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Even so, the De Quincey scholar Barry Milligan has described Confessions as "one of those books almost everyone has heard of but very few have read. Perhaps a more obvious explanation is that Thomas De Quincey was not a likable man, and his writing often isn't very likable, either. That reality rises to the surface of Frances Wilson's appreciative, yet unflinching account of De Quincey's life.

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She begins her perceptive biography in December , when two London families including a baby were slaughtered in their homes in what came to be known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. His deepest vein of dark material came from his own life, which was dogged by pain from the start. A native of Manchester, De Quincey was 6 years old when his 9-year-old sister died, and his father died soon afterward.

In , De Quincey's mother changed the family's name from "Quincey" to "De Quincey" because it sounded more aristocratic, suggesting that young Thomas came by his flair for self-drama honestly. By , an unhappy De Quincey had run away from school to live as a vagabond in London, eventually enrolling at Oxford, then leaving without a degree. He recalled taking his first opium in , establishing a habit that followed him to the grave.

Milligan notes that De Quincey took massive daily doses of laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, "and found it impossible to stop doing so until his death at 74, a ripe old age in the mid-nineteenth century. But De Quincey's Confessions helped bring opium use out in the open—and as Milligan noted, the modifier "English" before "Opium-Eater" signaled that a drug widely regarded as a vice of the Orient had been domesticated for British consumption.

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First published without a byline in London Magazine , Confessions came along when English journalism was especially hungry for copy. Boosted by improvements in printing technology, the periodical trade was booming, with essayists such as Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt enjoying a steady pipeline for their work.

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Lamb, a friend of De Quincey who had nasty troubles of his own and figures prominently here, provides an interesting study in contrast with the author of Confessions. A bright young man forced to drop out of school because of his family's financial problems, Charles Lamb took a clerical job at 14, writing his wry and witty essays on the side. When Lamb was 20, his older sister Mary stabbed their mother to death during a mental breakdown and was remanded to Lamb's custody. It was the stuff of blockbuster memoir—the kind of story that today might be optioned to Hollywood—but Lamb didn't publicly write about the ordeal.

Instead, he focused on finely wrought musings about such topics as roast pig, whist, chimney sweepers, and Valentine's Day. Lamb and De Quincey underscored the essay's divergent paths in the period, which might be oversimplified as a choice between Lamb's genteel, Johnsonian disquisitions on the one hand and De Quincey's spill-your-guts school of personal confession on the other.

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But of course, true genius defies easy category. What the reader notices in Lamb's essays, despite their air of safe charm, is how much of their author's poignant personal challenges subtly color the current of the commentary. In beautifully rendered compositions such as "New Year's Eve" and "A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People," the bittersweet loneliness of Lamb and his quietly heroic resilience come through.

But what often seems missing from De Quincey, despite his promise of candor, is a sense of true intimacy with his audience. He uses salutations such as "courteous reader" throughout the text of Confessions ; but his prevailing attitude is that of a man who neither cherishes his readers nor especially cares if he has any.

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In one passage, he absolves himself of any blame for narrative jumbles and confusing chronology, admitting that. It's an approach that recruits the reader as therapist, as if we're responsible for helping to clarify the author's mind, not the other way around. By their nature, addicts are a self-absorbed bunch, and De Quincey, in Frances Wilson's rendering, seems a classic specimen of the form. She notes De Quincey's deft use of flattery to secure a first meeting with Lamb, during which Lamb soon discovered that his ostensible admirer's professed interest was strictly tactical.

His father, the Revd R. Lynd, had spoken as a fervent unionist at the Henry Cook centenary in Cook had been the Ian Paisley of his day. He joined the Gaelic League and learned to speak Irish. He had the courage to stand by his friend Sir Roger Casement when he was tried for treason in and hanged in Pentonville Jail.

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Robert Lynd remained an Irish nationalist all his life, never missing an opportunity to denounce what he believed to be the hypocrisy of British politicians in their dealings with Ireland. In one of his earlier essays he wrote:. It was as an essayist that Robert Lynd achieved international fame.

But he also wrote about politics and put the case for Irish nationalism in Ireland a nation Labour historians may regret that Lynd did not name that small socialist society in Belfast and so give them the opportunity to know exactly what it was. It could have been the Belfast branch of the Independent Labour Party.

He was glad to accept shelter in the studio of his friend Paul Henry, the Belfast-born artist and a radical like Lynd himself.

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When he first arrived in London Lynd earned some money writing for the Daily Despatch, and also for Today, the weekly magazine edited by Jerome K. Jerome, author of the celebrated Three men in a boat. In he got his first permanent job, as literary editor of the Daily News, which, he must have been pleased to remember, had once been edited by Charles Dickens. The Daily News later became the News Chronicle.

In those times, before there was either radio or television to provide the light entertainment that is so popular today, the literary essay was probably more appreciated by the readers of newspapers and magazines than it would be nowadays. Robert Lynd became one of the most widely read of the essayists. Some years ago the Belfast Telegraph noted with some little pride that one collection, The Blue Lion and other essays, had been published in Japan, with an introduction in Japanese, for inclusion in the English courses of Japanese universities. If Lynd had been alive then he might have written an essay with a title such as On being published in Japan, or something like that.

Like Samuel Johnson, who was his favourite writer, he had always something to say, whatever the subject. Of all the essays written by Robert Lynd it would be difficult to choose one over another. Every reader would have his or her favourites. This is about two Dutch seamen who went ashore when their ship was berthed in Belfast and got into a fight with some of the locals in a dance hall. They were arrested and charged with disorderly behaviour.

Their disorderly behaviour, wrote Lynd, took the form not only of fighting with people but also of biting them. Why are some of these unpleasant things not un-Scotch or un-Irish?

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