Sensibility in English Prose Fiction, 1760-1814: A Reinterpretation

By Walter Wright Francis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER X
TERROR ARISING FROM TRAGEDY

Vathek, 1786.

Zeluco, 1789.

Caleb Williams, 1794.

St. Leon, 1799.

The Fatal Revenge, 1807.


Beckford's "Vathek"

AT THE time when authors of sentimental love stories were concerned with terror, William Beckford, inspired by none of them, produced a novel which for intensity and consistency of terror surpassed all other novels of the century. Beckford belonged to no school of English authors, least of all to that of Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe. Indeed, in a clever story, Azemia, 1797, he satirized the excesses of the sentimental novelists of his day.1

Whereas Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe wrote of passions and fears which were entirely imaginary, Beckford even when depicting oriental scenes as glamorous and at times as grotesque as any he had read of in the Arabian Nights, expressed through them emotions which were very real to him.2 Though he sometimes indulged in roguish witticisms concerning oriental customs, he was writing not a picaresque story, but a philosophic novel on a problem which harassed him continually. He asked himself whether man should be punished for attempting to acquire more than human knowledge, and how severely he should atone for indulging passions which he knew to be evil.3 His question was, then, a moral one such as was

____________________
1
Azemia. London, 1797. At the end he said that he was trying to combine the beauties of Richardson, Lee, Smith, Radcliffe, and others. His allusions to a waxen image and to apparent ghosts (usually annotated) refer specifically to Mrs. Radcliffe.
2
For a record of Beckford's life and an account of his reading in oriental literature, including the Arabian Nights, cf. J. W. Oliver, The Life of William Beekford. London: Oxford University Press, 1932. In a note written in 1828, Beckford says that Vathek was composed after the magnificent celebration at Fonthill. The hall, the lights, and the music were to Beckford "the realization of romance in its most extravagant intensity. No wonder such scenery inspired the description of the Halls of Eblis. I composed Vathek immediately upon my return to town thoroughly imbued with all that passed at Fonthill during this voluptuous festival." Quoted by Oliver, ibid., 91. Beckford was a devout admirer of Ossian. Cf. letter of June 23, 1791, quoted by Oliver, ibid., 209-10.
3
For the influences, including that of Faust, upon Beckford, cf. Oliver, ibid., and Marcel May , La jeunesse de William Beckford et la genèse de son "Vathek." Paris: Presses Universitaires

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