Beckford, William (1760 - 1844)

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(1760 - 1844)

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Lady Harnet Marlow and Jacquetta Agneta Manana Jenks) English novelist and travel writer.

Beckford is primarily remembered for his novel Vathek (1787), which has been consistently hailed as a seminal contribution to the genre of oriental romance, and less consistently as part of the Gothic tradition. The story of an evil caliph's journey to the underworld in pursuit of forbidden knowledge, Vathek is noted for its captivating plot and unique narrative style.


Beckford was born into one of the richest and most prominent families in England. His father, William Beckford, formerly lord mayor of London, had accumulated great wealth from investments in Jamaican sugar plantations and his mother, Maria Hamilton, was of noble ancestry. As the only child of a late marriage, Beckford was pampered by both parents, but he received a rigorous education in preparation for a political career and could speak French fluently at age four. When he was nine, "England's wealthiest son," as Lord Byron called Beckford, inherited his father's estate. Afterwards, he continued to follow a rigid program of classical studies under the strict guidance of his mother, amid a succession of tutors. Despite their efforts, an interest in oriental literature, thought to have been brought on by his reading of The Arabian Nights, became Beckford's passionate obsession. In 1777, he left with a tutor for Geneva, Switzerland, to complete his education. There Beckford met a number of notable figures, including Voltaire, and began his first literary work, an autobiographical narrative entitled The Long Story that was never completed and remained unknown until a portion of it was published in 1930 as The Vision.

Following his return from Switzerland in 1778, Beckford entered into a tumultuous period of his life. While touring England in 1779, he developed what he called a "strange wayward passion" for William Courtenay, the eleven-year-old son of Lord Courtenay of Powderham Castle. Beckford also became romantically involved with Louisa Beckford, the unhappily married wife of one of his cousins. Despite the emotional distress he suffered as a result of these relationships, Beckford published his first work in 1780, a burlesque of then-popular sketches of painters' lives entitled Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters. Later in 1780, the restless Beckford began a European tour that his family hoped would help solve his emotional problems and prepare him for public life. Though it failed to alleviate his mental anguish, his journey resulted in Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents (1783), an epistolary travel book composed from notes kept during his trip. After this work had been printed, however, Beckford suppressed its distribution and burned all but a few copies; biographers have speculated that his family thought the content of Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents might damage his political prospects or add to rumors circulating about his friendship with Courtenay.

In 1781, Beckford hosted a sumptuous Christmas party that he later credited with directly inspiring his exotic oriental novel, Vathek. For three days, Courtenay, Louisa Beckford, and other guests wandered through Beckford's country home surrounded by music, dancers, and theatrical lighting effects. Shortly after this fantastical celebration, Beckford wrote the initial French-language draft of Vathek in one sitting, though scholars believe that he revised and expanded the novel many times before its publication four years later. In this work, the caliph Vathek travels to the underworld domain ruled by Eblis, a satanic figure. There, Vathek seeks forbidden wisdom, only to face eternal damnation in the Palace of Subterranean Fire. Beckford based many of his characters upon historical figures and provided a wealth of oriental detail, including descriptions of Eastern costumes, customs, and plant and animal life. He intended to add to this story four episodic tales narrated by sufferers in the Palace of Subterranean Fire, and while composing them, he arranged for the Reverend Samuel Henley, an oriental enthusiast and former professor, to translate the entire work into English and add footnotes explaining the oriental allusions. Beckford's completion of the episodes, however, was hindered by misfortune. At his family's insistence, he married Lady Margaret Gordon in 1783, a match they hoped would quell rumors concerning his homosexuality. In June 1784 the couple's first child was stillborn. Later that same year Beckford was publicly accused of sexual misconduct with Courtenay, and the resulting scandal forced Beckford and his wife to flee to Switzerland, where Margaret Beckford died in May 1786 after giving birth to their second daughter. Throughout these ordeals, Beckford instructed Henley to withhold his English translation of Vathek until the companion episodes were finished. In a betrayal of trust, however, Henley released an anonymous English translation of Vathek in June 1786. Beckford subsequently published a French edition of Vathek in order to claim authorship, and the uncompleted episodes remained unpublished until 1912.

For the next ten years, Beckford spent the majority of his time abroad, traveling throughout Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In 1796, he returned permanently to England. Ostracized from society, he spent much of the remainder of his life collecting books, paintings, and rare objects of art and building Fonthill Abbey, an extravagant Gothic structure. Beckford grew notorious as the creator of the increasingly popular Vathek, which had been reissued numerous times since its publication, and as the eccentric owner of Fonthill, where he lived until financial difficulties forced him to sell the estate in 1822 and move to Landsdown Crescent, Bath. Beckford's literary output during this period was scant. In the late 1790s, he wrote two minor novels burlesquing the sentimentalism of contemporary novelists, Modern Novel Writing; or, The Elegant Enthusiast (1796) and Azemia (1797). In 1834, he published Italy: With Sketches of Spain and Portugal, a two-volume work that consists of extensive revision of Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents as the first volume and an account of his journeys through Spain and Portugal as the second. His final travel book, Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça Batalha, appeared in 1835. After living his last years in relative seclusion, Beckford died at Landsdown in 1844.


Apart from Vathek, Beckford's works fall loosely into two categories: travel sketches and satirical writings. His travel sketches, including Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents, Italy: With Sketches of Spain and Portugal, and Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha, are generally commended for their balanced prose and descriptive artistry. Of Beckford's satiric writings, Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters is praised as a witty burlesque, while Modern Novel Writing and Azemia are usually dismissed as minor works.


Though most of his writings met with favorable receptions and have continued to be praised by scholars, Beckford's lasting critical acclaim rests upon Vathek. In discussing Vathek, critics have focused on its style, autobiographical overtones, and historical significance. While acknowledging Vathek's popular appeal, commentators have consistently been troubled by what early reviewer William Hazlitt (see Further Reading) termed its "mixed style." Critics have noted a tonal shift from the initially comic account of Vathek's journey to the tragic depiction of, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges (see Further Reading), "the first truly atrocious Hell in literature." Reviewers have ascribed this variance to authorial attributes ranging from artistic coarseness, to moral ambivalence, to a genius for irony. Beckford's unusual life and his treatment of aberrant sexual themes, puerile innocence, and domineering mothers have also led to a profusion of biographical interpretations of Vathek, particularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Later twentieth-century commentators, however, generally avoided biographical critiques, emphasizing instead Beckford's anticipation of the orientalism of such nineteenth-century poets as Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, and Robert Southey. Critics generally note that unlike the works of earlier English authors who employed oriental elements to embellish philosophical musings or to serve moralistic purposes, Vathek exhibits a fascination with exoticism for its own sake, with Beckford placing greater emphasis than previous writers upon producing an accurate depiction of the East. Commentators also point out that in Vathek Beckford combined polished Augustan prose with such characteristically Romantic concerns as human aspiration, loss of innocence, and the mysterious, thus reflecting the incipient transition in English literature from Neoclassicism to Romanticism. For its historical significance, as well as its continuing fascination for readers, Vathek is regarded as a minor masterpiece. Furthermore, as critics such as Frederick S. Frank have argued, the novel's structure, themes, and symbolism place Vathek firmly in the tradition of Gothic fiction.


Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (fictional memoirs) 1780
Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents (travel sketches) 1783
Vathek (novel) 1787
Modern Novel Writing; or, The Elegant Enthusiast, and Interesting Emotions of Arabella Bloomville [as Lady Harriet Marlow] (novel) 1796
Azemia [as Jacquetta Agenta Mariana Jenks] (novel) 1797
Italy: With Sketches of Spain and Portugal. 2 vols. (travel sketches) 1834
Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha (travel sketches) 1835
The Episodes of Vathek (novel fragment) 1912
The Vision (novel fragment) 1930; published in The Vision. Liber Veritatis

∗ The unauthorized translation of Vathek was published as An Arabian Tale, 1786.

† This work consists of Beckford's original French-language episodes, dated 1783–86, and an English translation of them.

The Vision is part of Beckford's unfinished narrative, known as The Long Story, written in 1777.



SOURCE: Beckford, William. "The History of the Caliph Vathek." In An Arabian Tale, from an Unpublished Manuscript: With Notes Critical and Explanatory, pp. 1-10. London, 1786.

In the following excerpt from the unauthorized 1786 translation of Vathek, the title character is introduced and the setting for the narrative is established.

Vathek, ninth Caliph of the race of the Abassides, was the son of Motassem, and the grandson of Haroun Al Raschid. From an early accession to the throne, and the talents he possessed to adorn it; his subjects were induced to expect, that his reign would be long, and happy. His figure was pleasing, and majestick; but when he was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible, that no person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed, instantly fell backward; and, sometimes, expired. For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions, and making his palace desolate; he, but rarely, gave way to his anger.

Being much addicted to women, and the pleasures of the table; he sought, by his affability, to procure agreeable companions; and he succeeded the better, as his generosity was unbounded; and his indulgences, unrestrained: for, he was, by no means, scrupulous: nor did he think, with the Caliph, Omar Ben Abdalaziz; that it was necessary to make a hell of this world, to injoy Paradise in the next.

He surpassed in magnificence all his predecessors. The palace of Alkoremmi, which his father Motassem had erected, on the hill of Pied Horses; and which commanded the whole city of Samarah; was, in his idea, far too scanty: he added, therefore, five wings; or rather, other palaces: which he destined for the particular gratification of each of his senses.

In the first of these, were tables continually covered, with the most exquisite dainties; which were supplied, both by night and by day, according to their constant consumption; whilst the most delicious wines, and the choicest cordials, flowed forth from a hundred fountains, that were never exhausted. This Palace was called the Eternal or unsatiating Banquet.

The second, was stiled The Temple of Melody, or the Nectar of the Soul. It was inhabited by the most skilful musicians, and admired poets of the time; who not only displayed their talents within, but, dispersing in bands without, caused every surrounding scene to reverberate their songs; which were continually varied in the most delightful succession.

The palace named the Delight of the Eyes, or the Support of Memory; was one entire enchantment. Rarities collected from every corner of the earth, were there found in such profusion, as to dazzle and confound, but for the order in which they were arranged. One gallery exhibited the pictures of the celebrated Mani; and statues, that seemed to be alive. Here, a well-managed perspective attracted the fight; there, the magick of opticks agreeably deceived it: whilst the Naturalist, on his part, exhibited, in their several classes, the various gifts that Heaven had bestowed on our globe. In a word, Vathek omitted nothing, in this palace, that might gratify the curiosity of those who resorted to it; although he was not able to satisfy his own; for, he was, of all men, the most curious.

The palace of Perfumes, which was termed like-wise, The incentive to Pleasure, consisted of various halls, where the different perfumes which the earth produces, were kept perpetually burning in censers of gold. Flambeaus and aromatick lamps were here lighted, in open day. But, the too powerful effects of this agreeable delirium might be avoided, by descending into an immense garden; where an assemblage of every fragrant flower diffused through the air the purest odours.

The fifth palace, denominated the Retreat of Joy, or the dangerous; was frequented by troops of young females, beautiful as the Houris, and not less seducing; who never failed to receive, with caresses, all whom the Caliph allowed to approach them: for, he was by no means disposed to be jealous, as his own women were secluded, within the palace he inhabited, himself.

Notwithstanding the sensuality in which Vathek indulged, he experienced no abatement in the love of his people; who thought, that a sovereign immersed in pleasure was not less tolerable to his subjects, than one that employed himself in creating them foes. But, the unquiet and impetuous disposition of the Caliph, would not allow him to rest there. He had studied so much for his amusement, in the life-time of his father, as to acquire a great deal of knowledge; though not a sufficiency to satisfy himself: for, he wished to know every thing; even, sciences that did not exist. He was fond of engaging in disputes with the learned, but liked them not to push their opposition with warmth. He stopped the mouths of those, with presents, whose mouths could be stopped; whilst others, whom his liberality was unable to subdue, he sent to prison, to cool their blood: a remedy that often succeeded.

