Thomas De Quincey and the deadly rivalries of nineteenth-century magazines

How an opium-addicted celebrity emerged from the fraught world of editorial double-dealing.

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There is a satirical story by Edgar Allan Poe, called “How to Write a Blackwood Article”, in which the editor of the notorious Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine reveals to an ambitious young journalist called the Signora Psyche Zenobia the secret of his success. “If you wish to write forcibly, Miss Zenobia,” he tells her, “pay minute attention to the sensations.” This is particularly the case should she choke to death on a chicken bone, get bitten by a mad dog or “ever be drowned or hung”. Such sensations would be worth “ten guineas a sheet”. For inspiration, he recommends an article published by Blackwood’s called “The Dead Alive”, which contains a record, “full of tastes, terror” and “sentiment”, of a man who was nailed into his coffin before the appointed hour. There is also, the proud editor continues, “Confessions of an Opium-eater”, “a nice bit of flummery” that shows “glorious imagination—deep philosophy—acute speculation—plenty of fire and fury, and a good spicing of the decidedly unintelligible”. The author of the “Confessions”, the editor reveals, was Juniper, his pet baboon.

It was, of course, Thomas De Quincey who wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which was produced for the magazine market before becoming a bestselling book. The Confessions were not, however, published in Blackwood’s at all, and thereby hangs a tale that Poe, had he known about it, would have relished.

William Blackwood, the real editor of Blackwood’s, had initially commissioned the opium confessions in late 1820, when De Quincey was an unknown, debt-ridden drug addict. This would have been De Quincey’s big break, but he never delivered. Opium is a great stopper of clocks and De Quincey, who wrote under the influence, constantly battled with deadlines. By January 1821, the only examples of his writing that Blackwood had received were high-handed letters of excuse in which he described himself as “the Atlas” of the magazine (this was the first article he had been asked to write for Blackwood’s) and said he was “hard at work, being determined to save the Magazine from the fate which its stupidity merits”. Bewildered, Blackwood replied that as far as the magazine was concerned, “it will be quite unnecessary for you to give yourself any further trouble”.

While De Quincey was busy not writing his Blackwood’s article, a drama was brewing which consumed much of his attention. These were the glory days of literary-political journalism and in January 1820 a revived version of the 18th-century monthly the London Magazine had launched, with the aim of countering the power of the Scottish periodicals. It was in the London that William Hazlitt’s early Table-Talk pieces and Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia first appeared. The editor of the London, a Scot named John Scott, was soon at loggerheads with Blackwood’s for attacking all his friends, ­including John Keats and Leigh Hunt, and for making, Scott said, a “common joke of common honesty”.

Scott had a fair point. “Maga”, as Blackwood’s was known (from William Blackwood’s way of calling it, in his Scottish accent, “the mahgazine”), was, said Sir Walter Scott, the “chief mother of all mischief”. An admiring Mary Russell Mitford called it “a very libellous, naughty, wicked, scandalous, story-telling, entertaining work”, and more recently the critic Karl Miller described it as a journal of squabash, bam and balaam. “Squabash” meant “putting people down or cutting them up”. A “bam” was a trick or a leg-pull. And “balaam”, otherwise known as “slush”, meant “rejected or unsolicited material”. Parody, personality and headlong jollity sums up the Blackwood’s manifesto, while imitation, masquerade and double-bluff defined the Blackwood’s style.

The Blackwoodsmen, as its writers were known, wrote under pseudonyms and passed themselves off, in the words of James Hogg, a contributor and poet and the author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, as “sometimes for real, and sometimes for fictitious characters”. Hogg himself was known in Blackwood’s as the Ettrick Shepherd. John Wilson, a friend of both De Quincey and Wordsworth and the motor behind Maga, adopted the persona of Christopher North, the doddery editor of Blackwood’s (William Blackwood’s role was kept under wraps). As North, he could anonymously abuse Wordsworth, and then, as Wilson, he could attack the ­author of his own article and follow it up with a letter of complaint against North for dishonouring so a great poet.

The squabash and bam came to the boil in the “Noctes Ambrosianæ”, an anarchic and freewheeling “dramatisation” of the Maga contributors’ nightly discussions at Ambrose’s Tavern in Edinburgh. Written for the most part by John Wilson, the sketches featured Christopher North, Morgan Odoherty (modelled on a lethal young Irishman called William Maginn), the Shepherd (who speaks in dialect) and Timothy Tickler, the pseudonym of Wilson’s uncle Robert Sym (Tickler being the name of William Blackwood’s dog). Walk-on parts included Lord Byron, various characters from John Galt’s novels, and a German called Kempferhausen, modelled on R P Gillies. It was the very sublime of fun, and nothing so brilliant has ever been repeated in the British press. As the Shepherd put it during one of their evening discussions, “Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! . . . I dinna ken the time I hae laucht so muckle.”

