceyan prin­ci­ples of chro­no­logy, she makes us aware that the account of his visit to his sister’s corpse does not actually appear in the ori­gi­nal Confessions of 1821 at all, but is gra­dually ela­bo­ra­ted over forty years after, first appea­ring in an early Autobiographical Sketch of 1834, then in the Suspiria of 1845, and then again in 1853. (As vir­tually eve­ry­thing of De Quincey’s was first publi­shed in one of the maga­zi­nes, and later revi­sed and re-revi­sed end­lessly, the tex­tual his­tory of his account is so com­pli­ca­ted that all scho­lar­ship seems to retain a faint opium haze around the edges.) The pro­blem of bio­gra­phi­cal authen­ti­city across such elap­sed time, or dream time, is not dis­si­mi­lar to that of Gérard de Nerval’s lost early love in his contem­po­rary mas­ter­piece, Sylvie : Souvenirs du Valois of 1854.

De Quincey’s haun­ting account has already been picked out and prai­sed by Virginia Woolf : “the art of bio­gra­phy…is being trans­for­med…[by] the slow ope­ning up of single and solemn moments of concen­tra­ted emo­tion.” Wilson’s own com­ment is lyri­cal, and then cha­rac­te­ris­ti­cally shar­pe­ned to a sudden point :

Few auto­bio­gra­phers have given us a more remar­ka­ble, or convo­lu­ted, child­hood sce­ne—­part memory, part mid­sum­mer day­dream, part opium reve­rie—or one that pro­pels us more swiftly into the fur­ni­shings of their ima­gi­na­tion. It is an exam­ple of what De Quincey calls his “impas­sio­ned prose,” which takes flight mid-sen­tence…. What De Quincey des­cri­bes is terror recol­lec­ted in tran­quillity.

It is here that Wilson intro­du­ces her new master theme : not merely opium but what she calls, in an unex­pec­ted concus­sion of two contras­ted ideas, De Quincey’s “preoc­cu­pa­tion with mur­de­rers and poets.” While the first half of her book lar­gely concerns his spoi­led but soli­tary ado­les­cence, his dis­co­very of the Lyrical Ballads, and his strange dream­like pur­suit of Coleridge and Wordsworth, up to the point that he is esta­bli­shed in Dove Cottage, the second half has a quite dif­fe­rent tone. It bursts into a vision of dream­like terror, sudden death, and hor­ri­fic vio­lence, with events that took place in London in the winter of 1811. These, she argues, pro­vide the touchs­tone that “igni­ted his genius.” They will lead him to ano­ther kind of mas­ter­piece, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (yet ano­ther exten­ded text, even­tually appea­ring in three parts in 1827, 1839, and 1854), and take him nor­th­ward on to Edinburgh and Glasgow and poverty.

At this point she takes an immense risk. She opens her book not, as one might expect, with the ornate opium dream of his sister’s death in 1792, but with a tho­roughly bloody and pre­cise murder scene in 1811. At “ten minu­tes to mid­night” on December 7, 1811, an entire hou­se­hold—Mr. and Mrs. Marr, their young appren­tice, and even their baby—­had their skulls ham­me­red in with a buil­der’s maul and their throats cut at 29 Radcliffe Highway, in the poor dockyards quar­ter of London’s East End. Having des­cri­bed this action with foren­sic care, Wilson sug­gests that Thomas De Quincey had a life­long obses­sion with these mur­ders and that in them we can find “dis­per­sed in ana­gram” the story of his whole life. (The ridd­ling phrase is skill­fully lifted from De Quincey’s own essay on Charles Lamb.) It is, she sug­gests, his dreams of vio­lence that lie even deeper than his opium dreams. “His murder essays always take us to the seabed of his psyche.”