Vathek discovered also a predilection for theological controversy; but, it was not with the orthodox that he usually held. By this means he induced the zealots to oppose him, and then persecuted them in return; for, he resolved, at any rate, to have reason on his side.

The great prophet Mahomet, whose Vicars the Caliphs are, beheld with indignation, from his abode in the seventh heaven, the irreligious conduct of such a vicegerent. "Let us leave him to himself," said he to the Genii, who are always ready to receive his commands: "let us see to what lengths his folly and impiety will carry him: if he run into excess, we shall know how to chastise him. Assist him, therefore, to complete the tower, which, in imitation of Nimrod, he hath begun; not, like that great warriour, to escape being drowned; but from the insolent curiosity of penetrating the secrets of Heaven:—he will not divine the fate that awaits him."

The Genii obeyed; and when the workmen had raised their structure a cubit, in the day-time; two cubits more were added, in the night. The expedition with which the fabrick arose, was not a little flattering to the vanity of Vathek. He fancied, that even insensible matter shewed a forwardness to subserve his designs; not considering that the successes of the foolish and wicked form the first rod of their chastisement.

His pride arrived at its height, when having ascended, for the first time, the eleven thousand stairs of his tower, he cast his eyes below, and beheld men not larger than pismires; mountains, than shells; and cities, than bee-hives. The idea, which such an elevation inspired, of his own grandeur, completely bewildered him; he was almost ready, to adore himself; till, lifting his eyes upward, he saw the stars, as high above him, as they appeared, when he stood on the surface of the earth. He consoled himself, however, for this transient perception of his littleness, with the thought of being great in the eyes of others; and flattered himself, that the light of his mind would extend, beyond the reach of his sight; and transfer to the stars the decrees of his destiny.

With this view, the inquisitive Prince passed most of his nights on the summit of his tower: till he became an adept in the mysteries of astrology; and imagined that the planets had disclosed to him the most marvellous adventures, which were to be accomplished by an extraordinary personage, from a country altogether unknown. Prompted by motives of curiosity, he had always been courteous to strangers; but, from this instant, he redoubled his attention; and ordered it to be announced by sound of trumpet, through all the streets of Samarah, that no one of his subjects, on peril of his displeasure, should either lodge or detain a traveller; but, forthwith, bring him to the palace.

Not long after this proclamation, there arrived in his metropolis, a man so hideous, that the very guards who arrested him, were forced to shut their eyes, as they led him along. The Caliph himself appeared startled at so horrible a visage; but, joy succeeded to this emotion of terror, when the stranger displayed to his view, such rarities as he had never before seen; and of which he had no conception.

In reality, nothing was ever so extraordinary as the merchandize this stranger produced. Most of his curiosities, which were not less admirable for their workmanship, than splendor, had besides, their several virtues; described on a parchment fastened to each. There were slippers, which enabled the feet to walk; knives that cut without the motion of a hand; sabres, which dealt the blow, at the person they were wished to strike: and the whole, enriched with gems, that were, hitherto, unknown.

The sabres, especially, whose blades emitted a dazzling radiance; fixed more than all, the Caliph's attention; who promised himself to decypher, at his leisure, the uncouth characters engraven on their sides. Without, therefore, demanding their price; he ordered all the coined gold to be brought from his treasury, and commanded the merchant to take what he pleased. The stranger complied, with modesty and silence.

Vathek, imagining that the merchant's taciturnity was occasioned by the awe which his presence inspired; incouraged him to advance, and asked him, with an air of condescension: "Who he was? whence he came? and where he obtained such beautiful commodities?" The man, or rather, monster, instead of making a reply, thrice rubbed his forehead, which, as well as his body, was blacker than ebony; four times clapped his paunch, the projection of which was enormous; opened wide his huge eyes, which glowed like firebrands; began to laugh with a hideous noise, and discovered his long, amber-coloured teeth, bestreaked with green.


SOURCE: Beckford, William. "Extract from a note appended to a letter on December 9, 1838." In The Life of William Beckford, edited by John Walter Oliver, pp. 89-91. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.

In the following excerpt from a note appended to a letter dated December 9, 1838, Beckford recounts the circumstances that inspired him to write Vathek.

Immured we were 'au pied de la lettre' for three days following—doors and windows so strictly closed that neither common day light nor common place visitors could get in or even peep in—care worn visages were ordered to keep aloof—no sunk-in mouths or furroughed foreheads were permitted to meet our eye. Our société was extremely youthful and lovely to look upon—for not only Louisa in all her gracefulness, but her intimate friend—the Sophia often mentioned in some of these letters—and perhaps the most beautiful woman in England, threw over it a fascinating charm. Throughout the arched Halls and vast apartments we ranged in, prevailed a soft and tempered radiance—distributed with much skill under the direction of Loutherbourg himself a mystagogue. The great mansion at Fonthill which I demolished to rear up a still more extraordinary edifice was admirably calculated for the celebration of the mysteries. The solid Egyptian Hall looked as if hewn out of a living rock—the line of apartments and apparently endless passages extending from it on either side were all vaulted—an interminable stair case, which when you looked down it—appeared as deep as the well in the pyramid—and when you looked up—was lost in vapour, led to suites of stately apartments gleaming with marble pavements—as polished as glass—and gawdy ceilings—painted by Casali with all the profligacy of pencil—for which in that evil day for the arts he was so admired. From these princely rooms—a broad flight of richly carpetted comfortable steps led to another world of decorated chambers and a gallery designed by Soane,—still above which—approached by winding stairs—you entered another gallery,—filled with curious works of art and precious cabinets. Through all these suites—through all these galleries—did we roam and wander—too often hand in hand—strains of music swelling forth at intervals—sometimes the organ—sometimes concerted pieces—in which three of the greatest singers then in Europe—Pacchierotti, Tenducci, and Rauzzini—for a wonder of wonders—most amicably joined. Sometimes a chaunt was heard—issuing, no one could devine from whence—innocent affecting sounds—that stole into the heart with a bewitching languour and melted the most beloved the most susceptible of my fair companions into tears. Delightful indeed were these romantic wanderings—delightful the straying about this little interior world of exclusive happiness surrounded by lovely beings, in all the freshness of their early bloom, so fitted to enjoy it. Here, nothing was dull or vapid—here, nothing ressembled in the least the common forms and usages, the 'traintrain' and routine of fashionable existence—all was essence—the slightest approach to sameness was here untolerated—monotony of every kind was banished. Even the uniform splendour of gilded roofs—was partially obscured by the vapour of wood aloes ascending in wreaths from cassolettes placed low on the silken carpets in porcelain salvers of the richest japan. The delirium of delight into which our young and fervid bosoms were cast by such a combination of seductive influences may be conceived but too easily. Even at this long, sad distance from these days and nights of exquisite refinements, chilled by age, still more by the coarse unpoetic tenor of the present disenchanting period—I still feel warmed and irradiated by the recollections of that strange, necromantic light which Loutherbourg had thrown over what absolutely appeared a realm of Fairy, or rather, perhaps, a Demon Temple deep beneath the earth set apart for tremendous mysteries—and yet how soft, how genial was this quiet light. Whilst the wretched world without lay dark, and bleak, and howling, whilst the storm was raging against our massive walls and the snow drifting in clouds, the very air of summer seemed playing around us—the choir of low-toned melodious voices continued to sooth our ear, and that every sense might in turn receive its blandishment tables covered with delicious viands and fragrant flowers—glided forth, by the aid of mechanism at stated intervals, from the richly draped, and amply curtained recesses of the enchanted precincts. The glowing haze investing every object, the mystic look, the vastness, the intricacy of this vaulted labyrinth occasioned so bewildering an effect that it became impossible for any one to define—at the moment—where he stood, where


Meanwhile the Count's servants were exerting their utmost efforts to revive the extinguished fire. They thought they could hear the sound of human voices within, whence they concluded that the Countess was still alive. But all their stirring and blowing were ineffectual. The wood would no more take fire than if they had put on a charge of snowballs. Not long afterwards Count Conrad rode up full speed, and eagerly inquired how it fared with his lady. The servants informed him that they had heated the room right hot, but that the fire went suddenly out, and they supposed that the Countess was yet alive. This intelligence rejoiced his heart. He dismounted, knocked at the door, and called out through the keyhole, 'Art thou alive, Matilda?' And the Countess, hearing her husband's voice, replied, 'Yes, my dear lord, I am alive, and my children are also alive.' Overjoyed at this answer, the impatient Count bade his servants break open the door, the key not being at hand, he rushing into the bathing-room, fell down at the feet of his injured lady, bedewed her unpolluted hands with the tears of repentance, led her and the charming pledges of her innocence and love out of the dreary place of execution to her own apartment, and heard from her own mouth the true account of these transactions. Enraged at the foul calumny and the shameful sacrifice of his infants, he issued orders to apprehend and shut up the treacherous nurse in the bath—The fire now burned kindly,—the chimney roared,—the flames played aloft in the air,—and soon stewed out the diabolical woman's black soul.

SOURCE: Beckford, William. "Nymph of the Fountain." In Gothic Tales of Terror, Volume One: Classic Horror Stories from Great Britain, edited by Peter Haining. 1972. Reprint edition, pp. 138-75. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books Inc., 1973.

he had been, or to whither he was wandering—such was the confusion—the perplexity so many illuminated storys of infinitely varied apartments gave rise to. It was, in short, the realization of romance in its most extravagant intensity. No wonder such scenery inspired the description of the Halls of Eblis. I composed Vathek immediately upon my return to town thoroughly embued with all that passed at Fonthill during this voluptuous festival.

It will be seen that the Khalifeh's adventures were written down, not at the age of seventeen as Lord Byron has chosen to fancy, but at the age of twenty and two.




SOURCE: A review of The History of Caliph Vathek: An Arabian Tale, by William Beckford. The English Review 8 (September 1786): 180-84.

In the following excerpt, the critic offers a negative assessment of Vathek, faulting principally its morality.

We are told in the preface to [Vathek ], "that it is translated from a manuscript, which, with some others of a similar kind, was collected in the East by a man of letters, and communicated to the editor above three years ago." In an age that has abounded so much with literary impostures, we confess that we cannot see the propriety of such a palpable fiction. The general strain of the work, and the many allusions to modern authors, indicate the author to be an European.

As an imitation of Arabian tales, this work possesses no in considerable merit. The characters are strongly marked, though carried beyond nature; the incidents are sufficiently wild and improbable; the magic is solemn and awful, though sometimes horrid; anachronisms and inconsistencies frequently appear; and the catastrophe is bold and shocking. The chief defect of the work arises from the moral, which is the foundation of the tale, and tinctures the whole. Indolence and childishness are represented as the source of happiness; while ambition and the desire of knowledge, so laudable and meritorious when properly directed, are painted in odious colours, and punished as crimes. The most formidable foes of princes, especially oriental princes, are indolence and the love of pleasure; and those passions that put the powers of the soul in motion, and lead to brilliant actions, though sometimes misapplied, are always respectable….

The moral which is here conveyed, that ignorance, childishness, and the want of ambition, are the sources of human happiness, though agreeable to the strain of eastern fiction, is inconsistent with true philosophy, and with the nature of man. The punishments of vice, and the pains of gratified curiosity, ought never to be confounded. Although the tree of knowledge was once forbidden, in the present condition of humanity it is the tree of life.

The notes which are subjoined to this history contain much oriental learning, and merit the attention of the curious reader.


