Opium in Literature

When someone mentions opium, you probably visualise smoky, dingy opium dens, depraved, sinister-looking addicts, Asian or Oriental decor… it has a strong hold on our imaginations and features in much popular culture – consider the ‘dream den’ in Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Inception’. Opium encapsulates the dark and uncontrollable in our natures… But opium’s first recorded usage is medicinal, and it is mentioned frequently as laudanum – a mixture of opium and alcohol. In Gaskell’s Mary Barton it is used to soothe starving children in industrial Manchester, and in Shelley’s Frankenstein it is a sedative for the agitated Victor. So how did come to represent human nature’s dark side?

For the Victorians, products from around the world were believed to have “cultural portability” (John Plotz) i.e. properties of their origin which could influence the identity of the place they ended up.  Charles Dickens, in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, uses the phrase “sensitive Constitution” to describe national identity: Britishness as a concept is political and physical, and both are delicate. Meanwhile, Thomas De Quincey refers to the Orient as “the cradle of the human race”, expressing an anxiety that we aren’t so ‘British’ after all. Additionally, by the early 19th Century, China, who had a monopoly on tea supply, wanted few commodities which Britain could supply, and therefore demanded payment for tea in silver – our love for tea began to cripple the British economy. The East India Company’s therefore exploited the lucrative opium market to finance British tea-drinking – opium was officially banned but widely consumed in China. They sold opium, grown in British Imperial India, for silver with which to buy tea from China. In effect – an illegal opium trade was financing British demand for tea. These pressures led to a growing unease: distinctions between tea’s domesticity and illegal, foreign opium became blurred.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge initially took opium to cure headaches, anxiety and insomnia, then he became increasingly addicted. References to opium in his letters and poetry refer to it as poison; he also used it to achieve “divine repose…a spot of enchantment…”. In ‘Kubla Khan’, famously a fragment after interruption by ‘a man from Porlock’, we see the fascinating but nightmarish Orient contrast with the domestic and frustratingly ‘real’ British intruder from Porlock. Listen to the reading of ‘Kubla Khan’ and see if you can identify a blurring of boundaries…

Thomas De Quincey, the self-styled ‘Opium-Eater’, was born in 1785 to a relatively wealthy family and was well-educated, often ill, but his later life was characterised by crippling debt. His famous ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ (1821) was influential in highlighting both the medicinal and hallucinogenic properties of laudanum. Looking at how De Quincey refers to the drug in ‘Confessions’, you notice reverent language, reflective of opium’s power to enable deeper, spiritual experiences, but also a sense of De Quincey as a slave or worshipper of opium. The same paradox is seen in drug-taking today: while in other senses ‘abuse’ connotes dominance and exploitation, in drug contexts it implies addiction and dependence on the drug.

Robert Fortune (16 September 1812 – 13 April 1880) was a Scottish botanist, tasked in 1842 with collecting samples of tea in China and then transporting them to India – tea, safely grown inside the British Empire, was therefore no longer ‘foreign’ and dangerous. His account of these travels, A Journey to the Tea Countries of China, confirms and destabilises this presentation of tea and opium, and by association Britain and the Orient, as oppositional. He is quick to denounce a Chinese opium consumer as a ‘pitiable depraved specimen of man’, while remaining tellingly silent on British involvement in the opium trade.

The plots and ideas in The Moonstone and The Mystery of Edwin Drood are very similar: perhaps not accidentally, as Wilkie Collins was indebted to Charles Dickens’ inspiration and mentoring. By 1868, when The Moonstone was published to much acclaim, a competitive rift was emerging between the two friends. It is perhaps no coincidence that Dickens’ unfinished novel shares many elements with Collins’: a missing jewel, a mysterious ‘hybridised’ opium consumer who holds the key to the crime, a criminal who has a veneer of respectability and an Oriental threat which invades a British space. This threatening invasion is perhaps best illustrated in the opening of Edwin Drood: John Jasper’s opium dream infuses Oriental imagery with visions of the fictional Cloisterham cathedral. Here, the Orient is dangerous, with a sense of threat and disruption from the opening. Similarly, Frizinghall, the Yorkshire manor house of the Verinder family in The Moonstone, becomes ‘invaded’ by opium and the entry of the supernatural, Indian Diamond and the opium-induced theft leave the house “scattered, disunited, the very air of the place poisoned”.

drood            moonstone

The opium consumers in the novels are strikingly similar: hybridised, part Oriental and part British – they are liminal figures whose place is nowhere. Princess Puffer in ‘Edwin Drood’ is nowhere denoted as old, but descriptions of her use lexis associated with age, and her “likeness of the Chinaman” implies liminality over national and gender borders. Jennings, Mr Candy’s assistant in ‘The Moonstone’ is similarly treated with suspicion by those around him, noticeably Betteredge the indomitably British butler: “his appearance is against him”. However, Dickens and Collins seem to deliberately present these figures as not entirely malignant or benign. Princess Puffer is pivotal to revealing the murderer of Edwin Drood, while Jennings decodes the mutterings of a delirious Mr Candy and establish the truth of what happened at Rachel’s birthday party. Clearly, these opium-consumers have the power to facilitate the restoration of order in British society.

The presentation of opium in literature is liminal: it is both medicinal and recreational, enables pleasure and pain, highlights dream and reality, and is both subversive and restorative. Above all, however, it proves that that “all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic” (Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism).


Miss Gilchrist

The Genius of Neil Gaiman

When you’re a librarian, you have to put up with the common misconception that you’ve read everything. Nonetheless, you do try to read as many things as is humanly possible, and in so doing it can sometimes be difficult to cultivate ‘favourite’ authors, so to speak. All the same, I do try to make time for a select few, and one of these few is Neil Gaiman.


Why is he so? Well I tried to answer the question in my Lit Soc talk yesterday, but trying to condense the literary genius of the man who is feted as a rock star and has nearly 2 million followers on Twitter in to a 40 minute talk (never mind a pithy blog post) was quite a task.

To me, Gaiman is a genius because he has a seamless ability to write for a diverse range of audiences in a variety of mediums. All too often, someone who is used to writing for adults flounders when they try to write for teenagers and young children, and vice versa. Just because you wrote an epic, sprawling 600+ page surreal take on the Great American novel (which Gaiman has), it doesn’t mean you can write a ‘comic strip for intellectuals’, to quote Norman Mailer’s description of The Sandman graphic novel series, which Gaiman also wrote. He can do it all with equal aplomb, from the children’s classic Coraline to the adult urban fantasy Neverwhere.

I’m loath to pigeonhole Gaiman, but he is undoubtedly a fantasy author. What he does, though, is deftly incorporate a rich vein of storytelling tradition from countless cultures in to his own remarkable tales. In his hands, seemingly inaccessible Ancient Greek tragedies and West African myths are brought from just beyond our reach in to a storytelling framework we can identify with. He makes us fall in love with the old tales and realise that, yes, they do still have relevance to our times. So these fantastical tales, which appeal to our sense of awe and wonder of the supernatural, are not as disconnected from our everyday reality as you may think.


The Endless from the Sandman graphic novel series 

The beautiful thing is that you don’t have to be an expert in Ancient Greek tragedy, or Shakespeare, or Norse mythology, or Marvel Comics, or any of the other countless literary traditions Gaiman draws upon to enjoy his stories. Most fans of Stardust, for example, aren’t experts in Victorian fairy tales, and yet they still enjoy the book and/or movie. Because the ideas he has for his own stories are superb narratives in their own right, after all, and the countless allusions to other literature are there to enrich and awaken your curiosity. Ultimately, isn’t that we read stories for in the first place?