Best British Essayists

Best British Essayists-2
Even so, the De Quincey scholar Barry Milligan has described Confessions as "one of those books almost everyone has heard of but very few have read." Milligan suggests that De Quincey is little known today because he worked primarily as an essayist, a form not as celebrated now as the novel.Perhaps a more obvious explanation is that Thomas De Quincey was not a likable man, and his writing often isn't very likable, either.

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n the vivid and varied world of 19th-century British literature, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) endures as a striking footnote.

He produced 250 essays published in 21 volumes, along with dabbling in fiction, yet is known today—to the extent he's known at all—for one book, an 1822 memoir of addiction entitled Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

In beautifully rendered compositions such as "New Year's Eve" and "A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People," the bittersweet loneliness of Lamb and his quietly heroic resilience come through.

But what often seems missing from De Quincey, despite his promise of candor, is a sense of true intimacy with his audience.

First published without a byline in London Magazine, Confessions came along when English journalism was especially hungry for copy.

Boosted by improvements in printing technology, the periodical trade was booming, with essayists such as Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt enjoying a steady pipeline for their work.

Remarking on the placement of a small screen to divide different classes of passengers from each other, he invites us to consider how we can render unpleasantness invisible simply by choosing not to look at it.

He also plays with our notions of hierarchy by arguing that a coach's outside seats, which are cheaper, are actually better than the socially coveted ones inside the carriage.

He was a poetry groupie who essentially stalked his idol, William Wordsworth.

Virginia Woolf shrewdly suggested that De Quincey was, at base, a frustrated poet, never fully at home in the plainer particulars prose demanded: "His enemy, the hard fact, became cloudlike and supple under his hands," she wrote.


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