Thomas De Quincey was born Thomas Penson Quincey on 15th August 1785 to Thomas Quincey, a Mancunian linen merchant and his wife, Elizabeth Penson Quincey, in 86 Cross Street in central Manchester. He was the fourth of five children and grew up at quite a distance from his parents, both physically from his father, who was often away in the West Indies on business, and emotionally from his mother, whose strength of character, intelligence and strictness inspired respect and admiration rather than affection in her children. Shortly after his birth, having realised the need for a larger house in more pleasant surroundings, Quincey moved his family to The Farm, Moss Side, in the open country beyond the city boundaries. It is here that De Quincey situates his earliest childhood memories and recalls various dreams which were to have a profound effect on him in his coming years. One such recurring dream, about meeting with a lion, where each encounter left him terrified but “spellbound from even trying to escape”, was so persistent and impressed upon him so deeply that in later he life he would go back to it and wonder whether every child had not dreamt it too. He explores this notion explicitly in The English Mail-Coach in the following lines:
That dream, so familiar to childhood, of meeting a lion, and, through languishing prostration in hope and the energies of hope, that constant sequel of lying down before the lion, publishes the secret frailty of human nature - reveals its deep-seated falsehood to itself - records its abysmal treachery. Perhaps not one of us escapes that dream; perhaps, as by some sorrowful doom of man, that dream repeats for every one of us, through every generation, the original temptation in Eden.
The vividness of this dream, dreamt many years before he came to depend on opium as a catalyst for his imagination, arguably proves a naturally adept visionary talent which was inherent in him without the drug. The fact that, so much later in life, he was able to recall the dream with such intensity suggests that, rather exceptionally, he did not lose his capacious youthful imaginative ability.
The infant self-betrayal he sees in the dream itself points towards the details of his youth. As a young boy he was frequently ill, suffering variously from bouts of whooping cough, regular colds and constantly troubled by an ‘ague’, the sort of intermittent, non-specific illness which was commonly diagnosed in vague medical terms. Being so sickly, he was often taken to different areas of the Lancashire coast for changes of air, and became accustomed to the fuss and attention he then received. Such a weak child rarely grows into a proficient sportsman, and De Quincey would later attribute his want of flair on the playing fields to this infant weakness, viewing it, and his growing comfortable in it, as a kind of self-sabotage.
This time of dreaming and pampering at The Farm was to be a short one, though, for in 1790 his father purchased three acres of land in the countryside of Chorlton-on-Medlock outside of Manchester upon which was built Greenhay, the country residence designed by his mother and where he spent the remainder of his childhood. Quincey’s business was flourishing having entered into a new partnership in 1788, and he felt it fitting for the family to have a much grander country seat from which to enjoy the prosperity which the future was bound to bring. This partnership allowed him the freedom to travel, and he took the opportunity to visit Portugal, Madeira and most importantly the West Indies, where he was able to establish his business more firmly. Indeed, his business partners seemed equally assured of him; on hearing he was purchasing land to build a grand new house, one of his new business contacts in the West Indies sent him the gift of a consignment of mahogany for the doors, window frames and other similar fittings.
Despite building Greenhay with family and leisure in mind, as his health deteriorated Quincey saw less and less of both the house and his family, taking the opportunity presented to him by the West Indies to look after the concerns of both his business and his health in warmer climes. His visits home became less and less frequent, and when he did return to England he would meet his wife on the south coast of Devonshire in order to avoid the damp Manchester airs which had made him tubercular. De Quincey’s own youthful ill-health deterred him from being present at these visits, so his father remained essentially a stranger to him. During this period, De Quincey’s eldest sister Elizabeth contracted meningitis after walking home one evening through the dewy fields around Greenhay and died shortly thereafter. This loss left him emotionally chastened, for in the absence of his father, his mother’s severity had increased and her outward displays of spontaneous motherly affections had all but vanished, so he had turned to his sister, playing and reading with her, effectively imbuing her with the qualities which were left wanting in his mother. The grief he felt at his sister’s death had a profound effect on him, leaving him stunned and with a early sense of existential insecurity. He was teased by his elder brother William for his “girlish” tears, though in the light of his sister, De Quincey considered “girlishness” to be noble, respectable. She, the person whom he loved the most had, after all, been a girl.
His education began in earnest at this age. Though he had grown up in a house filled with paintings, music and literature and so had been exposed to high art and intellectualism his whole life, he was given a private tutor with whom he excelled academically, beginning his studies of Latin and Greek and showing early signs of his affinity for language which were to become integral to his income and lifestyle as an adult. Indeed, when he was about eight, he impressed a local bookseller by translating a Latin copy of the Bible into English at sight, and this successful private tuition lasted for three years until he was sent to King Edward’s School in Bath in 1796. He spent three years here until his mother moved him to the less prestigious Winkfield School in Wiltshire, but by the time he left one of his Greek masters had remarked that “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address and English one”. His mother moved him for fear that, in such prestigious surroundings, he would become arrogant and assume the sense of entitlement displayed by the richer boys with whom he studied. Her actions were particularly perverse for their whimsy - to remove her son from an academic environment where he was clearly excelling and put him in an inferior school simply based on the erroneous notion that it might be reflecting negatively on his personality demonstrates the cold approach to her children which had driven Thomas to his sister for affection in the first place. Furthermore, and indeed rather ironically given her apparent concern to maintain a sense of humility, soon after this move she changed the family name to De Quincey, hypothesising that they were related to the old Anglo-French family named de Quincis that dated back to the time of the Norman Conquest.
By 1800 he was ready for University, and was sent to Manchester Grammar School in preparation for a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford. It was intended that he would spend three years there, but he took flight after eighteen months, writing in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of a daring escape enabled by his good relations with the porters in the boarding-house, who willingly carried his luggage for him in the dead of night while his intentions were perfectly clear. Despite the boredom which drove him to escape, he learned many valuable literary lessons while he was there, reading works by Wordsworth and Coleridge, among other Romantic poets, which impressed him and influenced his own writing. However, these weren’t enough to keep him there, and having run away he headed for Wales, sleeping rough in order to make what little money he had with him last as long as possible. A chance discovery by his friends enabled him a reconciliation with his mother which ultimately earned him the small allowance of one guinea per week, on the proviso that he remain in regular contact with his family and keep them informed of his whereabouts. He was able to supplement this income by working as a freelance translator, though he soon fell out of contact with his family again, a failure to obey their rules which left him without his weekly guinea. Having read the Lyrical Ballads, he wrote a fan-letter to Wordsworth which, given Wordsworth’s meagre fame and want of popularity at the time, would illicit a favourable reply and an invitation to Grasmere, his present residence. In London, he met the elusive ‘Ann of Oxford St’, a prostitute whose kindness in spending her own meager savings on a bottle of port wine and bringing it to him to revive him from a fever had a profound effect on his sense of humanity. Eventually he would return to thank her but she had vanished, and readers have variably wondered whether she was a figment of his always active, now also feverishly hallucinogenic imagination.
A final reconciliation with his family saw him to Worcester College, Oxford in 1803, though on a heavily reduced income and as a commoner. Here, he writes, “he came to be looked upon as a strange being who associated with no one”, turning to opium in the form of laudanum for the first time while in London visiting a moneylender, as a relief from rheumatic pains as a result of toothache. His career at Oxford was capricious; he was a brilliant student in English literature and in the Greek, Latin, and German languages, though having embarked on his final exams in 1808 he excelled but failed to attend an oral examination, leaving before finishing and never receiving his degree. His first attempts to muster up the courage to visit Wordsworth and make good the invitation he had received by letter some years previously ended in anxious failure, though on turning back for the last time he resolved instead to visit Coleridge, ultimately befriending his children and being invited to escort the family on a visit to Southey in Keswick, whereupon he eventually met Wordsworth anyway. As his ease at making acquaintances had made him so attractive to Coleridge’s children, so too did Dorothy Wordsworth find herself won over by his easy charms, wit and profound intelligence. She would later tell her friend, Lady Beaumont, that -
"He is a remarkable and very interesting young man; very diminutive in person, which to strangers makes him appear insignificant; and so modest, and so very shy that even now I wonder how he ever had the courage to address himself to my brother by letter I think of this young man with extraordinary pleasure, as he is a remarkable instance of the power of my brother’s poems over a lonely and contemplative mind, unwarped by any established laws of taste - a pure and innocent mind."
This favourable description masks something of a romantic confusion between the two of them, though it was kept hidden and amounted to little more than conversation.
In 1808, Wordsworth entrusted De Quincey with overseeing the publication of The Convention of Cintra, though this was something of a disaster as De Quincey failed to ensure that potentially libellous remarks about, among others, the Duke of Wellington, were suppressed, and was also responsible for a system of punctuation of which Wordsworth disapproved. It sold badly, and Wordsworth could not help but blame De Quincey for its commercial failure. Nonetheless, he moved into William and Dorothy’s old residence, Dove Cottage, and lived there in an arrangement which saw the Wordsworths frequently returning, visiting the garden in particular almost daily. On one of these visits, however, they arrived to find that De Quincey had chopped down some of their favourite trees and demolished the moss hut which William had built at the end of the garden, which acts as an early indication of the impending deterioration of their friendship. In spite of their cooling affections, De Quincey became sole tutor to the infant Catharine Wordsworth, and there quickly formed a strong mutual affection. She died in 1812 in her fourth year of complications following a fit which left her partially paralysed, and De Quincey told Dorothy “Oh that I could have died for or with her!”. For two months after her death he slept on her grave and claimed to have visions of her walking the fells, arguably testament to the manner in which his opium usage was beginning to have drastic effects on his everyday life.
It was during this time that Wordsworth showed De Quincey the manuscript for The Prelude, a poem whose objective exploration of its subject’s emotions was to inform his later endeavours in the hitherto nonexistent field of prototypical psychoanalysis, which came to the fore in one of his most prominent essays, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’. Also, and particularly, he notes the lines “There are in our existence spots of time / That with distinct pre-eminence retain / A renovating virtue” as giving rise to his theory of involutes, a notion taken to its extreme in ‘Savannah-la-Mar’ and ‘The Palimpsest of the Human Brain’, during which he revisits the death of his sister, regarding it as one such ‘spot of time’. By now, though, any affections between De Quincey and Wordsworth had dried up, with both writing unfavourable accounts of the other in their respective works and letters.
Wordsworth’s increasing disapproval of De Quincey can be largely attributed to two factors, one of which was his dependence on opium. by 1816 he was consuming 320 grains a day, almost 20 grams, signaling an absolute dependence on the drug. Another was his affair with Margaret Simpson, a local serving girl ten years his junior. Wordsworth snobbishly thought her beneath De Quincey, both in social standing and intellect, choosing to write to his mother to inform her of De Quincey’s questionable life choices. De Quincey found this interference hard to forgive, and in the same year he had a son, William Penson, with Margaret, marrying her the following year. Now began his journalistic career, for he had a family to support. He successfully edited the Westmorland Gazette, though despite increased sales under his leadership he was sacked a year later for inefficiency, and the magazine duly lost its newly-increased sales after his departure. He moved to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and then to London Magazine where he penned the first articles which were amended and published as a book in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater a year later in 1821, becoming his most successful work. Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire would hail it as a masterpiece, though Coleridge was less impressed, speaking of it in 1833 with “absolute abhorrence”, calling it “a wicked book, a monstrous exaggeration”.
Financial troubles returned, first in 1829 when he was forced to take out a second mortgage, then in 1831 with imprisonment for debt, further prosecution for the same two years later upon which he sought refuge in the debtors’ sanctuary Holyrood Palace, and then again in 1837. In 1840 he would describe his poverty as “a moment of pinching difficulty for my children”, concluding that “this [poverty] is terrific.” At this age his eldest daughter, Margaret, took control of his affairs and managed his finances effectively enough to ease the pressure, though it was not until his mother’s death in 1846 at the age of 90 and his subsequent annuity of £200 that he became solvent. His last great work was Suspiria de Profundis, serialised in Blackwood’s from March to June, 1845. He died in Edinburgh on the 7th December 1859, though not before seeing his work venerated in anthologies and collected works, particularly that of the Edinburgh publisher and author James Hogg, whose Selections Grave and Gay from Writings Published and Unpublished ran to 14 volumes. De Quincey’s reworked and expanded Confessions formed the entirety of its fifth volume. Many critics in the following decades thought of De Quincey as a writer of genius who had never quite reached his full potential, and for someone whose writing was so prolific there was a long period of uncertainty and vagueness surrounding the details of his life and his work. Recently though, with the increasing permission of psychoactive substances and legitimate scientific interest in them and their effects on psychoanalysis, De Quincey has regained his rightful place as one of the key writers and thinkers in English literature.