The 19th century was the age of roughhouse and Blackwood’s duly responded to Scott’s criticisms with a call to arms. Scott, declared Wilson, “must be a dead man”. Ready to challenge the London editor were J G Lockhart (a Maga contributor and Walter Scott’s son-in-law) and Wilson, both of whom were good shots. Scott, an excited De Quincey reported, “had no chance”. His own “abhorrence” of the man, he told Wilson, was “deep—serious—and morally grounded”. And: “I am burning for vengeance. I do so loathe the vile whining canting hypocrisy of the fellow, that I could myself contribute any price of labour to his signal humiliation.” Stoking the fire, he goaded Wilson: “Lampoon [Scott] in songs—in prose—by night and by day—in prosperous and adverse fortune. Make him date his ruin from Nov 1, 1820—Lash him into lunacy.”

Both parties worked themselves up into a frenzy of self-righteousness and, wrongly believing that Lockhart was the editor of Blackwood’s, Scott challenged him to a duel in February 1821. Lockhart was represented by his friend Jonathan Christie, who shot Scott through the abdomen in the meadows of Chalk Farm, on the outskirts of London. At 36, Scott was indeed a dead man.

Five months later De Quincey, who had still not written his article for Blackwood’s, packed his bags and left for England. Knocking on the door of the London Magazine, he introduced himself to the new editors, John Taylor and James Hessey, and secured another commission for his proposed confessions. Nothing was known at the London about Blackwood’s having been promised the piece first, or about De Quincey’s support for Maga in the fatal row, and he was terrified that his duplicity would somehow be exposed.

De Quincey stayed in the capital during the summer of 1821, installing himself in John Scott’s former Covent Garden rooms in York Street (known today as Tavistock Street, where the building is now home to a Turkish restaurant). Only De Quincey, who thrived in the bloodbath of Regency journalism, could have sought such a domestic arrangement: having quarrelled with Blackwood, he secretly aligned himself with another man who had quarrelled with Blackwood and been killed as a consequence. But by now he openly identified with Scott. “To speak conscientiously”, he whispered to John Wilson, he could not “wholly approve of every thing you have done”.

He received from the London a “ultra­munificent” advance but De Quincey was, as ever, drowning in debt and the money instantly disappeared. In August 1821, in the week of his 36th birthday, he was threatened with arrest for an unpaid bill and hid himself in the “tumult of coffee houses”. He was penniless, ill and waiting to be bludgeoned to death by Blackwood’s: it will not have gone unnoticed by him that he had reached the same age as Scott when he died.

De Quincey’s career as a journalist (he wrote one book in 30 years, and roughly 250 articles) coincided with the birth of a genre that Walter Bagehot called the “review-like essay and the essay-like review”. He was not an essayist in the polished manner of Hazlitt; he did not create finished objects. The virtue of the essay is that it reflects a thought in the process of discovering itself, and De Quincey dramatised this process. He wrote in diversions, he recycled other people’s words, he produced experiments in inwardness, works-in-progress; instead of moving his writing forward, he either plunged downward or rose, as Leslie Stephen said, “like the bat . . . on the wings of prose to the borders of the true poetical region”. Naturally, opium helped with the language of reverie. De Quincey was not an opium eater but a laudanum drinker: he took his opium as drops dissolved in alcohol, and a decanter of the crimson liquid was kept by the desk on which he wrote.

During breaks from his writing, he scuttled through the London streets in a state of high anxiety, confiding in John Taylor that he had a sort of ominous anticipation “that possibly there was some being in the world who was fated to do him at some time a great & unexpiable injury”: Taylor thought “Wilson might be the man”. Opium released De Quincey’s paranoia, but his fears were not entirely ungrounded. John Wilson was a dangerous beast, and De Quincey’s betrayal of Blackwood’s was bound to have repercussions. “These things Wilson can never forgive,” De Quincey said: “they will rankle in his mind: and at some time or other I am sure he will do what he can to injure me.”

