The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 4. Vathek

It cannot be denied that a great part of Beckford’s celebrity is derived from, and has been always maintained by, sources which appeal to the more vulgar kinds of human interest. His wealth, which, even at the present day, would be reckoned great, and which, for his time, was immense and almost incredible; his lavish and fantastic expenditure of it; his pose as a misanthropic, or, at least, recluse, voluptuary; his eccentricities of all sorts; his distinguished connections; and even his long life—were powerful attractions of this kind to the vulgar. But there is no doubt that his literary powers were great: and not much doubt that, though his circumstances, possibly, circumscribed the exercise of them, they helped, to some extent, to produce the colour and character of his best work. It is a curious fact, but one attested by not a few instances, that men of narrow, or only moderately affluent, circumstances do not deal happily with imaginations of unbounded luxury. Fonthill and the means which created or supported it enabled Beckford to enlarge things still further and satisfactorily for the purposes of Samarah and Istakar.

Had he not written the unique romance which begins in one of these places and ends in (or below) the other, Beckford would still have had claims by no means insignificant to a position in literature, although his other work in the way of fiction is not great, his various travels, the bibliography of which is rather complicated, are of quality high above the average, and his early skit in art criticism (A History of Extraordinary Painters) is extremely clever. Nevertheless, for all but anecdotic or very minute literary history, Beckford is Vathek.

This tale itself is not free from a certain overlay of deliberate eccentricity. As we read it in English, it is not Beckford’s own work (though finally revised by him), but that of a certain Samuel Henley, surreptitiously published and translated from the French, which, Beckford said (if he said it), he had written in three days and two nights, thereby bringing on severe illness. Other reports say that he took something like a year over it. The matter, which will remind some readers of incidents in the life of Balzac, is of little real importance. And, perhaps, it is not too “spoilsport” to observe that three days and two nights means about sixty-four hours and that Vathek does not extend beyond about eighty or ninety at most of pages like the present. Anybody who could write it at all, and had thought the lines of it out beforehand, could write three or four pages of it in an hour, have from thirty to forty left for food, sleep and the resting of his wrist—the strength of which latter would be the chief part of the wonder.

Whether, however, Vathek had been written in three days, or three weeks, or three months, or three years, its literary value would be affected not one jot. It is an Arabian tale of the familiar kind into which Anthony Hamilton and Voltaire had infused western sarcasm. The hero, grandson of Haroun, exaggerates the, by no means small, defects of his ancestor’s character, and has very few of his merits, if any. He is what is now called a megalomaniac in everything: and, after a course of comparatively harmless luxury, devotes himself, partly under the influence of his sorceress mother, Carathis, to the direct service of Eblis. Crime now follows crime; and, though, in his journey towards the haunted ruins of Istakar (the site of the purgatory of Solomon and the inferno of Eblis himself), he conceives an at least human and natural passion for the beautiful Nouronihar, she is as much intoxicated by the prospect of supernatural power as he is himself. They are at last introduced, by a subordinate fiend, to the famous hall of Eblis, where, after a short interval, they meet with their due reward—the eternal torture of a burning heart—as they wander amid riches, splendours, opportunities of knowledge and all the other treacherous and bootless gifts of hell.

It is hardly possible to praise this conclusion too highly: it is almost Milton in arabesque, and, though Beckford has given himself insufficient space to develop the character of Nouronihar (Vathek himself, it must be confessed, has very little), there are hints and outlines which are almost Shakespearean. What opinion may be formed of the matter which leads up to this conclusion will depend almost entirely upon temperament. It has, in parts, been called, but to some judgments, never is, dull: it is certainly in parts, grotesque, extravagant and even nasty. But Beckford could plead sufficient “local colour” for it, and a contrast, again almost Shakespearean, between the flickering farce atrocities of the beginning and the sombre magnificence of the end. Beckford’s claims, in fact, rest on the half-score or even half-dozen pages towards the end: but these pages are hard to parallel in the later literature of prose fiction.

There are, however, some points not directly touching the literary merit of Vathek, which can hardly be left quite unhandled even in the small space available here. It has been said that the tale was written in French and handed over by its author to Samuel Henley to translate. The translation, even with Beckford’s own revision, is not impeccable, and sometimes fails strangely in idiom. It is, however, better to read the book in the translation than in the original, which brings out too forcibly the resemblance to Hamilton and Voltaire: and eighteenth century French is not equal to the hall of Eblis. The circumstances of the actual publication are strange and not entirely comprehensible. That Henley, after much shilly-shallying on Beckford’s part, should have “forced the card” and published it without the author’s permission, is not very surprising; but why he gave it out as “translated from the Arabic” has never been satisfactorily explained. Beckford, for once reasonably enraged, published the French as soon as he could; but he did not include the Episodes which are referred to at the end, and which are congruous enough in The Arabian Nights fashion. He showed them, later, to some men of letters, including Rogers; but he never published them, and it is only recently that they have appeared, edited in French by Lewis Melville, and very well translated into English by Sir Frank Marzials. It would have been a pity if they had perished or remained unknown: but they can hardly be said to add to the greatness of Vathek, though they are not unworthy of their intended shrine. The first is a sort of doublet of the main story, a weaker Vathek, prince Alasi, being here actually made worse by a more malignant Nouronihar, princess Firouzkah. The heroine of the second is a peri of some charm, but her husband, Barkiarokh, is a repulsive and uninteresting scoundrel. By far the most striking is the last, the loves of the brother and sister prince Kalilah and princess Zulkais, which Beckford has left unfinished: whether from actual change of mind and taste or from one of his innumerable caprices and indolences, it is difficult to say.