It is, in every sense, an arres­ting ope­ning and a stri­king thesis, and pro­vi­des in effect the deathly pre-title sequence to the second half of her bio­gra­phy. But having intro­du­ced the scene, Wilson holds back its impli­ca­tions for nearly two hun­dred pages, a truly Quinceyan gamble with the reader’s atten­tion span. Only then comes “the point where De Quincey’s life broke in half.” From here on she brilliantly exploits the themes of impen­ding vio­lence, mur­de­rous hatred, and sus­pen­ded terror in so much of De Quincey’s later work : as an editor of the Westmoreland Gazette (1818–1819) fas­ci­na­ted by true crime sto­ries ; as the acute lite­rary critic with his psy­cho­lo­gi­cal ana­ly­sis of “the hell within” in the “Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823) ; as the genial bio­gra­pher secretly taking his revenge on—or sti­cking the knife into—­his fallen poetic idols, Coleridge and Wordsworth (but spa­ring Dorothy), in his Recollections (1834–1845) ; or as the dandy essayist who stri­kes a new per­verse pose in On Murder :

Everything in this world has two hand­les. Murder for ins­tance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it gene­rally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey) ; and that, I confess, is its weak side ; or it may also be trea­ted aes­the­ti­cally, as the Germans call it, that is, in rela­tion to good taste.

The final 1854 part of this essay has De Quincey’s grip­ping and bloody recons­truc­tion, forty-three years after the event, of the Marr mur­ders at Radcliffe Highway in 1811. With its repea­ted sinis­ter themes of “kno­cking” at a closed door in the middle of the night, or of being “sus­pen­ded” in terror on a stair­case, it forms a grand reprise of so many of De Quincey’s auto­bio­gra­phi­cal “deep moments,” or what he called, in an evo­ca­tive term, his “invo­lu­tes.”

Wilson can now show that these include even the cli­mac­tic col­li­sion scene in the third part of De Quincey’s essay The English Mail Coach (1849), the “Vision of Sudden Death.” Here the vul­ne­ra­ble young woman in the fra­gile car­riage (ano­ther of De Quincey’s nym­pho­leps) under­goes a fear­ful count­down to des­truc­tion as the huge, hurt­ling night­time mail­coach thun­ders down upon her. (Inventing a pecu­liarly modern nar­ra­tive device, De Quincey lite­rally counts down to the moment of impact, “a minute and a half…seventy seconds…twenty seconds…fif­teen…five seconds more…Oh ! Hurry, hurry…”) She esca­pes by a hair’s breadth, with only a glan­cing blow that leaves her car­riage “alive with trem­blings and shi­ve­rings.” Yet she her­self at the breath­less end of the essay is sus­pen­ded in a kind of orgasm of Quinceyan terror :

But the lady— ! Oh hea­vens ! will that spec­ta­cle ever depart from my dreams, as she rose and sank upon her seat, sank and rose, threw up her arms wildly to heaven, clut­ched at some visio­nary object in the air, fain­ting, praying, raving, des­pai­ring !

Wilson obser­ves evenly that we can now see that throu­ghout his life De Quincey had approa­ched murder and death in so many dif­fe­rent guises, all of which magni­fi­cently dis­played his cha­me­leon genius : “from the posi­tion of Shakespearean critic, sati­rist, repor­ter, Gothic nove­list and self-pla­gia­rist.” Moreover this gives her the chance for one of her own memo­ra­ble pyro­tech­nic dis­plays as a bio­gra­pher. In the late self-defi­ning piece On Murder, Wilson writes,

De Quincey’s object was to prove that [the mur­de­rer] Williams was an actor, a connois­seur, a dandy, an aes­thete, a scourge of God who walked in dark­ness, a tiger, a man of snaky insi­nua­tion, and a domes­tic Attila. The mur­de­rer was, like Wordsworth’s vision of the poet, a soli­tary artist, lonely as a cloud.

And of course, like Thomas De Quincey him­self. It is par­ti­cu­larly for these daring pas­sa­ges that one admi­res this risky, sprightly, pas­sio­nate bio­gra­phy, which goes fur­ther than any­thing pre­viously in cat­ching the strange, elu­sive Opium Eater, and which could never for a moment be mis­ta­ken for a blue com­me­mo­ra­tive plaque.