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The Woes of William Beckford
by Betty Graham-Yooll

[Editor's note: William Beckford's appeal to Betty seems atypical. Her interest could, as she says, have been prompted by what she considered a great injustice, or it was her attempt to grapple with a personality she couldn't quite understand . From her notes written late in her life, however, there's no doubt his story intrigued her.]

William Beckford

I don’t know what I expected when I walked a remote path in the Wiltshire countryside near the village of Fonthill Gifford.

Straight, broad, and shaded by a canopy of trees, it could have been the approach to a grand but forgotten home. Though seemingly leading nowhere, that’s exactly what it was – the path to Fonthill Abbey, once described as the grandest home in all of England, but now long gone. With an ornate, imposing façade, a 270-foot octagonal tower and massive front doors, quadruple the height of even the norm for mansions, the building resembled more a Gothic cathedral than a home. Unlike a cathedral built over centuries, however, this was built in a just a few years with mortar blocks rendered to look like stone, demanding continual and costly repairs. It cost a fortune to build and another to maintain. Even its collapse in 1825, a mere twenty-five years later, was visually stunning, according to an account at the time:

“The manner of it falling was very beautiful, it first sank perpendicularly, and slowly, then burst and spread out over the roofs adjoining on every side.

Extravagant, splendid and doomed, the home could be a metaphor for the life of its owner, eighteenth century writer and dilettante, William Beckford. What had happened to the house and its original owner was a mystery and I had to learn more.

Fonthill Abbey

Beckford was born in 1760 to a family of great wealth, courtesy of the labours of some 1,200 slaves working twenty-four Jamaican sugar plantations. William’s father, a Lord Mayor of London and friend of Prime minister William Pitt, had inherited the family fortune from his grandfather, a former Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica.

At age eleven, on his father’s death, Beckford in turn became heir himself to one of the greatest fortunes of England, but his vast wealth had little impact on his lonely childhood. His mother, believing him delicate in health, refused to allow him to go to school nor to bring any friends to the house.

Taking charge of his education, his mother assumed he would follow the family tradition of a prosperous commercial life, indulge in country pursuits, and like his father enter Parliament,. Accordingly she employed private tutors to teach him classics and etiquette. His upbringing was conventional. It was what was expected of young men of wealth in the reign of George III, but William Beckford was not conventional. Intellectual and artistic, his passions were music, books and writing. He had become an accomplished pianist by age ten.

His first tutor, Robert Drysdale, expressed worry at the boy's "unsuitable" academic interests. Extracts from a letter written by Drysdale to a friend, describe his young pupil “as exceedingly sprightly, . . . he has been accustomed to speak and read French since master of a great fortune. I am apprehensive that both his father and mother, contrary to their own desire and inclination may hurt him by their indulgence.”

If Drysdale was concerned about Beckford's lonely situation, he was more disturbed that the young boy had unlimited access to the hundreds of books in the large library, and had chosen to read the whole of the Arabian Nights at an age when most children could hardly read. It was a book which made a deep impression on the mind of the boy, but the tutor considered vivid imagination and creative interests to be unwholesome traits.

Beckford's mother was opposed to University, and to further her son's education, she sent him to Geneva with a new tutor she had engaged, Dr John Lettice, who accompanied Beckford on all his travels to Europe.

Geneva at that time was a seat of learning, and it was there William met Voltaire. On the path to finding himself, William had little interest in the foppish ways of English society and the fondness for gossip. While other men of his rank wore wigs and white stockings, William’s dress was casual and in Geneva he enjoyed being able to mix freely with intellectuals. He did not conform to society and soon became known as a Radical. That made him a target to begin with, but gossip concerning a young man unsure of his own sexuality soon turned to outright condemnation.

His hunger for friendship led him to seek it out, oblivious of any hidden motives of his own. Visiting Venice on his Grand Tour of Europe, he became involved with a young boy of the Conaro family, one of the wealthiest families in Venice.

Beckford mentions little about this in his diaries, except that a relationship which he could not comprehend disgusted him, even while forcing him to consider his own sexuality. The experience, he records, opened his eyes to the dangers of the sort of behaviour he encountered in Venice.

