William Beckford
The Fool of Fonthill


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


Few men attained greater celebrity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than William Beckford (1760—1844), the wealthiest man in England. With enormous wealth as his Aladdin's lamp, he decided to make his Arabian dreams come true. By the time he died at the venerable age of 84, he had built the loftiest domestic residence in the world, had assembled a virtual harem of boys, had his own militia to protect his Fonthill estate of 6,000 acres, had written the first Oriental-Gothic horror novel in English literature, and had become the most scandalous connoisseur of hedonism in the modern world. His society bemusedly tolerated most eccentrics — even nouveau riche ones — but they chose to ostracize this remarkable personality, dubbing him "The Fool of Fonthill."

Beckford's father, twice Lord Mayor of London, was the richest man in England, with extensive holdings in the cloth industry, property, government bonds, and sugar plantations. As a result, Beckford received a brilliant education, and was widely learned in French, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, philosophy, law, literature and physics by the age of 17. His private piano teacher was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — at least that is the legend, too romantic to be discouraged. He was being brought up as an empire builder, but his father died when Beckford was only ten, leaving him with no political ambition, and a millionaire's taste for pleasure.

But even money cannot stop the mouths of gossip-mongers. When this self-styled Caliph was 19, he fell in love with the Hon William Courtenay, later 3rd Viscount and 9th Earl of Devon, then ten years old and regarded as one of the most beautiful boys in England, borne out by paintings of him. Beckford and Courtenay saw each other frequently either at Fonthill or at Powderham Castle in Devon, Courtenay's home, for nearly six peaceful years. But then, in 1784, a visitor to Powderham claimed to have heard some "strange goings on" in Courtenay's bedroom, with Beckford apparently in bed with the lad. Soon the newspapers started circulating rumours about the country squire and his "Kitty," as the beautiful Courtenay was effeminately dubbed.

Greville wrote to Sir William Hamilton in Naples to say that Beckford "probably will be obliged to vacate his seat, and retire to Italy to make up the loss which Italy has sustained by Lord Tilney's death." Most men would have fled immediately to the Continent, but for nearly a year Beckford braved out the storm of abuse and secluded himself at Fonthill. No criminal charges were filed, but King George III, who personally wished that Beckford could have been hanged, dismissed Beckford's application for a peerage. Beckford and Courtenay were forced to separate to avoid further reprisal. Beckford finally went abroad, where he remained for the next ten years, living mainly in Portugal, followed by an entourage so magnificent that during his travels he was often mistaken for the Emperor of Austria — and charged accordingly. Courtenay, now Lord Devon, secluded himself at Powderham, which he inherited after his father's death.

Beckford found solace in his exile by writing additional Episodes for his thinly veiled fantasy-autobiography, The History of the Caliph Vathek, published in 1786. Beckford portrayed himself in his most wicked colours as the villainous Vathek, the caliph who is satiated with sensual pleasures and builds a tower so he can penetrate the forbidden secrets of heaven itself. Prince Gulchenrouz is modelled upon Courtenay, "the most delicate and lovely creature in the world" who occasionally puts on the dresses of Princess Nouronihar (modelled upon Courtenay's aunt Lady Loughborough). Princess Carathis, based upon Beckford's mother, is a witch who is always mixing the powder of Egyptian mummies with frogs' warts, and running up and down the palace casting evil spells, much as she did in real life. Vathek becomes insanely jealous and murders both Nouronihar and Gulchenrouz, but Gulchenrouz ascends straight to heaven and lives in a perpetual childhood surrounded by a bevy of beautiful boy-houris. Vathek sacrifices fifty lovely lads, who "stripped and presented to the admiration of the spectators the suppleness and grace of their delicate limbs. . . . At intervals they nimbly started from each other for the sake of being caught again and mutually imparting a thousand caresses." They are thrown over a cliff one by one, but are rescued by a magic genie and taken to join Gulchenrouz in his merry sports. Vathek finally ends up in hell, "wandering in an eternity of anguish" for his venture into eighteenth century sadomasochism.

The deliberately decadent style of the novel — an elaborate construction of refined sensnbility, eroticism, moralism, satire, irony, fantasy and Gothic horror — directly influenced the novels of Ronald Firbank and Joris-Karl Huysmans (particularly Against the Grain) and the poetry of Mallarme and Swinburne.

Beckford's sardonic humour has been much more difficult to imitate. Its greatest influence was upon French literature, for it was originally written in French, then translated into English with the collaboration of his agent Samuel Henley. Its curious literary history resembles that of Oscar Wilde's Salome, which Wilde also wrote in French, then had translated into English by Lord Douglas.

