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Biography of Thomas de Quincey

Drawing of Thomas de Quincey

Thomas de Quincey was a nineteenth century author famous for writing “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”.

When and Where was he Born?

15th August 1785, 86 Cross Street, Manchester, England.

De Quincey's birthplace
The site of Thomas De Quincey’s birthplace is now a Betting Shop in Cross Street, Manchester (copyright Anthony Blagg)
De Quincey Plaque
Close up of plaque (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Family Background:

Thomas De Quincey was the fifth child and second son (of eight children) of Thomas a successful and wealthy linen merchant and his wife Elizabeth Penson..

Education:

Schools at Salford, Bath and Winkfield. Manchester Grammar School (Ran away from aged 17). Worcester College, Oxford (failed to take degree).

Timeline of Thomas De Quincey:

1790: Death of his sister Jane, aged three.

1792: Death of his sister Elizabeth, aged nine.

1793: Death of his father.

1796: He is taken by his mother to live in Bath. He enters Bath Grammar School. His mother takes the name “De Quincey.”

1799: He goes to Winkfield School, Wiltshire where he reads Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which he is to describe as “the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind.”

1800: He wins a prize for his translation from Horace’s Twenty-Second Ode. He spends his summer holidays in Ireland and then goes to Manchester Grammar School.

1801: He spends the summer in Everton, near Liverpool, where he meets several Whig Party intellectuals.

1802: De Quincey runs away from school and tours Wales without the blessing of his mother and his uncle. He finally ends up penniless living in London with a prostitute called Ann.

1803: He returns to his family. He spends another summer in Everton and plans a literary career. He writes a fan letter to Wordsworth, and the two begin a correspondence. He enters Worcester College, Oxford.

1804: De Quincey first starts using opium at Oxford when he used it for relief from neuralgia. He meets Charles Lamb.

1805: He travels to the Lake District intending to meet William Wordsworth but turns back after thinking better of it.

1807: He meets Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the first time in Bath and gives him £300 which he pretends is a loan. He travels as an escort to the Lake District with Sara Coleridge and her two sons whilst Coleridge is lecturing in London. He finally meets Wordsworth in Grasmere.

1808: He works with Coleridge on his lectures for the Royal Institution on Poetry and Principles of Taste. He runs away from Oxford during his final examinations and does not receive his degree.

1809: He rents Dove Cottage, Grasmere after it was vacated by Wordsworth and Coleridge so that he could be near the two poets.

Dove Cottage
Dove Cottage, Grasmere, Cumbria. Home to the Wordsworth’s and later De Quincey. (copyright  Anthony Blagg)

1812: He enters the Middle Temple in London briefly to study for the Bar (as a lawyer). He starts a series of illnesses which meant he took stronger and stronger doses of laudanum (opium in solution, usually of brandy).

1813: He is now taking up to ten wine glasses of opium a day.

1816: Birth of his son, called William Penson, with Margaret Simpson a farmer’s daughter (Known as Peggy) and he becomes estranged from the Wordsworths due to his erratic behaviour..

1817: He is still taking opium daily. He marries Peggy and he moves into Nab Cottage her home.

1818: Having used up all of his private fortune from his family he has to earn a living as a journalist and is appointed the Editor of the local Tory newspaper the Westmoreland Gazette.

1819: He is sacked as Editor of the Gazette. He writes a review of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam” for Blackwood’s Magazine.

1821: De Quincey leaves Grasmere and moves to London where he writes for Blackwood’s Magazine and the London Magazine. He publishes his most famous work “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” in serial form. It becomes an instant bestseller and an inspiration to other writers.

Tavistock Square sire of Opium Eater
The house at 36 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, London that Thomas de Quincey lived in while writing, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”  (copyright  Anthony Blagg)

1822: The “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” is published in book form for the first time.

1824: He writes an unfavourable review in the London Magazine of Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”.

1825: He leaves the London Magazine.

1826: He goes to Edinburgh with his wife and family of eight children. He rejoins Blackwood’s Magazine.

1827: He begins to write for The Edinburgh Saturday Post. He meets Carlyle and becomes friends despite his earlier criticism.

1828: He lodges with Professor John Wilson.

1830: He moves permanently to Edinburgh.

1831: He is imprisoned for his debts.

1832: Death of one of his sons, Julius aged three.

1833: De Quincey is convicted four more times for debts and takes refuge in the Holyrood debtor’s sanctuary.

1834: He is convicted five times more for debts. Death of another of his sons, his eldest William, aged eighteen.

1837: After the death of his wife, Peggy, he is convicted ten times for debts. He begins taking laudanum more and more frequently. Hartley Coleridge, the son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, moves into Nab Cottage with him and is to remain there until he died in 1849.

Nab Cottage
Nab Cottage, Rydal, Lake District. Now a college. (copyright  Anthony Blagg)

1840: Prosecuted for debt he leaves Edinburgh quickly and goes to Glasgow.

1842: One of his sons, Lieutenant Horace De Quincey dies, aged twenty-two, fighting in the Opium Wars in China.

1843: He lives in a small cottage called Mavis Bush in Lasswade outside Edinburgh.

1849: He is briefly imprisoned for debt.

1850: De Quincey moves back to Edinburgh. His works begin to be put out in book form by publishers both in Britain and the United States.

1854: He lodges at 42 Lothian Street, Edinburgh .

When and Where did he Die?

8th December 1859. Polton, Midlothian (near Edinburgh), Scotland after an illness of some weeks according to his obituary.

Age at Death:

74.

Written Works:

1806: “Constituents of Happiness”.

1821: “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”. “Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets”.
1823: “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.”
1825: “Walladmor”.
1827: “On Murder Considered as One of the Many Fine Arts”.
1832: “Klosterheim, or the Masque”.
1834: “Lake Reminiscences”.
1844: “The Logic of Political Economy”.
1845: “Suspira de Profundis”.
1849: “The English Mail Coach”.
1853: “Autobiographical Sketches”.
1853: “Selections Grave and Gay.”
(1889): Collected Writings”.

Marriage:

1817: Margaret (Peggy) Simpson, a farmer’s daughter whom he had made pregnant. (died 1837).

Site of Grave:

Saint Cuthbert’s (West) Churchyard in Edinburgh next to his wife and two of his children.

Places of Interest:

CUMBRIA:

Dove Cottage Museum and Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere.
Nab Cottage, Rydal. Now a language school.

EDINBURGH:

Saint Cuthbert’s Churchyard.

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