His mother, wanting to alert him to his business responsibilities, then arranged an English tour to include the industrial north, and the West country on his return from Europe. It failed to interest him and he was unable to relate to the Scottish lawyer, Thomas Wildman, who looked after his business affairs.

An easy victim to scandal, he was soon involved in another stemming from his innocent friendship with his cousin Peter’s wife Louisa. She had fallen passionately in love with Beckford and made no secret of the fact, in spite of being married, six years older, and having five children. Unable to return her love in the way she hoped, Beckford once again became the subject of vicious gossip, this time more unjustly than before.

Advising him to spend some time abroad again, his mother sent him to Italy to stay with her cousin, Sir William Hamilton. He took with him the manuscript of his first Gothic novel, Vathek, which he had written in French, and was now in the middle of translating it into English. A few weeks later, Sir William's wife became sick. She was a woman of whom Beckford had already become extremely fond, and after her death he returned to England, too deeply upset to finish the translation.

Unbeknownst to him, his mother had made plans for him during his absence. He was to be married. Conspiring with her friend and companion Lady Euphemia Stuart, his mother arranged his marriage to Lady Margaret Gordon, a niece of Lady Euphemia.

He was happy enough to agree to marriage to a woman he had known for many years, and William Beckford and Lady Margaret Gordon were married at Hindon on 5th May 1783. She was twenty and he twenty-three.

Beckford’s mother and and future wife persuaded him to follow a more conventional life, by taking up his seat as Member of Parliament for the borough of Hindon. His mother’s friend, Lord Thurlow, agreed to sponsor him for the parliamentary seat and also to put him forward for a peerage. Unfortunately Thurlow was a man whom Lord Loughborough detested as a political and social rival. Immediately he regarded Beckford as an enemy.

Before leaving on his honeymoon, Beckford sent manuscripts of his first and best known Gothic novel The History of the Caliph Vathek to Samuel Henley, a scholar, whom he had known for some years. Drawn from the Arabian Nights ("many years after the time of Haroun al Rashid"), it is an exotic tale of indulgence and excess which Beckford wrote originally in French in the satirical tongue-in-cheek style of Voltaire. He asked Henley to finish his incomplete translation into English, but to delay publishing until he had completed the last episode. It would later prove to be another betrayal.

When Beckford and his bride returned from their honeymoon, all was set for Beckford to take his seat in the House of Commons, and in the meantime Lord Thurlow had presented a request for him to be granted a Peerage.

This was the time when, throwing himself into domesticity with spectacular fervor, Beckford proceeded to demolish his father's great mansion, Fonthill Splendens, to build the stunningly grand Fonthill Abbey in its place. It marked the start of the seemingly impossible dissipation of his great fortune. His wealth, as far as he could see, was limitless and he took no interest in learning about its source.

With his whimsical view of life, his enthusiasm for art and music, his flippant contempt for the political attitudes of the day, he had little in common with his grimly ambitious and dourly humourless lawyer, and kept contact to the minimum. He left the conduct of his affairs to agents in Jamaica and to Wildman. All of them cheated him outrageously over the years to the extent of nearly bankrupting him in later life

That Beckford was genuinely fond of his new wife became clear over the years, but at the same time he was sustained by his affection for his seventeen-year old cousin, William Courtenay, “Kitty” to family and friends. An heir to the Earl of Devon and nephew to the powerful Lord Loughborough, Courtenay was a well-connected young man who responded to Beckford's advances with adolescent devotion. Unwisely, Beckford poured out his soul to him in letters in which passion overrode discretion.

Beckford's first child was stillborn. The loss brought the couple together. Sharing her grief, Beckford felt a new tenderness for his wife which overwhelmed his previous infatuation with Courtenay, already fading since the alienation from the Loughborough family. When another child was on the way, Beckford's wife became his absolute concern.

Yet he was as much delighted as surprised to receive an invitation from Courtenay to come visit at his uncle’s seat, Powderham Castle.

Beckford was anxious to accept the invitation, believing the change of scene would be good for his wife’s health and as well as presenting an opportunity to heal the rift with Lord Loughborough. Lady Margaret thought differently and his mother pleaded with him not to go, convinced a trap had been set for him.

