Vathek by William Beckford
During the course of the 18th century, two types of “exotic” fantasy fiction became fashionable. The “oriental” story was largely inspired by the Arabian Nights, gradually becoming available in western translations, while the gothic romance were supernatural tales harking back to the middle ages. The finest flowering of the early gothic tradition was undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, one of the cornerstones of science fiction. In 1786, however, more than thirty years before this masterpiece, a story was published that combined the two styles into one tale: Vathek by William Beckford.
Beckford was a fascinating and colourful figure who wouldn’t have been out of place in Lord Byron’s circle. Like Byron, he had extravagant tastes, both in art and in life, and indulged them to the full. Like Byron, he succeeded in embroiling himself in scandals that forced him to spend a considerable time away from Britain.
William Thomas Beckford was born in 1760, the son of another William Beckford who had twice been Lord Mayor of London. On his father’s death in 1770, he became, at the age of ten, the richest commoner in England. His wealth enabled him, as he grew up, to indulge his passion for the arts as he chose – at one stage, he even took music lessons from Mozart.
He travelled extensively in Europe – partly by choice, undertaking the standard “Grand Tour”, partly in exile, following a number of scandals. It’s difficult to know how much substance there was to these (he was alleged, among other things, to have had affairs with his cousin’s wife and with a young boy) but they resulted in Beckford wandering the continent for some years, collecting art and soaking up influences. Unlike Byron, though, he eventually returned home.
He’s famous for his massive art collection and his gothic follies, Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower, the former of which largely collapsed due to shoddy workmanship. He wrote several books on art and about his travels, but his major literary work is Vathek, begun in 1782, a tale set in what can best be described as “Arabian-Nights-land” but written with a gothic sensibility and relish for the grotesque and demonic.
For reasons best known to himself, Beckford wrote the book in French and had it translated into English by the Reverend Samuel Henley. The intention, presumably, had been to publish the two versions simultaneously, but Henley went ahead with his version in 1786, claiming to have translated it from an old Arabic tale. Beckford rushed the French edition into print a few months later, with his name on the title page.
The title character of Vathek is loosely based on al-Wathiq, an Abbasid caliph who reigned from 842-847 AD and a grandson of Harun al-Rashid. Although a few historical characters are mentioned, such as his mother Carathis (Qaratis), the story of Vathek appears to owe little to anything outside Beckford’s imagination.
The story tells how Caliph Vathek, encouraged by his mother, seeks out arcane lore and sorceries forbidden to good Muslims, outraging many of his subjects, notably the vizier Morakanabad and the chief eunuch Bababalouk. Tempted by a Giaour, who promises him the treasures of the Palace of Subterranean Fire and the talismans that control the world, Vathek abjures the Prophet and commits a string of crimes before setting out to find a way into the Palace.
Ignoring the Giaour’s instructions, Vathek accepts hospitality from the saintly Emir Fakreddin and becomes inflamed with desire for the Emir’s young daughter, Nouronihar. She’s betrothed, however, to her cousin Gulchenrouz, an effete, delicate boy. Although until now the two have been inseparable, Nouronihar is both flattered by the Caliph’s attentions and equally tempted by the promise of power and otherworldly treasures.
The two travel together to the ruined city of Istakhar, through which they may enter the Palace of Subterranean Fire, the domain of Eblis (i.e. Iblis, the Islamic Satan). This is, indeed a place of immense power and riches – but the reader will hardly be surprised to find that the promised reward isn’t quite what Vathek and Nouronihar expected.
The tale is told with immense style and verve, full of descriptions of beauty, luxury and magnificent evil, death, horror and low comedy. The main characters, though absurdly larger than life, are fascinating and engaging: the exuberantly evil Carathis; Vathek, whose efforts to dedicate himself to pure evil are constantly interrupted by his venal appetites; the flighty, mischievous, exuberant teenager Nouronihar; Gulchenrouz, the soft, childish idler; the long-suffering eunuch Bababalouk, hideous and absurd, who has to put up not only with his master’s vagaries, but with being the butt of Nouronihar’s practical jokes.
Beckford clearly had mixed feelings about these characters. He pays a good deal of lip-service to the importance of piety (Islamic in context, of course, though his 18th century readers would doubtless have understood this as a substitute for Christian piety) but still takes great delight in making the devout and conventional look fools.
Nevertheless, it’s been pointed out that he’s set up his story so that the characters who seek to pursue learning and knowledge (Vathek, Carathis and Nouronihar) do so through pride and evil and receive suitable punishment; while the one who’s rewarded is Gulchenrouz, who seeks to achieve nothing but spend his life in indolence. Rescued by a good genie from the vengeance of Vathek, he’s taken to a paradise of eternal childhood. Beckford’s final observation is:
Thus the Caliph Vathek, who, for the sake of empty pomp and forbidden power, had sullied himself with a thousand crimes, became a prey to grief without end, and remorse without mitigation; whilst the humble, the despised Gulchenrouz passed whole ages in undisturbed tranquillity, and in the pure happiness of childhood.
This hardly sounds like the young Beckford, seeking out intellectual and artistic achievement and expressions of splendour, especially since he wrote Vathek before scandal might have made him reconsider his life. On the other hand, Gulchenrouz is no more pious than Vathek, having been his cousin’s partner-in-crime in playing pranks and tormenting the virtuous. Indeed, Beckford too seems to take delight in mocking the virtuous. This would no doubt have been shocking in his day if he were mocking Christian piety, but perhaps he was able to get away with it because he was only mocking the piety of Muslims.
Maybe Beckford was being ironic and presenting wickedness as delicious under a veneer of morality that would allow the reading public to accept it. Or, beneath the surface of a light-hearted, glittering tale, was he engaging in a debate between two halves of himself? In any case, Vathek can only be taken on its own terms, and, in spite of an apparently clear moral, the reader must interpret it as s/he sees fit.
Vathek is a very short novel – barely longer than a hundred pages – but that wasn’t the original intent. Towards the end, Vathek and Nouronihar meet a number of princes and princesses in the Palace of Subterranean Fire, and the group pass the time in telling one another the stories of how they came to be there. Beckford intended these tales to be included with the main story, and he wrote two-and-a-bit of these “episodes” but abandoned them when it became necessary to bring out his edition in a hurry.
The stories were discovered about a hundred years ago and published as The Episodes of Vathek, and these are included in some modern editions of Vathek, more than doubling its length. The unfinished episode (a story of young, incestuous twins) was later completed by the American fantasy author Clark Ashton Smith and included in the volume The Abominations of Yondo.
The Episodes are frequently dismissed as dreary and inferior. While I haven’t read them all, the Third Episode as completed by Smith is far from that. It’s an entertaining, atmospheric tale which, I’d say, is fully worthy to be published together with the main story.
As with many older stories, a modern reader has to put aside contemporary assumptions to some extent and simply enjoy the tale for what it is. The style and story structure aren’t what’s now expected (we’re not generally used to changing scenes with But let us return to the Caliph…) and the social attitudes are certainly not. Beckford writes with the casual racism of his time, for instance, while his portrayal of Islam would hardly be considered adequate today.
Still, if the reader simply accepts that the past is another country and gets on with enjoying what the story does have to offer, Vathek has plenty going for it, from laughter to suspense: a glittering example of pre-modern fantasy.