SOURCE: Bleiler, E. F. "William Beckford and Vathek." In Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto, Vathek, The Vampyre, edited by E. F. Bleiler, pp. xix-xxx. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966.

In the following excerpt, Bleiler provides details from Beckford's life and on the composition and publication of Vathek.

In October 1817, Samuel Rogers the poet happened to be not too far from Salisbury, when he received an invitation to visit Fonthill Abbey, the home of the eccentric millionaire and author William Beckford. Fonthill Abbey was surely the most remarkable building in England at the time, and a contemporary letter by Lady Bessborough describes Rogers's impressions:

He was received [at the thirty-eight-foot-high doors, which were opened] by a dwarf, who, like a crowd of servants thro' whom he passed, was covered with gold and embroidery. Mr. Beckford received him very courteously, and led him thro' numberless apartments all fitted up most splendidly, one with Minerals, including precious stones; another the finest pictures; another Italian bronzes, china, etc. etc., till they came to a Gallery that surpass'd all the rest from the richness and variety of its ornaments. It seem'd clos'd by a crimson drapery held by a bronze statue, but on Mr. B.'s stamping and saying, 'Open!' the Statue flew back, and the Gallery was seen, extending 350 feet long. At the end an open Arch with a massive balustrade opened to a vast Octagon Hall, from which a window shew'd a fine view of the Park. On approaching this it proved to be the entrance of the famous tower—higher than Salisbury Cathedral [over 285 feet]; this is not finish'd, but great part is done. The doors, of which there are many, are violet velvet covered over with purple and gold embroidery. They pass'd from hence to a Chapel, where on the alter were heaped Golden Candlesticks, Vases, and Chalices studded over with jewels; and from there into a great musick room, where Mr. Beckford begg'd Mr. Rogers to rest till refreshments were ready, and began playing with such unearthly power…. They went on to what is called the refectory, a large room built on the model of Henry 7 Chapel, only the ornaments gilt, where a Verdantique table was loaded with gilt plate fill'd with every luxury invention could collect. They next went into the Park with a numerous Cortege, and Horses and Servants, etc., which he described as equally wonderful, from the beauty of the trees and shrubs, and manner of arranging them, thro' a ride of five miles … and came to a beautiful Romantick lake, transparent as liquid Chrysolite (this is Mr. Rogers's, not my expression), covered with wildfowl…. [On the next day Mr. Rogers] was shewn thro' another suite of apartments fill'd with fine medals, gems, enamell'd miniatures, drawings, old and modern, curios, prints and Manuscripts, and last a fine and well-furnish'd library, all the books richly bound and the best editions, etc. etc. An Old Abbe, the Librarian, and Mr. Smith, the water-colour painter, who were there, told him there were 60 fires always kept burning, except in the hottest weather. Near every chimney in the sitting rooms there were large Gilt fillagree baskets fill'd with perfum'd coals that produc'd the brightest flame.

The creator and ruler of this almost unbelievable Gothic empire of some six thousand landscaped acres, a huge cathedral-like building with the highest tower in England, to say nothing of a fifteen-mile-long outer wall, twelve feet high and topped with spikes, was of course William Beckford (1760–1844), the author of Vathek.

Beckford was the only legitimate son of William Beckford the Elder, an important political and mercantile figure of the day. Pitt's lieutenant and John Wilkes's friend, the elder Beckford had been Lord Mayor of London twice. Licentious, colorful, shrewd yet reckless, he was the firebrand of the Whig opposition. He was also probably the richest man in England, with a family cloth business, extensive property holdings in England, and a fortune in government bonds. A West Indian by birth, he was also one of the largest land and slave owners in Jamaica. As later events proved during the lifetime of his son, this wealth was not all honestly gained. He died in 1770, when his son was ten years old.


The editor in the Preface to [Vathek] informs us, that it is translated from an unpublished Arabian Manuscript, which was put into his hands about three years ago, with some more of the same kind, by a gentleman who had collected them during his travels in the East. How far the above assertion is founded in truth, it may not be easy, nor is it material, to determine. If it be not a translation, the author has, at least, shewn himself, generally speaking, well acquainted with the customs of the East, and has introduced a sufficient quantity of the marvellous, an absolutely necessary ingredient to enable the work to pass muster as an Arabian Tale. It however differs from the generality of them, in this, that it inculcates a moral of the greatest importance, viz. That the pursuit of unlawful pleasures, and such as are repugnant to the principles of religion and morality, unavoidably leads us to misfortunes in this life, and misery in the next; and that the enjoyment resulting from them is at best but precarious and nugatory….

Such is the scope of this tale, which, whether it be the produce of Arabia, or of the fertile banks of the Seine, (which a variety of circumstances induces us to believe it is) from the eagerness of mankind to admire whatever o'ersteps the limits of nature, and hurries us into the regions of fancy, bids fair to acquire that popularity which the moral it inculcates well deserves.

SOURCE: A review of The History of Caliph Vathek: An Arabian Tale, by William Beckford. European Magazine and London Review 10 (August 1786): 102-04.

The Lord Mayor obviously planned to mould his son into an empire builder. Young William was brought up bilingually on English and French, started Latin at six, and Greek and philosophy at ten. Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, law, physics, and other sciences were added at seventeen. His tutors were selected from the best practitioners in various fields. Foremost among them was young Wolfgang Mozart, who gave him piano lessons while in England. In his old age Beckford claimed to have given the tune "Non più andrai" to Mozart in their childhood; he also claimed that Mozart had written him telling him that he planned to use it in The Marriage of Figaro. Unfortunately, since no trace of this correspondence has survived, the whole story is very suspect.

The senior Beckford's plans did not work out. It was true that young William was precociously intelligent, very gifted verbally, musically and artistically, and a handsome and appealing child. He certainly had many qualities which might have carried out his father's hopes. But he was also emotionally unbalanced, passionate, haughty, vindictive, and a thoroughgoing hedonist. He did not care about manipulating men in his father's way; he simply bought them, as needed, with his enormous fortune. Politics meant little to him, and in later life he became an M.P. mostly to protect his own interests at Fonthill. Worst of all, from his father's point of view, he was either not interested in business or had no aptitude at all for it; money to him was simply something that flowed in and could be used to buy pleasures.

Another facet of his personality that emerged when he was very young was an escapism focused on the Near East. He devoured The Arabian Nights and its imitations, and gathered together everything that he could about the Moslem world. All through his later life, no matter where he travelled, no matter what he was doing, the magic world of medieval Islam encompassed him. While this interest may have been fostered by his Orientalist art tutor, Alexander Cozens, perhaps a deeper reason lay within his own personality; Beckford often referred to himself as a Caliph, and where better than in the whimsical, irresponsible world of the fictional Harun al-Rashid could he find his dreams made real?

Beckford's early life was scandalous, even by eighteenth-century standards. His early maturity followed a pattern: he could remain in England for only short periods of time, for scandal soon would mount so high that his family would be forced to ship "the fool of Fonthill" to the Continent until things could cool off. During this period he took his cousin's wife as a mistress. This caused a family schism, but the situation was made worse when it was discovered that this was mostly a tactic to establish a homosexual relationship with young "Kitty" Courtenay. On the Continent, he travelled with such magnificence (including musicians and artists) that his entourage was at times taken for the Austrian Emperor's. Such ostentation he could well afford, for during the 1780's he had a fortune of about a million pounds and a yearly income of one hundred and fifty thousand pounds, both of which figures should be multiplied by twelve, in most areas, to indicate their present purchasing power. Attracted by the wealth, the worst adventurers from the stews of Venice became his intimates, and the shadiest circles of Paris and Naples knew him well.

Around the end of 1781 Beckford became acquainted with Samuel Henley, who was to be his collaborator on Vathek. Henley, who was currently tutoring cousins of Beckford's at Harrow, had been professor of moral philosophy at William and Mary in Virginia, but as a Tory had returned to England at the Revolution. Although his personal life was not the most reputable, he was in orders, was a very competent scholar, and had some pretensions to being an Orientalist. Beckford first employed him to edit Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, which was based on Beckford's travels in Spain and Portugal. The book was prepared for the press, was printed, and ready to be distributed in 1783 when Beckford's family forced the book to be suppressed. It is not known why the family took such violent measures, since the book is harmless enough, but it has been suggested that it was too frivolous for a future ruler of empire. Just what Henley contributed is also not exactly known.

Some time early in 1782 Beckford began to work on his Arabian tale, Vathek. In his old age, he claimed to have written it in three days and two nights, but references in his letters indicate that the book took considerably longer, perhaps three or four months. On April 25th he referred to it as "going on prodigiously," and by the end of May it was finished.

Beckford wrote his novel in French, and then decided to translate it. He was dissatisfied with his own translation, however, considering it too Gallic. He then recruited Henley to help him. For the next couple of years, while Beckford flitted back and forth between England and the Continent, the two men worked on it desultorily.

In 1783 the scandal with "Kitty" Courtenay was on the point of breaking disastrously. Beckford's family seems to have feared a criminal prosecution, and persuaded him to marry and beget a couple of children. In this year he married Lady Margaret Gordon, by whom he had two children before her death in May 1786. In 1784 he returned to Paris, where in addition to moving in high social circles he became involved in the shabby occultism that surrounded the court. In the same year, back in England, he became a Member of Parliament, was proposed for a baronage, but was rejected, presumably because of his personal life.

By the spring of 1785 Vathek was basically finished, except for notes which Henley was to provide, and four nouvelles (the Episodes) which Beckford planned to insert in the framework of the story. These were still incomplete. In June 1785 Beckford left for Switzerland, leaving both the French and English manuscripts of Vathek with Henley, who wanted to continue work on them. In February 1786 Beckford may have begun to suspect that Henley was moving too fast, for he baldly ordered him not to publish: "The Publication of Vathec must be suspended at least another year. I would not have him on any account precede the French edition … the Episodes to Vathec are nearly finished, and the whole thing will be completed in eleven to twelve months."

In the first week of June 1786, however, The History of the Caliph Vathek, An Arabian Tale from an Unpublished Manuscript, with Notes Critical and Explanatory appeared on the London bookstalls. Henley had broken faith. Beckford did not learn of publication for several months, but was understandably furious at Henley's breach of confidence. He raged at Henley, who replied disingenuously that he thought Beckford wanted the book published. He also referred adroitly to the scandal that had caused Beckford's marriage, and hinted that his association with Beckford was really an attestation of faith in him.

Henley unquestionably acted badly, but it is difficult to understand why he risked alienating a wealthy and powerful patron. Greed for money may have motivated him, or perhaps (since it is known that he felt proprietary toward the English Vathek ) he feared that Vathek would follow the way of Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents and never see publication. Needless to say, his actions led to a breach with Beckford, who never forgave him. Henley spent the rest of his life in poverty, making a poor living at teaching, hack writing, and editing. Beckford even had the satisfaction of rejecting an appeal for financial help. Henley died in 1815.

The further history of Vathek is confused, since soon after Henley's English translation appeared, two French language editions were published, one at Lausanne, the other at Paris. It used to be believed that Beckford had rushed the Lausanne edition into print from his original manuscript, and then, recognizing that it needed improvement, had corrected his text and reissued it at Paris. Now, however, the situation is believed to have been more complex. According to the modern reconstruction of events, Beckford had no copy of his French manuscript, which may have been lost in the mails or retained by Henley. Beckford thereupon obtained a copy of the English book and hired Jean-David Levade, a hack translator, to turn it back into French. This version of Vathek was published at Lausanne; Beckford apparently did not see it until it was printed. When he saw it, he recognized that it was unworthy of him. He invoked the help of French literary friends, and set about retranslating it himself. This translation was then published at Paris. In 1815 Beckford prepared a third, revised French edition, which also appeared in Paris.

