Guilt-Rid­den Voy­age

The London Magazine - - ANDREW HODGSON -

Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, 397pp, 2016, £25 (hardcover)

His life was full of in­trigue and ad­ven­ture, but in some ways Thomas De Quincey must be a night­mare for bi­og­ra­phers. In youth he cir­cled the tow­er­ing fig­ures of his age, but he had a tal­ent for putting him­self in others’ shad­ows, and achieved lit­tle him­self. When he did earn his rep­u­ta­tion it was in works – Con­fes­sions of an English Opium-Eater, Sus­piria de Pro­fundis, the Rec­ol­lec­tions of the Lakes and the Lake Po­ets – which play haunted fan­tasias on those early years. Any bi­og­ra­phy com­petes with a tale that has al­ready been inim­itably told.

Still, it is a good story, and Frances Wil­son’s Guilty Thing pur­sues it with brio. De Quincey’s child­hood was bruised by tragedy. Born in 1785 into a rel­a­tively well-to-do Manch­ester fam­ily, his ear­li­est mem­ory was of ‘vi­o­lent ter­mi­na­tion’: the death from hy­dro­cephalus of his older sis­ter El­iz­a­beth in the sum­mer of 1792. De Quincey re­called en­ter­ing the room where his dead sis­ter lay, her fore­head swollen, the sun pour­ing ‘tor­rents of splen­dour’ onto her ‘frozen eye­lids’. From this day, says Wil­son, he lived ‘in­side his sense of loss’. ‘Is such a thing as for­get­ting pos­si­ble to the hu­man mind?’ he asked years later. Suf­fer­ings re­dou­bled. The next sum­mer, his father, away in the West Indies, con­tracted tu­ber­cu­lo­sis; De Quincey’s ‘chief mem­ory’ of him, which shapes one of the most poignantly ren­dered scenes in the book, ‘was of learn­ing, aged seven, that he was com­ing home from the West Indies to die’.

Such mis­eries tem­per any im­pulse to judge too harshly the mix­ture of ar­ro­gance and way­ward po­ten­tial that char­ac­terised De Quincey’s ado­les­cence. He swerved op­por­tu­nity with aban­don. A gifted stu­dent, by his late teens he was board­ing at Manch­ester Gram­mar, pre­par­ing for Ox­ford. But De

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