Wilkie Collins in 1874, aged 50
Photographer: Napoleon Sarony
Today, 8th January, is the birthday of the Victorian novelist and playwright, Wilkie Collins, born in 1824 and famous for the enduring classics The Woman in White and The Moonstone. He was a very successful writer, earning £10,000 in just one year in 1863. Many modern novelists would envy him, given that, 154 years later in 2017/18, the average income for a full-time professional writer in the UK was less than £10,500. (Compare this to average annual salary for a clerk in the 1860's of around £100, and the average clerical salary today of around £21,000.)
But behind the success, he was battling illness which was diagnosed as ‘rheumatic gout,’ which cause his eyes to become ‘bags of blood’ and agonising pain in his legs and feet. He also developed neuralgia and arthritis, which meant that for the last 20 years of his life, he was often confined to bed and his famous novel, The Moonstone, was dictated from his bed between bouts of pain.
His physicians tried all manner of medication until he finally sought pain relief in what he called divine laudanum, which he took in ever increasing quantities, becoming hopelessly addicted, as is the character, Ezra Jennings, in The Moonstone. Both author and character paid the price for the relief of their pain with terrible nightmares and hallucinations.
At this time, Laudanum was a mixture of opium and alcohol and was sold under names such as Godfrey's Cordial and Mother Bailey's Quieting Syrup. Wilkie’s own father had taken Battley's Drops for his pain, which contained opium, sherry, and alcohol.
|Engraving by Franz Muller-Munster (1867-1936)|
Wilkie began to be unnerved by the movement of shadows in his gas-lit study, thought that ghosts followed him through the house and a green woman with tusks, waited for him on the stairs or in his bedchamber. On one occasion he was convinced she was biting chunks of flesh from his shoulder. Wilkie introduced the drug to his friend and patron, Charles Dickens, who also used it though not in such quantities as Wilkie.
‘Laudanum’ was originally the name for Cistus ladanifer a beautiful flowering plant found in western Mediterranean, also known gum rockrose and common gum cistus. Paracelsus, a 16th-century Swiss-German alchemist, combined this with opium and other ingredients such as crushed pearls and musk to produce a pain-relieving medicine. The name stuck, even when Cistus ladanifer was no longer included as an ingredient. In 1618, the London Pharmacopoeia describes laudanum as a ‘pill made from opium, saffron, castor, ambergris, musk and nutmeg’.
Cistus ladanifer or Laudanum
Photo: Juan Sanchez
Laudanum was not widely known until in the 1660’s, when the English physician Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) produced a tincture of opium that he also named laudanum, although the only ingredient it had in common with laudanum of Paracelsus was the opium. By the 18th century, the name laudanum was being given to any combination of opium and alcohol. George Young was one of several leading physicians who recommended the drug for all sorts of ailments including neuralgia, coughing, or diarrhoea, and to ease the symptoms of ague, rheumatism, consumption and cholera.
In the early 19th century, there were laudanums containing a tincture of opium mixed with all kinds of other ingredients from the fairly innocuous such as cayenne pepper, brandy, whiskey, and wine, to the downright dangerous – belladonna, mercury, hashish, ether and chloroform. Laudanum was being prescribed for everything from colds to heart disease for adults and children, and was used widely during the yellow fever epidemic. It must have seemed like a miracle drug for patients racked with pain or fever, because it relieved the pain, helped them sleep and even dried up excessive mucus.
Victorian women of all classes, plagued by ‘women’s problems’ which they were not supposed to mention much less seek help for, could buy a bottle of laudanum to ease their pain without having to consult a male physician, and, in any case, many could not afford a doctor’s fees. That was both the attraction and danger of laudanum – it was cheaper than a bottle of spirits or wine because, being medicine, it was not taxed as alcohol, but it gave the same kind of escape from the stresses and miseries of life.
Until 1908 in Britain, Laudanum or tincture of opium was also included in a number of baby’s ‘soothing’ syrups. Grandma’s Secret, Mother’s Treasure, Morrell’s Teething Syrup, Godfrey’s Cordial and Mrs Winston’s Soothing Syrup were just some of the brands a desperate mother or nursemaid could buy and, especially in the hands of parents or wet-nurses who either couldn’t read well or might think an extra dose would ‘do baby good’, these syrups could be lethal. Koop’s Baby Friend killed 11 infants in two years, and those were only the infant deaths that were investigated. There were probably many others that weren’t.
Wilkie Collins was not the only writer to become addicted to laudanum, Lord Byron took it in the form known as Black Drop, which is four times the normal strength, as did Coleridge. Somehow Coleridge managed to keep his addition a secret, though he could imbibe up to a pint in one day.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning first took laudanum at the age of 15 after suffering a spinal injury, and at the time of her engagement to Robert Browning was taking 40 drops a day, which was large dose. Florence Nightingale also took it for medical reasons.
|1781, 'Nightmare' by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)|
A number of prominent people took laudanum to calm their nerves before a public speech, including John Hunter, the ‘Father of Anatomy’ (1728-93) who took 30 drops before giving lectures; William Wilberforce, the slavery abolitionist; and the Prime Minister William Gladstone who took it to steady his nerves before addressing parliament. I imagine there are days when modern Prime Ministers might sympathise with that.
Wilkie Collins tried many times to break his addiction through hypnosis and other means. On 26th February 1869, he wrote a letter to Mrs Benzon,
‘… forgive me if I am absent tomorrow night. My doctor is trying to break me of the habit of drinking laudanum. I am stabbed every night at ten with a sharp-pointed syringe which injects morphia under my skin - and gets me a night's rest without any of the drawbacks of taking opium internally. If I only persevere with this, I am told I shall be able, before long, gradually to diminish the quantity of morphia and the number of nightly stabbings - and so emancipate myself from opium altogether.’
Sadly, he was never able to do that.
1863, Advert for 'Wolcott's Instant
A few weeks ago, my wisdom teeth erupted. I couldn’t open my jaws more than half an inch. My cheeks swell up like a hamster with mumps and I discovered that sucking soup for Christmas dinner doesn’t make you feel festive, especially when soup is all you’ve been able to eat for a fortnight. It was massively painful and if I could have travelled back in time, I would have been snatching bottles of ‘Morrell’s Teething Syrup’ from any Victorian baby I could find.
Trying to stick to my daily writing routine whilst grizzling like an infant, I found a renewed admiration for Wilkie Collins. Since my teens, I’ve been captivated by his novels, but thinking about what he was battling when he wrote them, makes them seem even more amazing. He was able to turn the pain and nightmares that tormented him into great stories. Now that really is the stuff of fairy tales – spinning the nettles of life into pure gold. Happy Birthday, Wilkie!