Beckford, William

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Beckford, William (1759-1844): English Writer.

The author of Vathek, one of the most important of the pseudo-oriental novels of the eighteenth-century, Beckford led a bizarre life of aristocratic eccentricity and splendor. Born into one of the wealthiest of London families, he inherited at a young age an immense fortune, which allowed him to collect every trifle and lavish his money on building Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, an obsession for most of his life. He was forced to abandon this gothic extravagance in 1725 when its central tower collapsed; he died practically penniless.

Yet Beckford had real literary ability. He read as a child with fascination the recently translated collection of medieval Arab tales, A Thousand and One Nights. In 1782, he began in French, published in English translation in 1786, his Arab tale featuring a caliph named Vathek set in the exotic Middle East with a cast of “oriental” types drawn from a well-established tradition of eastern tales. Beckford’s story took the form of a Faustian legend with its Satanic hero being punished in the Hall of Eblis, resembling Dante’s inferno, along with other sinners who dared to flaunt conventional morality. However, Vathek, unlike the popular pseudo-oriental tales of the age, which were mostly moral apologues, was really an exotic thriller and celebration of the Caliph’s vices and sadistic pleasures. It thus foreshadowed the dark romanticism of works like Dracula and horror-story writing or tales of terror soon to sweep Europe.

He also wrote travel accounts with a romantic cast revealing his lush descriptive powers, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783) and Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha (1835).

Further reading:

J. Lees-Milne, William Beckford, 1976.

A. B. Fothergill, Beckford of Fonthill, 1979.

Arthur J. Weitzman

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