A Life of Thomas De Quincey

ImagesNicholas Spice at the London Review of Books:

De Quincey’s size mattered to him. He was uncommonly small. But he was also uncommonly clever, and his ambitions were large. As a young man, he idolised Wordsworth and Coleridge, and then sought them out and tried to make them his friends. For a while they all got on, but then increasingly they didn’t. Wordsworth was in the habit of condescending to De Quincey, but Wordsworth condescended to most people and anyway condescending to De Quincey was hard to resist: ‘He is a remarkable and very interesting young man,’ Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, ‘very diminutive in person, which, to strangers, makes him appear insignificant; and so modest, and so very shy.’ ‘Little Mr De Quincey is at Grasmere … I wish he were not so little, and I wish he wouldn’t leave his greatcoat always behind him on the road. But he is a very able man, with a head brimful of information,’ Southey wrote. As relations soured, the belittlements grew sardonic: for Wordsworth, De Quincey was ‘a little friend of ours’; for Lamb, ‘the animalcule’; Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth took to calling him Peter Quince. Even his friends tended to diminish him: ‘Poor little fellow!’ Carlyle exclaimed to his wife, Jane, who mused: ‘What would one give to have him in a box, and take him out to talk.’

Scarcely surprising, then, that De Quincey was touchy, quick to detect a snub and fiercely proud. He claimed he first took opium as a palliative for toothache. But it isn’t hard to imagine that he used it to muffle his social discomfort, coming to depend on it as a way of sidestepping the world. By 1815, hunkered down among his books in Dove Cottage (known at the time as Town End, the lease of which De Quincey had taken over from the Wordsworths when they moved out), he was fully addicted. He was 29 and he was never to be free of the drug again.

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