Victorian Women on Drugs, Part 2: Female Writers

Points is pleased to present the second installment of guest blogger Kristina Aikens four-part series on women’s drug use in Victorian England today. Today, we learn about the (professed) drug use of Victorian-era women writers.

Thomas De Quincey: Bad Influence?

In her autobiography Twenty Years at Hull-House, American social reformer Jane Addams recalled an episode from her teenage years in which she and her friends at Rockford Female Seminary, longing to have “any experience at all” amid their strictly monitored routines, experimented with opium. They did this in imitation of Thomas De Quincey, though their foray into drug culture turned out more comical and less extraordinary than they intended:

We solemnly consumed small white powders at intervals during an entire long holiday, but no mental reorientation took place, and the suspense and excitement did not even permit us to grow sleepy. About four o’clock on the weird afternoon, the young teacher whom we had been obliged to take into our confidence grew alarmed over the whole performance, took away our De Quincey and all the remaining powders, administered an emetic to each of the five aspirants for sympathetic understanding of all human experience, and sent us to our separate rooms with a stern command to appear at family worship after supper ‘whether we were able to or not.’ (46)

Jane Addams, sincerely flattering De Quincey

Imitating De Quincey was not uncommon in the nineteenth century; many young people read the Confessions and, inspired by the writer’s descriptions of strange dreams and experiences, decided to explore the effects of opium. Typically, drug experimentation is  assumed to be the prerogative of men, but Jane Addams’s account suggests that schoolgirls had as much interest as schoolboys in the curious incidents the legendary opium-eater describes. That the girls were too overexcited for the drug to work and that the experiment ends in a prim reprimand, a religious service, and an emetic to purge the “foreign substance” from the “innocent” girl’s bodies adds to the playful, irreverent tone of the girls’ rebellion—a tone many people today would likely find inappropriate in a story about teenage girls dabbling with an opiate.

In my last post, I pondered the proof (or lack thereof) of Queen Victoria’s drug use. In this post, I turn my attention to evidence that undoubtedly exists, bringing together several autobiographical writings by nineteenth-century women in order to explore how opiates may have allowed them to pursue nontraditional activities as artists. Female writers’ diaries and poetry suggest that opiates might in some cases have helped them with their artistic ambitions, not necessarily in inspiring their work directly, but rather in helping maintain their health and motivation to write. 

Read more