Brief Encounter of Beckford and Disraeli
The Radical Pair of ‘Oriental Voluptuaries’

Jerry Nolan

In what became for about eight years an ‘interchange of courtesies’, Disraeli and Beckford sent each other copies of recently published work. (1) The interchange seems to have been initiated by Disraeli when he forwarded a copy of Contarini Fleming. In a letter to his sister Sarah dated 26 May 1832, the 30 year old Disraeli confessed to having sent the 70 year Beckford a copy ‘as I like to do astonishing things’ before recording that he had received an acknowledgement of the gift: ‘His answer is short, but very courteous. It commences with four exclamations, “How wildly original! How full of intense thought! How awakening! How delightful!”’ (BDL, 1: 193) Beckford’s fulsome words of approval greatly heartened the young author who was otherwise experiencing critical indifference and poor sales. (2) It must have been the sheer pleasure of approval from a man of Beckford’s taste that prompted Disraeli to continue sending his new publications, and the enthusiastic Beckford continued to respond. There seems to have been more than ‘courtesies’ involved in the interchange.
Beckford was so overjoyed at the discovery of a kindred spirit when he read The Psychological that he appointed George Clarke, his confidential agent and bookseller, to investigate the astonishing author and to act as go-between. Disraeli’s Contarini Fleming was a poetic autobiography conceived in Cairo and written on the long voyage home during the weeks of quarantine in Malta. (3) The novel demonstrated how travelling in the Orient could form an aesthete’s appreciation of other cultures, and concluded with Fleming settling in southern Europe (in Italy) but contemplating reform from a measured distance in northern Europe (in England). The last words suggested that in Fleming’s case politics (‘the arch of the conqueror’) would most likely triumph over literature (‘the laurel of the poet’) as Fleming/Disraeli concluded by proclaiming how this poet wanted, above all else, to be remembered: ‘as one who devoted himself to the amelioration of his kind, by the destruction of error and the propagation of truth.’ (4)
Beckford was enormously interested in his newly acquired young admirer, but remained determined to keep a certain distance. In March 1833, Disraeli sent a copy of The Wondrous Tale of Alroy to the expectant Beckford. The self-distanced admirer’s feeling of rapture greatly intensified. Clarke was entrusted with another note and a large page copy of the 1815 French edition of Vathek of which only twenty five had been printed. Beckford instructed Clarke to discover if Disraeli were sufficiently versed in French to be able to appreciate the unpublished Episodes of Vathek and other unpublished works from his own youth. When Clarke reported back that Disraeli was the most conceited person he had ever met, Beckford’s desire was not to be diverted and he pointed out to Clarke that ‘what appeared conceited in D. was only the irrepressible consciousness of superior power.’ Clarke’s instinctive dislike of Disraeli persisted in his account of the Disraelis in a fog of tobacco smoke and of DB’s indifferent French accent which suggested that his French was not up to the task of reading Beckford’s unpublished work in French. Immediately Clarke implied the probable reason why Beckford and Disraeli might well regard each other as kindred spirits in the sentence: ‘He is an “Oriental Voluptuary” and concocts scenes with great effect.’ While Beckford disapproved of the filthy habit of smoking and expressed scepticism about the state of Disraeli’s French, he remained so captivated by Alroy that he told Clarke that Disraeli’s English was so lovely and superior that it compensated for other failings. So overwhelmed did Beckford feel about Alroy, as a book of the most exquisite beauty by a superior and extraordinary genius, that he rashly announced to Clarke on 6 March 1833: ‘I will appear to him the very first opportunity.’ . The plan was revised on the very next day: ‘I should remain inaccessible. We are probably destined to meet, but where and when is doubtful.’ (5)
Unlike his overall most sweeping impression of Contarini Fleming, Beckford became quite specific in explaining to Clarke why he so admired Alroy. In a letter dated 14 March 1833, Beckford wrote:

"I have slowly and reluctantly finished the truly wondrous tale of Alroy, which I wish had been extended to 20 volumes. I did not hurry on, fearful of expending the treasure too fast, for a treasure I consider it to be, and of the richest kind."

