WILLIAM BECKFORD (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.