Tom Paulin

Vodka For Breakfast

The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 462pp £25 order from our bookshop

Thomas De Quincey was born on 15 August 1785. His father, Thomas Quincey (De Quincey later added the aristocratic ‘De’), was an upright and prosperous Manchester linen draper who vehemently opposed the slave trade and forbade his family to eat sugar. De Quincey grew up in the country outside Manchester. He was a small, shy child, often ill with the ague, who excelled at Latin, Greek, German and French. At the age of seventeen De Quincey ran away to London, where he lived rough for sixteen weeks and later became famous for his ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, in which he fondly remembers the prostitute Ann of Oxford Street, who shared an empty house in Soho with him (he had frequently visited prostitutes in Manchester). Of his time in London, Robert Morrison writes that he became the ‘first flâneur’. After his return in 1803 he wrote an admiring letter to Wordsworth, who wrote back, so beginning their friendship. Later that year he went to Worcester College, Oxford, where he was known as one of the cleverest students in the university, but, though he was very happy there, he left without taking a degree. His politics were formed by now – he hated Napoleon, whom he called ‘that gilded fez of Corsica’, and he admired William Pitt and, oddly, the great Whig leader Charles James Fox. He began taking opium as a cure for toothache and was subject to extraordinary dreams and nightmares, including one involving a classical goddess, Levana.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'The lack of evidence ... of any definitive brain pathology in cases of schizophrenia and the absence of any reliab… ,
    • 'Since Dylan’s commercial and ideological heyday, the intrusion of sociology, semiology and post-structuralist thou… ,
    • 'One of the reasons for its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all,… ,
    • 'The characters in many of these stories are trapped in the obsessive present tense of their own thoughts; in the m… ,
    • 'Libraries, for much of their existence, have embodied in microcosm many of the characteristics of the totalitarian… ,
    • 'Moss and Cynthia buy several properties through which to launder their ill-gotten gains, take lots of drugs, have… ,
    • 'Never mind the imperial cult. This is the cult of Boris. What happened to Rome?' From the LR archive:… ,