Long fascinated by the collection of fantastic tales known as The Thousand and One Nights and as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, William Beckford was a wealthy Englishman who lived like an Oriental potentate and was nicknamed the Caliph of Fonthill. Vathek (subtitled An Arabian Tale), a fantasy set in Arabia, is his only novel. The publication of the work was marked by controversy. Beckford originally wrote Vathek in French because the Oriental tale was regarded in the eighteenth century as a French genre. He then enlisted a schoolmaster named Samuel Henley to help him translate the novel into English. Henley not only published his translation without permission but even suppressed any mention of Beckford, claiming that he had translated the story from an ancient Arabic manuscript. Angered by Henley’s betrayal, Beckford revised the text and in 1816 published a new English edition of Vathek. A French version, published in 1819, is a translation from the 1816 English edition rather than Beckford’s original version.
The novel recounts the temptation and fall of the caliph Vathek, a man with few positive qualities. He has a violent temper and an insatiable desire for both power and pleasure. Vathek’s mother, Carathis, is a sorceress who shares her son’s devotion to the occult and exceeds him in ambition. The clearest symbol of Vathek’s pride is a huge tower that he has constructed “from...
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