The text of Vathek, too, has presented problems. Four stories, told by denizens of Hell whom Vathek met in the halls of Iblis, were to have been inserted in the framework. Beckford spoke of working on them, but after the appearance of Henley's translation, he seems to have put them aside. They remained a legend during Beckford's lifetime, and as the novel rose in critical estimation, many persons asked to see them, including Lord Byron. But Beckford would not show them to anyone, and after a time it came to be believed that they had never existed at all.

At the turn of the present century, however, three French manuscripts were found in a document chest in the possession of one of Beckford's collateral descendants, the Duke of Hamilton. These manuscripts turned out to be the two long stories, "The Story of Prince Alasi and the Princess Firouzkah" and "The Story of Prince Barkiarokh," as well as a fragment entitled "The Story of the Princess Zulkaïs and the Prince Kalilah." These three stories, which are in the same vein as Vathek, were published in French and in Sir Frank Marzials's English translation from 1909 to 1912.


Beckford's Vathek is almost universally recognized as a minor work of genius and as the best Oriental tale in English, but paradoxically there is strong doubt whether Vathek really should be placed in the stream of English literature. It was written in French, and all its major predecessors and sources were French. In English literature it stands isolated; it had no real forerunners and no worthy successors.1

The development of the Oriental tale in the eighteenth century was overwhelmingly a French phenomenon. Its manifestations in other languages, such as in the work of Gozzi and Wieland, are obviously derivative and of secondary impor-tance. The genre began with Galland's French translation of The Thousand and One Nights (1704–1712), which was received with delight and enthusiasm. There had been earlier Oriental material in Italian and French, it is true, but none of this had the overwhelming power that The Thousand and One Nights demonstrated. These stories appealed strongly to the Rococo mind, what with the wide range of opportunities they offered: delicacies of style, elaboracies of construction, adventure, eroticism, moralism, sensibility, fantasy, philosophy and irony.

Many great authors contributed to the development of the Oriental tale in France. There were Voltaire's contes philosophiques (Zadig, La Princesse de Babylone, etc.), Montesquieu's satire on French institutions (Lettres persanes), and the humorous half-parodies of Caylus (Contes orientales) and Count Anthony Hamilton (Les quatre Facardins, etc.). There were also many collections of less distinguished stories imitating The Arabian Nights, but which were simply more or less successful thrillers. T. S. Gueullette, for example, wrote collections of Chinese tales, Moghul tales, Tartarian tales, and even Peruvian tales, all of which provided dreary imitations of Galland's spirited translation. At one time, during the last part of the eighteenth century, a compilation of such "Arabian" material was published; entitled Cabinet des fées, it runs to several hundred volumes.

In English literature the Oriental tale is far less important. It remained a half-subliminal form, sometimes used as a vehicle for criticism; sometimes as an embodiment for a moral sentiment or an allegory; sometimes as a frame for an essay, as with Addison; and sometimes even as a story for its own sake. Goldsmith's Citizen of the World and Johnson's Rasselas are the only members of the form that survive at all (except Vathek ), and there seems little else that deserves to live, with the possible exception of certain of Dr. Hawkesworth's stories. Most Oriental material is poverty-stricken in both idea and execution.

Beckford's contribution lies in the imagination that he brought to a basically dull genre. He was successful in regaining the sense of wonder that permeated the original Islamic stories. His was a recreation of the Gothicism of Islam, a cultural milieu as medieval as the European Gothicism of Walpole and his contemporaries. Beckford created afresh the Magic culture in its most delightful as well as its most horrific form.

Vathek is a skilfully plotted, amusing story, pervaded with a strong feeling for irony and a sense of the ludicrous that emerges from even the sinister activities of the mad caliph and his frenzied companions. The story is original with Beckford, for no Islamic sources have ever been found, although there does seem to have been a Caliph Watik. What parallels exist between Vathek and other works of literature are mostly of French origin. Yet part of his story he found very close at hand. Carathis, as his contemporaries recognized, is the image of his mother; Nouronihar is probably based on his mistress and cousin, Mrs. Peter Beckford, who shared impiety, lust and stupidity with Nouronihar; and Vathek is obviously and admittedly Beckford himself in his headlong quest for new sensation, new beauty, and peace. A forewarning of Vathek is to be found in one of the dreams reported in Beckford's Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents : "I hurried to bed, and was soon lulled asleep by the storm. A dream bore me off to Persepolis; and led me thro' vast subterraneous treasures to a hall, where Solomon, methought, was holding forth on their vanity." Equally, the domains of Vathek came to be represented in Fonthill, and just as Walpole's Castle of Otranto is the embodiment of a building, Vathek is a man, a building, and a mode of thought all remarkably hypostatized as a novel.


1. M. G. Lewis, who shared with Beckford the characteristics of great wealth, West Indian possessions, moral turpitude, and a taste for the marvelous, and the young George Meredith are the only authors who seem to have produced even entertaining work in this tradition immediately after Beckford. The Oriental ethnographic novel of Thomas Hope, James Morier and Meadows Taylor was a different phenomenon, with roots in both the picaresque novel and Sir Walter Scott.


SOURCE: Frank, Frederick S. "The Gothic Vathek: The Problem of Genre Resolved." In Vathek and the Escape from Time: Bicentenary Revaluations, edited by Kenneth W. Graham, pp. 152-72. New York: AMS, 1990.

In the following essay, Frank argues for the placement of Vathek within the Gothic tradition.

This short essay investigates the problem of genre or genres in Beckford's Vathek. 1 The paper develops an argument for a Gothic Vathek, a work that is structurally, thematically, and symbolically in harmony with the central motifs of an emergent Gothic tradition. The critical argument is built upon four propositions about the generic characteristics of Beckford's orientalized Gothic novel, those features of form and theme which Vathek shares in common with other Gothic examples taken from the period. The four Gothic aspects that I want to examine are: first, the pattern of the demonic quest or perverse pilgrimage, a Gothic version of the long and dark voyage of the hero; second, the physical and psychological nature of the protagonist, since I want to argue that Vathek himself is an early manifestation of the heroic villainy so characteristic of the Gothic novel's tormented tormentor, those towering and terrifying beings who have risked all for evil or those "grand, ungodly, godlike"2 men who can slay with the eye or paralyze with the voice or immobilize their victims in other unusual ways; third, the preference of the characters for diminishing enclosures and similar forms of architectural sequestration as denoted by such Gothic locales as towers, grottos, caverns, contracting corridors, and subterranean theatres of hellish anguish; and finally, the evocation of a hypothetically malignant cosmos, an ontologically unreliable and ambiguously deceiving Gothic universe in which all moral norms are inverted or twisted, where disorder is far more likely than order, and where universal darkness can bury all without warning and at any moment.

If we take the metaphoric aspects of Vathek seriously, the novel makes its statement about God, the self, and the world in a speculative manner similar to other models of high Gothic fiction. Like other Gothic writers active at the end of the eighteenth century, Beckford uses his own Gothic novel to confront the moral ambiguities of an inexplicable universe; nor can we overlook the fact that Beckford ends Vathek with an austere moral concerning nothing less than "the condition of man upon earth."3Vathek 's Gothic, like other varieties of Gothic within the genre, certainly does amuse and entertain us, and no one would want to overlook the role of the ludicrous in Beckford's Gothic text. But the risible diversion of the reader is not always its sole aim or end. Gothics such as Vathek are also concerned with matters of first and final causation as well as fundamental issues of existence. Furthermore, Gothics such as Vathek project a disquieting Weltanschauung and by so doing, they engage us in final questions by displaying for the reader a world in which evil is stronger than good, instability more probable than stability, and unnatural passions closer to the true core of human behavior than the calm control of the intellect. Inquisitive characters in Gothic fiction (the inordinately curious caliph Vathek is a prime example) are forced to ask their questions and seek their answers in a sort of intellectual vacuum without the support of stable value systems to affirm any answers their quest might lead them to. Symbolically speaking, they must move through a landscape of collapsed ego-ideals wherein the older symbols of authority, secular and divine, lie everywhere in ruin. Beckford's characters, like the entrapped casts of other Gothic novels, are never free, although they may delude themselves with the dream of freedom by their sensual and sadistic conduct. At issue throughout Vathek, as one pro-Gothic reader of the novel has stated it, is the "contradiction between the illusion of man's freedom and the reality of his imprisonment in a necessitarian universe."4

From the advantageous retrospective of literary history, Vathek can be studied as a prototype of the subjective and subversive Gothic tendencies in the late eighteenth century which were beginning to challenge and displace an exhausted classicism and a moribund rationalism in the arts. The Gothic novel attained its astounding preeminence (in the form of literally thousands of horrid titles) in the late 1790s in the maiden-centered romances of Mrs. Radcliffe and the outrageous supernaturalism of Lewis's The Monk. Nearly four decades separate Vathek from the masterworks of Gothicism, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), and James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). But at the beginnings of the Gothic movement, Beckford's Vathek enjoyed the unique status of being a model for the emergent energies of the Gothic. Yet, the Vathek of 1786 has no close literary equivalent, unless the irrational itself be denominated a genre. Preceding Vathek were several narrative experiments important to recognize in summarizing the rise of the Gothic genre: Thomas Leland's Longsword, Earl of Salisbury (1762); Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764); Clara Reeve's Old English Baron (1777). Leland's Longsword, an elaborately plotted romance of chivalry set in an imaginary Middle Ages, contained both the quest and a panorama of grandly gloomy architectural settings. Walpole's Otranto supernaturalized the sinister properties of Gothic architecture and added the pursuing hero-villain and the fleeing maiden as they performed their violent minuet in "the long labyrinth of darkness,"5 the basement of the haunted castle. Clara Reeve relaxed and normalized the irrational atmosphere already associated with the new genre, but she also cleverly installed a forbidden chamber within the castle, thus donating a mandatory fixture to the Gothic interior. At the climax of Vathek, we have an enlarged version of Clara Reeve's chamber of horrors. These romances were the only available Gothic models when Beckford sat down to compose his Vathek. Beckford was very much aware of these Gothic contemporaries and conscious too of the rational malaise that had generated their Gothic endeavors. The Gothics of Leland, Walpole, and Reeve had challenged the efficacy of rationalism both as an outlook and a response to existence. In its abhorrence of limits and its repudiation of a meaningful universe, the Gothic Vathek of Beckford is an extension of the darkening vision of these first Gothics.

