Wainewright the Poisoner: The Confessions of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright
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 literary-intellectual journal. It was also the period where canvas was dominated by Henry Fuseli and Thomas Phillips, who also patronized and encouraged Wainewright.
It was an axiom of the Romantics that there were skulls beneath the skin, that flowers sprouted on graves and dunghills, and that good and evil flourished upon the same stem. A very slight kink or flaw in this perspective might allow a man to conclude that, since society was innately hypocritical and two-faced, he was entitled to be the same way himself. This seems to have been Wainewright’s own private conclusion. His grandfather and guardian was Dr. Ralph Griffiths, a solid member of the Dissenting middle class, who for fifty-four years edited the Monthly Review, the first such magazine to publish discussions of new books rather than extracts from them. But Wainewright discovered that the old boy had financed the Review, an organ of great Whiggish probity, on the proceeds of John Cleland’s notorious Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.
Dr. Griffiths had picked up this lucrative option on the cheap by buying Cleland out of debtor’s prison. How satisfying to discover a pillar of literary and moral elevation erected on a foundation of lurid and light-minded pornography. Again, as a young man undergoing a classical education in an academy in Greenwich, Wainewright found his famous tutor and headmaster—the bibliophile and Aeschylus scholar Charles Burney (brother to Fanny the novelist)—to be addicted to the dubious pleasures of corporal punishment. Thus, as Motion traces out Wainewright’s memoir, one can see the constituents of an alibi or an apologia being assembled.
It cost money to keep up appearances, to run a coach and horses, to bespeak dinners at which the great wits and raconteurs would appear, and Wainewright found as he attained manhood that all the money left to him by his Cleland-enriched grandfather had been tied up and entailed by guardians and lawyers. Like Raskolnikov, he seems to have decided that his own claim to a lease on life was superior to the dank requirements of ordinary, earth-bound people. Like Raskolnikov, too, he made the discovery that one crime necessitates another, and then another. To tell the story in condensed form: in 1822 and 1823 he forged the deeds on his grandfather’s trust fund and laid hold of most of the money that was due to him. In 1828, after his uncle died suddenly, he inherited a handsome family home but not, to his horror, the funds necessary to run it. In 1829 his mother-in-law died and, in the following year, Wainewright induced one of his wife’s half-sisters to take out a series of life-insurance policies. No sooner were the policies in effect than the young and hale woman died of an excruciating disorder of the stomach. No historian now believes that the above sequence of events is innocently coincidental.
In Wainewright’s account, as rendered by Motion, there are intriguing suggestions both of artistic perfectionism and multiple personality as background to these crimes. The young man learned early on that painting could be a version of propaganda or camouflage:
I would portray the faces of my friends for their love, my enemies for a shilling, and my masters for twice that. No feature was too difficult, and the art of flattery came easily to me. Fetch a dandy lock across a forehead, smarten a cravat, stretch a neck here or five fingers there, and my subjects paid me the more willingly.
The realization that he could also execute beautiful copies of other peoples’ signatures was for Wainewright a short apprenticeship, and it was to be some time before the true attribution could be made by his enemies. As to poison, he seems to have employed an exquisite hollow signet ring, in the approved Florentine Renaissance manner, as the jeweled repository of minutely calibrated doses of strychnine, a drug then understood by only a few apothecaries. One can imagine the refined satisfactions of this blending of art, science, enrichment, and revenge. (It was, after all, his friend and London Magazine colleague Thomas de Quincey who wrote an essay “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”)
In his own written work for the more advanced and fashionable reviews, Wainewright also manifested an interest in masking and doubling. His preferred noms de plume were “Janus Weathercock” and “Egomet Bonmot.” His attention to his appearance and tenue was renowned; expressive of his conviction that surface was everything. What lay beneath—what we might now call the crisis of identity—may have been opaque to him. His mother died in giving him birth; his father did not long outlive her. And then there is this, from one of Wainewright’s encounters with his great contemporary, the painter Theodore von Holst, great-uncle of the composer:
Encouraged by a succession of coincidences I cannot now recall, he [Holst] had been employed by a certain bookseller to engrave a Frontispiece for that shocking and profound story of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, the wife of Percy, whom almost alone of his great poetic contemporaries I never met. I knew of this book—all my circle knew of it—but I had never examined a single page until I received a copy from Holst’s own hand. Then I fell upon it eagerly, realizing at once that the efforts of the Creature to attain his knowing personhood held up a mirror to my own story.
When Wainewright later wanted to make an end of his Egomet Bonmot character, he did so by means of a lavish indulgence in solipsism rather than by a break with it. The lampooning record of his character’s death is written in a Byronic epistolatory style and described as “edited by Mr. Mwaughmaim, and now first published by Me.” Bonmot’s last words are “I; I.” Self-deprecating this may have been intended to be, but it makes too close a “fit” with Wainewright’s own self-pitying and self-justifying letters and pleas, which were composed in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania):
Yes, in a matter of seconds I saw all of this and more—women running from me, shivering in rags, horribly degraded; young boys looking up at me with piteous tear-stained glances; bestial guards, driving me before them through a hideous landscape of burned earth. I saw all this, and felt it squeezing my heart, at the same time as a quite different fear overcame me: the fear of being so far off from everything I knew.
He had been deported there for life on conviction for forgery, the heaviness of the sentence reflecting the widespread judicial view that he was, even though it could not be proved against him, a serial murderer. “Transportation” was a cruel punishment for anybody, including the peasants and artisans whose company Wainewright so despised. But it is not to indulge his own snobbery overmuch (the name Wainewright originally means a maker of carts, after all) to allow that his own exile had a particular bitterness. Like Ovid in the Tristia or Wilde In Carcere et Vinculis, he was wretchedly alienated from the company of the artistic, the witty, and the metropolitan.
