Gormenghast reimagined

John Rutter’s Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey (1823)

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

17 thoughts on “Gormenghast reimagined

  1. piotrek

    I love these posts, connecting fiction with its inspirations in reality 🙂 Next time I visit UK, I’ll make a list of places you mentioned that I need to see with my own eyes.

    As a reader of your blog, I don’t want you to review entire Gormenghast before I start the first book, so please go with Vathek 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Now I’m conflicted! Vathek or Gormenghast? Maybe I should read them both simultaneously—and very s-l-o-w-l-y… 😁

      Literary pilgrimages are wonderfully ennervating and inspiring, though I always have to remember it’s the quality of the writing that matters, its ability to conjure up a sense of place, more than merely visiting those places. But actually being there is so much fun too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read both and of the two, my recommendation would definitely be Gormenghast, which I loved. I’ve been intending to re-read the whole trilogy for years but never seem to get round to it. Vathek was entertaining, but a bit too bizarre for me. It’s much shorter than Gormenghast, though, if that’s a factor in your decision!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Helen, now I’m veering towards reading both simultaneously, as that’s my usual default approach! Yes, I’d read that about Vathek too; definitely a one-off among all its contemporary Gothick offerings.


  3. Pingback: Gormenghast reimagined — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  4. I haven’t read Vathek, but I thought Gormenghast was equally as good as Titus Groan, so if you liked the first… I thought Titus Alone was a bit of a falling off.

    Cool post with the pictures–it does give you an idea of these sorts of places. Might have to try Vathek. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did like Titus Groan so, yes, Gormenghast is full of promise!

      Glad you liked the pictures, Reese, I had fun selecting them after just a little bit of research.


        1. I see you’ve just written about Jurgen, and I still have my old paperback (and a couple of other Poictesme novels) but as your plot description rang few bells I think it may be time to dig it out again! Old copies are sometimes worth hanging on to… 😁


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