Bookshelf – recommended reading

Guilty Thing – A Life of Thomas De Quincey

by Frances Wilson, published by Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781782115489, £10.99
Review by Mark Reid

Thomas De Quincey was the author of the renowned Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in 1821. Guilty Thing covers De Quincey’s many fixations, which also included poets and murderers.

At the time his drug of choice was very much the opium of the masses – used for almost every ache and pain. De Quincey appeared to champion its recreational use. When he first took opium in 1804 he hailed it as ‘the secret of happiness, which philosophers had disputed, at once discovered’.

Were De Quincey to walk into a drug service today, there would not be that much a worker would not recognise in his underlying state of mind. What is striking is that he used opium to self-medicate his neuroses and ease his character defects in its dizzying dreams.

Frances Wilson asserts that ‘addiction is now believed to be a shield against childhood trauma’. De Quincey exemplified this. His obsessive mindset was embedded by seeing the body of his nine-year-old sister Elizabeth who died when he was six. That sepulchral image prompted a lifelong search for the infinite and the sublime, which always had an element of terror at its heart. De Quincey later observed that ‘an adult sympathises with himself as a child because he is the same and he is not the same’.

De Quincey the drug addict did his own cost-benefit analyses on his habit. He accepted opium was bad ‘for health and vigour’ and a ‘personal appearance tolerably respectable’. But this change-talk was outweighed by opium’s ‘mastery over anger and fear, capacity for abstract thinking and emancipation from worldly cares’.

De Quincey did stop using opium sometimes: for 90 hours once. The result was ‘unspeakable misery of the mind’ in withdrawal with no substitute.

Another of his addictions was debt. Like opium this was born out of dread of ordinary life, allowing a second personality; apart and alone. Inevitably fear redoubled, as he was endlessly hunted by creditors.

Could modern-day counselling, medication and a programme of recovery have turned the opium-eater around? Can you imagine being Thomas De Quincey’s keyworker? If so, this many-sided and accomplished biography is for you.

Mark Reid is participation and recovery worker at East London Federation Trust Addictions Services