WILLIAM BECKFORD (1760-1844) is an important link between the Augustan and the Romantic Ages. The richly decorated caves and grottoes of Fonthill Splendens, the Wiltshire estate on which he was brought up, recall Alexander Pope's retreat at Twickenham, while his oriental fantasy Vathek, and his scandalous sexual career, look forward to Lord Byron.
Beckford's principal monuments are Vathek, which he wrote in French aged 21 and which (according to Timothy Mowl) owes much of its reputation to its English translator, and Fonthill Abbey, the vast Gothic pile he built during his middle years, which fell down shortly after he had sold it. What makes Beckford a seminal pre-Romantic figure, however, was the way he conducted his life, and how everything he wrote or designed was a reflection of his extraordinary personality.
This makes him an ideal subject for a biography, and he has already attracted the attention of several writers. Mowl has published an enjoyable revisionist biography of that other Gothic enthusiast, Horace Walpole. He clearly hoped to perform the same service here, explaining that Beckford rewrote his own history so thoroughly that it has often been difficult for previous biographers to sort fact from fiction. Beckford had good reason to doctor his life, since at the age of 19 he fell in love with an 11-year-old boy, William Courtenay, with whom, five years later, he was publicly accused of having a sexual relationship. Unlike some of Beckford's earlier biographers, Mowl is in no doubt that the affair was consummated by the time Courtenay was 13. "Not many people these days strike attitudes about homosexuals, but paedophilia remains another thing," he observes, referring nonsensically to "an area grey to the point of sooty blackness". Mowl may not understand what a grey area is, but he recognises the value of sensationalism. No one has seriously doubted that Beckford was attracted to adolescents. Even in 1957, Alexander Boyd's Life at Fonthill has an extensive index entry for "Boys". It is worth noting for the sake of historical context that one 14-year-old "stripling" he admired already had an 18-year-old wife. …