The first reviewers of Vathek found no difficulty in assigning Gothic traits to the work. The English Review for 1786, to choose just one instance, discussed Vathek in terms of vigorous extremes and grotesque energy. "The characters," noted the reviewer, "are strongly marked though carried beyond nature; the incidents are sufficiently wild and improbable; the magic is solemn and awful, though sometimes horrid; anachronisms and inconsistencies frequently appear; and the catastrophe is bold and shocking."6 The sadistic absurdities and diabolical climax aroused the moral fury of the reviewer of the 1834 edition. Writing in The Southern Literary Messenger, the reviewer denounced the novel's Gothic qualities as "obscene and blasphemous in the highest degree…. We should pronounce it, without knowing anything of Mr. Beckford's character, to be the production of a sensualist and an infidel—one who could riot in the most abhorred and depraved conceptions—and whose prolific fancy preferred as its repast all that was diabolical and monstrous, rather than what was beautiful and good."7

Modern criticism of Vathek, however, has tended to dismiss or ignore the novel's affinities with "the monstrous and diabolical" currents of Gothicism in order to stress Beckford's predisposition to irony and his cynical undercutting of Vathek 's carefully built moods of terror. With the exception of the conclusion of the quest far down within the fiery Hall of Eblis, Vathek, is viewed as a work which shows so much vacillation between hilarity and horror that to call it Gothic in any sense is to misrepresent its literary essence and its generic category. The anti-Gothic view is expressed by one of the best twentieth-century editors of Vathek, who believes that any concession to Gothic responses would deny Beckford's comic purposes. "There was nothing in Vathek, " Roger Lonsdale assures us, "which obliged reviewers to connect it with contemporary 'Gothic' tendencies in the novel. It is not easy to see that Vathek sets out to exploit the imaginative terror, the suspense of psychological shock tactics which were entering the English novel about this time."8 The case against a Gothic Vathek gathers additional impetus from the opinions of R. D. Hume and Frederick Garber, two sympathetic and perceptive interpreters of Gothic fiction. Garber, who has edited Mrs. Radcliffe's The Italian (1797) and written many incisive commentaries on the place of the Gothic in literary history, nevertheless can find no place for Vathek in the annals of Gothicism. Writes Garber: "Vathek has been called a counterpart of the Gothic but it shows none of that calculated fuzziness through which the Gothic exposed the uncertainty of our daily perceptions of experience."9 And R. D. Hume, whose 1969 PMLA essay, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," is something of a landmark in the debate over the Gothic genre's crucial importance and its growing scholarly respectability, finds Vathek to be too flippant, ironic, and burlesque in tone to merit a Gothic classification. Writes Hume: "Vathek is often treated as a Gothic novel on the grounds that it exploits horror and magic scenery in Schauer-Romantik fashion. Yet I must agree with the work's recent editor that Vathek is not centrally of the Gothic type. Its horrors reach the point of burlesque, and its continual return to a detached and even comic tone set it apart."10 For Hume, and his position may be regarded as the orthodox position on Vathek 's Gothicism, the work is best comprehended within the subgenres of comedy such as farce, burlesque, and harlequinade, "a dark-tinged but high spirited comedy" and "an existential crisis defused by comic exaggeration."11

Beckford shares with other early Gothic writers a paradoxical sense of the chaotic whereby images of former order are demonically reversed. Thus, it is Satan (or Eblis, as the archfiend is called in the Muhammadan tradition) who is the prime mover and highest authority in Vathek 's anarchic and nihilistic universe; the unspeakably repulsive becomes the attractive or the hilarious blurs into the hideous; the infernal replaces the celestial as the objective of the quester's journey; and the desire for damnation supplants salvation as the pilgrim soul's sharpest desire. These bizarre inversions directly connect Vathek with some major Gothic themes found in other specimens of Gothicism from Walpole's Otranto to Maturin's Melmoth. After consciously choosing evil, Beckford's Satanic hero makes a first voyage of no return in his profane quest for an infernal Xanadu. In the dark voyage of the hero may be seen a composite of Gothic motifs: a displacement of soul and loss of self which the hero attempts to counter by a descent to the lower depths; the hero's mounting awareness of the futility of spiritual values and the pointlessness of human wisdom and intelligence; realization of a universe controlled by a fiendish deity devoted to man's confusion and despair; the Faustian problem of the overreacher's limitless desire in a limited cosmos; and the ridiculousness of suffering as symbolized by the proximity of pleasure and pain in many of Vathek's adventures en route to hell.

The mythic and philosophic elements of the Gothic outlook first converge in the physical and psychological aspects of Vathek himself, a model Gothic protagonist. Whether he be a debauched monk, rapist nobleman, cruel count, ferocious brigand, or malicious caliph, the Gothic villain is a two-sided personality, a figure of great power and latent virtue whose chosen career of evil is the result of a clash between his passionate nature and the unnatural restraints of conventions, orthodoxy, and tradition. Moreover, Vathek is the first Gothic villain whose moral and physical features are given in detail. Vathek's predecessor, Manfred, in The Castle of Otranto, is barely described at all and one looks in vain for any lavish description of the hideous Gothic face and frame, always a landmark passage in later varieties of the Gothic. But in the makeup of Beckford's caliph, we find the progenitor of almost every single later Gothic villain, for Vathek's Satanic personality is inscribed in his face and single overwhelming eye. The lethal optic, like Vathek's private tower, is an image of absolute and pernicious power. It connotes his contempt for rational and mortal limits and functions as it will in later Gothic figures as a weapon of visionary penetration. Vathek is first introduced to the reader by way of the awesome eye: "His figure was pleasing and majestic; but when he was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible, that no person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed, instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired."12 Vathek's deadly glance, the single eye that can maim or slay, is almost immediately transplanted to the Gothic features of Mrs. Radcliffe's Montoni and Schedoni, Lewis's Ambrosio, and attains its demonic zenith first in the blazing eyes of Melmoth the Wanderer and eventually in the ocular stimulus to madness in the "vulture eye" of the prostrate old man in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." The Gothic eye which is frequently used to immobilize a reluctant maiden or to paralyze a rival heir to the castle originates with Beckford's caliph.

Complementing the ferocious and supernatural eye in the personage of Vathek is the character's passionate commitment to evil, the final stage of Faustian curiosity and ungratified sensuality. Vathek's passion for the supreme climb culminated by a haughty seclusion within a tower, or its reverse, the ultimate descent to the Palace of Subterranean Fire, are two images of perverted aspiration which give Vathek its model Gothic structure. Vathek's toweromania, or compulsion to elevate and isolate himself in contemptuous pride at some supreme pinnacle is counterpointed throughout the narrative by his excessive grottophilia, the impulse to descend to an ultimate darkness there to dwell eternally within a fiery abyss presided over by demons. Inspired by "an insolent curiosity of penetrating the secrets of heaven,"13 Vathek transmits to the Gothic villains who come after him in the genre a powerful longing for absolutes in a universe devoid of such finalities. Atop one of his flaming towers, Vathek amuses himself with the mass strangulation of his subjects. In the depths of the earth at the opposite end of the novel's axis of Gothic action he joins the vast congregation of the damned upon seeing his breast become "transparent as crystal, his heart enveloped in flames."14 The Gothic Vathek is the genre's first full-length portrait of a tormented tormentor, a metaphysical isolate and a monomaniac who thirsts to realize himself in evil.

Various examples of the Vathekian traits of future Gothic villains might be cited to demonstrate Beckford's major contribution to the making of the Gothic hero. Here, for example, is Count Rudiger of Frankheim, the hero of Monk Lewis's little known Gothic novella, Mistrust: or, Blanche and Osbright. When we first see this titanic villain, he is standing in an open grave glaring defiantly upward in a posture of mortal defiance. Note that Count Rudiger derives both the death-dealing eye and the fatal passion from Vathek. Those powerful emotions which would certainly prove fatal to any ordinary human being become a source of malignant strength for the Vathekian character who denounces life even as he seeks to triumph over it:

His heart was the seat of agony; a thousand scorpions seemed every moment to pierce it with their poisonous stings; but not one tear forced itself into his bloodshot eyeballs; not the slightest convulsion of his gigantic limbs betrayed the silent tortures of his bosom. A gloom settled and profound reigned upon his dark and high-arched eyebrows. Count Rudiger's stature was colossal; the grave in which he stood, scarcely rose above his knees. His eyes blazed; his mouth foamed; his coal-black hair stood erect, in which he twisted his hands, and tearing out whole handsful by the roots, he strewed them on the coffin, which stood beside his feet.15

If the character of the protagonist helps to identify the genre of Vathek, the hero's destination and his progressively frustrated experiences as he approaches his journey's end further define just how deeply Gothic the work is. Vathek's Gothic grail is nothing less than damnation for himself and those who accompany him in the voyage downward and inward to hell. The quest is demonic because it begins in torment, proceeds through heightened degrees of self-destruction, and climaxes in the hopeless horror of body and of soul for the disappointed quester. Unlike a traditional epic hero whose descent into the underworld takes him to his heroic limits and yields him a transcendent or victorious release from the darkness of self-doubt, Vathek's descending voyage ends in perplexity, guilt, and despair. Gifted with the power of perpendicular imagination, a necessary angle of vision for realizing the upper and lower limits of Gothic fantasy, Beckford conveys his hero along a vertical axis of exotic anguish and blue fire effects. Enroute to hell, Vathek and Nouronihar traverse an insular landscape rich in diabolical spectacle. Indeed, it is almost as if we were hearing descriptions of Dante's inferno as Laurence Sterne might have written them. The algolagnic terrain offers stairways spiraling downward to black depths of no return, Gothic pits containing chuckling ghouls who must be fed on live children, a pyramid of skulls nearly as high as the Gizeh monument, reptiles with human faces, toxic delicacies and idolatrous banquets consisting of "roasted wolf" vultures à la daube … rotten truffles; boiled thistles: and such other wild plants, as must ulcerate the throat and parch up the tongue,"16 odd lights and bizarre beasts including an omnipresent squadron of vultures, flaming towers, and a kaleidoscopic subterranean amphitheatre in which Vathek's sorceress mother, Carathis, performs obscene rites amidst an ornate charnel decor to the accompaniment of a shrieking chorus of one-eyed negresses and burning mummies. Across quivering plains of black sand, through swarms of curious insects, past batallions of howling cripples and cubit-high dwarfs, into blizzards of burning snowflakes Vathek makes the Gothic's downward voyage of no return.

Vathek's precursor, the European Faust had sold his soul out of a desire for power and pleasure, but Beckford's Islamic Faust already possesses these and willingly renounces them to seek pain and damnation. One of the deepest and most enduring patterns of the Gothic quest which brings the ambitious character to the horror of horrors in an underground of no return is to be observed in Vathek's perverse pilgrimage. The Gothic hero's abhorrence for limits stimulates his Satanic vanity; his vanity expresses itself in a destructive pursuit of an ideal of horrid beauty typically depicted elsewhere throughout Gothic fiction by the maiden and villain performing their deadly duet of flight and pursuit through the subterranean passageways of a haunted building. The destructive pursuit of beauty culminates in spiritual and metaphysical frustration for Vathek thus implying an irrationally determined universe in which man is fixed as an eternal victim condemned to occupy forever some chamber of horrors. In Vathek's case, the destination is an "immense hall … where a vast multitude is incessantly passing"17 in a never-ending parade of anguish.

The transcendental or epic hero often climaxes his quest by arriving at some vision of totality, but when Gothic heroes venture into the heart of darkness their experiences at the dead center often invert the conventional romance's pattern of achievement and self-fulfillment. From Beckford's Vathek to Melville's Captain Ahab, the Gothic hero is a frustrated quester whose pursuit of the absolute ends by condemning him to endless circuits '"round perdition's flame."18 Gothic novels after Vathek adhere to the pattern of the ironic quest, a destructive version of the hero's long journey to a dark place which the Gothic hero makes not in order to rescue the maiden but to rape her.

The pro-Gothic reading of Beckford's strange novel enables us to recognize the motif of the dark, inward voyage as a characteristic of the genre at large. Gothic romances like Vathek mock the very form they feed on for they "retain the structure of romance, but invert the hero's progress. The result is a linear descent: aesthetically, from the Hill of the Pied Horses to the Hall of Eblis; psychologically, from wishfulfillment to frustration; and metaphysically, from a vision of humanity as unlimited potentiality to humanity as finite actuality in an alien world."19 Other characters throughout the Gothic genre who decide to risk all for evil suffer the fate of Vathek in similar gruesome confinements of body and soul. In Gothic terms, the Eblis episode means a permanent condition of disunity between the self and nature, the self and society, and the self and God. At the end of the novel, we have entered the zone of ultimate cosmic discord intensified by the dreadful apprehension that the world is under the control of a demon and that there is "no exit." The imagery of death-in-life or life-in-death which typifies the high Gothic through such situations as premature burial, cadaverous enclosure, and lingering impalement attains its first full development in the descriptions of Vathek and company in the Hall of Eblis.

