Gothic Readings, compiled by Rictor Norton

AZEMIA (1797)


Beckford wrote two parodies of the Gothic romance, Modern Novel Writing, or, The Elegant Enthusiast (1796) by ‘Lady Harriet Marlow’, and Azemia (1797), subtitled ‘A Novel: Containing Imitations of the Manner, Both in Prose and Verse, of Many of the Authors of the Present Day’. Azemia was published under the pseudonym J.A.M. Jenks; the editor of the Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors in 1816, perhaps colluding in the joke, identified her as Miss Jacquetta Agneta Mariana Jenks, of Bellegrove Priory, Wales. Some contemporary critics, and Hester Lynch Piozzi, believed the author to be Robert Merry, the famous ‘Della Cruscan’ poet. The novel has a clever appendix containing anticipatory reviews, written in the style of each of the leading literary journals. The heroine Azemia is a native of Constantinople (giving Beckford an opportunity to indulge his Arabic interests), in search of romantic adventure in Britain. The following incident takes place in the grounds of an English country house.

(Copyright 2000, 2020 Rictor Norton)

Wrapt in this sad but soothing contemplation, as in a pelisse, she advanced till it grew late, and a wheelbarrow, left there by the carelessness of the under gardener, obstructed an opening path apparently designed to lead to some place (as most paths do, except in novels); its winding turns serpentined imperceptibly up an easy ascent: she was roused from her reverie by finding herself at the top of the hill, where, contrary to all expectation, she beheld a mausoleum of black marble, which put her extremely in mind of a mosque or a minaret in her own country. (The ideas of these two things were not very distinct in her own mind.) She did not greatly enjoy the discovery, for it was now almost dark; and though the moon could not choose but rise on one side, the sun had entirely sunk on the other.
          Azemia, however, entered the gloomy building – she knew not why – (We know not neither, unless, because she was guided by some invisible impulse; and because it is now necessary in novels for all the heroines to go into black marble mausoleums and grey-stone ruins whenever they meet with them) – However, Azemia approached; – the door stood a-jar: the gloom of the surrounding evergreens, particularly the cypresses, cast a solemn shade upon the occasion; and an owl from a neighbouring ivy bush hooted audibly, and cried, ‘Tee-whit!’ which Azemia had heard from Mrs. Blandford’s old housekeeper was always a bad sign. She stopped – she shuddered – she was inspired with a secret terror! – she felt herself irresistibly impelled as by an invisible hand to penetrate this drear abode. The noise she made in entering alarmed her: the door grated on its rusty hinges; the owl again cried, ‘Tee-whit!’ – and the wind howl’d – All served to increase these sepulchral horrors of this lugubrious residence of mouldering-mortality.
          Azemia trembled, as fearfully, she beheld the dome; for the moon now opportunely coming from behind a cloud, threw a feeble light through the long casements of painted glass. Azemia fancied herself Juliet in the vault of the Capulets – (for, unlike other foreigners, she understood Shakespeare to a miracle) – and again shuddered: a door was half open on the right hand; she pushed it gently, and found it led from the mausoleum into the chapel. She entered the aisle – something white appeared at the farther end; the rays of the moon fell directly upon it, and it seemed to move. – Suddenly the great bell in the turret tolled, and Azemia was overcome with horrible dread, and unable to retreat. The tolling ceased, but she heard the tread of feet: she became immovable; she uttered a faint scream – a form appeared. – It perceived her fears – it flew to support her in its arms – it sunk with her on the black marble pavement (on which her white drapery gracefully floated); and nobody can tell how this terrific scene might have ended, if Mrs. Blandford, alarmed at the absense of Azemia, had not most fortunately arrived at that moment in search of her, attended by a footman with a candle and lantern, who found Lord Scudabout supporting Azemia, yet laughing excessively at the fear he had put her into. Mrs. Blandford severely reproving him, he ran to the stables, mounted his horse, and galloped back to his companions at Lord Oddberry’s, from which he had suddenly escaped to execute this frolic, as if he had foreseen Azemia’s evening excursion.
          Mrs. Blandford soon soothed to peace the agitated bosom of her fair ward; and Lady Dorothy Dawdle, who presided as mistress of this hospitable mansion, declared that Lord Scudabout should never enter it again, and that she would the next day go with her ponies to the Marchioness, his mother, who lived about ten miles off, and complain of the indecorous behaviour he had been guilty of.

. . .
To the Reviewers of all the Reviews

To attain the masculine force and strong colouring of the great Dramatist and Novelist of the present day, Mr. [Richard] Cumberland, was quite beyond my slender attainment; but I have paid a due tribute to his taste, sagacity, and knowledge of womankind. Thrown at a great distance from the most engaging models among my own sex, I yet look up with more confidence to attain, at some future day, a seat on that point of Parnassus where they hold such eminent rank. In this hope I have sometimes assumed the stately step with which the pupils of the Burney school follow in solemn, yet inadequate march, their inimitable leader. This, however, I have attempted in style only. I have not seen enough of the world to sketch even in the way of a scholar, such admirable characters. With less dissidence, though still with greater humility, I have ventured with shuddering feet into the World of Spirits, in modest emulation of the soul-petrifying Ratcliffe [Ann Radcliffe] – but, alas!

Within that circle none dare walk but she.

Even if I had ever had the fortune to see a real natural ghost, I could never describe it with half the terrific apparatus that fair Magician can conjure up in some dozen or two of pages, interspersed with convents, arches, pillars, cypresses, and banditti-bearing cliffs, beetling over yawning and sepulchral caverns. Her pictures,

Dark as Poussin, and as Salvator wild,

can only be faintly copied; – to rival them is impossible. – I own I do not feel quite so disheartened, when I try at making something like the luminous page of Mrs. Mary Robinson: I even flatter myself that I have, in more than one instance, caught the air of probability so remarkable in her delectable histories, as well as her glowing description and applicable metaphors.
          To Mrs. [Susannah] Gunning’s Novels, and those of her amiable daughter [Elizabeth Gunning], I owe all in these little volumes that pretends to draw the characters and manners of high life. With due humility and trepidation I have seized the mimic pencil: I feel that I cannot wield it with their happy freedom and felicity – faut d’usage. . . .
          From the parterres of Miss [Harriet or Sophia] Lee, Mrs. [Elizabeth] Inchbald, and Mrs. [Charlotte] Smith, I have culled here and there a flower; and I should have enlarged my bouquet with buds and blossoms of other very agreeable writers, of whom I could make (like Mr. Pratt) a very respectable list, if I could have induced my publisher to have allowed my work to be enlarged to what I intended it, viz. six very large volumes. . . .

[SOURCE: J.A.M. Jenks [i.e. William Beckford], Azemia, A Novel, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London: Sampson Low, 1798), vol. 2, pp. 89&#q150;93, 236–40]

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