William Beckford

William Beckford (1759-1844), son of William Beckford the Elder (1709-70) alderman and Lord Mayor of London, was at one time one of the richest men in England. His mother was a descendant of Mary Stuart.

At the age of five, Beckford received piano tuition from Mozart (then only aged nine). At the age of 21, Beckford inherited a huge fortune of 1 million, with an annual income of 100,000. The fortune had been amassed by three generations of sugar plantation owners in Jamaica.

In 1778, following a period of travel and study in Europe, Beckford returned to England.

William Beckford has two names to fame, as builder of the Gothic monstrosity Fonthill Abbey and as author of the Gothic novel Vathek.

Fonthill Abbey, architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), was the most sensational of the English Gothic revival. Started in 1796, on Beckford's return from Switzerland, the 275 foot tower fell down in 1807 and was rebuilt. Beckford spent most of his life at Fonthill Abbey as a recluse. Fonthill Abbey ate away at his fortune, leaving a mere 80,000, forcing him to sell Fonthill Abbey and retire to Bath.

Vathek (1786) was dreamt of following a three-day Christmas party held in honour of the eleven year old son of Viscount Courtenay, with whom Beckford had formed an attachment. Completed in outline in three days and two nights, the story was written in French, later translated into English by the Rev Samuel Henry.

Vathek is an Oriental tale about the wicked Caliph Vathek who builds a tall tower so that he can view all seven kingdoms of the world and leads him to challenge Mohammed in his seventh heaven. Undoubtedly blasphemous in the eyes of Muslim fanatics. A public outcry against Vathek would undoubtedly bring about a Renaissance of William Beckford and restore him to the common man and lead to runaway book sales, as did the fatwa and book burning of the badly written Satanic Verses by the mediocre and barely literate writer Salman Rushdie.

Vathek is notable as one of the early examples of the Gothic genre, earning itself a respectable place alongside The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764) by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and The Monk (1776) by Mathew Lewis (1775-1818). Vathek was one of the books to have influenced Mary Shelley, though the note scribbled by Beckford on the fly-leaf of his copy of Frankenstein (1818) shows her views were not reciprocated, 'This is, perhaps, the foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up, from the reeking dunghill of the present times.'

During his lifetime, Beckford achieved notoriety for an alleged affair with the young Courtenay. The scandal broke in the autumn of 1784, when Beckford was charged with sexual misconduct. By the middle of the following year, as news of the scandal spread, Beckford was forced into exile, taking with him his wife and baby daughter. In exile in Switzerland, his wife died giving birth to a second daughter (May 1786). He returned to England in 1796, where he devoted his time to Fonthill Abbey and lived as a recluse.

William Beckford died in Bath (2 May 1844).

Suggested Reading

Boyd Alexander, England's Wealthiest Son, 1962

Brian Fothergill, Beckford of Fonthill, 1979

Malcolm Jack (ed), Vathek and Other Tales: a William Beckford Reader, 1992

Literature ~ Mathew Lewis ~ Ann Radcliffe ~ Mary Shelley ~ Horace Walpole
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- June 1999 rev 0