Beckford rejoiced in the heroism of the youthful and lovely Alroy, the hyena-like fierceness and treachery of Schirene and the masterstroke of Alroy’s self-immolation. What most deeply affected Beckford were the signs of Vathek in Alroy - at last his beloved Vathek was beginning to produce a progeny that he was happy to acknowledge.

"Most proud I am to perceive that he is so strongly imbued with Vathek…The halls of Eblis, the thrones of the Solimans are for ever present to his mind’s eye, tinted with somewhat different hues from those of the original: but pertaining of the same awful and dire solemnity." (CC, 186)

Clarke was instructed to allow Disraeli to make copies in Mount Street of Beckford’s favourable comments on Alroy. (BDL,1: 255 ) Beckford was alert to the uncertain course of Disraeli’s ambitions to be elected as an independent radical M.P. in the wake of the 1832 Reform Act. On 12 April 1833, Beckford praised the ‘grandeur of thought and power of expression’ in Disraeli’s address to the electors of Marylebone in London. Disraeli was to withdraw from that election and Beckford commented on 14 April 1833: ‘What can possess so bright a genius to dabble again and again in such a muddy horsepond?’ (CC, 201) Beckford’s interest in Disraeli’s reforming political views revived when the political pamphlet What is He? appeared as a critique of the political impasse being created as a result of the battle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and as a dramatic plea for a National Government to respond to widespread popular discontent. Beckford even hoped that his son-in-law, the Duke of Hamilton, would read and heed the pamphlet. (CC, 208) At this time Disraeli was being guided politically by Lord Chandos to work for a Tory-Radical alliance against the pseudo-democratic Whigs, a position which apparently won Beckford’s approval.(6)
When a parody of Disraeli as a consummate dandy appeared in Frazier’s Magazine in the series ‘Gallery of Literary Characters’, Beckford was recalled the parody of Vathek in the short-lived Knight’s Magazine, about the time of the sale of Fonthill Abbey. (CC, 205 & 209-10).When Beckford’s Italy: with Sketches of Spain and Portugal was published in 1834, Disraeli offered to write a review of it in the October issue of The Edinburgh Review but the editor Macvey Napier declined the offer. (CC, 293-4) Beckford found Disraeli’s Revolutionary Epick to be a poem with interesting lines but not satisfying as a whole ; however, he instructed Clarke to convey only his words of praise. (CC, 292). Enthusiasm bubbled up again in a letter to Clarke about Disraeli’s The Infernal Marriage which had first appeared across four issues of The New Monthly Magazine and which Beckford enjoyed for its sly dry humour and for further signs of the continuing influence of Vathek, all of which prompted a splendid recapitulation of the ‘praise of Alroy’ theme:

"Though D. is perpetually galloping over Vathek’s manor of Hell, it is no trespass. The Caliph and Alroy were both co-lords of that appalling region, the gloom, its vastness, its undefined horrors are its own, and the dreadful game they may start from the events belongs to them by prescription as much as it did in his day to Dante." (CC, 285)

At this stage, Vathek-mania rose in Beckford to the point where he began suggesting that the time was right for the publication of Episodes from Vathek:

"Now the propitious hour for sharpening the public appetite for more powerful episodes – which if they ever emerge from Hades into day light will reduce Byron’s Corsair and Victor Hugo’s monsters and scoundrels to insignificance." (CC, 290)

Then Beckford and Disraeli met face-to-face for the only time at a variety benefit performance at the King’s Theatre London, which included a one-act version of Rossini’s opera Semiramide on 12 June 1834. (BDL, 1: 337, note 8) The topic of the Episodes from Vathek was to have been broached during their few hours of conversation. Disraeli wrote to Beckford on 13 June 1834:

"I send you some tribute in the shape of a piece of marble which I myself brought from the Parthenon. It may be sculptured into a classical press for the episodes of Vathek which otherwise may fly away without the world reading them."

