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How Opium Was Really Used (And Abused); The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins and Wikipedia

By John Clarke

The fol­low­ing post is an old essay written by the soon-to-be Mrs about opium use and its rep­res­ent­a­tion in The Moon­stone, written  by Wilkie Collins in 1868 and gen­er­ally con­sidered the first English detect­ive novel. Since we’ve both now fin­ished our degrees, we’ve finally found the time to dig it out and blo­giffy it. Enjoy!

Opium Poppies

Wiki­pe­dia may not be the best place to start a bib­li­o­graph­ical essay; it is unpop­u­lar in aca­demic circles due to a lack of cita­tions and ref­er­ences and often unre­li­able inform­a­tion. However, it does offer a basic over­view of many dif­fer­ent topics; from people to places, from the­or­ies and con­cepts to events through­out history.  In the Wiki­pe­dia article about Wilkie Collins’ The Moon­stone, under the heading of ‘Lit­er­ary sig­ni­fic­ance and cri­ti­cism’, it says that ‘one of the things that made The Moon­stone such a success was its sen­sa­tion­al­ist depic­tion of opium addic­tion’. Although opium use and addic­tion is a prom­in­ent theme through­out the novel, and the novel does come from the ‘sen­sa­tion’ genre, is the rep­res­ent­a­tion of opium addic­tion itself sen­sa­tion­al­ist?

Opium has been used in a medi­cinal context for around 6000 years, and its effects on the mind and body were taken advant­age of in Greek, Roman and Arabic medi­cine (Ber­ridge and Edwards 1981: xviii). Opium can have a euphoric effect, with an effect ‘not exactly equi­val­ent to sed­a­tion’, but leading to a ‘tran­quil pleas­ant­ness’ which ‘can be very pos­it­ively enjoy­able’ (1981: xxi). Fol­low­ing its intro­duc­tion into Britain, ‘opium was first believed by many to be a medical miracle’ (Landow and Alling­ham, 2006) and mar­keted to the masses in various forms; Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Car­min­at­ive, McMunn’s Elixir and Batley’s Sed­at­ive Solu­tion are examples of just a few medi­cines con­tain­ing opium, all sold without any reg­u­la­tion (Hayter 1971: 31). For many years, opium and its deriv­at­ives, includ­ing the popular laudanum, was enjoyed by the British public; young and old, rich and poor. Far from being a middle class pastime, opium was used in many house­holds as a start­lingly normal prac­tise. It was seen as ‘central to medi­cine, a medic­a­ment of sur­pass­ing use­ful­ness which undoubtedly found its way into every home’ (Ber­ridge and Edwards 1981: xxv). It was even said that ‘The bulk of the medical evid­ence goes to support the verdict that it is not more injur­i­ous than the mod­er­ate use of alcohol, and that even its abusive use is less destruct­ive to the victim and his friends than intem­per­ance’ (Watt 1892).

Despite the fact that many people around Britain used opium reg­u­larly for purely medical reasons, his­tor­ical emphasis has been placed on those who used it recre­ation­ally; ‘popular use always attrac­ted most atten­tion’ (Ber­ridge and Edwards 1981: 49). Amongst those who became most famous for their use – and sub­sequent abuse – of the drug were the Romantic poets and writers. So why is there such a con­nec­tion between the use of opium and such bril­liantly cre­at­ive minds? There are two main the­or­ies on this subject. The first claims that the use of opium can immerse the user into a dream world sep­ar­ate from Earth – ‘as dif­fer­ent from this as Mars may be’ (Abrams, 1934: As cited in Hayter 1971: 13). The second, developed by Pro­fessor Eliza­beth Schneider, aimed to refute this idea, stating that the idea ‘that Kubla Khan could have been com­posed entirely in a dream under the influ­ence of opium’ (Hayter 1971:13) was a false­hood. This study had the fol­low­ing results:

…the opium habit does not of itself confer either ima­gin­at­ive stim­u­lus or fant­astic dreams and visions; all the effects attrib­uted to it are in fact due to the pre­vi­ous mental and emo­tional make-up of the opium addict.
(1971: 13)

Thomas De Quincey, writer of the infam­ous Con­fes­sions of an English Opium Eater, shared these views, and repeated them often; ‘If a man “whose talk is of oxen” should become an opium-eater, the prob­ab­il­ity is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) – he will dream about oxen’. (1971: 107). On the surface, there does appear to be a cor­rel­a­tion between cre­ativ­ity and the use of opium; after all, vir­tu­ally all of the Romantic poets used it at one time or another. However, on closer inspec­tion this hypo­thesis has little or no found­ing; there were an awful lot of people in Britain at that time who used opium medi­cin­ally or recre­ation­ally; and by no means did all of them become suc­cess­ful writers!

