Five Questions: Robert Morrison on the Regency and Thomas De Quincey

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Robert Morrison is currently British Academy Global Professor at Bath Spa University and Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is a leading expert on Thomas De Quincey and Romantic-period periodical culture and has published major editions of works by writers including De Quincey, Leigh Hunt, Jane Austen and John Polidori, as well as numerous essays on topics including magazine writing, John Galt, William Blackwood and twentieth-century music. His biography of Thomas De Quincey, The English Opium Eater, was published in 2009, and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. Below, we discuss two books that he published last year: the 21st-Century Oxford Authors edition of Thomas De Quincey (Oxford University Press) and The Regency Revolution (Atlantic Books; published by W.W. Norton as The Regency Years in North America). The Economist named The Regency Years one of its 2019 Books of the Year.

1) How did you first become interested in Thomas De Quincey?

My interest in De Quincey began at Oxford, where I did my M.Phil. degree in Romanticism under the supervision of Jonathan Wordsworth. In Hilary term of my first year, Jonathan asked me to write an essay on each of the four major non-fiction prose writers: De Quincey, William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Charles Lamb. Jonathan was not very impressed with what I produced (to say the least of it), but he did seem to feel that my essay on De Quincey had a little more energy and depth than the other three.

Looking back now over more than three decades, I feel very fortunate to have chosen De Quincey, and to have had Jonathan’s encouragement in making that decision. I remember at the time being told that if I wanted to work on a hopeless drug addict who lived in the Lake District, read Kant, and worshipped Wordsworth, I should write on Coleridge. He was a major figure who published books. De Quincey was ‘a hack’ who wrote for the magazines. Leslie Stephen sneered that De Quincey spent his career producing ‘respectable padding’. But after re-reading Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions and then Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, I decided to stay with De Quincey, and to continue trying to unravel the various contradictions, denials, and insights that lie at the crux of his ‘Literary Life and Opinions’. For De Quincey, as I realized much later, self-representation is often the subtlest form of self-concealment.

I also remember sitting in a pub during my second year in Oxford speaking to a D.Phil. student who was writing on William Godwin, and who after three years of work had decided that he didn’t like William Godwin at all. I’ve managed to avoid that pitfall. De Quincey for me remains endlessly interesting. He spent the vast majority of his career publishing almost exclusively in leading – and often rival – monthly magazines, a decision that had a profound impact on his work. He wrote incisively on all manner of topics, from science, history, theology, economics, and aesthetics to classical scholarship, German philosophy, English literature, and contemporary politics. And he combined these various interests and decisions with a prose style that can range effortlessly from the humorous through the anecdotal to the suspenseful, while in his ‘impassioned’ mode he produced prose that was, as Alfred Tennyson observed, ‘not poetry…but as fine as any verse’.

2) What were your main criteria for selecting texts for the 21st-Century Oxford Authors edition? Were there particular elements of De Quincey’s creativity you were keen to reveal, and what works did you consider essential for a volume designed to introduce him to new readers?

In my experience, a selected edition invariably involves agonizing. What stays? What gets cut?

The recent Pickering and Chatto edition of The Works of Thomas De Quincey is twenty-one volumes. The 21st-Century Oxford Authors editions are very liberal with word limits, but that still means that fitting De Quincey into one of them involves excluding roughly 95% of what he wrote. In such circumstances, I found it very helpful to establish clear criteria for the selection of texts. I wanted the volume to contain the essays for which he is best known and most often studied and cited, and which represent his finest work as autobiographer, biographer, rhetorician, satirist, true crime reporter, and literary critic. The essays appear in chronological order, and have been newly and comprehensively annotated. The edition, I hope, makes De Quincey accessible to first-time readers, but also contains information that scholars will find fresh and illuminating.

The edition opens and closes with Confessions. The original version of 1821 is printed in its entirety, complete with the most important manuscript material related to it. The revised version of 1856 appears in a series of selections, including ‘What was it that did in reality make me an opium-eater?’, ‘The Whispering Gallery’, ‘My great central sun of opium’, and ‘The Daughter of Lebanon’. All of Suspiria de Profundis (1845), De Quincey’s sequel to Confessions, is included, together with an extensive selection of manuscript material, and a newly-discovered fragment, ‘Oh sweep away, – angel with angelic scorn’, that is published here for the first time. ‘The English Mail-Coach’ (1849), also printed in full, was originally conceived by De Quincey as belonging to Suspiria, but he later published it separately. In 1853, he ranked Confessions and the various parts of Suspiria as ‘a far higher class of compositions’ than his other work, in part because they contained his most successful attempts to ‘clothe in words the visionary scenes derived from the world of dreams, where a single false note, a single word in a wrong key, ruins the whole music’.

