William Beckford

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Beckford, William (1709–70). Beckford was a new man in the aristocratic world of Hanoverian politics and a link between traditional Toryism and Wilkite radicalism. His great wealth came from Jamaican estates and he was frequently reminded, when tribune of the people, that he was a slave-owner. Sent to England to be educated at Westminster and Oxford, he remained and was elected MP for Shaftesbury in 1747. In 1754 he transferred to London, where he had built up an electoral interest, strengthening his position by bringing two brothers into Parliament. From 1756 onwards he was a supporter of Pitt. Early in the reign of George III he launched a series of attacks upon aristocratic oligarchy and called for a measure of parliamentary reform. He was lord mayor of London in 1762/3 and again in 1769/70 when he presented a Wilkite petition to the king, accompanying it with a well-publicized rebuke, which was subsequently inscribed on his statue in the Guildhall. He died unexpectedly a month later, leaving several illegitimate children, and a 10-year-old son, who became the author of Vathek and the recluse of Fonthill.

J. A. Cannon

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William Beckford, 1760–1844, English author. A wealthy dilettante, Beckford had a great desire to ascend to the nobility. Unfortunately his erratic and strange behavior often worked against his ambitions. About 1796 he built in Wiltshire an extravagant Gothic castle, Fonthill Abbey, where he lived in mysterious seclusion and earned himself the reputation of an eccentric. Although not deeply interested in politics, he served in the House of Commons from 1784 to 1794 and from 1806 to 1820. Beckford is chiefly remembered today for the Gothic romance Vathek, a bizarre tale about the adventures of the shockingly cruel Caliph Vathek. The book was written in French but was first published (1786) in English translation. He was also the author of several books of travel and two burlesques on the sentimental novels of his day, The Elegant Enthusiast (1796) and Azemia (1797).

See biography by P. Summers (1966).