The first part of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar was published anonymously in the London Magazine in September 1821. It told the story of the author’s troubled youth; running away from Manchester Grammar School, he lived as a down-and-out in Soho Square in London and befriended a young prostitute called Ann. Then, as an Oxford undergraduate, he took opium to cure a sore head and found “a panacea . . . for all human woes . . . happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket”. It was the euphoria of this first time that he spent the rest of his life attempting to reclaim. But instead of happiness, De Quincey soon found himself, in his opium dreams, experiencing “unimaginable horror”. He lived through a hundred years in a single night, he became part of the heaving Atlantic, he discovered himself in China, a country in which he thought he would “go mad”, and where he was

. . . stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me . . . I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

His trials, the author concluded, were now over and he hoped that his story would prove “useful and instructive” to his readers. But little had changed between the life De Quincey was leading and the past he was recalling. He had been on the run then and he was on the run now. And he was still an addict.

The first instalment of the Confessions proved so popular that the second instalment was presented as the lead article for the London’s October issue. Readers loved this strange tale. “Everybody who noticed magazines at all is interested in the Fate of the Opium-Eater,” the delighted Taylor announced. The “Opium Eater”, as De Quincey had become, was an overnight success: he had invented the misery memoir, the recovery memoir and the pharmo-picaresque adventure story.

Now that opium has reverted to the realm of myth, we read De Quincey differently. We see him as one of us, a voice anticipating our own age of recreational drug use, but this is not how he was read in 1821. Although he pronounced himself “the only member” of “the true church on the subject of opium”, the congregation, as he knew very well, was bursting through the doors of the cathedral. The only painkiller widely available, opium was in most household cupboards. Middle-class women collapsed on the sofa in its haze; even dogs and children were dosed up with it. Its miraculous effects were no more mysterious to De Quincey’s contemporaries than the miraculous effects of aspirin are to us today; everyone who had ever taken opium to sedate a sore tooth knew what he was describing. Those few who remained unaware of the drug’s impact on dreams now gave it a try. Robert Southey wrote about “one who had never taken a dose of opium before” but who “took so large a one for the sake of experiencing the sensation which had made De Quincey a slave to it, that a very little addition to the dose might have proved fatal”. Branwell Brontë also had his first taste. “Many persons”, wrote the anonymous author of a pamphlet, Advice to Opium-Eaters, “greatly injured themselves by taking Opium experimentally, which trial they had been enticed to make by the fascinating description of the exquisite pleasure attendant on the taking of that drug, given in a recent publication on the subject”. De Quincey scoffed at the suggestion that he was the nation’s drug-pusher: “Teach opium-eating!” he exclaimed. “Did I teach wine-drinking? Did I reveal the mystery of sleeping? Did I inaugurate the infirmity of laughter?”

His early readers would have enjoyed the exaggerated romance of De Quincey’s first trip, the outrageous irony of posing as the only floating Londoner, the comically soaring prose – “eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure from blood” – as well as the chutzpah involved in recasting a household habit as a personal, unique transgression. The genius of his Confessions, as the cultural historian Mike Jay puts it, is that “De Quincey was not so much breaking a taboo as deliberately creating one by recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening”.

It was a complicated ruse, but nothing De Quincey wrote was ever straightforward. He was a fearless ironist; his mischief worked in curious ways; and playfulness, venom, ambition, revenge and self-perception were built into every brick of his Confessions.

In 1823 he did return, in a manner of speaking, to Blackwood’s when “the Opium-Eater” made his debut in the community of the Noctes Ambrosianæ. “Pray, is it true, my dear Laudanum,” Christopher North asks, “that your ‘Confessions’ have caused about fifty unintentional suicides?” “I should think not,” the Opium-Eater stiffly replies. “I have read of six only; and they rested on no solid foundation.” “And now, my dear friend,” North continues, “that you have fed and flourished fourteen years on opium, will you be persuaded to try a course of arsenic?” In a later number, it was the turn of the Shepherd:

Mr De Qunshy, you and me leeves in twa different warlds—and yet it’s wonnerfu’ hoo we understaun ane anither sae weel’s we do—quite a phenomena. When I’m soopin’ you’re breakfastin’—when I’m lyin’ doon, after your coffee you’re risin’ up—as I’m coverin’ my head wi’ the blankets you’re pittin’ on your breeks —as my een are steekin’ like sunflowers aneath the moon, yours are glowin’ like twa gas-lamps . . .

De Quincey was not amused. By purloining the persona of the “Opium-Eater”, Blackwood’s made the author its own. This, then, was one way of writing “a Blackwood article”. Ha! ha! ha!—ha! ha! ha! – as the Shepherd might say. l

Frances Wilson’s Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey is published by Bloomsbury on 7 April

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 31 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail