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Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Updated Tuesday, 20th October 2015

Learn about the deadly war for readers in Georgian London and write your own confessions.

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One of the first portrayals of recreational drug taking, Thomas De Quincey’s notorious nineteenth century book, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, is also considered the first autobiographical account of drug addiction. It influenced not just generations of narcoticized writers but even medical opinion on the effects of opium for decades after its publication.

In the Georgian era of 1821, opium – in the form of laudanum - was as ubiquitous as ale or spirits. Thomas De Quincey was the first writer to openly celebrate its effects, not purely in medicinal terms but as an aide to enjoying music and books.

This is a book about addiction but it is also about the power of memories. Whilst De Quincey walked a thin line between fact and fiction while writing this memoir, the true story of this dark romantic classic journeys to the dark streets of Soho. Here the young De Quincey had one of his most formative experiences, forging a friendship with a young prostitute called Ann who would haunt his dreams in years to come. The relationship between De Quincey and his heroes Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge is also evident in the close and unlikely links between de Quincey’s Confessions and William Wordsworth’s great poem The Prelude.

The original manuscript of Confessions holds numerous clues as to the situation in which it was written – including coffee stains once mistaken for opium marks. Opium would never relinquish its hold on De Quincey though, ending his journey in Edinburgh, where he spent the final decades of his life, still extolling both the pains and pleasures caused by his beloved “Just, subtle and mighty opium”.

Video: Circulation wars

Video: Making it into print

Adventures: Make your own confession and explore De Quincey's Edinburgh

The Secret Life of Books - Find out more about the other books in the series.




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