Wilkie Collins and laudanum (opium)
'That all-potent and all-merciful drug' (The
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Laudanum was a mixture of opium and alcohol and
the form in which opium was generally taken during Collins's time. Common
brand names of patent medicines included Battley's Sedative Solution, Dalby's
Carminative, Godfrey's Cordial and Mother Bailey's Quieting Syrup.
Collins took opium from the early 1860s
in the form of laudanum to alleviate the symptoms of gout and rheumatic pain.
There were no legal restrictions on the use of opium until 1868 and it
was the chief ingredient of many patent medicines.
Collins recorded in the Memoirs of William Collins,
that to relieve pain his father took 'Battley's Drops' which contained opium, sherry, alcohol, calcium
hydrate, and distilled water
Opium was regularly prescribed for medical reasons by Collins's doctor, Frank Beard, as a pain killer and sedative - never for mere gratification. Despite various attempts to give up the habit, using hypnosis by John Elliotson in 1863 and morphia by injection in 1869, Collins took increasingly large doses 'by the tablespoon' until in later life he became totally dependent.
Letter from Collins to Mrs Benzon about giving up laudanum
The Bancrofts related Collins's difficulty in obtaining opium in
Switzerland and also told the story of a dinner party with the
ophthalmologist, George Critchett, where the famous surgeon Sir William
Fergusson agreed that Collins's normal dose was sufficient to kill every man
seated at the table. Edmund Yates
in his 1889 obituary recorded that Collins 'was in the habit of taking
daily...more laudanum than would have sufficed to kill a ship's crew or
company of soldiers.'
Hall Caine claimed he saw Collins drink
laudanum by the wineglass 'to stimulate the brain and steady the nerves' and
told the unsubstantiated and probably untrue story that Collins's manservant
killed himself by drinking just half a glass.
William Winter recalled Collins saying 'opium sometimes hurts...but,
also, sometimes, it helps.' Despite
an enormous tolerance to the drug, Collins admitted to both Mary Anderson and
Percy Fitzgerald that he experienced hallucinations.
He began to be disturbed by the movement of shadows in his gas-lit
study and phantoms would follow him upstairs to bed where a green woman with
tusks would wait for him.
The nightmares caused by opium are vividly described by Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone where the drug forms an integral part of the plot. Collins described to both William Winter and Mary Anderson how he wrote much of the book under the effects of opium and when finished hardly recognised the work as his own. Magdalen Vanstone contemplates suicide with laudanum in No Name (1862), whereas Miss Gwilt in Armadale (1866) writes in her diary 'Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart'. Although opium features in these novels of the 1860s, it is mentioned only occasionally in later works. When Turlington visits Wildfang in 'Miss or Mrs?' (1871) 'The smell of opium was in the room'; and the 'composing medicine' appropriated by Eunice in The Legacy of Cain (1888) stimulates a typically laudanum induced apparition.
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