'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Boston Globe, June 25, 2000

Supplying the poison pen of invented biography

Wainewright the Poisoner
by Andrew Motion
Knopf
 

o 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 and forger.

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 eyebrow, renege.

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 slowly.

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.