William Thomas Beckford
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Vathek is a nightmarish and hilarious 18th century mock-“Arabian Nights” satirical tour de force fantasy tale, that, despite its brevity, stands out as one of the most intriguing and most influential examples of early Gothic fiction.
About the Author
William Thomas Beckford, one of England’s most notorious excentrics of his time, was born in London in 1760, into an immensely rich family. His father William Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London, had made his vast fortune mostly from slave-labor plantations in Jamaica; William Thomas inherited it at the age of ten. His fortune allowed him to pursue his interests, which included art (assembling one of the finest art collections in Europe), architecture (building as his home the grandiose if short-lived Gothic-cathedral-style Fonthill Abbey), music (briefly tutored by Mozart), traveling, literature, and writing. Though Beckford became a member of parliament for some time, he mostly led a secluded life, often abroad, largely shunned by English society after having been accused (probably truthfully) of pederasty. In 1983 he married Lady Margaret Gordon — a loving marriage that was cut short when only three years later she died in childbed, giving birth to their second daughter (among their descendents today are, for instance, Albert II, Prince of Monaco and Princess Ira von Fürstenberg).
Beckford kept spending money lavishly on buidling projects and art, but his income decreased and he was forced to sell not only large parts of his art collection, but also Fonthill Abbey, which, by the way, collapsed shortly afterwards. He then commissioned another extravagant building, Lansdown Tower (now Beckford’s Tower) in Bath, where he died in 1844, and next to which, as had been his wish, he lies buried — it is now open to the public as a museum.
Of his literary works, Vathek has remained by far the best known and most influential one. Beckford wrote Vathek 1782 in French, and had it translated into English by Samuel Henley; both the English translation, and a few months later the French original, were published in 1786. The name Vathek may refer to the Abbasid caliph al-Wathiq who reigned from 842 to 847, but, of course, the tale bears no relation to any historical persons or events.