Bad Guy Number One

Wainewright the Poisoner: The Confessions of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright

Andrew Motion
Knopf, 276 pp., $26.00 (To be published in paperback by University of Chicago Press in November 2001.)

Of all our customary critical expressions, the word “Romantic” has probably suffered the most from diminishing returns. Its protean character can be seen in the contradictions of ordinary speech, where a romantic “interlude,” for example, is rather a good thing whereas a romantic “scheme” is rather not. The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal, by F.L. Lucas, numbers 11,396 definitions of “romanticism.” Reduced to English terms, the Romantic movement occurs somewhere between 1798, when Wordsworth and Coleridge brought out the first Lyrical Ballads, and the death of Sir Walter Scott (and Goethe) in 1832. Though it is not precisely coterminous with the days of the Prince Regent, this period can also be identified with “the Regency.” Its elements include a preference for nature over classical form, a looser rein for the emotions and the expression of personality, and in politics a certain democratic (and often secular) radicalism. Its ironic nemesis is disillusionment, of the varying sorts experienced by Hazlitt and Wordsworth, sometimes accompanied by narcotic addiction and often by early death.

Perhaps not entirely by chance, this epoch also overlaps with the Gothic style that was pioneered by Horace Walpole in his Castle of Otranto, and extends to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1818. This version of “romance” entails despair, monstrosity, blood, and conspiracy, together with a tinge of the fantastic and supernatural. And The Castle of Otranto, ostensibly set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and widely accepted as authentic by the credulous, was as much a forgery or pastiche as the verses of Ossian, fabricated by James Macpherson in 1760, the bogus tremors of which were still being felt in “Romantic” Europe (Goethe loved them) as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

Thomas Wainewright (1794–1847) was in his life and work a sort of synthesis of these two tendencies: a gifted painter and critic, a dandy of the Beau Brummell school, who simultaneously took the part of forger, impostor, fraud, and poisoner. Having for a time cut something of a figure in literary and artistic London, he fell like Lucifer and met his death as a despised and exiled convict in the Australian penal settlements. Andrew Motion, the literary biographer who is England’s latest poet laureate, has chosen to exhume his form and to review if not reopen his case.

Wainewright was a tremendous dissembler and the records of his life are fractured and uneven, so Motion has resorted to the method of “faction”; supplying his own pastiche of an unreliable autobiographical narration and then amplifying the result with modern-day footnotes. What emerges from under the various pentimentos is a partial but vivid portrait of a period in London when a man of talent and ambition could scrape the acquaintance of William Blake and Charles Lamb, of Thomas de Quincey and John Keats, of William Hazlitt and John Clare, while painting Byron’s portrait and penning well-wrought feuilletons. This was the epoch of the Monthly Review and the London Magazine; the seedtime of the …

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