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Literature Notes: The English Caliph who never made it

William Beckford (1709-1770) could have become the first great English Romantic. Instead he wrecked his literary career by an involvement with a Westminster schoolboy. Here we examine the writer's one and only novel.

I CANNOT make up my mind whether Vathek was a journal, an autobiography or a prefiguring of Beckford's later life. Elements of all three, probably, with the added complication that, strictly speaking, Beckford did not write the book himself. He roughed it out in less than perfect French and was then too idle to translate it into English; so he let Samuel Henley, a middle-aged clergyman, do the Englishing for him. Likewise the French text was rewritten by Beckford's physician-companion, Dr Francois Verdeil.

Beckford had just turned 21 when Vathek got itself written. He had been platonically but rapturously in love with William Courtenay, a Westminster schoolboy and the future Earl of Devon, for two years. Beckford himself had missed out on public school, and found the whole experience exhilarating and novel. During the winter of 1781 he was staying in his London house to be near Courtenay whenever the beaks let the boys loose.

That Christmas Beckford arranged a house party at Fonthill Splendens, his family's lumbering Palladian mansion. William was one of the guests but, contrary to Beckford's riotous over-writing of the event 50 years later, it was all quite respectable. Two clergymen were there, Henley being one of them, and two of Beckford's young schoolboy cousins, plus a whole pack of young women interested in the Beckford millions.They had hired Count Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg to give them a preview of his "Eidophusikon", an affair of coloured lights, gauzes and music that would take London by storm in the next season.

Henley there took his host aside and the two men hammered out a plot for Vathek which included every obsession Beckford had ever had and several others that were on the way up. The book emerged in two halves over the next six months. Part one covered the Caliph Vathek's fun time in his capital city. Beckford in real life produced pastoral opera, with a cast of well-bred children. The Caliph in the book arranged nude gymnastics for his courtiers' children, then pushed the kiddies over a precipice where a Giaour was waiting to devour them: the parallels require no explanation.

Soon after this Beckford set off for Naples where his cousin by marriage and moral mentor, the Welsh Lady Hamilton, presided at our embassy. Meanwhile the Caliph in the book captures the Talismans of Solimon in the caverns of Eblis, the young, handsome Lord of Evil. Both expeditions end in disaster. Beckford caught malaria; as did his musician, John Burton, who died cursing his employer. In Naples Lady Hamilton expired of tuberculosis, and Beckford hurried home. The Caliph Vathek has an even worse time. Arriving at the Halls of Eblis he finds it crammed with the undead Ante-Adamite Solimons, and Eblis gloating over the con trick. Vathek's heart bursts into flames and he lives in eternal torment for his sins.

Worse lay ahead for the real Beckford. The yellow press seized hold of the Courtenay scandal. Outed, Beckford fled to Switzerland with his wife. When she died in childbirth, his mother forbade any contact with his two baby daughters. In a last, bitter stroke, Henley published Vathek in a pirated edition with full and convincing notes, but pretended it was a real Arabian story, nothing to do with Beckford. Poetic justice? Or was it half-truth?

Timothy Mowl is author of `William Beckford: composing for Mozart' (John Murray, pounds 22)