Wainewright the Poisoner: The Confession of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright--Regency Author, Painter, Swindler, and Probable Murderer--Brilliantly

Andrew Motion, Author Alfred A. Knopf $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-375-40209-8
Britain's poet laureate and author of a life of Keats returns to biography in this unconventional account of notorious Regency figure Wainewright. A literary dandy who may well have murdered his uncle (for an inheritance), his mother-in-law (because he disliked her), his sister-in-law (after setting up an elaborate insurance scam) and several other people unrelated to him (for sport?), Wainewright inspired both contempt and, at the hands of writers including Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde, legend. But because he left very few documents behind, it's virtually impossible to re-create an accurate contiguous narrative of his life. Eager to save this ""appealing and appalling"" character from a fate as ""a cardboard villain with artistic pretensions and a pair of fancy moustaches,"" Motion decided to write, by proxy, Wainewright's memoirs--a confessional in the voice of the poisoner himself. Drawing on the bits of evidence that Wainewright did leave behind, as well as on the accounts of his literary friends--William Blake, Keats, etc.--Motion brilliantly captures the voice of a shallow, vain, greedy, lazy man who's frighteningly obtuse about his own shortcomings and unwilling to accept responsibility for his fate. (Convicted of forgery in 1837, Wainewright spent the last 10 years of his life as an exiled convict in Tasmania.) Along the way, as he captures the nuance of the story, Motion supports the plausibility of his account with detailed and illuminating (though at times intrusive) end-of-chapter notes. Motion writes with the ""intention of capturing Wainewright's charm as well as his callowness, his wit as well as his wantonness,"" portraying a man who embodied the Romantic idea that ""good and evil grow on the same tree."" He succeeds admirably. Eight pages of photos not seen by PW. (June)
Reviewed on: 05/29/2000
Release date: 06/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 325 pages - 978-0-571-20546-2
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