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

The following article was written by Jo Clarke and was originally published at on May 21st, 2009 and is reproduced here with permission from the author.

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:

Who 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: 55/56)

This 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).

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4 Responses

  1. simonson says:

    There’s some great stuff about the use of opium in the Fenlands:
    Opium in the Fens in Nineteenth-century England by V. Berridge, Apparently the damp nature of the land caused ague a malarial type disotder and most locals had there own plot of opium in their back yrad. To quote from another of her books Opium and the People
    Charles Lucas, a Fenland physician, recalled the widespread use of the remedy. `A patch of white poppies was usually found in most of the Fen gardens. Poppy-head tea was in frequent use, and was taken as a remedy for ague…. To the children during the teething period the poppy-head tea was often given.3 Poppies had been grown in the area for the London drug market, where they were used to produce syrup of white poppies ; and there had even been attempts made in Norfolk to produce opium on a commercial scale.
    Much akin to the “crafters” in the usa, some of whom do it for kicks others who do due to the eorbitant price of commercialised medicine in the USA

  1. October 13, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dr Vanessa Crawford and PsypressUK, Synchronium. Synchronium said: One of Jo's old essays about opium is now up on the @PsypressUK website – check it out: […]

  2. May 8, 2012

    […] the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and the writers Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) and Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) respectively. Coleridge, of whom the above quote refers, is famous for his purportedly […]

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