Biography of Thomas De Quincey

Thomas de Quincey was born in Manchester, England to a wealthy linen merchant and his wife. Despite his family's affluence, De Quincey had an unhappy childhood, frequently moving between city and country houses and suffering his father's death at age eight. He attended a number of prestigious schools, including King Edward's School in Bath. This experience left him with a strong fluency in classical languages by the time he was in his teens. With the approval of his family, De Quincey ran away from Manchester Grammar School at 17, but was unable to support himself financially. He endured several months of living in poverty on the streets, surviving with the help of a 15-year-old prostitute whom he called 'Ann of Oxford Street.' He eventually returned to his family and began his studies at Oxford University.

At university, De Quincey soon became addicted to opium. He first began taking laudanum, a tincture of opium, as a painkiller for a toothache when he was 19 years old. This addiction contributed to his dropping out of university 1807 without receiving a degree. In the following years, he became close friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and other Romantic poets, and even moved to the famed Lake District to be near his friends. However, his opium problem reared its head again in 1812, when De Quincey began to take laudanum for various serious illnesses. He married a farmer's daughter named Margaret Simpson in 1816.

For the next three decades, De Quincey always battled an opium habit to a greater or lesser extent. He spent his family inheritance and began to support his large family by taking work as a journalist. He achieved a major professional breakthrough in 1821, when Confessions of an English Opium Eater was published in London Magazine.

In 1837, Margaret Simpson died, a tragedy that precipitated a downward slide in De Quincey's finances and his quality of life. He moved to Scotland primarily to avoid his debts, and his opium addiction became dramatically worse. Despite these reduced circumstances, he published several more books, including a second memoir, Suspiria De Profundis, and some academic writing about philosophy. De Quincey died in Edinburgh in 1859.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Study Guides on Works by Thomas De Quincey