Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A very Victorian drug

Anita Cooke
New Brunswick, Canada

Elizabeth Siddal Plaiting her Hair by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Tate Gallery London. Date unknown. Photo © Tate. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0.

On February 14, 1862, the Daily News reported the “Death of a Lady from an Overdose of Laudanum.”1 Four nights earlier, Dante Gabriel Rossetti had discovered his wife, Lizzie, in a coma with an empty bottle of laudanum by her side. Despite efforts from doctors, she died a few hours later. The drug had been prescribed for her by her own doctor. Speaking at her inquest two days later, Rossetti said that Lizzie took it to “quiet her nerves.” A verdict of accidental death was given at the time, but Lizzie had been suffering postnatal depression after the stillbirth of her daughter the previous year. This has led to speculation that her death was not an accident but suicide.2 At that time little was known about either postnatal depression or the effects of long-term use of laudanum.

Paracelsus, a Swiss-German alchemist in the sixteenth century, is often credited with being the first to produce a ten percent solution of opium powder in alcohol. Opium, an exudate of Papaver somniferum, was grown in Asia and used extensively by the Roman physician Galen to treat complaints such as headache, vertigo, jaundice, shortness of breath, and melancholy.

The laudanum used by Paracelsus differed from that used in Roman times in that it also contained powdered gold and pearls. By 1676, however, the English physician Thomas Sydenham had simplified and standardized the recipe to just opium in alcohol, and he claimed it as a “cure all.”3

It was during the Victorian era that the use of this drug reached its zenith, with many notable figures making use of its properties. There is plenty of evidence that a good many English literary and artistic figures took laudanum, occasionally and sometimes habitually.

Opium played an important role in Victorian society. Before the Pharmacy Act of 1868, drugs like laudanum were widely available from barbers, confectioners, ironmongers, stationers, pubs, tobacconists, and wine merchants. As no prescription was needed and it was cheaper than gin or beer, it was available to all levels of society. The opium dens were well known and provided fodder for Victorian novelists. In his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote, “There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.”

Opium Tincture Bottle, London, England, 1880-1940. Science Museum, London. Welcome Collection, (CC BY 4.0).

Although at this time drinking alcohol or smoking was taboo for women, taking drugs such as laudanum was socially acceptable.4 While many women initially took the drug for a specific medical condition, many users, and particularly those in the creative field, found it had unexpected effects.

Lizzie Siddal, having been prescribed laudanum for an unidentified illness, became a regular user and towards the end of her life was heavily addicted. She was an artist and a poet in her own right, and her brother-in-law William Rossetti hinted that some of her poems were written under the influence of laudanum. Her most famous poem “A Year and a Day” (ca.1855) talks of a dreamlike, almost hallucinatory state where time seems to be suspended.

The India-China opium trade was important to the British economy and poppy growing was encouraged because of the huge profits to be made.

Today, drug addiction is better understood and documented. In Victorian times it was not. Addicts would enjoy a euphoric high followed by a deep depression. Side effects included slurred speech and restlessness.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning started to take laudanum probably for a spinal injury at the age of fifteen. Throughout her life, she continued to take it for various illnesses including hemorrhaging of the lungs while in her thirties, but she also needed it for emotional reasons and to help her sleep. In a letter to her husband, Robert Browning, she explained that rather than taking the drug solely for her pain, she took it to alleviate the depression and insomnia that dulled her ability to write. While on the drug, her restlessness, continual sense of weakness, and chronic insomnia were dispelled, and she was able to continue with her work. Writing to her brother she said, “I am in a fit of writing—could write all day and night—and long to live by myself for 3 months in a forest of chestnuts and cedars in an hourly succession of poetical paragraphs and morphine draughts.” She appears to indicate that without the drug she would be deprived of some of her creativity.

There are many references to the use of laudanum throughout the works of Victorian writers. Anne Bronte is thought to have modeled her character Lord Lowborough in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall on her brother Branwell, a laudanum addict. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor doses himself with laudanum to help him sleep after the creature has killed his friend Henry Clerval. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Cassy kills one of her children with laudanum to prevent him from growing up in slavery.

Thomas De Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon, circa 1845. National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Charles Dickens took laudanum himself for different ailments and was familiar with the drug, often describing its use in his books. In Little Dorrit, Mr. Merdle commits suicide by taking laudanum before using a tortoise-shell handle penknife to stab his jugular vein. In Oliver Twist, Nancy gives Bill Sykes laudanum to make him sleep so she can sneak out one night. In Bleak House, Tulkinghorn finds Captain James Hawdon (Nemo) dead, seemingly from an overdose of opium. There are also mentions in Pickwick Papers, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and others.

Wilkie Collins, a close friend of Charles Dickens, was a laudanum addict who took large quantities both day and night. In The Moonstone, the narrator Jennings is an opium addict, and Franklin is accused of stealing the gem under the influence of the drug. In No Name, Magdalen bought a bottle of laudanum for her contemplated suicide. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westeura’s maids are poisoned by Dracula with a dose of laudanum added to the wine.

Thomas De Quincey, the essayist and critic, was plagued by illness, from trigeminal neuralgia to severe stomach pains that made it difficult for him to eat or lie down. His first description of discovering opium in his book Confessions of An English Opium-Eater includes the following: “I was necessarily ignorant of the whole art and mystery of opium-taking, and what I took I took under every disadvantage. But I took it—and in an hour—oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me?”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge admitted that his “stately pleasure dome” from “Kubla Khan” came to him during a drug-induced sleep. In this poem, Coleridge explores the exciting, stimulating side of the drug. In contrast, in “The Pains of Sleep,” a poem written in 1803, he describes the dark and debilitating side of opium-taking. The words he uses—”anguish,” “agony,” “fiendish,” “tortured,” “powerless”—describe the terrible images he sees. Totally at the mercy of his own emotions, he has no control over them whatsoever.

“For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, a new pain reliever was introduced: aspirin. This was accompanied by an anti-opium movement that looked on opium-taking as a vice. From 1868, laudanum could only be sold by registered chemists in England. In 1888 the Christian Union for the Severance of the British Empire with the Opium Traffic was formed by Benjamin Broomhall and in 1910 Britain agreed to dismantle the India-China opium trade.

End notes

  1. Victorian Review, Volume 40, Issue 2, 2014.
  2. Hawksley, Lucinda. Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel. London: Andre Deutsh, 2004.
  3. Schwarcz, Joe. Chemical Institute of Canada. “The Right Chemistry: The Long and Colorful history of opium.” September 1, 2017.
  4. Aikens, Kristina. “A Pharmacy of Her Own: Victorian Women and the Figure of the Opiate“. Proquest, Umi Dissertation Publishing Sept, 2 2011.
  5. Cowell, Stephanie. “Poetry, Pain and Opium in Victorian England.” https://www.wondersandmarvels.com/2016/01/
  6. historic-uk.com

ANITA COOKE, RN, is a retired registered nurse living in New Brunswick, Canada, now working as a content and copywriter.

Summer 2021



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