Andrew Motion could have written a conventional biography of Thomas Wainewright, the dandified friend of Blake, Charles Lamb, de Quincey and Keats; art critic and painter (he painted Byron's portrait) who was also a notorious forger and poisoner. Motion's well-regarded biographies of Philip Larkin and John Keats demonstrate that he certainly possesses the biographical skill to get under the skin of complex characters. But, he tells us, "the overlay of legends" associated with Wainewright and the fact that he "falls out of the historical record so often and for so long" made a traditional biography impossible. So instead he has turned Wainewright's remarkable life into a hybrid biography-cum-novel. The text is cast as the fictionalised first-person narrative of Wainewright himself, but Motion adds lengthy footnotes at the end of each chapter pinpointing and elaborating the historical fact behind his fancy.
This is a bold departure by Motion, and sometimes it works brilliantly: particularly in the latter chapters, where we follow the protagonist as he is transported to Van Diemen's Land. Motion often manages passages of a narrative brilliance and poetic intensity: the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" style shooting of an albatross from the prison ship, for instance; or Wainewright's lyrical apprehension of the sounds of the Australian port, "a diminuendo as men and women going home to their families, and an undertow of big warehouse doors being drawn shut, of wicks purring as they were turned down in lamps". On other occasions the reader can feel that Motion is introducing facts rather awkwardly to flesh out his subject. We can imagine the narrator hurrying himself along with a "now I have stammered long enough", but can we really imagine him adding "(I never did stammer, just a lisp, occasionally)"? However, Motion uses all the vividness and subtlety at his command to convey the curious mixture of the appealing and the appalling in Wainewright's make-up, and to illustrate his thesis "that good and evil grow on the same stem". "How does a person imagine his own brain?" Motion's Wainewright wonders: "to one it might resemble a newfangled machine composed of rods and pistons, giving a whiff of steam as a notion is driven forward. To another it might be a calm lake, troubled only by the shadow of a cloud...The idea I have of my own mind is this: it is a labyrinth".
Overall, Motion's command of an absolutely convincing 19th-century idiom is a marvel to read. An intriguing experiment in biographical writing. --Adam Roberts