WILLIAM THOMAS BECKFORD

William Thomas Beckford (1760-1844) was an English nobleman, traveller and writer who wrote mainly in French. Beckford was born in London and at an early age inherited a huge fortune and the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire, England, apart from several sugar plantations in Jamaica. After gaining a reputation of sexual aberrancy he chose to live in exile and spent a large part of his life travelling through France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland. From his early life he developed a special fascination for Arabic culture. In the 1790s he embarked upon the large building project of Fonthill Abbey, a rather monstrous orientalist construction, which was never completed and which was the venue of several extravagant festivities. It also housed Beckford’s large collection of art. In 1822 and 1823 Fonthill and part of the art collection were sold to pay for Beckford’s high debts. As an author, Beckford is known for his travel letters and, especially, his short novel Vathek (1786), which gained a cult-status and is seen as an important example of Gothic literature, influencing the poets and writers of 19th century Romanticism. He also wrote Épisodes, a collection of Oriental tales inspired by the Thousand and one nights which he intended to include in Vathek.

The fragments:

From his early youth Beckford was fascinated by the Thousand and one nights, and his literary pursuits can be seen as a prolonged effort to evoke the spirit and atmosphere of the exotic, magical, realm of the Nights. For his own work he utilized not only his own experiences and fantasies, but also the well-known Bibliothèque orientale, an extensive and widely used reference work about the Orient, compiled by Barthélemy d’Herbelot and edited by Galland (1697). According to Beckford, the novel Vathek (1786) was written in one session during three days and two nights, in one outburst of his imagination. It was written in French, but published first anonymously in the English translation of his friend Samuel Henley, without Beckford’s consent. A French version followed in the same year. The story is an eccentric fantasy about the Caliph Vathek who organizes a huge, almost apocalyptic banquet. He builds five huge palaces, each devoted to one of the five senses. In his hubris, Vathek makes a Faustian pact with a stranger named Giaour, and departs to the ruined town of Istakar. His mother, meanwhile, is occupied with all kinds of macabre and occult rites. The book is full of grandiose visions, occult speculations and exotic sensuality and cruelty. The novel remains a small monument in the tradition of Gothic and fantastic literature, representing the darker side of Romanticism and conveying the atmosphere of repressed desires, fears and nightmares. The novel appeared without a number of stories which Beckford intended to insert in the main story. These appeared as late as 1909 under the title Épisodes, in which the atmosphere of Vathek is further explored and connected with Beckford’s doubts about his sexuality (‘Histoire du prince Alasi et de la princesse Firouzkah’). Furthermore, Beckford adapted some stories from the Wortley-Montague manuscript which was in his possession at the time (now in the Bodleian Library), and collected them in Suite de contes arabes (1770s-1780s). The story of Histoire du Prince Ahmed stages a young, lazy adolescent who is sent out into the world by his father and wanders through enchanted landscapes, full of palaces with young maidens, strange figures, deserts. He traverses the Plaine des Ginns, which is full of skeletons, with his friend Prince Ahmed, haunted by the curse of the children of Zouc Zouc. The prince tells the story of his love for Princess Neubahar. The story is a typical example of exotic orientalism, with enchantments, sublime landscapes, strange encounters, sensuality, (homo-)eroticism, travesty, seduction, etc., systematically referring to the realm of the Thousand and one nights.

 

Sources/references:

David Punter/ Glennis Byron, The Gothic, Blackwell, Malden etc. 2004.

J.B. Baronian, Panorama de la literature fantastique de langue francaise, Stock, Paris 1978.

Norbert Miller, Fonthill Abbey; die dunkle Welt des William Beckford, Carl Hanser Verlag, München 2012.

J.W. Oliver, The life of William Beckford, Oxford University Press, Oxford/ London 1937.

Fatma Moussa Mahmoud (ed.), William Beckford of Fonthill, 1760-1844; bicentenary essays, Kennikat Press, New York/ London 1972.

William Beckford, Vathek et ses épisodes, éd. Didier Girard, José Corti, Paris 2003.

William Beckford, The Episodes of Vathek by William Beckford, with an Introduction by Robert J. Gemmet, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/ Associated University Press, Rutherford etc. 1975.

William Beckford, L’Esplendente et autres contes inédits, José Corti, Paris 2003.

Ros Ballaster, Fabulous Orients; fictions of the East in England 1662-1785, Oxford University Press, Oxford etc. 2005.

James Watt, ‘“The peculiar character of the Arabian tale”: William Beckford and the Arabian nights,’ in: Saree Makdisi/ Felicity Nussbaum (eds.), The Arabian nights in historical context, Oxford University Press, Oxford etc. 2008, pp. 195-211.

Donna Landry, ‘William Beckford’s Vathek and the uses of Oriental re-enactment,’ in: id., pp. 167-194.

Ulrich Marzolph/ Richard van Leeuwen (eds.), The Arabian nights encyclopedia, 2 vols., ABC-Clio, Santa Barbara etc. 2004.

Laurent Châtel, ‘Re-orienting William Beckford: transmission, translation, and continuation of the Thousand and one nights,’ in: Philip F. Kennedy/ Marina Warner (eds.), Scheherazade’s children; global encounters with the Arabian nights, New York University Press, New York/ London 2013, pp. 53-69.

Weblinks:

http://beckford.c18.net (The William Beckford Website)

http://www.gutenberg.org/author/Beckford,+William (Gutenberg Project)

http://librivox.org/author/1329 (Librivox)

http://manybooks.net/authors/beckford.html (Manybooks; eBooks)