Vathek; an arabian tale, p.1
Vathek; An Arabian Tale, p.1William Beckford
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AN ARABIAN TALE,
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WILLIAM BECKFORD, ESQ.
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NOTES, CRITICAL AND EXPLANATORY.
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LONDON: GEORGE SLATER, 252, STRAND.
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MEMOIR.BY WILLIAM NORTH.
WILLIAM BECKFORD, the author of the following celebrated Eastern tale,was born in 1760, and died in the spring of 1844, at the advanced age ofeighty-four years. It is to be regretted, that a man of so remarkable acharacter, did not leave the world some record of a life offering pointsof interest different from that of any of his contemporaries, from thepeculiarly studious retirement and eccentric avocations in which it waschiefly passed. Such a memoir would have formed a curious contrast withthat of the late M. de Chateaubriand, who, born nearly at the sameperiod, outlived but by a few years, the strange Englishman, whose famousromance forms a brilliant ornament to French literature, which even Atalais unlikely to outlive in the memory of Chateaubriand’s countrymen. Allmen of genius should write autobiographies. Such works are inestimablelessons to posterity. As it is, there are few men, of whom it is moredifficult to compose an elaborate and detailed history than the author of“Vathek.” From such scanty sources as are open to us, the reader must becontent with a few striking facts and illustrations, which may serve toconvey some idea of the idiosyncrasy of a man, whose whole life was asort of mystery, even to his personal acquaintances.
His great-great-grandfather was lieutenant-governor and commander of theforces in Jamaica; and his grandfather president of the council in thesame island. His father, though not a merchant, as has been represented,but a large landed proprietor, both in England and the West Indies, waslord mayor of London, and distinguished himself in presenting an addressto the king, George the Third,—by a spirited retort to his majesty,—whohad the ill-breeding to treat discourteously a deputation which the lordmayor headed. The portraits of Alderman Beckford, and his morecelebrated son, were painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The former died in1770, leaving the subject of this memoir the wealthiest commoner inEngland.
No pains were spared on the education of the young Croesus—the lordsChatham and Camden being consulted by his father on that subject.Besides Latin and Greek, he spoke five modern languages, and wrote threewith facility and elegance. He read Persian and Arabic, designed withgreat skill, and studied the science of music under the great Mozart.
At the age of eighteen he visited Paris, and was introduced to Voltaire.“On taking leave of me,” said Beckford, “he placed his hand on my head,saying, ‘There, young Englishman, I give you the blessing of a very oldman.’ Voltaire was a mere skeleton—a bony anatomy. His countenance Ishall never forget.”
His first literary production, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters,” waswritten at the early age of seventeen. It would appear, that the oldhousekeeper at Fonthill, was in the habit of edifying visitors to itspicture gallery by a description of the paintings, mainly derived fromher own fertile imagination. This suggested to our author, the humorousidea of composing a catalogue of suppositious painters with histories ofeach, equally fanciful and grotesque. Henceforward, the old housekeeperhad a printed guide (or rather, mis-guider) to go by, and could discourseat large on the merits of Og of Bashan! Waterslouchy of Amsterdam! andHerr Sucrewasser of Vienna! their wives and styles! As for the countrysquires, etc., “they,” Beckford tells us, “took all for gospel.”
“Vathek,”—the superb “Vathek,” which Lord Byron so much admired, and onwhich he so frequently complimented the author,—“Vathek,” the finest ofOriental romances, as “Lallah Rookh” is the first of Oriental poems, bythe pen of a “Frank,” was written and published before our author hadcompleted his twentieth year, it having been composed at a _singlesitting_! Yes, for three days and two nights did the indefatigableauthor persevere in his task. He completed it, and a serious illness wasthe result. What other literary man ever equalled this feat of rapidityand genius?
“Vathek” was originally written in French, of which its style is a model.The translation which follows, is not by the author himself, though heexpressed perfect satisfaction with it. It was originally published in1786. For splendour of description, exquisite humour, and supernaturalinterest and grandeur, it stands without a rival in romance. In asthoroughly Oriental keeping, Hope’s “Anastasius, or Memoirs of a ModernGreek,” which Beckford himself highly admired, can alone be compared withit.
Much of the description of Vathek’s palace, and even the renowned “Hallof Eblis,” was afterwards visibly embodied in the real Fonthill Abbey, ofwhich wonders, almost as fabulous, were at one time reported andbelieved.
Fonthill Abbey, which had been destroyed by fire, and re-built during thelife-time of the elder Beckford, was on account of its bad sitedemolished, and again re-built under the superintendence of our authorhimself, assisted by James Wyatt, Esq., the architect, with amagnificence that excited the greatest attention and wonder at the time.The total outlay of building Fonthill, including furniture, articles ofvirtu, etc., must have been enormous, not much within the million, asestimated by the “Times.” A writer in the “Athenæum” mentions £400,000as the sum. Beckford informed Mr. Cyrus Redding, that the exact cost ofbuilding Fonthill was £273,000.
The distinguishing architectural peculiarity of Fonthill Abbey, was alofty tower, 280 feet in height. This tower was prominently shadowedforth in “Vathek,” and shows how strong a hold the idea had upon hismind. Such was his impatience to see Fonthill completed, that he had theworks continued by torchlight, with relays of workmen. During theprogress of the building, the tower caught fire, and was partlydestroyed. The owner, however, was present, and enjoyed the magnificentburning spectacle. It was soon restored; but a radical fault in layingthe foundation, caused it eventually to fall down, and leave Fonthill aruin in the life-time of its founder.
Not so much his extravagant mode of life, which is the common notion, asthe loss of two large estates in a law suit (the value of which may beinferred from the fact, that _fifteen hundred slaves_ were upon them)induced our author to quit Fonthill, and offer it and its contents forpublic sale. There was a general desire to see the interior of thepalace, in which its lord had lived in a luxurious seclusion, so littleadmired by the curious of the fashionable world. “He is fortunate,” saysthe “Times” of 1822, “who finds a vacant chair within twenty miles ofFonthill; the solitude of a private apartment is a luxury which few canhope for.” . . . “Falstaff himself could not _take his ease_ at thismoment within a dozen leagues of Fonthill.” . . . “The beds through thecounty are (literally) doing double duty—people who come in from adistance during the night must wait to go to bed until others get up inthe morning.” . . . “Not a farm-house, however humble,—not a cottage nearFonthill, but gives shelter to fashion, to beauty, and rank; ostrichplumes, which, by their very waving, we can trace back to Piccadilly, areseen nodding at a casement window over a depopulated poultry-yard.”
The costly treasures of art and virtu, as well as the furniture of therich mansion, were scattered far and wide; and one of its tables servedthe writer of this memoir to scribble upon, when first stern necessity,or yet sterner ambition, urged him to add his mite to
Nearly fifty years after the publication of “Vathek,” in 1835, Mr.Beckford published his “Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteriesof Alcobaca and Batalha,” which he had taken in 1795, together with anepistolatory record of his observations in Italy, Spain and Portugal,between the years 1780 and 1794. These are marked, as he himselfintimates, “with the bloom and heyday of youthful spirits and youthfulconfidence, at a period when the older order of things existed with allits picturesque pomps and absurdities; when Venice enjoyed her Piombi andsub-marine dungeons; Prance her Bastille; the Peninsula her HolyInquisition.” With none of those subjects, however, are the lettersoccupied—but with delineations of landscape, and the effects of naturalphenomena. These literary efforts appear to have exhausted theirauthor’s productive powers; in a word, he seems soon to have been“used-up,” and then to have discontinued his search after new sensations,or to have been content to live
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