Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas de Quincey

Written by Frances Wilson
Review by Clarissa Harwood

Thomas De Quincey is most famous for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and for his friendship with the Romantic poets, especially William Wordsworth. In some ways this is a biography of Romanticism: Wilson masterfully paints a wide canvas of the milieu of the Lake Poets, offering plenty of social, political, and historical context. But De Quincey is at the center of the book as “the last of the Romantics” and the first to write a recovery memoir.

De Quincey was as contradictory and complex as his writings. A brilliant scholar, he left Oxford before taking his degree because he was offended by the university’s lack of intellectual rigor. An early devotee of William Wordsworth’s poetry, he couldn’t bring himself to meet the poet for four years despite repeated invitations. He was shy and nervous but also a master of “the fine art of character assassination.” Repeatedly in debt, he often couldn’t afford shoes or proper clothing, but he always found money for books.

My only quibble is the many quotations that attest to Wilson’s impressive research but make for choppy reading at times. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating portrait of a paranoid, self-destructive genius and his era. Recommended.