“I fear I shall never be…good for anything in this world" - William Beckford and the Birth of the Gothic Novel

1 October 1760, the English novelist and pioneer of Gothic fiction, William Beckford, was born in Fonthill in Wiltshire.
“I fear I shall never be…good for anything in this world, but composing airs, building towers, forming gardens, collecting old Japan, and writing a journey to China or the Moon.” (William Beckford)

George Romney’s portrait of William Beckford, dating from 1782

The late 18th century brought forth some remarkable eccentrics who, among an abundance of other follies, tried their hand at writing. As an alternative draft to the golden ratio of enlightenment with its ordered structures of mind and art, aligned along the clear lines of the imagined antique ideal of Classicism, artists like Lewis and Walpole and Beckford were fascinated by the soul’s grotesque, sombre and destructive traits and their reflection between the poles of man, nature and culture as represented not by antiquity but the Dark Ages, hence the term “Gothic”. And some of these eccentrics were immensely wealthy and could afford to indulge themselves in nearly every kind of folly. Like William Beckford, who was just filthy rich.

One of Richard Westall’s (1765 – 1836) illustrations for “Vathek“

But Beckford’s lasting claim to fame was the authorship of his novel “Vathek”. The story of a Faustian Caliph whose arabesque sins finally land him in hell, published in 1787, capitalises on the nascent European yearning for all things Oriental that played a significant role in 19th century’s art and taste. In fact, “Vathek” was a prime mover that influenced artists probably as much as the popular translations of “The Arabian Nights”. Walpole’s “Castle of Otranto” from 1786 and various other continental sources had already assembled the instruments that were shown to the reader to engender delightful shivers and shudders, the ruins, the demons, the spine-tingling supernatural and the anti-hero that would be a paragon for at least two generations of Romantic poets and their torn, demonic personae and protagonists. Byron, the Shelleys, Southey, Keats and even Lovecraft were delighted  – and influenced –  by the outré, helter-skelter and decadently feverish yarn Beckford spun in his “Vathek”.

Fonthill Abbey in 1823

To generate a handy and congenial atmosphere to celebrate his imaginations, Beckford used his birthplace, Fonthill Abbey, after the manner of Walpole’s pseudo-Gothic estate Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, to edify the archetype of a folly. The monumental complex was to be conjured more or less out of nothing and had to surpass everything in grandeur and refinery what the world had seen so far in revival architecture, including a high tower, like Caliph Vathek in imitation of Nimrod. The record-time of completing his monstrosity Beckford had in mind did not exactly further the structural integrity, though. The 300’ tower collapsed several times, as well as other parts of the complex and the folly was sold to an ammunition dealer in 1822 until, three years later, the last fall of the tower damaged the building irreparably and today only the gatehouse and parts of the north wing bear witness of bygone neo-Gothic splendor.

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