Risky Regencies

Drug of Choice

I am currently in the midst of writing a proposal to send to my agent. A proposal, for those of you not aware (as I was not until Carolyn Jewel told me this past summer. And I think I’m so smart.), is the first three chapters and synopsis for a proposed book.

In other words, I don’t have to actually WRITE the entire book in order to get it sold. How cool is that?!?

Of course it means I have to write the synopsis, which is agony for another day.

But meanwhile, I am actually doing RESEARCH, another first for me, as those of you who read A Singular Lady know (there’s definitely some wrong stuff in there). My hero this time around is an opium addict, although he’ll start to kick by the end of Chapter Three, or else it wouldn’t be much of a romance–kinda more like Hunter S. Thompson goes to ton.

So I’ve gotten quite a few books out of the library, so many I hope no-one’s monitoring me, or I’d definitely be tagged as suspicious. The most useful one thus far is In The Arms of Morpheus: The Tragic History of Laudanum, Morphine, and Patent Medicines by Barbara Hodgson. I just got Opium: A History by Martin Booth, which Jo Beverley cites in the author’s note of her latest release, To Rescue A Rogue, which also features an opium addict (and here I thought I was being so innovative! But my hero is scads different from hers, so hopefully it won’t be walking over the same romantic ground). Of course I have Thomas De Quincey‘s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but his writing is so hyperbolic it’s not so informative. Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s poem “Kubla Khan” was supposedly written under the influence, as was Christina Rossetti‘s Goblin Market, which is gorgeously illustrated by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Addiction to laudanum was not disgraceful, especially for the upper class. The Prince Regent was addicted, and several other famous personages of the time used laudanum frequently. Laudanum was cheap, too, so poor people could obtain it easily. The most heinous thing about its use at this time is that opium was an ingredient in several children’s elixirs, guaranteed to soothe the fretful child. There were many deaths attributed to over-medicating.

Opium affects the brain in powerful, immediate ways, so it is very easy to get addicted quickly, and very hard to stop taking it. I am reading Jo Beverley’s book now, and she does a fantastic job of explaining how hard it is to get off it: Imagine wanting the best chocolate chip cookie ever, and you haven’t eaten all day, and you have to deny yourself the pleasure of eating it. And then magnify that by 1,000 times. That’s what it seems to be like to be addicted to opium.

My wonder is that more people weren’t addicted back then, given its availability and lack of social stigma.

And my questions are: Would you find an addicted hero sympathetic? What about an addicted heroine (mine isn’t)? Have you found anything out about the Regency period (such as what I discovered about the children’s elixirs) that startled you?


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Cara King
16 years ago

Interesting — I thought De Quincey was quite informative! And the question of stigma I think is a tricky one… My impression from De Quincey was that, sure, it wasn’t like being a heroin addict is today, but there was still enough embarrassment or shame that most addicts kept their addiction a secret…

I’d find an addict hero sympathetic enough — I like unusual and difficult heroes & heroines! I guess the key for me as a reader would be not having him seem too self-pitying…or self-obsessed…two traits that would be likely in an addict trying to break an addiction.

As for an addicted heroine….do you mean in a historical romance? Interesting. I don’t know why, but for some reason, that sounds a much more difficult proposition than the hero. (Why? Maybe because we’re used to heroes being wounded and yet overcoming, but we’re used to heroines being more young and undamaged???) I’d never say never, but for some reason, this sounds to me like a tougher sell than the hero…

Tons of things about the Regency period have startled me! Half of what they did is surprisingly foreign and distant, and the other half is surprisingly like today!

For example — after Princess Charlotte died, there was a large trade in, well, commemorative souvenirs. Just like when Princess Diana died. Really, startlingly similar!


16 years ago

Judy Cuevas has a drug addict in Bliss. I liked him very much. Go for it. Many 19th century figures were drug addicts.

However, Percy Shelley was not one, although people often write this. Not true. Byron took more drugs than Shelley. Shelley was a veggan.

Janet Mullany
16 years ago

I think probably a lot of people were addicted–by today’s standards–given how easy it was to obtain opiates. It’s quite possible for an addict to be fully functional so long as they have enough drug to keep going; it’s when they don’t have the supply that the problems kick in.

