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)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor