Introduction to L'Esplendente

Part 1 ::: Part 2 ::: Part 3
Part 4
::: Part 5 ::: Part 6
Part 7 ::: Part 8 ::: Part 9
Part 10
::: Part 11 ::: Part 12
Part 13 ::: Part 14 ::: Part 15
Part 16
::: Part 17 ::: Part 18

William Beckford
L'Esplendente (c. 1779-80)

The plot of this early tale is quite simple. A young boy, Mehemed, raised in the Mahometan faith by his family in the mountains above Seville, is taught the teachings of Islam and the practice of the faithful by his father, Abdoulrahman. Spain in the middle of the 17th century is an unhospitable place for Muslims. It is only in the remote and secluded parts of the mountains that Mehemed (or Ferdinand, as is his Christian name) can practice his ancestrial religion undisturbed by the ruthless Christians and their Inquisition.

Mehemed grows to be a young man of a romantic nature. His prime pleasures in his early days consists of culling the blossoms of the trees and exploring the natural mysteries of the secret vale where his father conceals him during a period of intended meditation and repose. He is taught how to cultivate the land, and how ”to prune with judgment, to graft the fruit upon another, & to collect the ripe seeds from plants and flowers.” He is urged to study the Koran:

"So long, & so eagerly did he continue, that the day reclined, & darkness surprised him before he was aware. Absorbed in meditation he forgot to light the tapers which stood by the coffer on either side; & folding his arms he remained motionless for Hours, quite lost in a reverie. Heaviness insensibly overspread his eyes. He crept under the carpets, & lulled by the riplings of the waters dropped asleep. The Dooms of Eblis & of Harut were in his dreams." (pp.20-21)

Left by Abdoulrahman to his own devices it is not long before Mehemed is restless and discontented in his meditative isolation. In an attempt to find a passage out of the secret vale in which he is confined, he falls down a cliff and is injured. Bruised and battered he manages to return to a simple mosque built by his father and uncle, where he tries to compose himself and heal his wounds. A few blank leaves and a pencil left by his father attracts his attention and helps him to pass the time, and he tries to sketch out in drawings the particulars of his dream. Drawing so amuses him that soon he can think of little else. In the brief time before his father’s return he makes rapid progress in his newfound art.

Abdoulrahman returns with a guest, a wealthy Israelite who has saved Mehemed’s uncle from a band of villains, and who is now given a temporary refuge for himself and his riches in the mountains. Soon, however, Abdoulrahman discovers his son’s sketches, and hearing him tell of the pleasurable feelings their production has produced in him he is outraged: ”O, Mehemed - these are idolatrous recreations! We are forbidden by the prophet to imitate the works of Alla, or impiously represent any of the Animals into whom he has inspired Life.” (p.31) With these words Abdoulrahman tears up the drawings, and throws them ”to the winds & the Torrents.” (p.32)

Mehemed is taken to meet the Israelite, Ben Jacoup, who is at that moment being cared for by the boy’s mother, Almahide, and the grateful uncle, Almansor. The young Muslim and the old Jew are both in raptures over their new acquaintance, and a warm friendship soon develops. From Jacoup Mehemed hears of the pleasures of the great cities of the plain: ”Thus a multitude of new ideas poured in upon him, & he burnt with impatience to see them realised.” (p.40) The old man both encourages and discourages these desires, but he rapidly recognizes the young man’s artistic inclination, and decides to aid Mehemed in his painterly pursuits in spite of Abdoulrahman’s religious conviction. ”These are ridiculous prejudices, & I would have you dispise them. As often as you please during my residence amongst these Hills, you shall repair to this Spot & divert yourself with my Books. I can furnish you with pencils. There are colours in that chest [...] its Contents are at yr devotion.” (p.45) Mehemed is instantly occupied in copying the drawings of precious illuminated manuscripts with so much ease and freedom that Jacoup is astonished. In order to multiply the young disciple’s talents, and also to divert his rambling inclination, he decides to teach him Hebrew; and it is with equal fluency of genius that Mehemed adopts the fundamentals of that knowledge.

