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As a literary scholar interested in the social and historical construction of nineteenth-century writers, I thoroughly enjoy reading first-hand accounts of various literary figures. Of particular interest are notebooks, journals, diaries, and letters. However, I must admit that reading such personal writing is somewhat of a guilty pleasure, as I feel like an uninvited guest peering into the writer's private thoughts and judgments. Nevertheless, historical distance and professional necessity lessen the guilt, and literary scholarship marches forward. Upon reading Robert Morrison's excellent edition of Richard Woodhouse's Cause Book, I found another literary indulgence that is actually quite a scholarly treasure. Readers, historians, literary scholars, and students of nineteenth-century literature and culture—particularly those interested in Thomas De Quincey and the volatile dynamics of the periodical press—will want to take a look at this new and extensively researched edition of Woodhouse's Cause Book.
Morrison prefaces his version of the Cause Book with a discussion of its textual history and critical importance. This detailed and concisely written essay secures the scholarly value of the text and clearly situates it within a specific historical and cultural context. Woodhouse is more commonly known as one of John Keats's closest friends. His kindness comforted Keats and provided him a sympathetic audience. This same compassionate ear was apparently lent to De Quincey for hours at a time—often into the early morning—during a three-month period in the autumn of 1821. Woodhouse would then record these conversations in a diary written in a legal cause book. Morrison notes that Richard Garnett first published this Cause Book in 1885 in a 'bowdlerized form in which nearly forty percent of the manuscript had been cut away' (p. vii). Later editions of the Cause Book and subsequent De Quincey biographies have not completely filled in the gaps and, according to Morrison, most scholars referring to such editions 'are unaware that they are reading a severely truncated version' (p. vii). With nearly thirty percent of the text previously unpublished, the need for Morrison's unabridged edition is quite apparent.
Morrison's new edition reveals a very different portrait of De Quincey. Garnett's tendency to delete repeated topics of discussion and to cut out harsh, personal details results in a more pleasant, agreeable, and emotionally stable De Quincey, Morrison notes, than we get in the unabridged edition. Three striking examples are the previously excised discussions of the rumors that De Quincey was the father of Wordsworth's daughter Catherine (p. 23), conversations about rumors of incest in the Wordsworth family (p. 23), and De Quincey's attacks on John Wilson's lack of critical originality (p. 24). In these passages we witness frank discussions of social impropriety, harsh criticism of Wordsworth's insensitive and 'course-minded neighbors' (p. 23), and cutting attacks on Wilson's professional and personal character. Such language and attitudes would have assaulted the Victorian sensibilities of Garnett's public. In the restored edition, however, these passages lend De Quincey an intriguing human dimension denied him in the abridged version.
Morrison's restored edition also provides a wealth of information about the Confessions of an English Opium Eater, first published in the London Magazine in 1821. With the publication of the Confessions, De Quincey became an instant celebrity and was invited to a number of social events where the literary elite gathered. Often at these social engagements, De Quincey discussed various details of his Confessions, and Woodhouse meticulously recorded many of these conversations. This new unabridged Cause Book offers readers and scholars another invaluable resource for better understanding the personal and social significance of one of De Quincey's greatest works. As Morrison points out:
Several hitherto unpublished passages of Woodhouse's manuscript throw a good deal of new light on the Confessions, a text in which De Quincey professes to be engaged in self-revelation but in which he obscures as much as he reveals, tantalizing and partially initiating the public into a world that he nevertheless veils with pseudonyms, cryptic allusions, willful distortion, and blanks in the text which suggest but do not disclose identity. As Woodhouse makes clear, Shelley's publisher Charles Ollier was one of many who knew immediately who the author of the Confessions was, but even those closest to De Quincey had questions about the nature and veracity of his experience and, in the Cause Book, De Quincey responded to these questions, developing and even altering the memories that inform his Confessions.p. xiii
