The History of Caliph Vathek HTML version

William Beckford, born in 1759, the year before the accession of King George the Third,
was the son of an Alderman who became twice Lord Mayor of London. His family,
originally of Gloucestershire, had thriven by the plantations in Jamaica; and his father,
sent to school in England, and forming a school friendship at Westminster with Lord
Mansfield, began the world in this country as a merchant, with inheritance of an
enormous West India fortune. William Beckford the elder became Magistrate, Member of
Parliament, Alderman. Four years before the birth of William Beckford the younger he
became one of the Sheriffs of London, and three years after his son's birth he was Lord
Mayor. As Mayor he gave very sumptuous dinners that made epochs in the lives of
feeding men. His son's famous "History of the Caliph Vathek" looks as if it had been
planned for an Alderman's dream after a very heavy dinner at the Mansion House. There
is devotion in it to the senses, emphasis on heavy dining. Vathek piqued himself on being
the greatest eater alive; but when the Indian dined with him, though the tables were thirty
times covered, there was still want of more food for the voracious guest. There is thirst:
for at one part of the dream, when Vathek's mother, his wives, and some eunuchs
"assiduously employed themselves in filling bowls of rock crystal, and emulously
presented them to him, it frequently happened that his avidity exceeded their zeal,
insomuch that he would prostrate himself upon the ground to lap up the water, of which
he could never have enough." And the nightmare incidents of the Arabian tale all
culminate in a most terrible heartburn. Could the conception of Vathek have first come to
the son after a City dinner?
Though a magnificent host, the elder Beckford was no glutton. In the year of his first
Mayoralty, 1763, Beckford, stood by the side of Alderman Wilkes, attacked for his No.
45 of The North Briton. As champion of the popular cause, when he had been again
elected to the Mayoralty, Beckford, on the 23rd of May, 1770, went up to King George
the Third at the head of the Aldermen and Livery with an address which the king snubbed
with a short answer. Beckford asked leave to reply, and before His Majesty recovered
breath from his astonishment, proceeded to reply in words that remain graven in gold
upon his monument in Guildhall. Young Beckford, the author of "Vathek," was then a
boy not quite eleven years old, an only son; and he was left three years afterwards, by his
father's death, heir to an income of a hundred thousand a year, with a million of cash in
During his minority young Beckford's mother, who was a granddaughter of the sixth Earl
of Abercorn, placed him under a private tutor. He was taught music by Mozart; and the
Earl of Chatham, who had been his father's friend, thought him so fanciful a boy--"all air
and fire"--that he advised his mother to keep the Arabian Nights out of his way. Happily
she could not, for Vathek adds the thousand and second to the thousand and one tales,
with the difference that it joins to wild inventions in the spirit of the East touches of
playful extravagance that could come only from an English humourist who sometimes
laughed at his own tale, and did not mind turning its comic side to the reader. The