The joy of having dis­covered a wonder drug con­tin­ued for many years, with users and doctors alike com­pletely obli­vi­ous to the ter­rible effects addic­tion to and with­drawal from opium could have. In 1700 Dr John Jones pub­lished The Mys­ter­ies of Opium Reveal’d, fea­tur­ing a seem­ingly endless list of the pos­it­ive effects opium could have on your health, includ­ing such tempt­ing sound­ing prom­ises as ‘Euphory, or easie under­go­ing of all Labour…’ (1971: 24). Sur­pris­ingly, though, this book also showed that as early as 1700, people were aware of the risks of excess­ive doses of opium, or sudden with­drawal from it. The general con­sensus, despite this, however, was that there was not ‘any danger in mod­er­ate addic­tion, or any dif­fi­culty in gradual with­drawal.’ (24)

Wilkie Collins is an author who, like many others at this time, began taking opium (in his case, in the form of laudanum) for health troubles, includ­ing a rheum­atic com­plaint (1971: 255). In June 1853, Collins’ close friend Charles Dickens wrote to him enquir­ing after his health; ‘I am very sorry indeed to hear so bad an account of your illness, and had no idea it had been so severe’ (Sayers 1977: 98). Collins’ health con­tin­ued to be poor; eleven years later in 1864 Collins wrote in a letter to his mother, Harriet, that his rheum­atic con­di­tions had developed into a series of prob­lems includ­ing ‘gouty irrit­a­tion’ (Baker and Clarke 1999: 253), diges­tion prob­lems and head­aches (1999: 252).

Collins cer­tainly was an excess­ive user of opium. Hayter relates a story about Collins’ addic­tion which has almost become the stuff of urban legends. Fol­low­ing a ques­tion about the amount of laudanum con­sumed by Collins on a daily basis, surgeon Sir William Fer­guson replied that ‘this dose of opium, to which Wilkie Collins had habitu­ated himself through long usage, was enough to kill every man seated at the dinner table’ (Ban­croft, as cited by Hayter 1971: 256). The fact that Wilkie allowed such matters to be dis­cussed showed that he was not ashamed of his habit; in fact, he was almost boast­ful of it at times (1971: 257). In 1865, a year after his letter to his mother detail­ing his still ailing health, it is clear to see that addic­tion has taken hold of Collins, as he wrote:

LaudanumWho was the man who inven­ted laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart…I have had six deli­cious hours of obli­vion; I have woken up with my mind com­posed; I have written a perfect little letter… – and all through the modest little bottle of drops which I see on my bedroom chim­neypiece at this moment. Drops, you are darling! If I love nothing else, I love you!
(P. Haining, as cited by Ber­ridge and Edwards 1981: 58)

As his addic­tion con­tin­ued and worsened, it seemed to have a det­ri­mental effect on his life and his work. Opium became a more and more prom­in­ent theme in his books. In 1862, he pub­lished No Name, in which Mag­dalen Van­stone con­tem­plates her exist­ence, with a bottle of laudanum in her hand should she decide to kill herself. Four years later in 1868, Miss Gwilt in Armadale echoes the very same words recor­ded by Collins himself; ‘Who was the man who inven­ted laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart, whoever he was’.

Collins’ most famous work in terms of opium use was The Moon­stone, which brings me back around to my ori­ginal ques­tion; is it true that the depic­tion of opium addic­tion in this novel is sen­sa­tional? We have already estab­lished that the use of opium was common, and addic­tion to opium was by no means sen­sa­tional at this time; so the only thing left that could pos­sibly be described as sen­sa­tional is this spe­cific account of addic­tion.

The Moonstone’s opium addict, Ezra Jen­nings, is widely con­sidered to be at least partly auto­bi­o­graph­ical (Ber­ridge and Edwards, 1981: 58). Jen­nings is a strange char­ac­ter, with an unusual appear­ance. He is intro­duced into the nar­rat­ive as an assist­ant to Dr Candy, the family phys­i­cian. The main way in which Jen­nings addic­tion mani­fests itself is in the form of ter­rible night­mares. Part of the novel is written in the style of Jen­nings’ journ­als, and the fol­low­ing describes a par­tic­u­larly fright­en­ing night­mare:

June 16th. — Rose late, after a dread­ful night; the ven­geance of yesterday’s opium, pur­su­ing me through a series of fright­ful dreams. At one time I was whirl­ing through empty space with the phantoms of the dead, friends and enemies together. At another, the one beloved face which I shall never see again, rose at my bedside, hideously phos­phor­es­cent in the black dark­ness, and glared and grinned at me. A slight return of the old pain, at the usual time in the early morning, was welcome as a change. It dis­pelled the visions — and it was bear­able because it did that.
(Collins, 1868: 447)

It may be argued that of course such a dis­turb­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing passage is sen­sa­tional; but in terms of what an actual addict went through, this exper­i­ence seems to be quite normal. Accord­ing to Hayter, it is common for ‘advanced addicts’ to exper­i­ence hor­ri­fy­ing night­mares:

They are often tor­tured by rep­tiles and insects – embraced by coiling snakes, trampled on by mon­sters, crawled on by worms, by ants, by microbes, thrust over pre­cip­ices by tor­toises or fiery dragons. Decay­ing things, still faintly touched with the like­ness of beings once loved, stir beside them in rotting debris; their chil­dren, as they kiss them, turn to skel­et­ons. Wan­der­ing through huge caves, they are forced to step on rotting corpses, and thou­sands of faces made of blood-red flames flash up and die out in the dark­ness.
(1971: 5556)

OpiumThis descrip­tion is sur­pris­ingly similar to Collins’ por­trayal of Jen­nings’ night­mares. Collins himself is not doc­u­mented from having suffered from night­mares, although he did, in the later stages of his addic­tion, suffer from hal­lu­cin­a­tions. He believed that people were trying to push him down the stairs, and he spoke of ‘certain vagar­ies of the optic nerve, which persist in seeing a pattern of their own making’ (1971: 261).

