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William Beckford

Timothy Mowl

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William Beckford had two lives: one real and sensational, the other an elegant forgery he invented in retirement after the young Disraeli mischievously sent him a homoerotic epic based loosely on Beckford’s own career. Biographers have been bemused by Beckford’s faked letters and dream encounters with celebrities, but his real life was far more significant: he is the pivotal Romantic between Horace Walpole and Byron.

Beckford was reared in exotic isolation in a Palladian palace where he grew up obsessed with dark grottoes, towers and images of the living dead. Rushed into marriage by an apprehensive mother, he indulged his actual passions (both legal and paedophile) until a Tory administration staged a sex scandal that exiled him. In his absence his novel, Vathek was treacherously pirated. Returned to England, Beckford flung his wealth into the creation of Fonthill Abbey, which, by its shadowy vistas and glamorous camp furnishings, paved the way for the wildest excesses of Victorian taste.


Timothy Mowl is an architectural and landscape historian based at the University of Bristol. His many books include the following being reissued in Faber Finds: Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman versus Pevsner, Horace Walpole and William Beckford. He is currently researching and writing a nationwide series of the historic landscapes and gardens of England.

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