The Boston Globe, June 25, 2000
Supplying the poison pen of invented biography
Wainewright the Poisoner
by Andrew Motion
catch a thief, Andrew Motion suggests in his new biography, "Wainewright
the Poisoner," requires a footnote or two. Or perhaps hundreds. The
gifted biographer of Keats and Philip Larkin, who is also poet laureate
of Britain, here turns his attention to Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a
minor painter and critic of the Romantic movement who in 1837 was suspected
of murder, convicted of forgery, and shipped off to Van Diemen's Land for
life. Oscar Wilde told his story in an entertaining essay, "Pen, Pencil
and Poison," and Dickens used Wainewright as a character in a short
story called "Hunted Down." But facts have always been few about
Wainewright, and never hard. A diary he might have kept has never been found,
and many of his paintings cannot be safely attributed to him (he never signed
any of them). Even his friends and acquaintances - a virtual Who's Who of
the Romantic age, including Blake, Wordsworth, and Byron - have little to
say about him in their own diaries and letters. To be erased from history
seems a peculiarly perfect punishment for a forgerer.
But to be restored via a forged autobiography is more perfect still. Motion
has said in interviews that he set out to write a conventional biography,
intending to secure Wainewright's position as a minor but necessary figure
of his age, and to interpret that age through the darker lens of Wainewright's
crimes. The lack of firsthand evidence persuaded Motion to fictionalize
the story, with Wainewright arguing his innocence and Motion hurrying after
him with annotated evidence of his guilt. Somewhere between fiction and
footnote, however, the book falls apart.
It makes no sense, certainly no dramatic sense, for Wainewright, having
survived seven years of brutal servitude, to hold back his full story. Hold
it back from whom? Motion justifies this with an actual letter Wainewright
wrote after seven years of hard labor. Appealing for clemency to the local
magistrate, Wainewright asserts his innocence. (He blames his wife.) But
the narrow purpose of clemency cannot be stretched out for a full-length
recounting of a life. Oscar Wilde, writing his confession from Reading
Gaol, confessed all he had been accused of and more. It's Motion who seems
to be holding back. The vivid re-creation of a murderer who was also an
artist, his apparent madness, even the lewdness of which he was frequently
accused - all seem outside Motion's considerable powers as a poet and biographer.
Wainewright's story begins with the death of his mother as she is bringing
him into the world. When his father dies a few years later, the orphan is
sent to Linden House, the splendid mansion owned by his grandfather, the
stingy, influential publisher of the Monthly Review who had made his fortune
with that infamous bit of pornography "Fanny Hill." A talent for
sketching leads to an apprenticeship in an artist's studio, but the young
Wainewright, attracted by the flash of a soldier's uniform, switches course
and enlists in a military regiment famous for never having seen battle.
The dull conversation of his comrades, not to mention Napoleon's unexpected
return from Elba, encourage Wainewright to retire to civilian life and London,
where he promptly marries Eliza Ward and begins a new career as art critic
Forced to live only on the interest of his inheritance, Wainewright forges
his trustees' signatures so as to collect the entire sum at once. When this
is spent, he and his wife retreat to Linden House, which has passed into
the hands of a kindly uncle. An avid gardener in excellent health, the uncle
promptly dies, surrendering Linden House to his grateful nephew. Joy is
brief, as Wainewright discovers the estate to be smaller than expected,
and even briefer when his mother-in-law moves into Linden House. Relief
arrives with the sudden death of the mother-in-law, and more is promised
when Eliza and her sister Helen take out multiple life insurance policies
in Helen's name. Apparently the trio hope to fake Helen's death and escape
to Europe with the insurance money. Helen gamely fulfills her part of the
bargain by in fact dying, but the insurance companies, raising a belated
Fleeing alone to France, Waine wright lives there for five shady years.
A new love returns him to England, where he is arrested, tried, and convicted
of forgery. His sentence is hard labor for life in what is now Tasmania.
After seven years of good conduct, he dies in 1847.
If Motion had allowed his subject to give an honest confession, then Wainewright
might have taken his place beside that rascal of the Renaissance, Benvenuto
Cellini, whose "Autobiography" remains the masterpiece of the
genre (in our own day the confession has unfortunately given way to the
memoir, which confesses the crimes of others). What Motion allows instead
is a long letter to a parole board, in which Wainewright variously describes
himself as an enthusiastic friend, clever critic, and so-so artist. Imagine
Hillary Clinton's version of "Primary Colors," complete with footnotes,
and you'll have some idea of the anticlimax here.
Even the marvelous prose of Motion's earlier biographies, so easy and fluent,
seems constrained. Too many sentences stretch and contract like rubber bands.
His sentences accumulate into chapters that dutifully fill out the story,
but after a while one realizes that little is likely to happen, and that
Taken individually, certain scenes in "Wainewright the Poisoner"
are among Motion's best work, both as poet and biographer. Particularly
good is an early dinner party with Wainewright's fellow contributors to
the Londoner Magazine, among them Charles Lamb ("starting across my
carpet as if he had already had some conversation with Bacchus") and
William Hazlitt ("seeming to breathe a colder air than the rest of
us"). The arrival in Van Diemen's Land is also striking. Motion's love
for this period, even perhaps for Waine wright himself, gradually brings
forth a redeeming sweetness. But exactly for that reason Motion seems the
wrong audience for the story Wainewright might otherwise tell, a story of
lust and hate and, possibly, madness. Motion is too good for such stories,
and he forces his goodness on Waine wright.
Though Oscar Wilde often complained that "it is always Judas who writes
the biography," Motion's example here might persuade him that Peter
and Paul are similarly to be avoided.