I think the problem about writing about an addict in a historical would be to keep the 20th century AA sensibility out of the picture. I’m interested to see how Eloisa James handles it in her latest/next.


Megan Frampton
16 years ago

I’d totally forgotten about Bliss, but I don’t think I can aspire to Cuevas. Sigh.

And Mary Jo Putney did it in the Rake and the Reformer, but a lot of twentieth century sensibilities were present. But I still liked it a lot.

Yeah, I think there was stigma if it got out of control, but like Janet said, it was easy to keep under control.

Kalen Hughes
16 years ago

Things surprise me all the time. Though I’m not at all surprised by children’s medications containing opium. It was a normal treatment for so many things (and quite effective for some of them, too) and as a people they simply really didn’t have a concept of “addiction” as we do now. The whole idea of being addicted to a substance (opium, alcohol, etc.) was just starting to dawn on people. The idea that simple willpower might not be enough, that one couldn’t necessarily stop if/when one wanted to.

I’m about 3/4 of the way through To Rescue a Rogue and I’m just itching to finish it tonight. So far I’m loving it (but then I always love Jo Beverley’s books). Isn’t it funny that I feel the urge to beg that nobody ruin it for me by reveling the ending (as if I don’t know what it is?). LOL!

I’ve got no problem with addicted protagonists (either one), so long as the book doesn’t spend all it’s time on that one issue/conflict and it’s resolved in some kind of realistic way.

Amanda McCabe
16 years ago

I’ve taken a look at both the Hodgson and the Booth books, and found them both very interesting (though I hven’t found a plot to use the info in yet!). I love the idea of an addict hero (or heroine, FTM), am dying to read about a hero who isn’t a fake rake duke, LOL! Bliss was a wonderful book, and I thought the issue of addiction was well-handled in it. Go for it, Megan!!

Diane Perkins
16 years ago

Gee, I remember paragoric ointment for babies who were teething. That had opium in it.

I remember a traditional Regency I read, maybe ten years ago. The heroine married a dying soldier who was languishing in a hospital-I forget the reason-She takes him home and a young doctor takes him off of laudenum. And he recovers, of course.

It must have worked for me, because I remember liking it!

I think what works for me is to see the hero muster great strength of character to overcome his addiction. That was what was so good about Reggie in The Rake and the Reformer. He really wanted to be a better person and he really worked at it, even though he weakened one time.

sandy l
16 years ago

My favorite opium hero is from the P.B. Ryan mystery series. Can’t remember the titles off the top of my head. Also, Barbara Hambly has a wonderful secondary character in her Benjamin January mystery series who is addicted to opium. (Why am I always mentioning Hambly? Probably because that’s mostly what I’ve been reading lately!)

16 years ago

The Bargain by Mary Jo Putney has the dying soldier brought home from the hospital, taken off laudenum, and then recovering, but it was a Historical, not a Trad.

Just finished Eloisa James’, Taming of the Duke, where the hero gets off alcohol–that was handled quite well.

THe hardest part of this has got to be dealing with the AA, modern stuff. Personal responsibility for one’s actions, the need to medicate oneself out of feeling emotions, all of those catch phrases which aren’t quite what I would expect a Regency hero to latch on to. And I agree with Cara–the self-pity part has to be a very close thing. Hmmm.

Diane Perkins
16 years ago

Hmmm, Suisan, maybe it was Mary Jo’s book. It might have started life as a Trad and was re-released as a Historical. Like The Rake and the Reformer became The Rake.
Or I could be remembering the whole thing totally wrong!

Cara King
16 years ago

Oh, I thought of another one! A great Regency, from way back when — Sheila Simonson’s LADY ELIZABETH’S COMET. The hero’s addiction is just one of many subplots… At the beginning of the book, actually, he’s off the stuff, IIRC, but at one point a doctor gives him some against his will (he’s got shrapnel in his back and has problems from it — I think it was related to that. Been too long since I read it!)

As to modern ideas on addiction — I quite agree it’s best not to let modern ideas intrude. However, sometimes Regency folk knew more than we give them credit for.