The scandal of 1784 was partly fabricated or at least exaggerated by Courtenay's vindictive uncle Lord Loughborough, and we cannot be sure that specific sexual acts took place; but the general charge was almost certainly true. Beckford, though he would marry and have two daughters (his wife died in childbirth), was primarily homosexual: by 1807 he was caricaturing himself as Barzaba, from bar saba, Syriac for "voluptuary," but used in the specific sense of "boy-fancier," in his letters to his agent and general factotum Gregorio Franchi, whom he brought back with him from Portugal. Upon his eventual return to England, Beckford shielded himself behind an eight mile long, twelve foot high wall topped by iron spikes, surrounding his estate (it was also built because he loved animals, and wanted to keep out hunters), and began to act out some of the dreams of Vathek. He imported a dwarf to be his doorkeeper (and with whom he shared the pornography occasionally sent by Franchi from London), an abbé from France as spiritual advisor (and also as tolerant confidant concerning boy-troubles), a physician from Italy, and a harem of boy-servants for diversion, some picked up in England.

His household of young male servants were all given revealing gay nicknames: "there is pale Ambrose, infamous Poupee, horrid Ghoul, insipid Mme Bion, cadaverous Nicobuse, the portentous dwarf, frigid Silence," Miss Long, Miss Butterfly (slang for catamite), Countess Pox, Mr Prudent Well-Sealed-up, The Monkey, The Turk (Ali-dru, an Albanian with whom Beckford travelled and bathed), and others: "we have enough ragamuffins here." As for the stableboys, "none of them are in the least promising." Not all of them were willing partners: "It's not worth talking about Bijou — he's not of the right kind and never will be; we'll need other angels if we go to another paradise." There are some problems with Mademoiselle Bion, his valet Richardson, who seems to grant all favours except one, in which respect he is berated as frigid: "What most confounds and disgusts me is a certain kind of frigidity and insipidity like Mme Bion's (the devil take you, you blond beast)"; and yet, "Bion always counts for something."

Very few people gained entrance to the cathedral Beckford called home, and naturally rumours arose concerning wild orgies of the caliph and his male harem. These rumours are exaggerated — as is everything connected with Beckford — but they cannot be dismissed altogether. Where there was so much smoke there were bound to be a few flames flickering. Beckford was a collector and builder on a mammoth scale, and he was probably more interested in acquiring objets d'art than fawn-youths. But the two manias were aligned: "it's cruel to hear talk of fair boys and dark Jade vases and not to buy them."

His exclusion from society was compensated for by the transformation of Fonthill Abbey into a Gothic cathedral to rival nearby Salisbury Cathedral. With the help of the leading architect of the day, James Wyatt, he raised a tower that was nearly 300 feet high. The main enfilade had an uninterrupted vista of 300 feet from the north through the south transepts, and four of the bedrooms were perched 120 feet above ground. (All that remains of Fonthill Abbey today is less than half of the north wing, containing the Lancaster Tower, Sanctuary, and Oratory, which used to house an alabaster statue of Beckford's patron saint, St Anthony, flanked by 36 lighted tapers in silver- gilt candelabras, as the focal point of the vista.) A grand opening was arranged in 1800, though even the exterior was hardly near completion, and his guests of honour were Admiral Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma Hamilton, the kind of people who dared to defy the conventions. But for the rest, his visitors were limited to painters such as Benjamin West, writers, artists, artisans and art dealers, and tradesmen, and his dinners were patched up from social odds and ends. Even in Portugal the English colony had refused to pay visits, and did all they could to prevent Beckford from being presented at court. Beckford had no hope of ever again moving in polite society, and we should not underestimate the pervasive ostracism to which he was subjected. The liberal Sir Richard Hoare of nearby Stourhead asked to see the famed Abbey, and was conducted around by Beckford in 1806. But when the Wiltshire neighbours heard of this, they demanded an explanation from Sir Richard, lest he be shunned by them as well; he made excuses for this gaffe, and never again saw Beckford.

