Name your poison

Andrew Motion

Think of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, the subject of Andrew Motion’s historical novel Wainewright The Poisoner, as the Claus von Bulow of the Romantic era. Like von Bulow, the aristocratic Wainewright (1794–1847) rubbed elbows with the social elite of his time, including Blake, Byron and John Keats. Like von Bulow, Wainewright was accused of poisoning at least one person in a failed insurance fraud scheme. And, like von Bulow, Wainewright’s final verdict remains uncertain.

Did he actually murder one of his servants after taking out several policies in her name, as several past histories on the subject have claimed; or was her death, as Wainewright maintained until the end of his life, merely a case of shellfish poisoning?

It’s this historical ambiguity that Motion, the author of three previous biographies and a former poet laureate of Great Britain, plays brilliantly throughout Wainewright The Poisoner.

If you’ve never heard of Wainewright, you’re not alone. He’s a minor figure in history, a man of noble birth who never quite managed to fulfill the promise of his pedigreed name. A failure as a painter, writer and dandy, he nevertheless managed to circulate in London high society during what may have been Britain’s finest hour, artistically and intellectually speaking, leaving traces of his passing.

Motion assembled these meager leavings, absorbed Wainewright’s writing style from the articles he authored for various London periodicals, and presents the amalgamation here as an autobiographical confession, mailed in from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania, Australia), the penal colony where Wainewright spent the last ten years of his life. From the get-go, Motion’s Wainewright is a playful wordsmith with an incredible story to tell, a few axes to grind and a single end in mind: persuading the reader of his innocence:

“Since nothing in life is certain (that is the only certain thing) I shall begin this Confession by insisting on what a less skeptical age would accept without question. It is the truth. Not the whole truth (for such a thing is impossible), and not the only truth (ditto), but not a lie.”

Wainewright proceeds by chronologically listing the events that have shaped the author of the confession. His mother died during his birth, his father died nine years later. He was placed in the custody of his grandfather, a magazine publisher with a large estate. While fairly oblivious of his young charge, the grandfather at least has the presence of mind to send him to one of the finer prep schools, whose headmaster is a close personal friend of Dr. Samuel Johnson—Wainewright’s first, but by no means last, brush with greatness.

His grandfather dies, and an uncle takes over the estate that Wainewright sees as his rightful inheritance. He continues his education and shows some promise as a painter, but the lure of society and his dream of a luxurious life idling about the estate are constantly on his mind. In short, he has not the discipline for art, and falls into a less strenuous occupation: magazine writer. It’s during this phase that Wainewright’s dandyism is at its height, and he plays host to many of the era’s luminaries.

It was not to last, of course. Wainewright’s lust for life soon drains his finances, and with the consent of his servant, plots an insurance fraud scheme designed to move his family abroad. But the servant dies under suspicious circumstances, and his scheme is ferreted out. He goes abroad alone and is captured upon his return seven years later, and is thereafter tried for forgery and sentenced to the penal colony.

Did he kill his servant, and possibly others, as well? Motion, who heavily footnotes each chapter with compelling historical evidence, doesn’t really answer the question for certain. The footnotes seem to say yes, but Wainewright adamantly argues his own case.

Motion’s prose is flawless, and Wainewright’s voice is convincing. But in the long run, it’s this ambiguity that makes Wainewright The Poisoner a fascinating and memorable read.