Vathek by Beckford


I first encountered ‘Vathek’ in a collected edition of 3 or 4 Gothic novels.  I don’t remember much else about the collection, but ‘Vathek’ stuck in my mind, because I really didn’t know what to do with it.  There was no recognisable Gothic heroine for me to sigh over as she ran down endless corridors.  Servants existed, unlike in other novels where huge mansions are apparently maintained by a staff of two old Igors (one male, one female).  And the setting was all wrong – I was used to a stereotyped European Gothic world with lots of alps, châteaux and nunneries.  I was also used to much more dichotomy, with good, pure characters to provide moral counterpoints to the evil, interesting ones.  Like I said however, the book stuck with me and, over time, I’ve become convinced of its place in the Gothic cannon.

1. The lack of heroine really threw me, but it shouldn’t have because Vathek is all about the villain.  I should be thinking of’ ‘The Monk’ or ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and I should also remember that I never identified with Ann Radcliff’s pathetic heroines anyway.  As Vathek’s utterly evil mother takes a greater role in the story I was able to really enjoy the characters (in an over-the-top villain kind of way).

2. Yes, there are normal people (some servants, citizens and general plebs), but then the settings are so exaggerated it doesn’t in any way interfere with the complete lack of realism.  For example:

He surpassed in magnificence all his predecessors.  The palace of Alkoremmi, which his father Motassem had erected on the hill of Pied Horses, and which commanded the whole city of Samarah, was in his idea far too scanty; he added therefore five wings, or rather other palaces, which he destined for the particular gratification of each of his senses.

In the first of these were tables continually covered with the most exquisite dainties, which were supplied both by night and by day, according to their constant consumption, whilst the most delicious wines and the choicest cordials flowed forth from a hundred fountains that were never exhausted.  This palace was called “The Eternal or Unsatiating Banquet.”

The second was styled “The Temple of Melody, or the Nectar of the Soul.”  It was inhabited by the most skilful musicians and admired poets of the time, who not only displayed their talents within, but, dispersing in bands without, caused every surrounding scene to reverberate their songs, which were continually varied in the most delightful succession.

“The Palace of Perfumes,” which was termed likewise “The Incentive to Pleasure,” consisted of various halls, where the different perfumes which the earth produces were kept perpetually burning in censers of gold.  Flambeaux and aromatic lamps were here lighted in open day.  But the too powerful effects of this agreeable delirium might be avoided by descending into an immense garden, where an assemblage of every fragrant flower diffused through the air the purest odours.

and so on…Dorian Gray would approve.

3. The non-European setting.  Beckford takes the exoticism of Catholic Europe (exotic for English readers anyway) and raises it through the roof.  Vathek is set in the Arabian Nights, literally, it’s first English translation was published anonymously as An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript.  Just as Walpole set his novel in an exotic past, Beckford invited his readers into an exotic world, neither have any basis in the facts of history or geography, but then, neither needs to.  The escapism works in both cases and the alien culture also provides a reason and excuse for the insane behaviour of the characters.

4. The lack of goodness to balance the evil.  What can I say, the 21 year old Beckford wrote ‘Vathek’ in under a week.  Maybe if he’d had two weeks he would have added in the virtue.  There is a moral to the story (don’t be evil), so I might not have noticed the absence of a young female lead if it weren’t for encountering the novel in the middle of an Anne Radcliffe binge-read.  Vathek isn’t really dark, it’s too stupid for that, but its inclusion into the timeline does something to show the variety and versatility of the Gothic genre.

‘Vathek’ also contains a whole lot of black magic and the kind of evil despotism that would shock Caligula.  It’s a guilty pleasure, even amongst Gothic novels, and you need ignore all pre-conceived ideas of taste, political correctness or narrative plausibility to enjoy it – that done, it’s a hidden Gothic gem.

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