Collins was going through a great many per­sonal prob­lems at the time of writing the novel. In fact, he didn’t write it; he dic­tated it to a sec­ret­ary because he was, by this time, in too much pain to write. He was suf­fer­ing phys­ic­ally from acute pain in his eyes, and men­tally from his mother’s illness and inev­it­able impend­ing death, as well as his own increas­ingly serious addic­tion (1971: 261). The Moon­stone indeed seems to have some heart­break­ing auto­bi­o­graph­ical ele­ments, includ­ing the dream men­tioned above. Perhaps the most poignant state­ment to be found regard­ing opium in The Moon­stone is when Jen­nings tells Blake that he knows he is going to die fol­low­ing his years of using opium as pain relief:

To that all-potent and all-mer­ci­ful drug I am indebted for a respite of many years from my sen­tence of death. But even the virtues of opium have their limit. The pro­gress of the disease has gradu­ally forced me from the use of opium to the abuse of it. I am feeling the penalty at last. My nervous system is shattered; my nights are nights of horror. The end is not far off now.
(Collins, 1868: 430)

There is no doubt that pas­sages such as this one, describ­ing Jen­nings’ des­per­a­tion at the pro­gres­sion of his addic­tion, are at times both har­row­ing and shock­ing. However, the auto­bi­o­graph­ical nature and sci­entific fact behind the images presen­ted in the novel make it dif­fi­cult to describe these depic­tions as ‘sen­sa­tional’. The ter­ri­fy­ing, depress­ing descrip­tions of drug addic­tion and with­drawal may seem like some­thing ‘sen­sa­tional’ or hor­rific; but that was the reality for addicts such as Collins.

Works Cited:

  • Baker, William, and Clarke, William M., 1999. The letters of Wilkie Collins. Volume 1: 1838 – 1865, Basing­s­toke: Mac­mil­lan Press Ltd.
  • Ber­ridge, Vir­ginia, and Edwards, Grif­fith, 1981. Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nine­teenth-Century England, Frome: Butler and Tanner Ltd.
  • Dr. Watt, 1892. ‘History of Opium, Opium Eating and Smoking (in Anthro­po­lo­gical Mis­cel­lanea and New Books)’, The Journal of the Anthro­po­lo­gical Insti­tute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 21. (1892), pp. 329 – 332.
  • Gregory, E.R., ed and introd. 1977. Wilkie Collins: A Crit­ical and Bio­graph­ical Study. By Dorothy Sayers. Edited from the Manu­script Human­it­ies Research Center, Austin, Texas. Texas: The Friends of the Uni­ver­sity of Toledo Lib­rar­ies.
  • Hayter, Alethea, 1971. Opium and the Romantic Ima­gin­a­tion (1968), London: Faber and Faber Limited.
  • Landow, George P., and Alling­ham, Philip V., ‘The Medi­cinal use of Opium in England’  (2 March 2008).
  • Stewart, J. I. M., ed. and introd. 1986. The Moon­stone, by Wilkie Collins, London: Penguin.
  • Wiki­pe­dia Article on Wilkie Collins’ The Moon­stone;
  • Zieger, Susan, ‘The Medical “Dis­cov­ery” of Addic­tion’  (2 March 2008).

Someone should write a book about Kratom!.

One Response to How Opium Was Really Used (And Abused); The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins and Wikipedia

  1. Ken says:

    Pay atten­tion salvia users, because the fol­low­ing quote from this article per­tains to your salvia exper­i­ences..

    …the opium habit does not of itself confer either ima­gin­at­ive stim­u­lus or fant­astic dreams and visions; all the effects attrib­uted to it are in fact due to the pre­vi­ous mental and emo­tional make-up of the opium addict.
    (1971: 13)

    I have per­son­ally come to the con­clu­sion by per­sonal exper­i­ment­ing with many varied uses and dosages of salvia that the exper­i­ence is dir­ectly related to your current spir­itual, soulful, and bodily con­di­tion com­bined with what you are feeding your mind with on a daily basis..

    It is import­ant because I see dis­turb­ing reports from youth who are not centered or mature in their reasons for using salvia.

    I defer though, because in my youth I was brash and looking for that “escap­ing high” that would remove me from the “boring dis­cip­lines” that adults seemed to be forcing on me.

    Use entheo­gens thought­fully please.
    Be Blessed

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