Authors: William Beckford

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and art collector

September 29, 1760

London, England

May 2, 1844

Bath, Somerset, England


William Thomas Beckford’s father, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1762 and 1769, was famous for his great wealth and for the fact that he led the opposition to George III’s arbitrary conduct toward the city and its government. His son, William Beckford, was educated by tutors, including the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. At the age of eleven, Beckford inherited his father’s wealth. When he was twenty years old, Beckford published his Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, a predominantly humorous volume characterized by satirical barbs at Dutch and Flemish painters. In 1783, he married Lady Margaret Gordon, who died three years later while giving birth to their second daughter.

Beckford’s best-known book is Vathek, which is unusual in the history of English literature for having initially been written in French. It is the story of an Arabian caliph who suffers the tortures of the damned and has a wondrous series of supernatural adventures. Beckford wrote the book in French and wanted it to be published in the original language, including three long “episodes” over which he labored. The English translator, the Reverend Samuel Henly, published his English version first, however, in which he omitted Beckford’s name. Obliged to rush the French version into print to claim authorship, Beckford left out the episodes, which were not published until 1909. Other books by Beckford are Modern Novel Writing: Or, The Elegant Enthusiast, published under the pseudonym of the Right Honorable Harriet Marlow; Azemia, published under the pseudonym of Jacquetta Agneta Mariana Jenks; and Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha.

Beckford also attained fame for the houses that he built. The first, Fonthill Abbey, was eighteen years in the construction and was reputed to have cost more than a quarter of a million pounds. His second, near Bath, England, where he died in 1844, was also magnificent. Beckford’s later years were marred by his repeated and unsuccessful attempts to obtain a title to add luster to his fortune.

Author Works Long Fiction: Vathek: An Arabian Tale, 1786 (original French edition, 1787) Azemia, 1797 (as Jacquetta Agneta Mariana Jenks) Nonfiction: Modern Novel Writing: Or, The Elegant Enthusiast, 1796 (as Harriet Marlow) Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, 1780 Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, 1783 Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal, 1835 Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha, 1835 Bibliography Chapman, Guy. A Bibliography of William Beckford of Fonthill. 1930. Reprint. Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. A solid bibliography. Gemmett, Robert J. William Beckford. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A good general study. Graham, Kenneth W., ed. “Vathek” and the Escape from Time: Bicentenary Revaluations. New York: AMS Press, 1990. A collection of essays about Beckford’s most famous work. Gray, Jennie. Horace Walpole and William Beckford: Pioneers of the Gothic Revival. Chislehurst, Kent, England: Gothic Society, 1994. Analyzes Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765) and Beckford’s Vathek. Hewat-Jaboor, Philip, and Derek E. Ostergard. William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. This biography focuses on Beckford’s art collection. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 305 (1992). Includes Kevin L. Cope’s “Beckford and the Emerging Consciousness: Projective Collecting and the Aesthetic Dynamics of Acquisition” and Thomas M. Curley’s “William Beckford and the Romantic Tradition of Travel Literature.” Surtees, Virginia. A Beckford Inheritance: The Lady Lincoln Scandal. Wilton, Salisbury, England: M. Russell, 1977. The most notorious experience in Beckford’s life is chronicled here.

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