Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by W. J. Garnett
William Beckford (17601844)
[William Beckford of Fonthill (who must not be confounded with contemporary authors of the same name) was the only child by his second wife of Alderman Beckford, merchant and West India planter, twice Lord Mayor of London. The birth of the boy, which has been misstated by almost all biographers, occurred on the 1st October 1760; the elder Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham, was one of his sponsors, and is said to have cautioned the future author of Vathek against reading the Arabian Nights! Losing his father in 1770, he was sent with a tutor to Geneva at the age of seventeen, and afterwards made the grand tour. He married in 1783, and lived in Switzerland till 1786, returning to England after his wifes death. In March 1787 he visited Portugal, whence he wrote letters full of graphic description, and sparkling with sarcasm and humour. After his return to England he devoted himself entirely to the pursuits of a virtuoso and amateur architect. His lavish expense impoverished him, and he died at Bath on the 2nd May 1844, his princely inheritance of a million sterling, and a hundred thousand a year having dwindled down to a beggarly eighty-thousand pounds.
ALTHOUGH the romantic school of fiction has had its day, the gorgeous, almost Miltonic tale Vathek, the admiration of Lord Byron, who preferred it to Rasselas, still survives after more than a hundred years. The statement made by its author to Mr. Redding, that it was produced at the age of twenty-two, in one sitting of three days and two nights, is a piece of imagination of like character with the work itself. The time taken to write it appears to have been about three months, but however long its production may have occupied, it stands, in a fashion, unique in the language, and had the author but been visited with a little pecuniary misfortune, it might have proved the precursor to a delightful series of imaginative stories. But domestic bereavement and the deceitfulness of riches unhinged the mind of Beckford. His letters from Portugal evince that contempt for the poor, and general cynicism which, when he was no longer able to assimilate rational gratifications, degenerated into misanthropy and absolute egotism. Of all sensuous enjoyments, that of music appears to have been that which raised him most out of himself. Amidst the sarcastic utterances evoked by the degrading superstition prevailing in Portugal he writes:This very morning, to my shame be it recorded, I remained hour after hour in my newly arranged pavilion, without reading a word, writing a line, or entering into any conversation. All my faculties were absorbed by the harmony of the wind instruments, stationed at a distance in a thicket of orange and bay trees. It was to no purpose that I tried several times to retire out of the soundI was as often drawn back as I attempted to snatch myself away. On another occasion we find that Jomellis mass for the dead melted him to tears.
Beckfords first effort, Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, a satirical work, written at the age of seventeen, it is said, to mystify the family housekeeper, was followed by other youthful effusions, and in 1783 he published a quarto volume entitled Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents, the edition consisting of five hundred copies, but, following the mistaken advice of friends, he suppressed the whole except six copies, and afterwards brought out an expurgated edition, the lacunæ in which were for the first time filled up by Mr. G. T. Bettany in the volume of the Minerva Library, edited by him. Vathek, the book by which he is best known, written in French at an early age, was pirated by a clergyman to whom the MS. had been entrusted, and the first authorised edition was published in French at Paris and Lausanne in 1787. The Letters from Portugal and Spain remained unpublished for nearly fifty years after they were written. After his final return to England he ceased to write altogether, but such materials for a biography as he chose to communicate or invent were given to Mr. Cyrus Redding in 1835.