The Secret Life of Books: Confessions of an English Opium Eater

First Aired: November, 2015

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC Four

URL: https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/0B5B4263?bcast=116769230

Reviewer: Jamie Banks

Presented by the thoroughly enigmatic John Cooper Clarke, this episode of The Secret Life of Books charts the history and wider cultural significance of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. As Clarke notes, Confessions served as perhaps the ‘first recreational depiction of drug use’. Consequently, Clarke suggests that Confessions provided the indirect inspiration for work such as Burroughs’ Junkie, Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. De Quincey’s Confessions was akin to a modern tabloid sex scandal, seducing and titillating Georgian society upon its publication. Originally published as two magazine articles in 1821, before swiftly being republished in full the following year, Confessions provided a semi-factual account of De Quincey’s 20 years of experience consuming opium. More specifically, the book details what Clarke calls, in a rather cavalier fashion, De Quincey’s “addiction” to laudanum (a tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol). The episode offers a comprehensive history of the life of both De Quincey and his Confessions, charting the author’s meteoric rise and fall from a homeless teen in London, to a literary sensation, and then back down to an embittered and broken one-hit-wonder.

On the one hand, Clarke’s life history of Confessions is to be commended for offering a thoroughly watchable, and for the most part accurate, depiction of the place of opium in Georgian England. What struck me most about Clarke’s exploration of the wider context of De Quincey’s work, is the even-handedness with which he approaches the place of opium in nineteenth century British society. In the current cultural climate, where drugs are demonised by politicians and the press, the episode provides a useful reminder that drugs such as opium were once freely available and largely unregulated. As Clarke notes, opium and its derivatives were everywhere in the nineteenth century, being ‘as cheap, legal and ubiquitous as aspirin’, indeed often cheaper than ale or spirits. But what makes Clarke’s approach to this controversial fact so commendable is that he neither tries to demonise or valorise it, presenting it simply as the way life once was.

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Slightly less commendable, however, is Clarke’s rather limited acknowledgement of the far reaching impact which Confessions had on contemporary attitudes to opium use in Britain. While Clarke acknowledges that moralists such as the Family Oracle of Health decried De Quincey’s book as a ‘wild, romancing’ account of opium use, he otherwise fails to present just how fundamental De Quincey’s experiences later became in the British cultural psyche. As Foxcroft’s excellent work on evolving attitudes to addiction indicates, it was high profile cases such as those of De Quincey and the Earl of Mar, who accidentally poisoned himself after a lengthy history of opium use, which helped to transform British attitudes to the open availability of opiates. Beyond the immediate ramifications of the book in the 1820s and 1830s, De Quincey’s Confessions continued to serve as foundational to British perceptions of opium use. As late as the 1920s, one British doctor admitted before the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine that my “knowledge of the opium evil was based … on the works of De Quincey and Coleridge, and their fellows.” While I would never expect a television documentary to go into as thorough depth as I have here, Clarke should have at least indicated that Confessions continued to have a far reaching impact on attitudes towards opium use well into the twentieth century.

Finally, my main contention with the documentary is Clarke’s indiscriminate description of De Quincey as an opium ‘addict’. While by modern standards it might seem incontestable that De Quincey was indeed ‘addicted’ to laudanum, this fails to acknowledge that addiction itself is a historically contingent idea that increasingly came into the fore during the Victorian era. Within the episode, Clarke oscillates between describing De Quincey as being ‘dependent’ on drugs, to being a full blown opium ‘addict’. What makes this irksome is that Robert Morrison, a historian who has written a book about Confessions, acknowledges during the show that ‘you don’t get notions of addiction until later in the nineteenth century’. Thus, Clarke’s description of De Quincey as an opium ‘addict’, and even on one occasion a ‘dope fiend’, is problematic in two regards. Firstly, De Quincey himself, and even Georgian society at large, would not have seen Confessions as the work of an opium ‘addict’. This is because the term itself was yet to come into existence. Furthermore, to describe De Quincey as an ‘addict’ fails to acknowledge the close entanglement of a set of specifically moral values that emerged around drug use in the Victorian era. These values essentially made drug users into ‘addicts’, based upon the view of a seeming innate moral deficiency on the users part. Thus, while this episode of The Secret Life of Books is to be applauded for its thoughtful history of both De Quincey and opium use in Britain, it is somewhat lacking in its characterisation of De Quincey as an opium ‘addict’. It might also have offered a much greater acknowledgement of Confessions’ wider reaching impact on British attitudes to opium use.

Jamie Banks is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. His research explores the relationship between British Imperialism, Indian labour migration, and opium use in colonies across the Indian Ocean. For more information, click here.

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