William Beckford: Composing for Mozart
JOHN MURRAY 1998
William Beckfords first biographer, Cyrus Redding, is clearly
the origin of many anecdotes and legends surrounding the author. Reddings
work (Memoirs of William Beckford of Fonthill, Author of Vathek,
published in 1859) has remained one of the most cited sources of biographical
Beckfordiana. It is a rushed work, reconstructed from memory
after the original manuscript had been suppressed, and it suffers from
longevity and dullness. Yet it remains a cornerstone of Beckford research,
coming close to an official biography approved by its subject.
Anecdotes from Reddings work may easily be discovered in practically
all articles and books on Beckford since 1859. Some of them are quite
amusing. Beckfords alleged acquaintance with Mozart is perhaps
the most often repeated of all. Did he or did he not inspire the young
virtuoso to compose an air for one of his operas? Beckford, Redding
wrote, took lessons from Mozart at an early age and "used to relate
that the fine air of Non piu Andrai, in the Marriage
of Figaro, was originally struck out as a theme, during one of
his lessons, on which the pupil was to compose variations." [Redding,
vol. II, p. 54]
Today we are fairly certain that this anecdote is false. Perhaps Beckford
and Mozart met during the latters stay in England? Perhaps they
played together on some occasion? True or false, the anecdote has survived
unchallenged in many biographies.
Unfortunately, Reddings work has been instrumental in defining
the way in which Beckfords biography has been written. We have
come to expect a chapter on Beckfords spoilt youth, describing
his first stumbling experiments with literature, art and architecture
and how his love of all things oriental - spurred on by
the mysterious and perhaps ominous influence of his drawing-master Alexander
Cozens (1727-1786) - led him astray on a path of narcissistic homosexuality.
The following chapters would expand on the psychological mechanisms
behind Beckfords love affair with the very young William Courtenay
and describe the social ostracism that followed its disclosal. Beckfords
obsession with solitude and his self-imposed exile at Fonthill would
be seen in this light also; a deliberately disdainful gesture, renouncing
the very world that renounced him. Beckfords grand tour would
demand at least a chapter. One or two chapters would be devoted to the
construction of Fonthill Abbey, and legends and myths surrounding the
site would be explored. Beckfords collections of books and paintings
- praised by some, derided by others - would be described. The sale
and ultimate collapse of Fonthill would merit perhaps half a chapter.
Beckfords final twenty years in Bath, and the building of Lansdown
Tower, would occupy a small part of the narrative at the end.
Beckfords literary achievements would most likely be another natural
focus of the biographical narrative. The story of how Beckford composed
the main outline of his famous oriental tale Vathek (1786) in three
days, and how his collaborator Samuel Henley betrayed his trust and
published the work anonymously and without Beckfords consent,
would be told. Other works by Beckford would probably attract little
or no attention. His satirical works, Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary
Painters (1780), Modern Novel Writing (1796) and Azemia (1797), and
his travel-writings, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783), Italy;
with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834) and Recollections of an Excursion
to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha (1835), would receive
only cursory attention in their own right.
It is hardly surprising. Beckford remains a minor author and a major
biographical attraction. The myth of Beckford effectively overshadows
his literary oeuvre.
Architectural historian Timothy Mowls biography is the latest
in a long line of biographies on Beckford, and although it claims to
present a new perspective it too conforms mainly to the traditional
outline of Beckford biography. The subtitle boldly advertises the emblematic
importance the author ascribes to the Mozart anecdote - Composing
for Mozart. Mowl uses this phrase as a poignant example of Beckfords
great revision which he believes has foiled earlier attempts
at fixing Beckfords biography: "[...] with some ten years
on his hands and always a secretary to take dictation, Beckford set
about the great revision. His life, purged and perfected, was going
to be his best gift to posterity, a poets life with none of that
outdated nonsense of metre and rhyme." [p. 301]
In consequence Mowl throws a suspicious eye on practically everything
Beckford wrote. What is true - what was purged and perfected?
Can we really trust any of the autobiographical materials
(i.e. diaries and letters) that Beckford left to posterity?
