Wainewright the Poisoner: The Confession of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright–Regency Author, Painter, Swindler and Probable Murderer–Woven from Historical Fragments

Written by Andrew Motion
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright began life in a household of leisured literati and ended, through attempts to maintain that life, as convict number 2325 in the penal colony on Tasmania. This book does not belong among the reviews of historical fiction, but it isn’t orthodox biography, either. Mr. Motion has chosen to tell the tale of this enigmatic creature in the first person and in a poetic style evocative of the period: “the fingers of Aurora grip the summit of the hills to the east, and that ever-new Goddess appears blushing with the delicious effort of her elevation.” There is, the author warns us, no better way to surmount the difficulties of piecing together the fragmentary documents of this life.

Footnotes take up as much space as the “auto”biography itself, and must be read if one is to understand the evidence that exists to convict or exonerate (of forgery and murder) a man who — of course, speaking in the first person — will deny everything and accuse everyone. Motion is correct: this is an interesting, perhaps the only, way to illustrate something Wainewright’s first biographers, including Dickens and Wilde, could not believe: that intelligence, taste, artistic talent and good breeding could flourish on the same branch as evil.

Many great contemporaneous names are found in these pages: Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Dickens again. But in the tale of a man consumed with himself, the characters of even the nearest and dearest do not come alive. That delight of historical novelists, the scene set, the action played, is missing. Dialogue is nonexistent. On its own terms, however, I enjoyed the experimentation. I enjoyed the work as the biography of a man I’d never heard of before. I enjoyed the lurid look into what often comes across as the chaste Romantic Movement.