A life as a Gothic fantasy

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WILLIAM BECKFORD (1760-1844) is an important link between the Augustan and the Romantic Ages. The richly decorated caves and grottoes of Fonthill Splendens, the Wiltshire estate on which he was brought up, recall Alexander Pope's retreat at Twickenham, while his oriental fantasy Vathek, and his scandalous sexual career, look forward to Lord Byron.

Beckford's principal monuments are Vathek, which he wrote in French aged 21 and which (according to Timothy Mowl) owes much of its reputation to its English translator, and Fonthill Abbey, the vast Gothic pile he built during his middle years, which fell down shortly after he had sold it. What makes Beckford a seminal pre-Romantic figure, however, was the way he conducted his life, and how everything he wrote or designed was a reflection of his extraordinary personality.

This makes him an ideal subject for a biography, and he has already attracted the attention of several writers. Mowl has published an enjoyable revisionist biography of that other Gothic enthusiast, Horace Walpole. He clearly hoped to perform the same service here, explaining that Beckford rewrote his own history so thoroughly that it has often been difficult for previous biographers to sort fact from fiction.

Beckford had good reason to doctor his life, since at the age of 19 he fell in love with an 11-year-old boy, William Courtenay, with whom, five years later, he was publicly accused of having a sexual relationship. Unlike some of Beckford's earlier biographers, Mowl is in no doubt that the affair was consummated by the time Courtenay was 13. "Not many people these days strike attitudes about homosexuals, but paedophilia remains another thing," he observes, referring nonsensically to "an area grey to the point of sooty blackness". Mowl may not understand what a grey area is, but he recognises the value of sensationalism.

No one has seriously doubted that Beckford was attracted to adolescents. Even in 1957, Alexander Boyd's Life at Fonthill has an extensive index entry for "Boys". It is worth noting for the sake of historical context that one 14-year-old "stripling" he admired already had an 18-year-old wife. But then Mowl also describes Beckford as a "barely socialised psychopath", a judgement his book does nothing to substantiate.

Although Beckford was married when the scandal broke, and his wife stood by him, he was forced into temporary exile. His attempt to return to England after her death was thwarted by his disapproving mother, who ordered him to Jamaica, where the family owned extensive sugar plantations.

Beckford got as far is Lisbon, where he wrote a frank and amusing journal which Mowl judges "the best English travel book of the 18th century". Unfortunately Beckford felt unable to publish the journal, written "without any attempt to either dramatise or conceal his sexual nature", during his lifetime.

In Portugal Beckford was introduced to a 17-year-old Italian music student, Gregorio Franchi, who fell in love with him and became the recipient of his most unguarded, amusing letters. Beckford eventually returned to England and set about building Fonthill, a house modelled as a cathedral and dedicated to his beloved St Anthony of Padua.

He was dubbed by Byron "England's wealthiest son", but by the time building began under the supervision of James Wyatt, revenues from the plantations, which in his father's time had brought in pounds 30,000-pounds 100,000 a year, had dwindled alarmingly. Beckford's ambitions soared with the abbey; a 276- ft octagonal tower was added, "propped up not by buttresses but by bedrooms, a crazy supporting ziggurat of bachelor rooms" - with inevitable results.

It would be hard to write a dull book about Beckford, but this one has its longueurs. Despite a pompous announcement that it is "intended for the informed, intelligent reader", he does not always write sensibly or well - though he does make a case for Beckford's secure place in the history of English aesthetics. "Beckford's imagination was not commonplace," he writes, "it was commanding. He built what he dreamed, and over his 84 years he dreamed his way with a flexible sensibility across the whole range of Romantic feeling, usually several years in advance of the great Romantic poets."