In Tasmania he was at first put to work on a road gang, subsequently as a hospital orderly, and then, having done some fine portraits of local colonial notables, given a conditional liberty on the island itself. He never ceased to petition the authorities, to insist (not without some justice) that the money he had “stolen” was legally his, and to maintain that forgery was not such a great crime. After all, had not the marvelous Chatterton been a faker of genius until—come to think of it—he swallowed arsenic? William Hazlitt, who like most of Wainewright’s former friends was appalled at the disclosure of his character, took a rather high tone about the sort of fabrication common in the early Romantic era:
I conceive that words are like money, not the worse for being common, but that it is the stamp of custom alone that gives them their circulation or value. I am fastidious in this respect, and would almost as soon coin the currency of the realm as counterfeit the King’s English.
Unfriended except by a favorite and beloved cat, Wainewright died in Van Diemen’s Land, probably of apoplexy, after ten years of exile. His solitary consolations were the chewing of smuggled sticks of opium and the luxurious plotting of revenge on the cousin who had denounced the original forgery.
Andrew Motion has been criticized, most notably by the Wainewright scholar Marc Vaubert de Chantilly, for “ventriloquizing” (Motion’s own term) his subject and for returning too open a verdict. It seems that fresher archival research may have uncovered an actual confession to murder by Wainewright, written from the prison ship as he awaited transportation. I myself did not find either the ventriloquizing or the ambivalence to be irksome. Both give the reader the opportunity to notice connections and to form conclusions.
Until now, Peter Ackroyd has been perhaps the foremost employer of the literary ventriloquist method; it’s a nice coincidence that his two premier subjects—Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens—were fascinated by Wainewright and wrote extensively about him. Motion prepares us for this, I surmise, by various textual hints. For example, here is Wainewright recalling his grandfather and saying: “I have already mentioned how his journey through the dust-heaps of London began from a shop close to St Paul’s.” That is almost an encapsulation of the plot of Our Mutual Friend. Again, when Wainewright was visited in Newgate prison by a representative of one of the defrauded insurance companies, and solemnly informed that crime was a bad speculation, he riposted:
Sir, you City men enter into your speculations and take the chances of them. Some of your speculations succeed; some fail. Mine happened to have failed; your happen to have succeeded…. But I will tell you one thing in which I have succeeded to the last. I have been determined through life to hold the position of a gentleman. I have always done so. I do so still. It is the custom of this place that each of the inmates shall take his morning’s turn of sweeping it out. I occupy a cell with a bricklayer and a sweep. But, by God, they never offer me the broom!
What is this if not the repellent figure of Rigaud/Blandois in Little Dorrit? Dickens actually visited Wainewright in Newgate prison, and wrote a morality tale based on his life, with the admonitory title of Hunted Down, for the New York Ledger in 1859. The crucial pedagogic sentence is this one:
There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a man who is a calculating criminal is, in any phase of his guilt, otherwise than true to himself and perfectly consistent with his whole character.
Oscar Wilde did not share Dickens’s wholesome and indignant revulsion for fops and dandies, and his 1889 essay “Pen, Pencil and Poison” is a much more nuanced and—not quite the same thing—amoral treatment of the relation between crime and genius. He quotes, almost as if approving a forerunner, Wainewright’s offhand (and perhaps apocryphal) admission that he had poisoned his half-sister. “Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles.” Well, if the expenditure of genius ought to be on the life and not the work—as Wilde was fond of claiming—then Wainewright is decidedly a candidate at least for the title of genius manqué. He formed collections of beautiful things; he cared for affect and artifice; he cultivated gifted acquaintance; he was an adept and devotee of the Hellenistic style; he was easily bored; and he thought of money as something to be spent without calculation. For Wilde to add to this register the notion that he was “a forger of no mean or ordinary capabilities” and “a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rival in this or any age” is practically to complete the picture. And yet what is the picture? It is Dorian Gray.
In exile Wainewright produced a self-portrait showing a somewhat bedraggled cavalier, a definitively former dandy: its caption reads “Head of a Convict, very characteristic of low cunning & revenge!” Like Wilde, Wainewright wrote his testament “from the depths.” Like Wilde, he courted calamity by going to law. (The case that undid him was a suit that, with unbelievable rashness, he himself brought against one of the insurance companies he had defrauded.) Like Wilde, he felt himself betrayed and abandoned by those he had once carelessly amused. Like Wilde, he was ill-fitted for the harshness of a prison regime. It’s impossible to reread “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” written as it was some six years before the arrival of Wilde’s own nemesis, without experiencing a shock of premonition. “The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose. The domestic virtues are not the true basis of art…” “A mask tells us more than a face.” It’s as if Wilde, by so airily pronouncing that “there is no essential incongruity between crime and culture,” was laughing at the very fate he tempted.
A certain hubris was perhaps also endemic to the Romantic movement. Self-destructive conduct—Byron’s luxury of excess, the narcotics of De Quincey and Coleridge, the deranged infatuation of Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris —is a strongly marked element. Motion’s work reminds us of what William Blake kept noticing at the time, that even as these brilliant creatures followed their dashing courses, they were on the lip of a netherworld that featured the slum, the orphanage, the debtor’s jail, the prison hulk, the gibbet, and the pillory. These, and the forces they represent, have a tendency to win in the end.