The final point to be made for a Gothic Vathek involves the way in which the work's atmosphere goes beyond comedy, irony, and wild disorder to evoke the theme of a malignant universe in which the imagination, always striving to be free of rational bounds, is repeatedly denied its goals. Freedom of mind is perpetually at issue throughout Gothic fiction, the physical flight and pursuit through avenues of darkness and the other forms of dreadful entrapment all indicating symbolically the imagination's containment by finite ideas and restrictive ideological structure. Beyond the buffoonery of Vathek, the theme of freedom is powerfully stated through Vathek's continuous contact with a world that continuously disappoints his suprarational desire to liberate himself from all mortal restraints. Each of his Gothic ordeals is a perverse universe's reminder to him of an invincible and limited reality impeding every effort of the imagination to break through rational defenses. This menace of limits which a malignant cosmos fixes upon its creatures of aspiring imagination is at the very core of Vathek 's Gothicism as well as a trait of the Gothic tradition at large, where characters constantly strive to be free but exist in bondage to some grotesque enclosure, be it a haunted castle or an arabesque Hades thronged with the damned in flaming heart postures. In her important treatise, "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror," (1792) Beckford's contemporary, the Gothic theorist Ann Letitia Aikin Barbauld, describes the degree of terror experienced when a character is confronted and overwhelmed by an unholy or perverse "otherness," as Vathek is each time he attempts to overreach the limits of self. Higher Gothic horror of the sort we encounter in the climactic scenes in the Hall of Eblis places Vathek in the highest category of the Gothic genre, the region of total ontological distress, where the mythology of the imaginative self as an agent of control gives way to the nightmare of a supreme and malignant "otherness" which cannot be escaped or transcended. The conditions of such an otherness are expressed by Mrs. Barbauld as "Solitude, darkness, low-whispered sounds, obscure glimpses of objects, flitting forms [which] tend to raise in the mind that thrilling, mysterious terror which has for its object the 'powers unseen and mightier than we,'"20 precisely the conditions which prevail at the frustrated terminus of Vathek's imaginative quest.

G. R. Thompson has written that "the Gothic romance is a genre that in its historical development, as well as in individual texts, moves from a stable modality of clearly defined conventions and forms toward an unstable and deliberately indeterminate modality. Frequently, the Gothic veers toward the grotesque, a mode of inherent instability that plays on the dissolution of norms—ontological, epistemological and aesthetic."21 The Gothic Vathek is just such an apocalyptic narrative where the problem of genre can only be resolved by viewing the work as part of the energetic revolt against reason spearheaded by the dominance of the tale of terror during the closing decades of the eighteenth century. In the chaotic landscape of the Gothic tradition it stands like one of Beckford's infernal towers deep within the zone of ultimate Gothic fantasy where we find not just a destabilization of the norms cited by Thompson, but the dark universe's mockery of all human striving.


1. William Beckford, Vathek, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970).

2. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter 16 ("The Ship").

3. Beckford, Vathek, p. 120.

4. Kenneth W. Graham, "Beckford's 'Vathek': A Study in Ironic Dissonance," Criticism, 14 (1972), 252.

5. Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, in Three Gothic Novels, ed. E. F. Bleiler, p. 36.

6. English Review, 8 (1786), 180-184.

7. Southern Literary Messenger, 1 (1834), 188-189.

8. Roger Lonsdale, Introduction to Vathek by William Beckford, pp. vii-xxxi.

9. Frederick Garber, "Beckford, Delacroix, and Byronic Orientalism," Comparative Literature Studies, 18 (1981), 321-332.

10. R. D. Hume, "Exuberant Gloom, Existential Agony, and Heroic Despair: Three Varieties of Negative Romanticism," in The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, ed. G. R. Thompson, pp. 109-117.

11. R. D. Hume, "Exuberant Gloom," p. 117.

12. Beckford, Vathek, p. 1.

13. Beckford, Vathek, p. 4.

14. Beckford, Vathek, p. 114.

15. Matthew G. Lewis, Mistrust: or, Blanche and Osbright, in Seven Masterpieces of Gothic Horror, ed. R. D. Spector, pp. 237-330.

16. Beckford, Vathek, p. 49.

17. Beckford, Vathek, p. 109.

18. Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 36 ("The Quarter-Deck").

19. Randall Craig, "Beckford's Inversion of Romance in Vathek," Orbis Litterarum, 39 (1984), 95-106.

20. Ann Letitia Aiken Barbauld, "On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror," in The Evil Image, eds. Patricia L. Skarda and Nora Crow Jaffe, pp. 10-13.

21. G. R. Thompson, "The Form of Gothic Romance," a paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Meeting, Washington, DC, December 1984, pp. 1-26.


SOURCE: Gill, R. B. "The Author in the Novel: Creating Beckford in Vathek." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 15, no. 2 (January 2003): 241-54.

In the following essay, Gill examines the authentic authorial persona in Vathek.

According to David Hume, "The mind is a kind of theatre where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations."1 Hume's well-known account of personal identity aptly describes William Beckford—petulant heir to great wealth, a member of Parliament, connoisseur, architectural dilettante, fugitive from sexual scandal, and author of Vathek, one of the most enjoyable and intriguing of the eighteenth-century Oriental tales. Across the pages of Vathek and, indeed, of Beckford's whole life pass and mingle the successive actors of his disjointed identity.

Hume's caution to the reader is especially relevant in Beckford's case: "the comparison with theatre must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is compos'd." The spectators of Beckford's life and the readers of his tale have wished to know the materials of which his inner self was composed in order to explain his theatrics, but they have never agreed on what they found. And Beckford himself, complaining of the mask he wore, yet intent on preserving a gentlemanly image, a man unwillingly hastened by his family and his wealth from one performance to the next, seems never to have found that inner being with which he could be at peace. The result is that there are many Beckfords, some he himself created and many created by his various critics.


The circumstance to which the above story relates was not very uncommon in Turkey…. The story in the text is one told of a young Venetian many years ago, and now nearly forgotten. I heard it by accident recited by one of the coffee-house story-tellers who abound in the Levant, and sing or recite their narratives. The additions and interpolations by the translator will be easily distinguished from the rest, by the want of Eastern imagery; and I regret that my memory has retained so few fragments of the original. For the contents of some of the notes I am indebted partly to D'Herbelot, and partly to that most Eastern, and, as Mr. Weber justly entitles it, "sublime tale," the Caliph Vathek. I do not know from what source the author of that singular volume may have drawn his materials; some of his incidents are to be found in the Bibliothèque Orientale; but for correctness of costume, beauty of description, and power of imagination, it far surpasses all European imitations; and bears such marks of originality, that those who have visited the East will find some difficulty in believing it to be more than a translation. As an Eastern tale, even Rasselas must bow before it; his "Happy Valley" will not bear a comparison with the "Hall of Eblis."

SOURCE: Byron, George Gordon, Lord. "A footnote to The Giaour." In The Poetical Works of Lord Byron. Collected and Arranged with Illustrative Notes by Thomas Moore, Lord Jeffrey, Sir Walter Scott [and others] with a Portrait and Numerous Illustrations on Steel, p. 76. New York: G. Virtue, 1813.

But these created selves are, to use Hume's terms for personal identity, "merely verbal" (p. 262). These verbal Beckfords are plots without a story, the texts he and we write in lieu of an anchoring identity. The problem in Beckford's case lies not so much in this textuality as in our desire (and his) to find the originating self of that text. The ambiguities surrounding Beckford prompt a search for biographical explanations. Yet Beckford's personae within Vathek and his life are clearly created ones, even though they are offered as biographical fact. In this respect, Beckford's presence in the novel is typical of other authorial personae, artistic creations that paradoxically function properly only when taken as factual biography. But when that paradox tempts critics into the impossible task of locating the true self of the author, they find only what Hume notes is a mysterious and inexplicable fiction. Vathek is a clear case of a novel especially in need of a biographical centre to resolve its ambiguities.2 Not finding that centre or authorial identity, critics (and Beckford himself) have created a number of identities to satisfy their own perceptions of the needs of the novel.

A straightforward Oriental tale whose quick narrative and polished style cover no depths of complex psychological characterization, Vathek would not seem to offer special problems of interpretation. Yet critical views of this novel vary widely. It has been seen as both Gothic and non-Gothic, satiric and non-satiric, realistic and fantastic, neoclassic and romantic, socially conventional and anti-bourgeois, metaphysical and messageless, as well as both unified and split in its sensibility. Vathek has been valued for its "correctness of costume," criticized for its elaborate explanatory notes, and, notably, regarded as moral, immoral, amoral, and "anti-moral."3

The diverse critical opinions arise in part from the intriguing mixture of opposites in Beckford's style. Whether we consider it Oriental or Gothic or whatever, Vathek is essentially the sort of fabular parable that the eighteenth-century reader enjoyed. It is thus outside the realistic mainstream that has come to represent for us the novel's most characteristic mode of addressing moral issues. And yet, on its surface at least, it is an explicitly moral parable. Consequently, there is difficulty for us, as there was for Beckford's contemporaries, in reconciling the fabular, Eastern exoticism of Vathek with its moral elements. Further, we cannot say of Vathek, as we can of Candide and Rasselas, that its imaginative centre lies in the moral message, for our interest in the perverse actions of the characters frequently jars with the conventional morals, particularly the closing moral that "the condition of man upon earth is to be—humble and ignorant."

There is an additional mixing of opposites in the self-conscious playfulness of Beckford's style. Like Sterne, Beckford watches himself write and is intrigued by the possibilities of expressing himself in guises—now moral, now perverse, now coy, now sublime. He cannot resist indulging himself momentarily in some ludicrous or incongruous aspect of his material. The storks, for instance, that join the morning prayers of Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz by the lake are a poke at the solemnity of religious greybeards, but their incongruity as members of the worshipping congregation is so striking that it distracts attention from the narrative, an indulgence we enjoy as part of a highly self-referential style. Beckford is not willing to suppress these moments of self-conscious fun; Vathek smiles at its sardonic incongruities from the first paragraph to its closing moralisms.

Beckford uses authorial self-consciousness in the text of Vathek to remove himself from his occult material and thus to preserve, or create, an aura of sophistication and control. Here is no romantic subordination or merging of author with his outré creation, as we find in the works of Poe. Rather, Vathek is an eighteenth-century amalgam of Pope's proud epic notes in the Dunciad (a similarity Beckford recognized) and Sterne's sophisticated and intensely self-aware metafiction. Beckford wants us to observe him laughing at his subject, manipulating it: a gentleman engaged with compromising material but, nevertheless, in thorough control of it and able to smile knowingly at his own folly. In this mixture of opposites, Vathek, like many other neoclassical works, has a civilized sophistication that acknowledges its own role-playing.

