William Beckford (born 1st October 1760, dying in 1844 at Bath) is a truly quixotic character, notorious in the Georgian period and worth more than the brief notice I am giving of him now. I find however that he and I have, in a manner of speaking, crossed paths in the past, and you might be interested in the context of our latest encounter.
I have been making my slow and steady way through Elizabeth Mavor’s The Grand Tour of William Beckford preparatory to reading Beckford’s own novel Vathek (1782). I’ve had the novel in a compendium of three Gothic novels for a while, though had read only Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) up to now.¹
However, with Halloween and Christmas coming up I thought I might tackle at least one of the remaining two complete novels, Vathek of course and John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819). This last, as some of you may know, was Polidori’s plagiarising of Lord Byron’s tale which itself had emerged from the ghost story challenge — which had already culminated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Vathek, however, was different from the other stories, modelled as it was on the tales in the collection we know as The Arabian Nights.
But I also knew that William Beckford was as famous for another enterprise he’d indulged in, and the arrival of the September issue of the magazine Current Archaeology was a timely reminder.
Caroline Dakers’ ‘Grottoes, follies, and video games: unravelling the story of Fonthill’s fantastical estate’ (Current Archaeology 342, XXIX No 6, 26-34) went through the history and archaeology of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire and millionaire Beckford’s ambitious but disastrous building plans for the main seat of the family estate.² In 1813 the gargantuan building was declared complete, its profile dominated by a 295 ft (90 metre) tower:
In scale, it has been compared to Salisbury Cathedral. The central tower had four wings radiating from the central octagon at its foot: the 290ft-long west wing with its hammer-beamed entrance hall and 35ft-high doors; the east wing housing living quarters; and north and south wings forming vaulted long galleries stretching for 350ft.
Unfortunately, for various reasons Beckford was dissatisfied with the completed works, and sold the entire building, contents and estate in 1822, retiring to Bath where he built the still extant Beckford’s Tower. (Joan Aiken may have had this ‘slender tower’ in mind for Wen Pendragon in her Dido Twite adventure, The Stolen Lake).
In 1825, however, Fonthill’s central tower collapsed, and the short-lived Gothic ruins were subsequently demolished; just a few structures of Beckford’s elaborate folly survive two centuries later.
Beckford’s Tower, Lansdown, Bath (credit: Rare Old Prints)
But all the while I was looking at depictions of Fonthill Abbey in its heyday I was strongly reminded of another fantastical neogothic structure: Gormenghast Castle. I’ve already discussed how Mervyn Peake might have envisioned the castle in Titus Groan (here) and suggested multifarious influences such as Tianjin and Beijing’s Forbidden City in China, Fairy Hall in London (including the school’s coat of arms) and Arundel Castle in Sussex. Here might be another influence, for when we look at the original plans of Fonthill we find that it is in the form of a cross with four wings, just as Gormenghast was (though on an even grander scale).
A plan of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, England from John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill (1823).
So now I am in a quandary: do I read Vathek first, or do I go with Gormenghast, the second volume of Peake’s fantasy trilogy? For such are the first world problems that you and I might meet with, in that we can’t decide which piece of fiction to plump for. Have you read either title — or indeed both — and if so which classic would you recommend to this conflicted reader?
Fonthill Abbey from the South-west by J M W Turner (as it was in 1799)
¹ Elizabeth Manor, The Grand Tour of William Beckford. Penguin Travel Library, 1986.
E F Bleiler (editor), The Castle of Otranto; Vathek; The Vampyre: Three Gothic Novels. Dover Publications, 1966.
² Caroline Dakers (editor), Fonthill Recovered: A Cultural History. UCL Press, 2018 (ISBN: 978‑1‑78735‑045‑8). An Open Access free PDF download is available at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/fonthill-recovered