But he is soon tired of these employments. His imagination craves livelier objects to copy and work from, and he burns with a desire to visit the great city of Seville. Jacoup, at first anxious not to show himself a protector of a Muslim boy, is finally persuaded to lend his help when Mehemed gives him a valuable silver vase. Both secretly congratulate themselves at the fullfillment of their separate desires, ”The Jew hugging himself upon the noble acquisition he had made at so small an expence, & Meh’med rejoicing in the approaching accomplishment of his Wishes.” (p.69)

A week later, aided by Jacoup who has already left, Mehemed’s flight to Seville is effected. Jacoup suggests that the young man in order to evade his father’s investigations would be better off in the safety of a convent, and in the able hands of Father Teronimo. ”Safe within that sacred Inclosure you may remain, & as his disciple perfect yourself in an Art to which you so fervently incline. The Church is filld with the masterpieces of Murillo, which my holy Friend will assist you in copying; & after some Months, pass’d not unprofitably in this retreat, I think you may enlarge yr circle of acquaintance & enjoy the pleasures of Seville without risque of your Father’s perquisitions.” (p.75) Mehemed must also assume his Christian name of Ferdinand, and hide all trace of his Moorish ancestry.

Teronimo proves to be a competent if limited mentor. Ferdinand is soon in need of a more skilled teacher. He finds one in the famous Murillo, who returns to Seville just in time to find Ferdinand busy copying his work:

"Murillo arrived in Seville, from a Palace he had been long adorning; & coming to review his works in the Caridad, retreated several steps backwards when he perceivd one of his most capital imitated & surpass’d. Instead, however, of conceiving any mean or jealous sentiments he ran to embrace the Artist with transport; but when so youthful a Figure advanced to receive his congratulations, he could scarcely credit his eyes, or believe him the Author of the piece he admired." (pp.82-83)

Under Murillo’s creative supervision Ferdinand explodes into artistic frenzy, and he, L’Esplendente, is almost instantly the talk of the town. His work is eagerly sought after but instead of painting for the nobles he continues to amuse himself with ”lighter sketches & suites of his own romantic ideas.” (p.91) He lives in a small cottage of Murillo’s at the oceanside, and finds immense pleasure in mixing with the gipsies:

"Of a Night, twas his greatest pleasure to frequent the coves & recesses of the Cliffs on the Coast where the Gitanos assembled; & leaning over the mossy acclivities to notice their sports below. Sometimes he would join the Revellers, share all their freaks, & plung into the Waters with the foremost of the Band; shew himself as active & pliant as themselves. This prowess was not unobserved by the Female part of the Company, who did not disdain accepting him as a partner in the Dance which generally succeeded these marine expeditions. In this exercise he soon excelled, & after the second Evening gained the prize of suppleness & agility. The sly looks & inviting glances of his Companions stole into his Heart. He found himself subdued by their bewitching gestures, & thought the Morning approached too soon which summond them away." (pp.91-93)

Eventually his days at the cottage are over and he enters into the paid service of the Duke d’Arcos, a grandee of Spain, and a man more appreciative of the arts than most of his station. A thousand ducats ensures him of Ferdinand’s future productions, and he is glad that he at last has found a painter worthy of painting his daughter, Donna Rosalia.

On their way to the Duke’s castle the company stays a short while in Cordova. Ferdinand is struck by remorse when he visits the Cathedral, formerly a mosque of great importance, and now desecrated by Christian worship. He recalls his father, whose agonies he envision: ”A cold sepulcral gust, which flew along the Arcades, seemed to bear voices which apraised him with having rejected a Parents admonitions. He thought the very marbles murmur’d, & that the pillars rung with hollow sounds [...].” (p.110) Ferdinand flees the Cathedral only to indulge in the riotous celebrations of the city’s nobles. He is an instant success - his skill in dancing, and his ”easy & animated flow of eloquence” (p.112) makes everybody regret his and the Duke’s inevitable departure.

At length they arrive at the Grandee’s castle, where Ferdinand is eagerly received, and installed in an elegant room. The Duke shows the painter his collection of masterpieces, and indicates two empty spaces; one for the best of Ferdinand’s future work, and the other for a likeness of Donna Rosalia. Ferdinand is introduced to the Duke’s daughter:

"At the extremity of this retired spot, he perceived a number of graceful Figures in white, which to his animated Imagination seemed the Spirits, or Sylvan Deities. The tallest & most elegant of the group, throwing down something she held in her hand, ran lightly to meet the Duke; her veil floated lonely behind. She passed Ferdinand like a transitory Breeze, & strumming along, fell down at her Father’s feet." (p.121)

Unknown to the father, who is busy with his affairs, the young couple fall madly in love. Meanwhile the Duke has received word from Madrid that he has been awarded the Viceroyalty of Majorca. He expresses an ardent wish for Ferdinand to accompany him, and when the painter understands that Rosalia is not to be left behind, he accepts with pleasure.

