A Delicate and Honourable Reserve

Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), in the introduction to his famous memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, presents us with an enviable model of restraint. Such reserve – dignified without being aloof – used to be the norm among educated authors.

I here present you, courteous reader, with the record of a remarkable period in my life… I trust that it will prove not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive. In that hope it is that I have drawn it up; and that must be my apology for breaking through that delicate and honourable reserve which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities.

Here is a writer dealing with sordid and humiliating facts of his private life, yet always conducting himself like the perfect gentleman. Some would condemn this as hypocritical, but I think we can grateful for an author who elicits our sympathy rather than our disgust.

De Quincey says that nothing “is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that ‘decent drapery’ which time or indulgence to human frailty may have drawn over them.” He says that the majority of self-revelations, being gross and sensational, are the products of “adventurers” and “swindlers.” Today they are the effusions of celebrities and talk show hosts. The author links the literary fashion for “gratuitous self-humiliation” (really a perverse form of vanity) to “French literature,” by which is inferred the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Needless to say, much has altered since De Quincey’s time. For my part, I will gladly escape for awhile into this Georgian literary world, which for all its hardships (undoubtedly surpassing what most of us will ever experience), is a remarkable, and ultimately consoling, study of human nature by an intelligent and sensitive observer.

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