There is a heartfelt plea for more direct contact: ‘I think it very unfair that I should hear of the great Beckford only from my friends, and that I am not permitted personally to express to him how very much he has obliged. (BDL, 1: 327)
A few days later, Disraeli wrote to his sister Sarah about Beckford’s enthusiasm for their father’s novels (7):

"Despotism is capital, full of the real stuff. I said it wanted developement. He sd. Damn development – I can develop if a man gives me ideas- Meinoun and Leyla, as he called it, capital. He has all his works in his tower at Landsdowne…Beckford’s feeling for the arts is beyond all conception." (BDL,Vol 1: 329)

In the physical presence of Beckford, perhaps Disraeli felt overawed and settled for the role of the young man bowing low before the older man of the greatest taste. This hero-worship was not quite enough for Beckford to lessen the distance between them. He did not offer the Episodes of Vathek. ‘The interchange of courtesies’ was continued for a few more years, even after Disraeli had become M.P. for Maidstone in 1837 ,an event which ended his long years of revolutionary dandyism on the political margins. In his last recorded letter to Beckford on 6 January 1840, Disraeli was complimentary about Beckford’s Excursion but also suggested that his days of poetical enthusiasm were becoming a thing of the past: ‘It is a charming volume, deeply imbued with the genius of the subject, and with those youthful feelings of poetical enthusiasm which, with me, are now a dream. My father was delighted with it.’ (BDL, Vol 3: 1026)
At the very heart of the colloquy which took place between Beckford and Disraeli was Beckford’s jubilant certainty that Alroy was the legitimate offspring of Vathek. The enthusiastic Beckford’s drooling over the progeny has not been shared by many other readers. A biographer of Disraeli has dismissed Alroy as ‘a strange farrago of oriental romance, biblical bombast and dreamy aspiration…full of the absurd extravagances of the sort already made familiar by Beckford’s Vathek’. (8) A Beckfordian scholar has spurned Alroy as the work of ‘a young foppish admirer, just back from a tour of the Near East in which he drew largely on Vathek. Benjamin Disraeli’s romance is fantastically inferior when compared to the original model.’ (9) This kind of instant incineration of Alroy tends to ignore the fundamental critical task of focusing on Beckford and Disraeli as a remarkable pair of ‘oriental voluptuaries’. My contention here is that it was precisely because they shared a form of cultural orientalism, largely for deeply personal reasons, that they were drawn for a short time into an oasis of strange harmony, at once close and distant.
The oriental tale as an 18th century European literary genre began in France with the publication of Antoine Galand’s translation from a Syrian manuscript of The Arabian Nights between 1704 and 1717 which greatly helped to establish a western market for tales about Orientals, Persians, Tartars and Indians, which would include every class of person from the sovereigns to the destitute. (10) Oriental writing in English was often presented as translations of fabulous Oriental storytellers, a device which was most amusingly satirised in Horace Walpole’s preface to Hieroglyphic Tales (1785). An adolescent fascination with reading and writing oriental stories prepared Beckford to embark on writing Vathek in French after the 1781 Christmas festivities at Fonthill Splendens with the help of Rev. Samuel Henley who was on hand to provide scholarly notes and English translation. The twenty one year old Beckford’s fascination with the Caliph Vathek, an actual historical character mentioned in d’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque Orientale (1697), did not arise from any quest for historical scholarship (although he may have known enough Arabic to have been able to translate The Arabian Nights), but from his ideal ambition to adopt a mask which would enable him to explore forbidden experience beyond the stultifying limits of his mother’s morally restrictive world. The tragic trauma in Beckford’s life allowed Henley to publish Vathek without reference to the author. (11) What most impressed the first reviewers were two features: the authenticity of the oriental detail and the stinging moral in the tale’s tail about the just fate of the Caliph who had pursued unlawful and immoral pleasures.(12) Later Vathek came to seen as a roman à clef of the author’s own life. (13) Later still, critics glimpsed, beneath the gothic-style rendering of sensational events in a dangerous world, the lurking presence of a Voltaire-like burlesque: ‘Potential melodrama and horror are almost invariably deflated by Beckford’s detached, urbane, and often comic tone.’ (14) No surprise, then, that Vathek been often been classified by critics and editors alike as ‘difficult to classify’.
