An intriguingly constructed biography of a 19th-century criminal who was also a man of culture and breeding.
Motion (Philip Larkin, 1993, etc.), England’s Poet Laureate, has chosen a well-known 19th-century literary form, the confession, to relate the strange life of Thomas Griffith Wainewright (1794-1852), “author, painter, swindler, and probable murderer.” He has based the prose style of Wainewright’s purported confessions on a ticket-of-leave application written in 1844 (when his subject was a convict in Tasmania), and he has used Wainewright’s own words, where possible, as well as the words of his colleagues or other contemporaries. Motion’s imagination fills in the gaps. Following each chapter are extensive factual notes—sometimes brief essays—that contrast sharply with the high-flown “confessions” and provide background to the events described in them. These are an essential part of the biography, not to be overlooked. Taken together, the two parts tell the story of Wainewright’s early years and his work as an art critic and artist, his lifestyle, his friendships with other writers and artists, his financial expectations, and the money problems that led him to commit the forgery for which he was later convicted. He may or may not have caused the deaths of his uncle, his mother-in-law, and his wife’s half-sister, but he was widely suspected of poisoning them. The question of how a cultured gentleman could also be a murderer was one that fascinated his contemporaries and later generations: Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton both used his story in their fiction, and the relationship of Wainewright’s “high style and low cunning” was the subject of an Oscar Wilde essay. Motion has Wainewright, in his final years, looking at his self-portrait, asking whether it shows a virtuous man or an evil one, and answering that it is a picture of a Mr. Look-two-ways, a Mr. Neither-one-thing-nor-the-other.
A highly imaginative and effective blend of fact and fiction.