FIFTY YEARS' RECOLLECTIONS
CYRUS REDDING 17851870)
A Visit to William Beckford
The door of Mr. Beckford’s house [at Lansdowne Terrace, Bath] was opened by the porter, a dwarf, named Pero. I took leave of my companion, Mr. Goodrich, the architect [of Beckford’s Lansdowne Tower further up the hill], to whose kindness I felt indebted for the pleasure I had experienced, and that I was about to receive. I have said I had seen Mr. Beckford on horseback, with the Duke of Hamilton, but I had no idea of ever approaching the presence of a man so retiring, proud, and inaccessible. It was, in fact, the most difficult thing possible to get acquainted with him all but impracticable for any one not connected with literature or art. He had great resources for the employment of his time; he had none to spare for ‘dawdling,’ so he called it, for he told me subsequently, he never had a moment’s ennui in his life. Byron, he said, had defied the world, and been beaten. He had never defied the world, but could live out of it; he cared nothing about it, and it could not beat him; he had seen all he could see of it, and knew how little it was worth.
An acquaintance once made, Mr. Beckford was unreserved, kind, and of a feeling disposition; but evidently quick to anger. But I forget that his dark-complexioned dwarf porter, Pero, as broad as he was long, had opened the door of his house to me my companions had disappeared, and I was alone. A second servant led the way up to the library, the prolongation of which was over the arch [thrown over a driveway to connect two houses] already mentioned. This the people of Bath gave out was the habitation of the mysterious dwarf. They knew, as I have said, as little of Mr. Beckford as if he dwelt fifty miles away. The servant announced my name, and retired.
The author of Vathek was sitting before a table covered with books and engravings. He rose, and, bowing with all the ease of a gentleman of the old school, began conversation without further ceremony. He was then in his seventy-fourth year, but did not look anything like as old. His temperance and activity, no doubt, contributed to this less senile appearance. Rather of a slender and delicate, than an athletic frame, he appeared a trifle above the middle height, dressed in a green coat, with cloth-covered buttons, a buff-coloured waistcoat, breeches of the same colour as his coat, and brown-topped boots, the fine cotton stocking appearing just over them. His eyes were small, acute, and grey, but expressive; his features in other respects not remarkable. On the whole, he appeared much as well-bred gentlemen did about thirty years before. . . .
‘Vathek,’ I observed, ‘made a great sensation when it appeared?’
‘You will hardly credit how closely I could apply myself to study when young. I wrote Vathek in the French, as it now stands, at twenty-two years of age. It cost me three days and two nights of labour. I never took off my clothes the whole time. It made me ill.’
‘Your mind must have been deeply imbued with a love for Eastern literature?’
‘I revelled day and night, for a time, in that sort of reading. It was a relief from the dryness of the old classical writers. The Greek and Latin were always tasks; the Persian I began to teach myself.’
‘Byron praises the description of the “Hall of Eblis” for its sublimity. It is simply described.’
‘That is a great point; all grand descriptions must be simple. Byron complimented me on my Vathek more than once.’
‘I never read any description like that of the “Hall of Eblis” in any of the Eastern writings.’
‘I took it from the “Hall of Old Fonthill,” [the mansion built by his father] which was remarkably large perhaps the largest in a private house in the kingdom but I made mine larger still. There were numerous places of exit from it into other parts of the house, by long, winding passages. It was from that hall I worked, magnifying and colouring it with Eastern character. All the females were portraits drawn from the domestic establishment of Old Fonthill their good or evil qualities ideally exaggerated to suit my purpose.’
[SOURCE: Cyrus Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, 3 vols (London: Charles J. Skeet, 1858), vol. 3, pp. 914]
Fashions in Novel Writing
There have been as many different fashions in novel writing as in the shape of a coat, in the same duration of time. The novels if the Minerva Press were the rage in my youth. Many works appeared too openly licentious to be tolerated now; yet it is a question whether that insidious immorality which prevails in some works of imagination, with too fair an outside, is not really more prejudicial than where vice is at once apparent.
Monk Lewis’s works fell early into my hands, but they operated in a different mode from that the author intended. I set Lewis down for a bigot in faith, as well as a man of loose morality. I had known some Catholic sisters of exemplary character; and I had early become acquainted with several excellent persons, members of their faith. There are many excellent people who will believe chalk is cheese, if they are told they must believe it, their fault being a belief in anything but the dictates of good sense are they to be maligned rather than pitied? Lewis hated the men, the creed was of less moment. He described vice too well not to have been familiar with it. I read his Monk at fifteen; he borrowed that tale, I have no doubt, from l’Année Littéraire, for 1772, and the article Le Diable Amoureux. The Tales of Wonder I well recollect appearing. The first edition of his Monk shamed even its author into the suppression of some of its pruriences on its reaching a second. I heard of his Castle Spectre in the country; but I did not see it performed until I arrived in town. It produced no effect on my mind I was an infidel as to ghostly appearances even then; but it drew crowds to the theatre. London was full of the praises of the productions of Lewis. His lubricity was tolerated in compliment to the service it rendered to intolerance. In those days, numberless stories were told and credited of the fleshless gentry, who appear to visit the earth on very silly errands, and hobgoblin Lewis found superstition and intolerance towers of strength in support of his popularity. Lewis was a pale, small man, no wizard in manners nor appearance, to be possessed of the talent with which he was unquestionably endowed. It was in 1807, when he was getting ready his Romantic Tales that I last saw him. . . .
The youth of the present day is fortunate in not having to contend with the tales of spectres and apparitions, which once made children so miserable, imbibed among other mischiefs in the nursery, the invention of superstition to overawe mind for the worst purposes. What, for example, would our forefathers not have said of the electric telegraph, but to prove that we dealt with the devil?
Moore’s Poems under the name of Thomas Little, published after his Anacreon, I read by stealth soon after their appearance. It was not a feather in his poetical renown, that he should, in youth, treat love no better than harlotry. It did not speak a pure spirit. I doubt whether Moore ever felt real love. The language of artifice and warmth beyond delicacy, coloured the passion after the mode in which rakes would depict it, but in more elegant language. It was the love of the lip, not the heart. . . .
The Children of the Abbey, by Maria Roche, Surr’s Splendid Misery, and Mrs. Opie’s Mother and Daughter, I remember successively taking to my place of reading in fine weather. This was a dense wood, seldom intruded upon, where I could enjoy reading undisturbed. I carried thither a piece of white-painted board for a seat, on which I had pencilled, in an idle mood, Pope’s line:
I never knew, for certain, what fair footsteps had followed me unobserved, but I had been followed, and by one who was familiar with Pope, for I found the line written under mine in a lady’s hand:
Divine oblivion of low-thoughted care.
I must state that Charlotte Smith’s beautiful Sonnets were among my early reading, and that I read them still with great pleasure. Her novels, too, were popular, and rank with the best of those days. She had a far-spread reputation. Miss Owenson’s [Lady Morgan’s] St. Clair, and Novice of St. Dominick, I read about the same time as I perused Surr. Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron followed. Godwin was too profound for my youth. Bage’s Hermsprong I well remember, and Moore’s Zeluco. The last was the first novel I ever called my own property. The fault of many of the novelists of that time, was that they relied too much upon imagination, leaving probability out of sight. What a history, by no means honourable to the popular taste, would that of novel-writing be, with its lights and shadows, for sixty years past!
For God, not man, absolves our frailties here.
[SOURCE: Cyrus Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, 3 vols (London: Charles J. Skeet, 1858), vol. 1, pp. 5863]
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