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