Work is begun on the portrait. At night, Ferdinand, exalted with the events of the day, walks in half-daze some way from the castle; and suddenly finds himself near a rapid stream. He rests. Some unknown feeling compels him to stay:

"A cold perspiration bathed his forhead. His feet refused to bear him up; & falling down on the grey moss which covered the surface of the craggs, he lay oppressed & dejected, whilst faint reverberations of some wildly musical sounds stole into his Ear. The melody seemed to approach nearer & nearer, but ceased on a sudden, & a voice was then heard, wailing amongst the promontories. At this instant, a mist arising from the stream spread gradually over the Dell. Ferdinand, alarmed & agitated, looked up; & thro the vapours perceived some one descending the Cliffs, & advancing towards him." (p.131)

It is one of the gipsies, a gitanilla of visionary powers, who has descended on him to deliver an ominous prediction: a death will follow on his leaving Andalusia. She vanishes, and Ferdinand returns to the castle, dismayed and full of fear. A window is open, and through it he hears Rosalia’s voice, reading aloud from the adventures of Orlando and Charlemagne. He is enthralled as much by the stories as by her voice, and he begins to sketch ”after the principal adventures.” (p.134) Rosalia is charmed by the drawings he presents to her the following morning – and there the manuscript ends, in mid-sentence: ”The happy Ferdinand was almost” (p.135).


Beckfordiana now presents this manuscript in a tentative, preliminary transcription. Arguably one of the more indecipherable of Beckford's manuscripts, this transcription is riddled with flaws: innumerable square brackets containing "ILLEGIBLE" appear throughout the tale, and these testify to the difficult task of transcribing what is one of Beckford's most elusive tales. Hopefully, this online edition will spark not only masses of helpful and much needed e-mails correcting the transcription (and offering suggestions for missing words where such are needed), but also a discussion of the manuscript in the development of Beckford's career as an author.

Recently published by Didier Girard in a French translation, this is the first English, original edition of the manuscript.


L’Esplendente; MS. Beckford d.11. Extant manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, described in T.D. Rogers, Catalogue of the Papers of William Beckford (1760-1844), [London 1988], 27: “Draft, with many alterations, of ‘L’Esplendente’, before 1780 [...] iv + 138 pages.” First described (inaccurately) in Guy Chapman, A Bibliography of William Beckford of Fonthill, London 1930, pp. 95-96. Also mentioned in Guy Chapman, Beckford, second ed., London 1952, 149; discussed in some depth in André Parreaux, Appendice G. L’Esplendente, in William Beckford, Auteur de Vathek (1760-1844). Etude de la Creation Litteraire, Paris 1960, pp. 535-540, with quotes originating from Boyd Alexander’s transcripts of the MS.; used and quoted in Boyd Alexander, England’s Wealthiest Son. A Study of William Beckford, London 1962, pp. 11-13, 40-42, 44-46, 248, n. 8 p. 273; quoted from Alexander (1962) and used in Robert J. Gemmett, William Beckford, Boston 1977, 34; in Brian Fothergill, Beckford of Fonthill, London 1979, pp. 41-42; and in Kim Sloan, Alexander and John Robert Cozens. The Poetry of Landscape, New Haven and London 1986, 76. Discussed at length in Dick Claésson, "A survey of William Beckford's unpublished romance L'Esplendente", in Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. 358, 1998, pp. 189-201. The date of composition has been shown to be before March 11, 1780; cf. Parreaux (1960), 535. A partial resemblance to the Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780) by Beckford suggests that the MS. was not composed before 1777, when the Memoirs are believed to have been primarily written. I believe the approximate time of its composition to have been between late 1779 and early 1780. The transcriber gratefully acknowledges the permission by the Bodleian Library, Oxford to use and quote from the manuscript.

This transcription is © Dick Claésson.