In fact, Beckford cared greatly about the image of himself created in Vathek. In this respect the novel is a literary counterpart of Fonthill, the Gothic abbey on which he later lavished his efforts and money. On occasion he claimed, somewhat misleadingly, to have written the novel in several days in a fit of inspiration, and he romanticized about the "most extravagant intensity" of the Christmas celebration at Fonthill that formed part of the inspiration of the novel. Beckford's letters reveal that he was very much aware of the effect of his image on others—and that he enjoyed the thought. Vathek is "the only production of mine which I am not ashamed of" he wrote to Samuel Henley; and in a different letter he spoke of the "honours" with which he expected Vathek to be received. To another correspondent he wrote of "ma vanité" of the Caliph, and in the journal of his stay in Portugal he noted that he was "extremely impatient" to receive "the last monthly reviews in which I expect to read a critique on Vathek. " Cyrus Redding, his first biographer, recalled, "To abuse Vathek he deemed a personal insult. His pride took the alarm and he could scarcely restrain his anger, so fierce when aroused, though evanescent."4

The references in his letters to shame, honour, and pride reveal his characteristic concern with the relationship between his work and his reputation. Biographers often note the changes that Beckford made in his papers and letters in order that they appear most advantageous. Contemporaries of Beckford such as Mrs Thrale, William Hazlitt, and Byron understood the degree to which public appearance was involved in Beckford's effects and enjoyed the scandal that attended his reputation. A continuing motif in the Portuguese journal, written shortly after publication of Vathek, is Beckford's awareness that others are watching his carefully contrived self-image: "I hear there is no conversation in Lisbon but of my poetry." "My reputation as a devotee spreads prodigiously." Although he notes, "I am sick of forming the chief subject of conversation at all the card tables," he also takes care to record the surprise with which "the whole herd of precentors, priests, musicians and fencing masters" listen to his playing and singing. Again, "my singing, playing and capering subdues every Portuguese that approaches me." In preparation for a trip to a convent, he writes, "I am furbishing up a string of highly polished saintly speeches for the occasion." And later, "for flippery in crossing myself and goosishness in poking out my head I will turn my back to no one." Beckford, then, works carefully to create a persona; he attentively watches people react to that image; and he self-consciously distances himself from his creation through self abnegating humour with such references as "flippery," "goosishness," and "capering."5

It is true that he grew restive with his public self. In one entry, after worrying about a possible scrape with a "young friend," he continues with the complaint often quoted by critics, "How tired I am of keeping a mask on my countenance. How tight it sticks—it makes me sore." Significantly, he immediately follows this complaint with self-conscious observation upon it: "There's a metaphor for you. I have all the fancies and levity of a child."6 The ingredients of Beckford's dilemma are here—the concern with image, the restiveness, and the recurrent self-consciousness that flickers over his thoughts and actions. He does not remove his mask but worries, instead, about getting into a scrape. For all the restiveness, the image of himself that Beckford contrived to project was exterior: he was concerned with his public reputation, with the appurtenances of a gentlemanly and leisured class, with his adeptness in Oriental matters, and with the skill of his style and of the "magnificence" with which Vathek concludes.

Yet that exterior image has never seemed sufficient or trustworthy, a circumstance that accounts for the central critical dilemma of Vathek. The novel's puzzling mixture of opposites invites the reader to seek an inner author, the "real" Beckford accessible through psychological examination. Behind the varying judgments of Beckford's novel lie critical assessments of his inner person. There are explanations that he was impotent, homosexual, bisexual, dominated by a Calvinist mother, grieving for his dead wife, a leisurely country gentleman, bitter, mad, vile, sadistic, a "barely socialized psychopath," and so on.7 Without question, the novel is a document in Beckford's life, as biographically relevant as, say, his construction of Fonthill. Nor is Beckford the type of artist whose work rises self-contained and impersonal above its historical contingencies. Vathek is a minor novel, interesting in itself certainly, but also of legitimate interest as a record of the tastes of its author and age.

Nevertheless, for all the care and intelligence expended on it, the search for the inner, unifying Beckford has not been successful. Mme de Staël, to whom Beckford had given a copy of his travelogue Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, wrote to him, "You dream when you have nothing to describe. Imagination, which invents or represents objects, has never been given more freedom." Likewise, André Parreaux has noted that seeing "le vrai visage" of Beckford behind his mask is a matter of great difficulty. V.S. Pritchett claimed that "everything Beckford writes is suspect, for truth and fiction are hard to separate in this incessantly revising and play-acting autobiographer."8 And that is the dilemma. The search for the interior Beckford seems a necessary step to reconciling the opposites in his life and work, but that search cannot lead us past the contrived and public mask it was Beckford's fate to wear.

For both practical and theoretical reasons, the inner Beckford cannot be found. First, it is important to bear in mind the well-known dangers of moving back and forth between biography and art. One need not be unduly afraid of the Intentional Fallacy or of its reverse, biography based on interpretation of the artist's works, to recognize the difficulties and dangers and, therefore, the need of great caution. Is Fielding the compassionate observer of the ambiguities of mercy in Tom Jones or the sterner remembrancer of justice in Amelia? And to what extent can we move from his actual experience as magistrate of the Bow Street police court to the more sombre judicial tone of that later novel?

But no matter how receptive we are to the intermingling of biography and art, we must allow for the great practical difficulties that interfere with our understanding of the relevant facts of Beckford's life. Beckford was born to a public family with the expectation and the means of creating and protecting an appropriate public image. There is evidence that the suppression of Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents came as a result of family fears that its injudicious subjectivity might endanger a public career. "Neither Orlando nor Brandimart," he wrote of the matter, "were ever more tormented by Daemons and Spectres in an enchanted Castle than Wm. Bd. in his own Hall by his nearest relations."9

His marriage to Lady Margaret Gordon again seems the result of a family strategy, as was his short stay in Parliament. Lady Hamilton's vivid letter to Beckford in 1780 attempting to dissuade him from a scandalous liaison in Venice stresses the public image that Beckford's relations valued above all. What is the struggle against temptation for, she asks. "No less than honor, reputation and all that an honest and noble Soul holds most dear, while Infamy, eternal infamy (my soul freezes while I write the word), attends the giving way to the soft alluring of a criminal passion."10 For most of his life Beckford seems to have resented and struggled against these impositions on his private self, but he did not throw them off. The private Beckford remained cloistered. Unlike Byron, Parreaux notes, Beckford would not play the role of outcast but tried to maintain the fiction of having a privileged place in the society of his time.11 In fact, much of the pathos of Beckford's life results from the disparity between his compromised reputation and his expectations of an aristocratic, privileged position. Beckford chose an unhappy role to play, but the important point here is that he chose the public and proper role urged on him by his family.

Beckford's sexuality has been a key concern of critics looking for the inner explanation of Vathek 's opposites. In 1785 Beckford left England temporarily in the wake of a scandal over his relationship with the young William Courtenay. The opprobrium remaining from this incident together with continuing rumours plagued him throughout his life. But our understanding of this matter is enormously complicated by the practical difficulties of determining the facts, by the different theoretical models used to explain the facts, by the limitations of any sort of psychological explanation, and by the divergent uses that critics make of their conclusions even when they agree on the facts. We know that Beckford was married with two daughters, that his wife maintained her faith in him, and that he grieved her death. What lies behind the protective public face must be surmised. Beckford's letters and papers contain helpful information, but, as noted, they were revised in places with the intention of portraying a desirable image; they are often oblique, and, as Boyd Alexander observes, Beckford "dramatises and exaggerates his moods and feelings." Beckford himself lamented in his Journal, "I have more profligacy of tongue than of character and often do my utmost to make myself appear worse than I am in reality."12

Further, even where the facts seem clear, there is the theoretical difficulty of knowing how to interpret them. What do we want to say—that he was homosexual, bisexual, merely self-indulgent without a strongly marked sexual orientation? Do we want to psychoanalyse him as a case of "narcissistic paederasty"? This last diagnosis is informative, a perceptive use of psychological criticism to explain the tensions in Beckford's style, but at bottom it illustrates the limitations of attempts to explain what lurks behind the scenes of the mind. Its diagnosis, "narcissistic paederasty,"13 is not defined precisely enough for use as the key to a complex man's very difficult personality. It includes childishness as well as child-love; it is metaphorical ("a self-devouring child wishing to rape his own image"); and it is governed by the need to find a psychological unity beneath the behavioural data. Like so many explanations of sexuality, it is an imposition of a unifying concept on separate facets of behaviour. This interpretation, then, leaves us in the biographical dilemma. It is meaningful precisely because it creates a unifying matrix for separate and heterogeneous elements in Beckford's actions. As we have seen, we need interpretation imposed on the discrete items of Beckford's life in order to understand them in relationship with each other. Yet, equally clearly, there is no justification for believing that whatever interpretation we may impose is historically verifiable truth.

What indeed does it mean to "understand" the sources of a person's acts and ideas? One's actions stem from the intricate causal network that is one's whole being; therefore, no explanation can be complete. Any attempt at explanation must be an abstraction, a grouping or a simplification of a myriad causes. It represents the critic's decision about where to draw the line between significance and insignificance. And that decision must necessarily be personal and subjective. What shall we make, for instance, of an opinion that Vathek may embody Beckford's complex reaction to his "possessive and autocratic mother"?14 Again, I find the suggestion reasonable but am not certain that any array of biographical facts, no matter how extensive, would persuade another reader less convinced of the importance of parental influence than I am. What then of his equally dominating father, Alderman Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London, robust heterosexual and extrovert, who seems to have been both amused and impatient with the whims of his wilful child? Do our own explanatory models hold that fathers are not as influential as mothers?15 Or do we see a malign conjunction in their mutual influences? The point, of course, is that each of us will delineate the boundaries between significance and insignificance in different ways, ways owing as much to our explanatory models of child development as to objectively demonstrable facts about William Beckford.

Critics whose thinking is determined by one explanatory model will regard another as lacking in the requisite rigour of method and verifiability. Many types of explanations have only practical justification and, therefore, offer no a priori reasons why their results may not be duplicated by another type of explanation. Thus, psychoanalysis may in practice accomplish in contemporary society what advice from village elders or purification rituals accomplished in other ages. Because these explanatory models enable a person better to function in his or her environment and a critic to unite disparate facts under a common hypothesis, we value them highly. A model or system of beliefs with explanatory powers will come to seem self-evident, its underlying assumptions justified by the results they produce. In Beckford's case, some sort of sexual hypothesis may unite his behaviour patterns with the ambivalent closing moral of Vathek and with what we know of human behaviour from our own experiences and studies. These are significant results. They may lead us to accept the critic's interpretation, but they leave unanswered such questions as whether we understand Beckford's behaviour patterns as they really were and whether the psychological aspects of the hypothesis (for instance, "narcissistic paederasty") are empirically verifiable concepts.

Further, even satisfying explanations leave undetermined the extent to which the critic's own interpretations are mediated by personal and social codes.16 The subtleties of George Haggerty's account of Beckford's search for a "true heart's friend"17 are an advance over earlier stereotypes or what he calls "essentialist" categorizations, but his views so clearly originate in a personal thesis concerning "love" that one accepts them with the same caution necessary in reading Timothy Mowl's more commonsensical portrait of Beckford as robust bisexual horseman. The openness with which we now discuss sexual behaviour allows honest explorations, but falls easy prey to the temptations of biographical creation, which it is the purpose of this paper to delineate. Sex is far too interesting a matter to approach dispassionately. Self-congratulation on exposing the equivocations of past critics, the wrinkled pleasure of rehearsing Beckford's perfervid letters, and the rivalries of competing models of Beckford's desires all increase the risks that personal zest rather than objectivity accounts for our explanations.

What in the end are the truth-value and the verification procedure of a claim that Beckford died "at the age of eighty-four—unrepentant, unreformed, and immature"?18 I choose this remark because it comes from a respected critic of Beckford; it is both adroit and compelling. Yet its virtues are dexterity of statement (entirely a verbal virtue) and ability to bring a number of biographical strands into a single formulation (a literary and logical virtue). Neat summation is appealing in a linear, logical mode such as biography, but life itself is confused, contradictory, and illogical. What counts as a literary virtue may be in fact a liability in the search for truth. As we have seen, such a claim has its own sort of meaningfulness, but we who understand ourselves only with difficulty may remain sceptical of the biographer's ability to reduce another human's inner being to clear patterns.19

Hume's point was similar and adds to the theoretical obstacles we face in finding a "real" Beckford. Although we have a great "propension … to imagine something unknown and mysterious, connecting the parts" of our personal identity, that mysterious something is a feigned support and centre rather than a "true" entity. We know only the perceptions of others and ourselves rather than their causes. Instead of the "nice and subtile questions concerning personal identity [which] can never possibly be decided," Hume notes that the mind "gives rise to some fiction or imaginary principle of union." Our personal identity is a "grammatical" matter, a syntax of the self created from discrete parts (pp. 254, 262-63).