Beckford prevailed and the couple spent a happy month at Powderham, despite the fact that Beckford now saw Courtenay as a shallow, foppish and unpleasant young man whose idleness dismayed him.

They left Powderham refreshed and without argument or incident. Beckford's decision to accept the invitation had apparently been vindicated.

Two weeks later, Loughborough dropped his bombshell. He claimed that Beckford had been discovered in Courtenay's room in compromising circumstances. Loughborough circulated this scandal to all and sundry, including the press.

Loughborough threatened a court action against Beckford, which, if the accusations were proven, could result in a death sentence.

Lady Margaret verified that nothing of what had been claimed could have happened. Her husband had been with her all the time, and she pointed out that if such a thing had, surely they would have been asked to leave Powderham Castle immediately. Her testimony, however, was no counter to what Loughborough was able to produce.

He had gained possession of Beckford's impulsive and unguarded letters to Courtenay.

Beckford was advised to leave the country. Arriving at Dover, he found the weather so bad that the crossing would be delayed several days. With time to think, he concluded that hasty departure might only confirm his guilt. Also, he felt he should be with his wife at this time of her pregnancy, and he returned home.

Lady Margaret gave birth to a daughter Margaret on 9th April, 1785. However in the months leading up to the birth, their isolation at Fonthill Abbey was total and it became evident that exile was the only answer for the family.

Soon after the birth the three departed for Vevey in Switzerland. Lady Margaret had now become the centre of Beckford's existence, and exiled in Switzerland they were able to live a normal family life.

On 14th May 1786, Lady Margaret gave birth to a second daughter, Susan, and at first all went well, but two weeks later Margaret developed puerperal fever and died. Beckford was overwhelmed with grief. For a long time he was unable to write or take any interest in his future.

Meanwhile the press in England, encouraged by Loughborough, were busy rehashing the scandal, and now accused Beckford of having treated his wife cruelly and being responsible for his wife's death.

Turning his mind back to literature, Beckford finished the last Episodes of his novel and wrote to Henley apologizing for the delay and announcing they could now be included. Henley, however, ignoring Beckford's instructions, had already published the book himself. He now claimed authorship, asserting that the idea had come from an original Arabic manuscript!

Beckford set a lawyer onto him, though he could hope for nothing more than to extract copies from the publisher, and so prevent its distribution as much as possible. All the lawyer obtained was a letter from Henley in which deviousness, impertinence and servility were mixed up with plain untruthfulness, and even veiled references to the Powderham affair and to his patron's reputation - a hint of blackmail!

Seeking solace in travel, Beckford visited Portugal with, according to his own account, "very little baggage" (other than his wine cellar, a grand piano, and a retinue which included his doctor, chefs, confectioners, valets, footmen, and his band). Finding acceptance at court, after an initial rejection, he rented a quinta in the town of Sintra as his base for the next ten years. With confidence and self-respect restored, he wrote his Portugese Journal and Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaca and Bathala, bot highly praised by the crtics, before finally returning to England to complete the construction of Fonthill Abbey.

In all, he wrote nineteen books, an opera score, and many translations. He acquired the finest collection of rare books, and his linguistic abilities were evidenced by the inclusion in his library of books in German, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. He was a connoisseur of paintings and furniture and his great "abbey", Fonthill, became the showcase of his artistic vision. The failure and ultimate collapse of the latter was not in the design, but stemmed from the desire to build fast and the complicity of his unscrupulous architect, James Wyatt, who was happy to cut corners for greater profit.

It is an indictment of the British character that a fury of self-righteous accusations forced Beckford into exile. He was cheated all his life by people he trusted: by Lord Courtenay, by Henley, by James Wyatt, by his agents in Jamaica, and by artists and sculptors, who benefited by his patronage, and spoke disparagingly of him afterwards.

Known more for his eccentricities than for his achievements, Beckford’s contribution to English literature has been ignored. Mention him in Wiltshire, his home county, and all that is known of him is the scandal and the Abbey, the former a falsehood and the latter a ruin. Even after all these years, the shadow of Loughborough still darkens his name.

This, coupled with my own sense of justice, inspires my interest in William Beckford, a man made vulnerable perhaps by his capacity to love.

Betty Graham-Yooll



To obtain a copy of Willam Beckford's novel, "Vathek," click here.


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