Wilkie Collins and laudanum (opium)

'That all-potent and all-merciful drug' (The Moonstone).

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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, R.A. (1848) 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.

90, Gloucester Place.

Portman Square. W.

February 26th 1869

Dear Mrs Benzon,

            One line (written most unwillingly) to ask you to 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.

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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