During the completion and furnishing of the Abbey, Beckford was simultaneously engaged with Franchi in the pursuit of youths. For example, throughout September and October 1807, Beckford wrote directions to Franchi to do some pimping for him: "If it is at all possible, go to see an angel called Saunders who is a tight- rope walker at the Circus Royal and the certain captivator of every bugger's soul. Ah!" Saunders and his troupe disappear but are caught sight of again: "find out what you can about the site of the Earthly Paradise. Many have sought it in vain: some in Syria or Mesopotamia, some in Abyssinia, others in Ceylon, but I (according to the latest information) in Bristol." His home was discovered to be in Duke Street, London, and Franchi was advised to visit his father, and to make "a proposition for a journey to foreign parts, and even a life-annuity — all this is possible." Letters urging Franchi to make arrangements flowed furiously throughout October. By the end of that month Beckford himself had been to "the Leg household" (a pun upon tights), and was lodging in Brunets' Hotel, Leicester Square, an area frequented by theatrical people and foreigners, waiting to see Saunders in his room. Years later, in 1811, Beckford was still following the travels of Saunders, this time to York, as well as those of a young horseman who was part of the troupe: "I would not fly from a nice York patapouf [catamite] if Providence sent him to me."

Master Saunders was born in 1789, so he was 18 (though made up to look younger, as he was billed as "the celebrated Equestrian Infant-Phenomenon") when Beckford saw him, and Beckford was not literally a pederast; it would be more accurate to read "youths" or "lads" whenever he writes of "boys." The Turk stayed with Beckford a good many years, and their relationship did not fade with the passing youth of the former. Beckford's interest was not limited to ephebes: "I'd like to run away, Heaven knows where, with some great Jock" (18 September 1813). He was also attracted to a soldier in Bath, hoping to "take some lessons in drilling from him" (12 October 1819).

Beckford never again mingled with high society, but he was not permanently sequestered at Fonthill, and his letters to Franchi suggest that he sometimes ventured into the homosexual subculture of London. From 1811 to 1817 he rented No 6 Upper Harley Street (now 100 Harley Street), where Franchi often stayed. He also stayed at "Brunets' bagnio," sometimes in company with The Turk. The apartments cost 11 or 12 guineas a week, which "isn't very cheap." And occasionally he stayed in Louis Jacquier's Clarendon Hotel, New Bond Street: "late last night, coming out of Jacquier's, I went in search of a little amusement in an accustomed quarter. I knock. They've gone away" (19 January 1819). The Seven Dials neighbourhood in St Giles' Parish he called "the Holy Land," his term for the gay cruising area, where he hoped to "kiss the relics" (1 July 1812). And, further out, in August-September 1810 he found a "little rogue" on Hounslow heath, a "Paradise" where a barracks was conveniently sited; he may well have shared the pleasures of the Vere Street Coterie in that year.

Courtenay c. 1792 (watercolour on ivory by Richard Cosway)

As for the youth for whom Beckford's reputation had been ruined, William Courtenay seems to have been more actively and exclusively homosexual than his supposed seducer; he never married, and was not very cautious. According to the diarist Joseph Farington, by 1810 few of the gentlemen of Exeter would visit their scandalous neighbour, and the people of Torquay so reviled his servants that Lord Courtenay had to give up plans to build a summer residence there. By 1811 an Essex magistrate had gathered enough evidence to convict Courtenay of unnatural crimes; on hearing that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, he fled to France, where he lived in obscurity for the next twenty-four years. But the lower classes missed their benefactor, even as late as 1823, for Courtenay "was so humane and charitable, that to this day all the poor in the neighbourhood of Exeter lament his absence" [William Benbow, The Crimes of the Clergy, or The Pillars of Priest- Craft Shakes (London, 1823), p. 230]. A distant cousin with a passion for genealogy in 1831 helped to revive the earldom of Devon in his favour (a title which the cousin would inherit upon Courtenay's death), and the newspapers taunted the new Earl of Devon for not returning to England to claim his seat in the House of Lords. But the laws of England were not so tolerant as the Code Napoleon, and Courtenay preferred to spend his remaining years in his Paris house in the Place Vend“me to being imprisoned or hanged in his native country. And who can blame him?

By the 1820s, Beckford had spent so much money on Fonthill that he was forced to mortgage it. In 1823 he sold it to a gunpowder maker for nearly five million dollars. He then bought an estate near Bath and built what he called Lansdown Baghdad, with a much shorter tower. Now in his late sixties, he became respectably eccentric, rather than scandalous debauched, until his death.

Beckford's personality still remains enigmatic, even for his modern biographers. "He was," in the opinion of Alistair Sutherland, "as much a martyr as Wilde, and almost certainly a more interesting and civilised man." He was immensely intelligent as well as a hedonist, a serious artist as well as a social rebel, and more honest than eccentric.


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "William Beckford: The Fool of Fonthill", Gay History and Literature, updated 16 Nov. 1999 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/beckfor1.htm>.

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