De Quincey’s three essays ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (1827, 1839, and 1854) are given in full. The first essay bristles with black humour and ironic deflations, while the second includes the funniest joke he ever told: ‘For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop’. In the third essay, however, De Quincey dramatically changes directions to produce a taut and blood-soaked account of the Ratcliffe Highway murders. Often cited as helping to establish true crime as a literary form, the essay influenced a host of subsequent writers in the genre, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, and Vincent Bugliosi, as I contend in the Introduction.

In addition, the volume contains extensive selections from De Quincey’s reminiscences of ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’ and ‘William Wordsworth’. De Quincey celebrated their poetry across his career, but his personal relationship with both men eventually collapsed into bitterness and self-justification. He was especially angry at the way Wordsworth had treated him, but he later reached a more balanced viewed. The failure of the relationship was partly ‘Wordsworth’s in doing too little’ and partly ‘mine in expecting too much’. The edition also includes De Quincey’s most famous piece of literary criticism, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, his two inquiries into the nature of the ‘Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power’, and selections from his essays on ‘Rhetoric’ and ‘Style’.

3) When writing The Regency Revolution, how did you select the focuses for your five chapters (Crime, Punishment, and the Pursuit of Freedom; Theatres of Entertainment; Sexual Pastimes, Pleasures, and Perversities; Expanding Empire and Waging War; and Changing Landscapes and Ominous Signs)?

I selected the five chapters gradually as I worked through the material I wanted to include, and the process of trying to present it in the most cogent form possible. At one point I was up to seven chapters, and at another down to four, but I had a very strict word limit for the final manuscript, and so I kept arranging and re-arranging, and writing and rejecting and trimming and revising, until I had it down into five chapters. From the start I knew that I did not want to write a chronological history or a dutiful survey. What I wanted to do was to paint a picture of the Regency world. I wanted to try and capture some of the flux, colour, innovation, anger, and immense creativity that defines the period. And I knew that, as often as possible, I wanted to do this from a literary standpoint. I wanted Jane Austen on travel, Maria Edgeworth on Elizabeth Fry, Lord Byron on the Duke of Wellington, John Keats on the arctic expeditions, Robert Southey on Robert Owen, Mary Russell Mitford on Orientalism, Harriette Wilson on Beau Brummell, William Wordsworth on emigration, Matthew Lewis on slavery, and so on.

The first three chapters concern, respectively and broadly defined, politics, entertainment, and sex. Chapter One opens with John Bellingham’s assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, explores crime and punishment, government crackdowns, Luddism, the Highland Clearances, radical satire (George Cruikshank is everywhere in the Regency), and Peterloo, before closing with Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Chapter Two delves into the fun on offer at theatres, sporting events, fashionable clubs, private dinners, gambling and drinking dens, outdoor fairs, and holiday resorts, as well as the more serious pleasures to be found in museums, lecture halls, art galleries, and the reading of books, especially the novels of Walter Scott, and the poetry of Lord Byron. Chapter Three considers the many restrictions on female desire, the last defiant huzzah of male and female rakes, the vicious sex trade, Thomas Rowlandson’s pornographic prints (the Regent was an avid collector), Anne Lister’s joyous experiences of same-sex love, the state-orchestrated execution of ‘sodomites’, and flagellation: a ‘peculiar and sexual degradation’, De Quincey emphasized.

The final two chapters look at the inventions, ambitions, and competitions transforming, first, the British empire, and then Britain itself. Chapter Four features Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the looting of the Parthenon Marbles, Lady Hester Stanhope’s travels in the Middle East, the exploits of the British East India Company, Thomas Stamford Raffles’s founding of Singapore, the blights of slavery, the search for the Northwest Passage, and the tens of thousands of people who left Britain looking for a better life in Canada or the United States. Chapter Five investigates the inexorable economic and industrial forces altering both the cities and the countryside, the dramatic reimaginings of people and place by artists such as Henry Raeburn, Thomas Lawrence, J. M. W. Turner, and John Constable, the technologies pioneered by George Stephenson, Charles Babbage, Humphry Davy, and Michael Faraday, and the medical and scientific debates that Mary Shelley brings to life in her modern prophecy, Frankenstein.