In addition to filling in factual gaps that intrigue so many readers of the Confessions, the Cause Book also reveals De Quincey's sincere and deeply personal investment in this work. In the 6 December entry Woodhouse recounts a dinner party at Taylor and Hessey's at which De Quincey was quiet and reserved during moments when Charles Lamb had made good-hearted humorous references to the Confessions. Later that night De Quincey explained to Woodhouse:
'There are,' said he, 'certain places & events & circumstances, which have been mixed up or connected with parts of my life which have been very unfortunate, and these, from constant meditation & reflection upon them, have obtained with me a sort of sacredness, & become associated with solemn feelings so that I cannot bear without the greatest mental agony to advert to the subject, or to hear it adverted to by others in any tone of levity or witticism. It seems to me a sort of desecration & unhallowing analogous to the profanation of a temple, when these subjects are approached in conversation by any one unless in a feeling of sympathy and seriousness—and I would rather suffer the most excruciating bodily pains, than the shock my whole nature feels at hearing these topics discussed in a ludicrous matter, or made the ground of raillery.'p. 22
This sincere moment offers a glimpse into the deep personal and spiritual hurt De Quincey experienced over the reality of his illness and addiction. His Confessions were not just a literary exploit (though we see just how exploitative he can be in the Cause Book). Here we see his vast emotional and psychological investment revealed in a personal and human way.
Equally important as these revelations about the Confessions are the details the Cause Book reveals about the tensions between the London Magazine and its rival Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Morrison's prefatory essay provides an excellent brief history of these two key periodicals, detailing the ideological differences and publishing practices that lead to the duel between John Scott, the first editor of the London, and James Christie, an ally of Blackwood's, in which Scott was fatally shot. According to Morrison, 'The Cause Book reveals the ongoing mistrust and tension between the two magazines, and the ways in which these tensions played themselves out in De Quincey's paranoid reaction to Wilson's presence, his Janus-faced attempts simultaneously to pursue relationships with both Blackwood's and the London, and the conflicting political and literary impulses that inform his Confessions' (pp. xx-xxi). By reading the texts and subtexts of De Quincey's conversations with Woodhouse, we see that De Quincey's duplicitous courtship entangled him within an emotional and professional web that caused him significant psychological and physical pains. Not only do these conversations reveal De Quincey's exploitative professional designs, but they also demonstrate the deep-seated mistrust and complex personal and professional politics plaguing these periodicals.
What I find most compelling about this edition of the Cause Book is Morrison's attention to detail. His editing is wonderful and his historical scholarship is satisfyingly thorough. He carefully situates the text within its cultural and historical setting with informative endnotes that are packed with specific, valuable, and meaningful information. For example, these notes provide brief yet detailed sketches of both key and minor figures mentioned in the Cause Book, thus fleshing out the social circles described by Woodhouse and De Quincey. Morrison's notes also offer interesting connections to letters and diaries of De Quincey's contemporaries that substantiate, clarify, and sometimes correct the accounts of events given in Woodhouse's conversational recollections. The research behind these notes is nothing short of impressive, and this editorial work further reveals the historical and scholarly significance of this unabridged edition. As such, this text appeals to the studied scholar and is readily accessible to new students and readers of nineteenth-century literature.
Morrison's edition of the Cause Book provides a candid and more complete portrayal of the De Quincey with whom Woodhouse spent so much time during those autumn months of 1821. We more fully understand and appreciate the Opium-Eater's intellectual, spiritual, physical, emotional, professional, and economic struggles. Admittedly, the text has its factual problems. Morrison notes that Woodhouse gets some of his dates and accounts wrong, and I suspect he may have gotten some of the conversational details wrong too, thus slightly undermining the accuracy of the text. Nevertheless, this account is far less contrived than the Opium-Eater's own Confessions. Therefore, it provides an excellent counterpoint and helps us compose a more complete portrait of De Quincey the man of letters during these crucial years in the history of the English periodical press.