Posts Tagged ‘laudanum’

If a book about a Little Lord Fauntleroy and his little velvet suits is to sweet for your taste, how about a book about opium and homelessness? In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) Thomas de Quincey tells the tale of his laudanum addiction, the way opium is taken, the way it works upon the mind and body, and how he finally managed to get clean again.
The book is supposed to be a cautionary tale, because telling of the joys of drugs was not something the Victorian Era agreed to. The book is split in parts, for example The Pleasures of Opium and The Pains of Opium. I think the part about the pleasures is a beautiful and enjoyable read, and the part about the pains is mostly quite boring, but you might feel differently.

You can read the e-text here. (And if you like to see some opium use in a movie, watch From Hell with Johnny Depp, it’s a most excellent movie!)

Unrelatedly, if you’re looking for affordable books on various topics, have a look here. I think these books would make excellent gifts to history-lovers!

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If you think drug addiction is a recent problem, think again! When I read Frankenstein recently I found dr. Victor Frankenstein used laudanum (an alcoholic tincture of opium), and I thought it would make a good post.
A drink of laudanum was made of 10% opium and 90% alcohol, and flavoured with cinnamon or saffran. It was first used by the ancient Greeks, and in the 19th century mostly used as painkiller, sleeping pill, or tranquilizer. It was cheaper then poppy oil and could be drank like you’d drink scotch. It took a while for the Victorian to figure out the negative side effect, only in 1919 the production and export of opium was prohibited, and in 1928 a law was passed that prohibited use.
(Source, in Dutch)

Wikipedia’s list of laudanum-users is so incredibly long, it makes no sense to copy it. Here’s some notable users: Lord Byron (of course!), Kate Chopin (from the ‘The Story of an Hour’ I linked you to recently), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe.
In literature, it’s mentioned in:
Mary Shelley’s character Victor Frankenstein uses laudanum to help him sleep after the death of his friend, Henry Clerval.
In Jack Finney’s Time and Again, the main character, Si Morley, wonders if a live baby in an 1882 display case has been “doped up with one of the laudanum preparations I’d seen advertised in Harpers.”
The character Cassy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin kills one of her children with laudanum to prevent it from growing up in slavery.
In Charles Dickens’ novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood it is the drink of choice for the sinister uncle Jasper.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula Lucy Westenra’s maids are poisoned (though not killed) by Dracula with a dose of laudanum put into wine.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem fragment Kubla Khan immediately on waking from a laudanum-induced dream.

So, it was a pretty popular drug. In fact: Innumerable Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of menstrual cramps and vague aches and used it to achieve the pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis (frailty and paleness were particularly prized in females at the time). Nurses also spoon-fed laudanum to infants. The Pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal died of a laudanum overdose. (Here’s the Wiki article.)

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