4) What are the most important insights you developed by considering the Regency as a distinct period?

I emerged from the process of writing the book with, I think, three central insights. The first is that, no matter how much you think you know, you don’t really know that much at all. I should have known this going in, as I remember clearly reading Jerome McGann in the ‘Introduction’ to his edition of Don Juan, where he writes that ‘the work has involved an education in Byron (whom I thought I knew fairly well)’. I have taught the Regency and its major writers for a long time, and before I started to write the book I thought I knew the contours of the period quite well. I didn’t.

The second insight is that it is good to resist trends. There have been many studies in recent years of the ‘long eighteenth century’ or the ‘long nineteenth century’, and there are clear advantages to reconceptualizing periodization in this way. But I started to wonder what would happen if I moved the other way – if instead of expanding either backward or forward from the Romantic period, I moved inward to explore a subset of years within the wider Romantic movement, if I highlighted, as it were, a ‘period within a period’. This led me quickly to the Regency, which spans less than a decade (1811-1820), which exists in British history as a constitutional reality, and which falls right in the middle of the dates we traditionally assign to the British Romantic movement. Concentrating on a short period as opposed to a long century generated very different questions about periodization and literary history, and produced a series of paradoxes, collisions, and parallels that I do not think would be quite so available in a study that encompassed a longer span of years.

The third insight is that studying the Regency puts a good deal of pressure on longstanding notions of what we mean by ‘Romanticism’. The Regency prized sociability and an outward gaze as opposed to the solitariness and inwardness we typically associate with the Romantic era. Yet the one is located right at the heart of the other. Where does this leave us? I have taught Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, and Coleridge as Romantic authors on many occasions. All five feature prominently in the book, and all five look very different when they are seen as Regency authors who published some of their finest work alongside other major Regency figures such as George Crabbe, Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, and William Hazlitt. Above all, I hope the book makes it harder to see Austen, whose six published novels all appeared during the Regency, as a writer whose ‘values’ – as it is often put – align her with an earlier literary period. If Austen is commonly set to one side in accounts of Romanticism, she towers in any assessment of Regency literature.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am editing The Oxford Handbook of British Romantic Prose. It is intended as a kind of companion volume to David Duff’s The Oxford Handbook of British Romanticism. The volume contains essays on topics extending from ‘Africa’, ‘Biography’, and ‘Crime’ through ‘Literary Parody’, ‘Metropolitanism’, and ‘Natural Science’ to ‘Sports’, ‘Translation’, and ‘War’. The focus is on non-fiction prose, but the Handbook also emphasizes the permeability of Romantic fiction and non-fiction, so that novelists like Austen, Edgeworth, and Scott also play prominent roles. One of the primary objectives of the volume is to try and redress the longstanding imbalance between British Romantic Poetry and British Romantic Prose, and to put British Romantic Prose at the centre of our thinking on the British Romantic project broadly defined.

With the support of the British Academy and the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, I am curating a lecture series on addiction, including drugs, of course, but also gambling, eating, shopping, sex, and so on. The series will bring together creative writers, psychologists, historians, and medical professionals, as well as those working in counselling, law enforcement, and public policy. It will begin with talks focussed on what exactly we mean by ‘addiction’, move through a series of multidisciplinary perspectives on it, and then conclude with narratives that involve recovery and hope.

I am guest editor of a special issue of Romanticism devoted to the bicentenary of the publication of De Quincey’s Confessions. The issue will appear in September 2021 to coincide exactly with the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first instalment of Confessions in the London Magazine for September 1821. It contains eight new essays on Confessions, including its relationship to Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Baudelaire’s Les Paradis artificiels, and China’s first ‘city novel’, Courtesans and Opium.

For Oxford University Press, I am producing the first collected edition of The Letters of Thomas De Quincey. There are approximately 800 extant De Quincey letters. Some of these have been published in previous selected editions. Others have been printed in literary journals or in auction catalogues. Still others have appeared – in whole or in part – in biographies of De Quincey. In total, these published sources print just over 200 De Quincey letters in full, and selections from another 100 letters. Of the 800 extant De Quincey letters, then, approximately 500 of them have never been published, and another 100 have never been published in full. Work on the new edition includes a comprehensive search for lost or hitherto unknown De Quincey letters. All letters are being freshly transcribed and thoroughly annotated.