Hume's scepticism springs from philosophical analysis and properly concerns the existence of personal identity rather than its characteristics, which I claim Beckford and his critics are searching for. Back of Hume's analysis, however, lies an English—and especially an eighteenth-century English—emphasis on the social bases of personality, the self as acted role. As Lord Chesterfield writes (notoriously but not atypically) to his son, "Manner is all, in everything; it is by manner only that you can please, and consequently rise."20 And in his account of himself, Hume stresses his own manners and sociability: "I was a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour…. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper."21 An eighteenth-century gentleman might well doubt the inner self, for the class and the age place their interests in mannerly, social roles. For Hume, Chesterfield, and Beckford, one's identity was created, a composed grammar or syntax of the self rather than a deep structure.

We can return now to Beckford with some sympathy and understanding for his lot, that of replacing personal identity with a public face. In Vathek we have a work whose mixture of opposites seems to demand an author's personality to give it unity. Yet the very prominent personality that Beckford interjects into Vathek stands aloof from his material, for Beckford is eager that we see him laughing and manipulating the diverse attitudes of Vathek without being compromised by naïve commitment to them. That public, mannered Beckford is all we have—but not all we need if we are to depart satisfied with a unified impression of Vathek. And so we create for Beckford an inner, unifying personality, aware now that it is our own creation. We do for the novel what Beckford did for it: we write an imaginatively embellished biography of the Caliph of Fonthill just as he wrote of Vathek Billah, ninth Caliph of the Abassides.22

We end up with creations—an aristocratic Beckford defying middle-class morality in Vathek, or an infantile, sexually insecure Beckford projecting his interests on the novel, or a "nervous, self-conscious, shoulder-shrugging" littérateur, or even the impersonal artist whose work "might not be due so much to [his] own neuroses as to certain conventions" within an artistic tradition.23 Our Beckford may or may not be the "true" Beckford, but this construction renders the novel more meaningful. Where conflicting opposites have deconstructed author and novel, the interpretive critic has reconstructed them. Thus, we find the many different Beckfords in the critical literature. To some extent these critics are creating their own selves in the person of Beckford, shaping the work so it will pass through the network of their own adaptive and defensive strategies, as Norman Holland has put it. To some extent, no doubt, their work is a more literary attempt to supply an orderly grammar of logical relationships to their perceptions of Vathek. 24

In each of these cases lies the reality, now often noted in biographical as well as critical studies, that every subject is changed by the discourse that embodies it. William Epstein has observed that "the decline of faith in the unmediated, ontological status of 'events'" must influence all but the most unexamined approaches to biography.25 Any Beckford that we (and he) perceive is a product of the interpretive codes that govern our cognitive being. What sort of man lies behind or transcends these codes is, as Hume would put it, a "nice and subtile question" (p. 262). For, indeed, whether we take our cue from Hume or Derrida, the absolute origin of perception is inseparable from the activity that records it. Whether we look at the issue practically, theoretically, or (to use eighteenth-century terms) in the clear light of reason, the Beckford we find is a creation of cultural and interpretive codes. The insights of Enlightenment English empiricism, the twists of postmodern criticism, and the reticence of polite and experienced observers of human nature can go no further than the public Beckford.

There is no alternative to accepting the dilemma of the desirability and impossibility of biographical interpretation. A critic must put together a unified interpretation of the data, knowing all along that interpreted data is meaningful creation rather than fact independent of its expression. That is the dilemma of all biography; Beckford's case only makes it especially clear. In the end, we come to something very close to Hume's sceptical reflections on personal identity. We (and Beckford himself) know the "successive perceptions" (p. 253) of the novel and the life but lack the most distant notion of their underlying causes or, for that matter, of their basic unity. Yet we see Beckford struggling unsuccessfully to find himself and critics struggling to create narratives to bind together their perceptions. The effort in each case must be unsuccessful, but, paradoxically, it is also understandable and necessary.


1. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L.A. Selby-Bigg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 253. References are to this edition.

2. Roger Lonsdale writes: the "difficulty of attaching any clear meaning or satiric purpose to Vathek has also tended to force its readers back on the author itself for enlightenment." See introduction, William Beckford, Vathek (Oxford: World's Classics, 1983), p. viii.

3. Summaries of critical reactions can be found in Lonsdale, pp. xix-xxii; Dan J. McNutt, The Eighteenth-Century Gothic Novel: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism and Selected Texts (New York: Garland, 1985), pp. 265-310; and Brian Fothergill, Beckford of Fonthill (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), pp. 128-35.

4. Fothergill, p. 134. See also Lonsdale, pp. x-xiv; and The Journal of William Beckford in Portugal and Spain 1787–1788, ed. Boyd Alexander (New York: John Day, 1955), p. 139.

5. Beckford, Journal, pp. 38, 41, 44, 76, 86, 92, and 225. For discussion of Beckford's revisions and his reputation, see Guy Chapman, Beckford (New York: Scribner's, 1937), p. 323; Timothy Mowl, William Beckford: Composing for Mozart (London: John Murray, 1998), passim; James Lees-Milne, William Beckford (Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun, 1979), p. 107; and McNutt, pp. 288, 301-4.

6. Beckford, Journal, p. 41. See also André Parreaux, William Beckford: Auteur de "Vathek" (Paris: Nizet, 1960), p. 76.

7. See John T. Farrell, "A Reinterpretation of the Major Literary Works of William Beckford," Dissertation Abstracts 45 (1984), 1758A (University of Delaware); George E. Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 136-51; and Mowl, p. 111.

8. Mme de Staël is quoted in William Beckford, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, ed. Robert J. Gemmett (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971), p. 26; Parreaux, p. 78; V.S. Pritchett, "Vile Body," New Statesman 63 (1962), 265-66.

9. Chapman, p. 168.

10. Beckford, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, pp. 16-17.

11. Parreaux, p. 77.

12. Quoted in Boyd Alexander, Life at Fonthill, 1807–1822 (London: Rupert Hart Davies, 1957), p. 26.

13. See Magdi Wahba, "Beckford, Portugal and 'Childish Error,'" William Beckford of Fonthill, 1760–1844: Bicentary Essays, ed. Fatma Moussa Mahmoud (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1960), p. 58.

14. Lonsdale, introduction to Vathek, p. viii.

15. For differing ideas of parental influence, see Lonsdale, introduction to Vathek, p. viii; and Mowl, p. 31.

16. For discussions of limitations imposed by "conceptual paradigms" and hypotheses, see David E. Swalm, "Locating Belief in Biography," Biography 3 (1980), 23; and Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form (New York: St Martin's Press, 1984), pp. 10, 209.

17. Haggerty, p. 151.

18. Alexander, p. 15.

19. See Noel Chabani Manganyi, "Psychobiography and the Truth of the Subject," Biography 6 (1983), 44-45, 50.

20. Earl of Chesterfield, Letters to His Son by the Earl of Chesterfield (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), 2:395.

21. Ernest Campbell Mossner, "My Own Life," The Life of David Hume (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1954), p. 615.

22. See Kenneth W. Graham, "Implications of the Grotesque: Beckford's Vathek and the Boundaries of Fictional Reality," Tennessee Studies in Literature 23 (1978), 64.

23. James Henry Rieger, "Au Pied de la Lettre: Stylistic Uncertainty in Vathek," Criticism 4 (1962), 310; James K. Folsom, "Beckford's Vathek and the Tradition of Oriental Satire," Criticism 6 (1964), 53.

24. Norman Holland, "Unity Identity Text Self," PMLA 90 (1975), 816-17; Peter Nagourney, "The Basic Assumptions of Literary Biography," Biography 1 (1978), 93.

25. William Epstein, Recognizing Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), p. 36.



Alexander, Boyd. England's Wealthiest Son: A Study of William Beckford. London: Centaur Press, 1962, 308 p.

A highly regarded study of Beckford's character that incorporates material from unpublished documents.

Brockman, H. A. N. The Caliph of Fonthill. London: Werner Laurie, 1956, 219 p.

A study of Beckford that focuses on his life at Fonthill Abbey.

Fothergill, Brian. Beckford of Fonthill. London: Faber and Faber, 1979, 387 p.

A detailed examination of Beckford's life.

Oliver, J. W. The Life of William Beckford. London: Oxford University Press, 1932, 343 p.

Full-length biography of Beckford.


Borges, Jorge Luis. "About William Beckford's Vathek." In Other Inquisitions: 1937–1952, translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, pp. 137-40. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1943.

Offers his assessment of the Palace of Subterranean Fire in Vathek, maintaining that the novel is an early example of the "uncanny."

Conant, Martha Pike. "The Imaginative Group." In The Oriental Tale in England in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 1-72. New York: Columbia University Press, 1908.

Explores Vathek's unique qualities as well as its place in the history of the oriental tale in eighteenth-century England.

Garrett, John. "Ending in Infinity: William Beckford's Arabian Tale." Eighteenth-Century Fiction 5, no. 1 (October 1992): 15-34.

Attempts "to chart the terrain of Vathek from the dual perspective of East and West, which is how Beckford himself viewed it."

Gemmett, Robert James. William Beckford. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977, 189 p.

A full-length survey of Beckford's life and works.

Graham, Kenneth W. "Beckford's Vathek: A Study in Ironic Dissonance." Criticism 14, no. 3 (summer 1972): 243-52.

Maintains that Beckford's adept use of ironic dissonance in Vathek enabled him to "achieve a successful blending of the improbable and the true."

Haggerty, George E. "Literature and Homosexuality in the Late Eighteenth Century: Walpole, Beckford, and Lewis." In Homosexual Themes in Literary Studies, edited by Wayne R. Dynes and Stephen Donaldson, pp. 167-78. New York: Garland, 1992.

A comparative study that focuses on recurring homosexual themes in the works of Beckford, Horace Walpole, and Matthew Gregory Lewis.

Hazlitt, William. "Mr. Beckford's Vathek," The Complete Works of William Hazlitt: Literary And Political Criticism, Vol. 19, edited by P. P. Howe, pp. 98-104. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1933.

Originally published in the Morning Chronicle on October 20, 1823. Praises Vathek as a moral work, claiming that because of Beckford's balanced use of irony and dispassionate depiction of evil, readers "take the virtuous side in self-defence, and are invited into a sense of humanity."

Hume, Robert D. "Exuberant Gloom, Existential Agony, and Heroic Despair: Three Varieties of Negative Romanticism." In The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, edited by G. R. Thompson, pp. 109-27. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1974.

Uses the term "Negative Romanticism" to classify writers who "are possessed by the Romantic discontents, but entirely lack the Romantic faith in man's ability to transcend his condition or transform it" and who often exhibit a resultant attraction to dark forces, and considers the extent to which Vathek is a Negative Romantic novel.

Keegan, P. Q. "Gleanings from Anglo-Oriental Literature." The New Monthly Magazine, no. 66 (June 1877): 674-87.

Focuses on Vathek as a study of the results of extreme selfishness and excess.

More, Paul Elmer. "William Beckford." In The Drift of Romanticism: Shelburne Essays. Eighth series, pp. 1-36. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913.

Evaluates Beckford's symbolic representation of Romantic egotism in Vathek.


Additional coverage of Beckford's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 39, 213; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vol. 16; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; and Supernatural Fiction Writers.

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Beckford, William (1760 - 1844)

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