1786 Vathek: William Beckford

1786 Vathek: William Beckford


Vathekwas an early gothic novel with an Arabian setting, which capitalised on a European interest in all things oriental. It was the story of the excesses of a sensual Caliph called Vathek, who sold his soul to the devil in his thirst for knowledge, power and pleasure. The story is told by a narrator who relates the series of events of the story with a constantly forward-moving momentum, with little room for reflection or character development. The story involves an evil jinn called the Giaour, who was also the subject of a Gothic poem by Byron.

William Beckford (1760-1844) was an English novelist, art collector, politician and  travel writer. He was said to be one of the richest men in England. He did not seem to spend his wealth wisely.

William Beckford was perhaps best known for building an expensive Gothic folly, Fonthill Abbey, which collapsed spectacularly in 1825, and Lansdown Tower, now known as Beckford’s Tower, which is still standing in Bath.

The book was originally written in 1782 in French by Beckford, who was an avid traveller. The book was first published in England in 1786, in the form of a translation from the French by an English churchman, and the book was not attributed to Beckford for several editions.

The desirable edition of Vathek that I show here is the reprint in Bentley’s Standard Novels of 1834, which has pleasingly romantic oriental illustrations as the frontispiece and on the engraved title page.

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