Gothic Labyrinth

Byron was a great admirer of Beckford. He possessed several copies of the darkly satirical, erotically-charged Vathek, possibly his favourite book. In Childe Harold he wrote, Unhappy Vathek, thou wert smitten with unhallowed thirst/Of nameless crime, and thy sad day must close/To scorn, and Solitude unsought - the worst of woes. Byron could have been writing about himself. Like Beckford, he was ostracized for his real or imagined sexual excesses and fled to the continent, like him settling for a time in Switzerland. While Beckford was there, his Vathek was printed without his name or consent and he had to publish his original in order to claim title. Byron's experience was the reverse: he had to publish his fragment of a vampire tale in order to disclaim title to a work wrongly credited to him (The Vampyre). Both Beckford and Byron traveled like royalty while abroad, in customized coaches. They were also distant cousins having common ancestors in Edward III and James I of Scotland.

Beckford mentored the young Benjamin Disraeli, later Prime Minister, encouraging his writing and offering particular admiration for The Wondrous Tale of Alroy a work clearly inspired by Vathek. The latter was also an important influence on Mejnoun and Leila by Disraeli's father Isaac Disraeli, Byron's The Giaour, George Meredith's The Shaving of Shagpat, Joris-Karl Huysmans' À Rebours, Maria Edgeworth's Murad the Unlucky, and the poetry of Mallarméand Swinburne, among others, including the more recent novellas of Ronald Firbank.It is also believed to have been an influence on Mary Shelley, though Beckford appears not to have been impressed with Frankenstein, writing in his copy This is, perhaps, the foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up, from the reeking dunghill of the present times.

Vathek, like Wilde's Salome, was originally written in French, then translated into English.

William Beckford, author of Vathek, was the son of the Lord Mayor of London, the richest man in England and a connection of the Chatterton family. His home, Fonthill Abbey, was the most ambitious and beautiful of the gothic revival. It was dominated by a 300-foot tower and filled with the most exquisite treasures. It is said that Fonthill was inspired by Horace Walpole's gothic extravaganza at Strawberry Hill (which Beckford disparaged as a gothic mousetrap).

Beckford had remarkable aesthetic gifts, but having been educated entirely at home, had little social experience outside his family circle. This may have contributed to his downfall, as he conceived a romantic attachment for a younger cousin. Beckford's passionate letters were taken as invitations to vice, whereas they were more likely to have been a not-uncommon same-sex schoolboy crush. The boy's family vilified Beckford in the press for weeks on end, destroying his reputation. He lost his chance for a peerdom and his seat in parliament (it went to Matthew "Monk" Lewis). Unwelcome in England, Beckford went into self-imposed exile on the continent, but found ostracism at home to be the lesser of two evils. How tired I am of wearing a mask, how tight it sticks - it makes me sore, he wrote in Lisbon. At Fonthill, he did as he liked-behind a 12-foot high wall topped by iron spikes.

You will hardly credit how closely I was able to apply myself to study when I was young. I wrote Vathek when I was twenty-two years old. I wrote it at one sitting, and in French. It cost me three days and two nights of hard labor. I never took my clothes off the whole time. This severe application made me very ill.
Gothic Labyrinth