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literature

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Beckford, William (1760-1844)  

Extremely wealthy and connected to the aristocracy, British author and connoisseur William Beckford was ostracized by English society for the last sixty years of his life because of his homosexuality.

Beckford's father was alderman and lord mayor of London, and his mother, connected by marriage to the Dukes of Hamilton, a stern and unrelenting Calvinist. Beckford's father died when he was ten, and his mother decided that it would be best not to risk sending her delicate son away to school. She hired a series of tutors and monitored his education herself. Beckford early on displayed an interest in art and music, and especially in the exotic Oriental arts of the Arab world. As he entered adolescence, he was lucky that one of his series of tutors was Alexander Cozens, whose own fascination with Eastern lore encouraged Beckford's own.

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At the same time that Beckford's aesthetic taste began to develop, so did his devotion to emotional self-indulgence. Chief among his emotional attachments was a young cousin, William Courtenay, known as "Kitty" to family and friends, who responded to Beckford's attentions with adolescent devotion.

For years, Beckford poured out his soul in a series of epistolary endearments to Courtenay that were as extreme as they were indiscreet. These letters, almost inevitably, fell into the hands of Courtenay's reactionary and powerful uncle Lord Loughborough, a chief justice. Although, Loughborough could not catch Beckford and Courtenay in flagrante dilecto, he let out a rumor that he had, and he advertised the scandal in the morning newspapers from October through December 1784.

The result of this newspaper campaign was the utter ruin of Beckford's reputation. He lived as an exile in his own estate at Fonthill, and he traveled freely on the continent. But he was never again received in polite society. He lived until 1844, for sixty years an outcast.

In his travels, he met various men who befriended him and boys whom he loved. Some stayed close to him throughout his life, and a few earned his sincere devotion. But society meant too much to him not for him to feel the blow of his disgrace, and the frantic building that went on at his estate, which began with a wall around the entire property and ended with his massive gothic Fonthill Abbey with its huge central tower, might be understood as his attempt to deal with his status as an outcast.

Beckford wrote one novel that is still read with wonder, Vathek (1786), which appeared in an unauthorized translation of the original French in which he wrote it. It tells the story of Vathek the ninth Caliph of Abassides, who goaded on by a wicked mother, indulges his appetites in a fantasy of sensual power. His companions in wickedness are the lovely Nouronihar and the child Gulchenrouz, who remains pure.

It is easy to see Beckford's personal life in this tale and to understand his celebration of Gulchenrouz at its close as a clear articulation of love. At the same time, it is important to understand it also as a consideration of the pleasures of the flesh and a protest that they cannot be enjoyed without cost. In a sequel to Vathek, which he never published, Beckford planned a series of episodes that explored various forms of aberrant sexual behavior.

George E. Haggerty

     

 
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Above: Beckford's estate at Fonthill.

  
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    Bibliography
   

Alexander, Boyd. England's Wealthiest Son: A Study of William Beckford. London: Centaur Press, 1962.

_____. The Journal of William Beckford in Portugal and Spain, 1787-8. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.

Beckford, William. Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents. 1783. Robert J. Gemmett, ed. Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971.

_____. Vathek. 1786. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Chapman, Guy. Beckford. London: Jonathan Cape, 1937.

Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in Nineteenth-Century England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Fothergill, Brian. Beckford at Fonthill. London: Faber & Faber, 1979.

Haggerty, George E. "Literature and Homosexuality in the Late Eighteenth Century: Walpole, Beckford, and Lewis." Studies in the Novel 18 (1986): 341-352.

Jack, Malcolm. William Beckford: An English Fidalgo. New York: AMS Press, 1996.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Haggerty, George E.  
    Entry Title: Beckford, William  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 13, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/beckford_w.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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