Mowl believes not. If Beckfords life is to be described accurately
the biographer must trust no sources at first sight; examine watermarks,
inks and handwritings; detect copyists and copies; reconstruct events
with an eye to Beckfords confidence trick [p. 301]
and generally observe a healthy scepticism towards any colourful anecdote
simply enhancing the Beckford mythology.
This is certainly a sound attitude to adopt, and one that Beckford research
in general would do well to imitate. Yet Mowls strategy backfires.
Not all of Beckfords juvenilia (as Mowl sometimes
seems to suspect) was composed in old age. True, many of the letters
survive in copies or in drafts only, but this isnt unusual for
any author of the time and does not necessarily indicate attempted forgery.
There may well have been other reasons beside vanity that made Beckford
keep letters and revise them well into his eighties. As Mowl correctly
states, Beckford reinvented his life in his letters and in his diaries.
But it wasnt simply because he felt the urge to better the image
Mowl, however - in his role as biographer - occupies himself mainly
with the question of biographical veracity when it comes to the texts,
portraying Beckford as a talented experimental stylist and pasticheur
[p. 66] obsessed with his public self. In this light Vathek becomes
a reflection, a fictional diary [p. 116], even an autobiographical
allegory [p. 120]. The Long Story (published in 1930 as The Vision)
becomes tedious adolescent nonsense in which Beckford was practising
one of his many voices, a mode of aureate gushing prose
He has little patience for the subtler nuances of Beckfords writings.
A thought-provoking discussion of Beckfords portrayal of Cozens,
which Mowl correctly claims was reinvented by Beckford in his texts
into an ideal companion and inspiration of his idyllic youth
[p. 53] is never followed through. Mowl could easily have added other
mimetic elements to the equation as Fonthill as well as
William served similar purposes within Beckfords literary
In fact Beckford staged an entire literary production centred on the
pivotal figure of Beckford, and made Fonthill the vortex
of a literary legend. Other characters were allowed to perform on the
same stage yet the story rarely touched on matters outside
the main figures field of perception. Beckford staged his autobiography
as a literary undertaking conforming to various rhetorical or fictional
strategies. The diary, the letter, the novel and the poem; all genres
reflected aesthetic choices first and private choices second.
Mowl on the other hand forces almost every text by Beckford to serve
as biographical evidence. Vathek (as we have seen) is interpreted according
to a long-standing critical tradition as a roman à clef, where
fictional characters equal characters in real life. One of the Episodes
(which were intended to expand Vathek) is used even more freely by Mowl,
who claims that it represents Beckfords attempt to purge himself
of an adolescent fantasy of incestuous love for his half-sister
While these interpretations are in full accord with Mowls psychoanalytical
perspective they contribute only sparingly to our understanding of the
literary qualities and mechanisms that make Beckford still readable.
Such aspects are, unfortunately, more haphazardly and traditionally
explored in Mowls work.
If one had expected this to be the biography to end all biographies
on Beckford one is sadly mistaken. It is not. It is traditional in outline,
speculative in detail and simply contains too many errors to be wholly
satisfactory. An unfortunate lack of footnotes - what Mowl calls the
tiresome but necessary impedimenta of scholarship [p. 305] - effectively
hides most of the shortcomings, and a general reader would no doubt
find Mowls line of argument convincing and enjoyable. It is certainly
well written. As an introduction to Beckford (and as the only major
biography readily available) the book will therefore no doubt serve
its purpose. It is advertised as a work of revisionist qualities, of
which it has few. It should be read for the fluency of its narrative,
for its emphasis on Beckfords years in exile (the sections on
Beckford in Switzerland are especially interesting) and for its portrayal
of Beckfords acquaintance with Disraeli and the consequences it
may have brought about. But it simply fails to deliver where literature
is concerned, thereby confirming - and in no way revising - the image
of Beckford as a sloppy and self-indulgent writer, obsessed with his
own reflection in whatever text he was writing.
It is certainly a pity. Beckford studies are in dire need of an authoritative
biography that questions and disrupts those persistent biographical-psychological
patterns which Cyrus Redding - and others - created.
will be published in ECN, vol. 1. Copyright Dick Claésson.]