Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is basically a mediocre 19th century Trainspotting, but without the funny, sad or exciting bits and where pretty much every character is incredibly wealthy.
It’s true that there are few things more boring than a waster telling you “how fucking great it was man, that night I got so high I could touch the fucking sun with my penis” for hundreds of pages*, so the fact that de Quincey avoids doing this should be seen as a benefit. It’s not.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater opens with a HILARIOUS thirty page rant against Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had recently published a letter somewhere stating that he was a much better class of opium addict than Mr TdQ. Coleridge had claimed that he had fallen into the addiction by mistake, and that he has always been trying (and failing) to wean himself off it. TdQ, however, points out that for Coleridge to reach the level of physical dependency he was at, he would have had to have made a concerted effort to take opium, laudanum (a popular liquid mix, TdQ’s form of choice), for an extended period. He also laughed at Coleridge hiring people to physically stop him from buying opium, then telling his employees he would cut off their wages if they stopped him from buying opium. “What an idiot.”
It was a funny, bitchy, opening and set me up to expect an energetic and angry treatise on the pleasures of opium as seen by de Quincey.
But I didn’t get that. The vast majority of the book deals with the seventeen year old Thomas running away from his posh boarding school – not to go off and get wasted, but to go on a fucking HIKING TOUR OF NORTH WALES. He goes to London, hoping to borrow money and have a good time, but he ends up being taken in by a lawyer and eventually being returned to school and thence to Oxford University. The moments of rebellion are not there, when expected – when he is cut off from funds and alone, he is visiting friends at Eton (the school) to get them to witness documents and give him elaborate wine and pastry-fuelled breakfasts, rather than resorting to crime or opium.
The opium comes later.
The reader gets about thirty pages of TdQ raving about opium, and this bit is great. This is the section of anecdotes and stories and strange characters and chance meetings and bragging about how much he can take and all that bullshit that can be entertaining for a bit**, but too much of would be tiresome. Here it isn’t – here there is a big gap between what de Quincey can write about with passion and interest and readability (there are lots of very, very dry passages about Wordsworth) and what he actually chooses to write about.
There is far too much about how great he is at Greek and far too little about his weaknesses. The book ends, in the Appendix, with a brief anecdote about feeding laudanum to his daughter’s pet bird and it subsequently dying. Included is a two year old’s mispronunciation, “yoddunum”, of his drug. This is brushed aside, this acknowledgement of the abject normalisation of his habit amongst his family. I wanted to read MORE about people telling him off for his habit and his arguments for it being kind of OK, most of the time.
de Quincey’s book felt, to me, like it lacked a bite. It is at its strongest when he is anecdotalising. When he is regaling a story about witnessing the bore on the River Dee having no idea what’s happening; when he talks about his trip to Eton; when he discusses the time a Malaysian sailor turned up at his house and took enough opium to kill a horse but left seeming absolutely fine; when he embellishes his time in London amongst the beggars and prostitutes of Oxford Street… The stories, most of which arrive in the book as asides from the general rolling story of his youth, are the highlights. But de Quincey wasn’t really a real rebel. The opium began in his early twenties and carried on until he died, five or so decades later. He normalised it, and his casual discussion of this much-maligned drug is what is interesting.
Not as harrowing as William Burroughs’ Junky, not as funny as Trainspotting, not as involving as a story of growing up in the North of England as the Hilary Mantel I read last week (Giving Up The Ghost), I felt this to be a middling book that missed the opportunity promised by its excellent title.
Thomas de Quincey offers elements here of an interesting book about addiction and poverty at the start of the nineteenth century, but these passages are buried amongst private school waffle, appreciation of nature poetry and self-aggrandising comments on his own linguistic and literary skills.
There are some good bits, but I’d refrain from saying it was a good book.
The fucking waster.
* Which is why I hate hate hate the DIRE Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.
** But not for a whole book. See note above.