Case in point: Charles Lamb (in the assumed identity of an alcohol addict) wrote, in “Confessions of a Drunkard”:

But is there no middle way betwixt total abstinence and the excess which kills you?–For your sake, reader, and that you may never attain to my experience, with pain I must utter the dreadful truth, that there is none, none that I can find. In my stage of habit (I speak not of habits less confirmed–for some of them I believe the advice to be most prudential), in the stage which I have reached, to stop short of that measure which is sufficient to draw on torpor and sleep, the benumbing apoplectic sleep of the drunkard, is to have taken none at all….

In other words — the alcoholic cannot drink moderately. To not be a raving drunkard, he must drink nothing. So though that sounds like a 20th century innovation in the theory of addiction, it isn’t!


16 years ago

Yes, Lady Elizabeth’s Comet is the one I was going to mention, except Cara beat me to it! It treats the subject sympathetically, but it’s not the main point of the book.

Libby’s London Merchant, by Carla Kelly, deals with alcoholism. She definitely believes in making her characters suffer. 🙂

It is weird, but I also think I’d find it more difficult having an addicted heroine (that phrase looks weird, given the homophone of “heroine”) than an addicted hero. Can’t say why, really. Perhaps part of it is that Regency heroines in general led very sheltered lives, so it would seem that they would really have to seek out opium (though that obviously need not be the case–laudanum was prescribed for many illnesses). Heroes moved in a larger world, generally. Sheila Simonson’s hero became addicted to opium while recovering from a wound in the army, for example. Still, I imagine an addicted heroine could be carried off well.

I believe there was also a bit of a vogue in the late 18th century for sniffing nitrous oxide (i.e., laughing gas). This was a short while after it was discovered by Joseph Priestley. I think there was a short mention of it in The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow.

I also seem to recall that there was a moderate-sized section on the opium trade in Paul Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern (which is crammed with all manner of eclectic information).


16 years ago

Regarding the addicted Heroine:

I think it’s harder to accept in theory because we’re more used to thinking of the hero as demonstrating true strength of purpose. He starts off as strong, but damaged in some way, and then we can imagine him as struggling with his damaged self to become more worthy of the heroine by the end of the book. (Understanding this is all a stereotypical view of hero’s and heroine’s archetypes.)

Without having read the book which features an addicted heroine, I would worry that if the hero falls in love with her as an addicted personality, then when she becomes strong enough to throw off the drug then she wold also become strong enough to throw off the “need” for the hero as well. Or if he nurses her through her withdrawal, then she would simply be “transferring” her dependency upon the drugs onto the physical person of the hero.

I’m quite disturbed that as I think this over, that I’m being so very unfair to heroines. It’s very sexist of me; my mother would be ashamed.

I’m quite used to reading about a hero giving up his undying urge for revenge, for example, in order to more fully love the heroine, so maybe I’m just folding drug addiciton into that same model. I’m not so used to thinking of the heroine as fighting a physical battle, complete with sweating, cursing, shaking, and vomiting, in order to more fully love the hero.

I probably should.

16 years ago


Yes, my mother would be ashamed of me, too. But she’s probably used to it. 🙂

In one of the Laurie King mysteries, an Evil Bad Guy (is there any other kind?) tries to addict Mary Russell to morphine. But being the superior person that she is, she throws it off without too much difficulty once she is rescued. (Indeed, more easily than Sherlock Holmes threw off his one-time addiction.)

I think that’s the closest I can recall coming to an addicted Heroine…


Elena Greene
16 years ago

I agree that an addicted heroine would be harder to pull off. Not so much because of setup issues, though that would be important, but because some readers prefer the heroine-as-healer story to the other way around.

But the heroine being healed can be a potent story. I think Kinsale or Ivory could pull it off. Maybe even one of us if we wanted to.


Pam Rosenthal
16 years ago

My latest heroine, Mary in THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION, is known to take a bit of laudanum, in times of stress “to help her sleep,” as she puts it. I imagine it as a mild disfunction, rather like Janet mentions, but didn’t actually knock myself out researching it (a youth misspent in the 60s oughts to have sufficed, I told myself). But I’m soon going to be setting up an OUTTAKES AND ERRATA page on my website, so I’ll be fair game for comments and corrections, Megan.

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