know what I expected when I walked a remote path in the Wiltshire
countryside near the village of Fonthill Gifford.
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
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.
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
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
accomplished pianist by age ten.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
mentions little about this in his diaries, except that a
relationship which he could not comprehend disgusted him,
forcing him to consider his own sexuality. The experience, he
opened his eyes to the dangers of the sort of behaviour he
encountered in Venice.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
surprised to receive an invitation
from Courtenay to come visit at his uncle’s
seat, Powderham Castle.
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.
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
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.
threatened a court action against Beckford, which, if the accusations
were proven, could
result in a death sentence.
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.
gained possession of
Beckford's impulsive and
unguarded letters to Courtenay.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
with my own sense of justice, inspires
interest in William Beckford, a man made
vulnerable perhaps by his capacity to love.
To obtain a copy of Willam Beckford's novel, "Vathek,"