Thomas De Quincey (1785 – 1859) was a prolific periodical writer. He is usually aligned historically with the early English Romantics, and is best known for his remarkable autobiography Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), and the satirical treatise ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (1827). De Quincey rarely wrote gothic fiction, but he radiated gothic sensibility. To the Victorians, the identification of De Quincey with the mad, morbid and macabre was so absolute that he is cited, along with Poe, in the The Times’ original coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders.
De Quincey was a sensitive child, and the death of his sister, Elizabeth, in 1792 was a trauma from which he never recovered. The following year he lost his father to tuberculosis. The memory of the family awaiting the dying man’s return home, listening to the slow approach of the carriage in the dark, fused with his imagination forever. Sombre processions and ill omens, particularly the leitmotif of the dying girl, recur throughout De Quincey’s writing. Her shade is present in the figure of the doomed prostitute, ‘Anne of Oxford-street,’ in the Confessions, in the epiphanic account of his sister’s viewing in Suspiria de profundis (1845), ‘standing between an open window and a dead body on a summer day,’ and in the death of Catherine Wordsworth (De Quincey, Works: I, 43). ‘Little Kate’ was De Quincey’s favourite, and for several weeks he haunted the child’s grave, often passing the night there, and claiming to see her in visions.
De Quincey ran away to London in 1802, and he first took opium as an analgesic while at Oxford. By 1813 he was hopelessly addicted, taking up to 480 grains a day (the equivalent of 3 grams of morphine). He never took his degree, and relocated to Grasmere where he became a close friend of the Wordsworths. He married Margaret Simpson, a local farmer’s daughter, in 1817. It was the need to support a family that led De Quincey towards journalism, beginning with the editorship of the Westmoreland Gazette in 1818. The London Magazine published the critically acclaimed Confessions in 1821, making its author a literary celebrity overnight. He joined the rival Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1826, moving to Tait’s in 1833. Despite his productivity the threat of debtor’s prison was always present, leading to a fugitive life of false names and fake addresses, with articles delivered to editors in secret by his children. De Quincey’s writings were not collected until 1850, and he was still revising the final volume of Selections Grave and Gay when the opium finally caught up with him in 1859.
De Quincey’s childhood notebooks reveal a love of gothic fiction. He wrote one traditional gothic novel, Klosterheim: or, The Masque (1832), which is a wonderful metaphysical muddle of intense dream sequences, Radcliffian device, and thinly disguised autobiographical detail – Landgrave, the villain, for example, tortures students with a set of ‘tyrannical regulations’ from the author’s own experience of the Manchester Free Grammar School. De Quincey was out of his comfort zone with an extended narrative, however, and tried to have it excised from his collected works.
De Quincey’s relationship with the gothic discourse was, however, rarely so literal. As R.L. Snyder notes, De Quincey’s stylistic attraction to the gothic mode is best explained through his sensitivity to the delicate balance between illusion and reality (Synder 1981: 130). This metaphysical insight is most realised in the surreal self-exploration of his autobiographical writing, which De Quincey described as ‘impassioned prose’ (De Quincey, Works: I, 14). The Confessions follow both the evangelical and Enlightenment forms of revelatory narrative, while anticipating New and Gonzo Journalism. Although the pariah status of the author is implicit, these are not sordid depictions of addiction, but meditations on imagination and psychology, with the author’s self-awareness, memory and creativity explored through the analysis of the opium dream. Hypnogogic and hallucinatory passages are epic, sublime and terrible, and external urban spaces always dark and labyrinthine – De Quincey’s London is a lot closer to the rookeries of Reynolds, Dickens, Poe, Baudelaire and Stevenson than that of his contemporaries. In gothic terms, it is the psychological dissonance of the addict and the deep narcosis described in ‘The Pains of Opium’ that provide the most influential material, as well as the symbolic experimentation of the author in search of a language of dreams. Much of the psychological urban gothic of the later-nineteenth century would be unthinkable without De Quincey.
After the Confessions, De Quincey is probably most remembered for his Swiftian treatise ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,’ which he wrote initially for Blackwood’s in 1827, and to which he returned and refined in 1839 and 1854. This was a return to the sensational aspects of the Westmorland Gazette, which reported murder trials alongside the general news. Presented as a connoisseur’s lecture, De Quincey gleefully analyses various horrible murders as Burke had considered the sublime and Aristotle tragedy, the gallows humour and sustained irony masking a genuine interest in the violent and macabre that is present in his letters and journalism. Dark humour, horror and suspense can also be found in ‘The English mail-coach’ stories published in Blackwood’s in 1849.
Over a century after De Quincey’s death, in a twist one hopes he would have found darkly amusing, Vincent Price played ‘Gilbert De Quincey’ in Albert Zugsmith’s 1962 film version of the Confessions, a re-imagining in which a descendant of Thomas rescues slave girls from the San Francisco Tong Wars in the company of a wisecracking dwarf.
Originally published in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Gothic (2012) edited by William Hughes, David Punter and Andrew Smith.
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READINGS
Bridgewater, Patrick. (2004). De Quincey and the Gothic Masquerade. New York: Rodopi.
De Quincey, Thomas. (1889). The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. David Masson (Ed). 14 vols. Edinburgh: A. and C. Black.
Hayter, Alethea. (1968). Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber and Faber.
Lindop, Grevel. (1981). The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. London: J.M. Dent.
Morrison, Robert. (2001). ‘Poe’s De Quincey, Poe’s Dupin,’ Essays in Criticism 51 (4). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snyder, R.L. (1981). ‘Klosterheim: De Quincey’s Gothic Masque,’ Research Studies 49. Pullman: Washington State University Press.