The Opium Eaters – A Work in Progress

If anyone was wondering, this is what I’m currently writing. This project grew out of a panel I spoke on at The Bradford Literature Festival in 2019…

THE OPIUM EATERS: High Literature and the Art of Addiction (Morton Books)

When the brilliant Oxford drop-out and freelance journalist Thomas De Quincey published his seminal article ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ in 1821, he was following the old adage ‘Write about what you know’. Writing in coffee shops to avoid debt collectors, the 36-year-old proto-Romantic, once expected to marry Dorothy Wordsworth, had been addicted to opium for almost twenty years. If produced today, his Confessions would read more like Trainspotting or William Burroughs’ Junkie; with illicit drug deals, the constant threat of arrest and imprisonment, and the whole miserable, sordid world of the outcast addict, demonised by politicians and mass media, and abandoned by society. This was not the case in the 19th century, when laudanum, a tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol, was as ubiquitous as aspirin is today, available cheaply and legally at any high street apothecary and used for a variety of ailments, including the soothing of teething babies. ‘Addiction’ as a concept didn’t exist; one had a ‘habit’, and the drug was considered purely medicinal.

De Quincey was the first modern European to write about opium who was not a doctor or a chemist analysing its curative properties. In fact, he wrote in defiance of the medical profession. Instead, he approached his own history and experience of laudanum addiction as the philosopher he considered himself to be, freely admitting he used the drug recreationally and as an aid to the creative process, while offering an honest account of the pains of addiction with incredible psychological insight and a wry sense of humour. The Confessions were a sensation, essentially blowing the lid off the widespread use of opium as a narcotic across the social classes – farm labourers and factory workers took it to relieve boredom and George IV to cure hangovers – and publicly acknowledging its central role in the English Romantic movement. (De Quincey had been a close friend of Coleridge, another creative addict, although he never admitted it.) And De Quincey designated himself a member (later ‘Pope’) of the ‘Church of Opium’, and he quickly gained disciples who were inspired by his accounts of sublime visions and waking dreams to experiment with the drug. But for every paradise they discovered, as De Quincey had tried to warn them, there was a very real hell.

With the notable exception of William Wordsworth, who had seen opium destroy his best friends Coleridge and De Quincey, all the English Romantics and many Victorian artists and writers were users, including some quite surprising names such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And although Edgar Allan Poe was an alcoholic rather than a dope fiend, he used opium as an allegory of the destructive quest for knowledge and pure experience, which he often compared with artistic production, for example in ‘The Oval Portrait’ in which a painter becomes so obsessed with capturing his lover on canvass that he doesn’t realise the process is slowly killing her. And alongside Poe, other gothic writers increasingly saw the opium addict as both debased villain (for example Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas), and a symbol of Englishness ‘corrupted’ by the Orient, as seen in the Sherlock Holmes’ stories ‘The Speckled Band’ and ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Paris, meanwhile, Charles Baudelaire, Hugo, Balzac, Dumas and Gérard de Nerval, among others, all belonged to the Club des Hashischins, dedicated to the exploration of drug-induced experiences. Baudelaire, another laudanum addict, would go on to write Les Paradis artificiels, a meditation on being under the influence of opium and hashish inspired by De Quincey, and exploring the similarity between addiction and the compulsion to write.

And in the wider political context, the opium trade was the mainstay of the East India Company and therefore at the heart of the British economy to the point that the Empire fought two wars with China, the major buyer, when its rulers tried to outlaw the trade because of massive levels of domestic addiction. Opium was quite literally forced on the Chinese by the British Government, indicating a national dependency analogous to that of the individual addict.

Fascinating though this period of literature and laudanum is, however, there has been surprisingly little written about it of any great note. It’s much more common, in fact, for literary historians to either marginalise or avoid altogether any reference to their subjects’ use of drugs or other personal demons, treating them as entirely peripheral to their creative practice. (An obvious example is former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s highly praised biography of Keats, which skips over laudanum entirely although the tubercular poet almost certainly used it as a cough suppressant.) Similarly, although Coleridge’s preface to ‘Kubla Khan’, in which he admits that the fragment is a transcription of an opium reverie, cannot be avoided, few will admit the influence of the drug on his other work (or lack of it), although he was, like De Quincey, an addict for his entire adult life. The major work remains Alethea Hayter’s study Opium and the Romantic Imagination, which seeks to find a connection between a selection of Romantic writers’ drug use and creative output although the results are inconclusive. This was probably because although writing in the late-1960s – when Leary, Wolfe, Thompson and Burroughs were all writing creative ‘junkie’ literature heavily inspired by De Quincey and Baudelaire – Hayter knew a lot more about Romantic poetry than she did drug use, which she admits in an afterword to the book. (And before Hayter we must go back to 1934 and The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of De Quincey, Crabbe, Frances Thompson, and Coleridege, a monograph by M.H. Abrams.) Otherwise, there is Robert Morrison’s excellent biography of De Quincey (now ten years old), and Lucy Inglis’ more recent Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium, which says surprisingly little about De Quincey and the English Romantics, covering, as it does, the history of the drug from the Bronze Age to the current US Opioid Crisis.

This project seeks to fulfil this need, bringing together a research knowledge of opium abuse in the 19th century and the literature and politics of the period, demonstrating the complex relationships that existed between them. De Quincey is the obvious starting point, with some background on the introduction of laudanum to Britain (largely under the radar owing to the 18th century ‘Gin Crisis’), as well as a useful framing narrative. He lived well into his seventies, substantially updated the Confessions in the 1850s, and died leaving an incomplete but fascinating follow-up called Suspiria de Profundis (‘Sighs from the Depth’). And by the point De Quincey had gone, the Symbolists and Decadents had picked up the torch, leading to the fin-de-siècle world of Wilde, Dorian Gray and his pornographic doubly Teleny, which would be a good point to end up, with a coda on the Dangerous Drug Act of 1920, which finally put opium, laudanum, morphine and heroin under the control of the medical profession.

This is not a dry literary study, but an exploration of 19th century drug culture as a whole, both high and low, from Byron sipping laudanum from a crystal decanter to the opium dens of London’s East End. The focus would be on the writers, the ‘psychonauts’ of their age, from De Quincey and the Romantics to the late-Victorians and early-Modernists, as well as on literary works which used opium as a major plot device, for example The Moonstone, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Uncle Silas, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In parallel, there will be the history of the scientific development of opium into morphine and heroin, changing societal views, and drug-related crime (of which there was a lot, although nowhere close to alcohol-related).

NB. Contract signed with Morton Books in 2019, but project put on hold by mutual agreement owing to the disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic. It is currently a work-in-progress, but please watch this space.

Cover illustration by Neil Roberts

1 thought on “The Opium Eaters – A Work in Progress”

  1. Fascinating teaser. I’m hoping the project will get off the ground in the near future. Very much look forward to reading the book.

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