William Beckford
Vathek an Arabian Tale


"At the first glimpse of dawn he hastened to the prison, again to importune this intractable stranger; but the rage of Vathek exceeded all bounds on finding the prison empty, the grates burst asunder, and his guards lying lifeless around him. In the paroxysm of his passion he fell furiously on the poor carcasses, and kicked them till evening without intermission" (Vathek)

William Beckford, now known mainly for his peculiar Oriental tale Vathek, was born to the lord mayor of London in 1759 and from the outset lived a life of enormous wealth and notoriety. His father had made his fortune in the West Indies and was one of the richest men in England. Beckford, inheriting the wealth, began to lead a life of considerable extravagance. Scandal surrounded his life as an MP, traveller and collector.

Travelling in Switzerland and Italy in the late 1770s, he met Lady Catherine Hamilton who was to become a friend and advisor and stayed with her and her husband as he would later in less salubrious circumstances. In England he found himself at the centre of the "Powderham Scandal", after his relationship with the thirteen year-old William Courtenay became well known. Remarkably, Beckford decided to stay in England temporarily at Fonthill Abbey, his vast Gothic home. However, a year later he was effectively forced to leave the country.

Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon in 1783 and became a Member of Parliament in England the next year. His wife died not long after the birth of their second daughter and he roamed on the continent again for over a decade spending as freely as was his lifelong wont. During this time he wrote Vathek (1786). It was an extraordinary and outré tale and its anti-hero, the eponymous Caliph, seems in part to represent Beckford himself.

His later years were spent in seclusion at Fonthill, expanding his huge collection of curios and artwork until eventually he had to sell the abbey in 1822. Other than Vathek he wrote a small number of other works including Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents (1783), which he suppressed for many years, and certain travel books. He died in 1844, having lived an exceptionally long and controversial life.

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