The key question is - what was it in Alroy that linked it to Vathek? (15) Beckford must have been impressed by D’s descriptions of the oriental world: the palace of the Caliph in Baghdad (Alroy, 26); the great bazaar of Baghdad with had all the rare costly products of the world and people of all nations, creeds and climes (Alroy, 49f); the grand marriage of the King of the Hebrews and the Princess of Baghdad (Alroy, 58-167). The characters of Vathek and Alroy were loosely based on historical characters associated with the region of Baghdad: Vathek had been Caliph al-Wathik Bi’lah, son of the great potentate Al-Mu’tasim Bi’llah in the 9th century; Alroy had been Menahem ben Solomon al-Ruhi, a 12th century hero who led the mountain Jews of Azenbaigan against their Muslim rulers. The historical Vathek had a short and undistinguished reign and was mainly remembered as a man of letters with a terrible eye. (16) Beckford transformed the historical figure into the portrait of a relentless explorer of the forbidden areas of sensual and intellectual experience and as the occasionally majestic lover of Nouronihar. In Disraeli’s version, Alroy emerged clearly as a champion of the scattered Jewish people when he defeats the Caliph of Bagdad and marries the Caliph’s daughter Schirene but then only to discover that she is happy to betray him and see him destroyed.
Vathek’s final condemnation in the Hall of Eblis after ‘a thousand crimes’ in the pursuit
of excess involves a meeting with his mother Carathis whom he denounces ‘’Execrable woman…cursed be the day thou gavest me birth…how much I ought to abhor the impious knowledge thou hast taught me.’ (Vathek, 117) Alroy’s trial ‘as a child of Eblis’ takes place in the Square of the Great Mosque before His Highness Alp Arslan, the mighty sovereign of Karasme, where Alroy escapes death by agonising torture by proclaiming that he will miraculously survive death, whereupon an angered King beheads him on the spot. (Alroy, 244-252) The moment of supreme truth in Vathek occurs when Vathek and Nouronihar lose the most precious gift of heaven HOPE: ‘Vathek beheld in the eyes of Nouronihar nothing but rage and vengeance; nor could she discover ought in his, but aversion and despair.’ (Vathek, 119) The glory of Alroy’s self-immolation is emblazoned on the severed head: ‘It fell, and as it fell, a smile of triumphant derision seemed to play upon the dying features of the hero, and to ask of his enemies, “Where now are your torturers?”’ In contrast to the sombre power and intensity of the triumphant sneer on Alroy’s severed head, Beckford’s vision is unexpectedly modulated into the final approval of the figure of the despised Gulchenrouz who ‘passed whole ages in undisturbed tranquillity, and in the pure happiness of childhood.’ (Vathek, 120) As urbane irony was absent throughout Alroy, no shift of tone in its final coda could be expected.
As lord of an appalling region, Alroy achieves a gorgeous moment in Jewish history (17); but even more crucially, his self-immolation is charged with an apocalyptic sense of ruins and liberation which shines forth as the sublime source of future inspiration. The symbolism of Alroy’s bold and arrogant heart transfigures his story into one of an outsider who can still forge his way to power in a hostile society – a radical theme which simultaneously appealed to Disraeli at 30, given his ambitions, and to Beckford at 70 remembering his own aspirations as a young man.(18) It was due to the presence of such a degree of cultural idealism in Alroy that Beckford was happy to recognise Alroy as son of Vathek.
The paths of Beckford and Disraeli were destined to diverge. For Disraeli, the Alroy metaphor was to inspire him to forge his way as a Jew in England along a path leading to the role of Queen Victoria’s Prime Minister. For Beckford, the Alroy metaphor may have suggested momentarily a glimpse of what might have been thrust upon Lord Chatham’s godson. He treasured his own Vathek metaphor as a memento of the oriental nights of his youth. In a note attached to a youthful letter to Louisa Beckford, dated 9 December 1838, Beckford remembered the night of his 21st birthday in Fonthill Splendens, simultaneously reconstructing the memory as an image of creative disorientation/orientation:

"I still feel warm and irradiated by the recollection of that strange, necromantic light which Loutherbourg had thrown over what absolutely appeared a realm of Fairy, or rather, perhaps, a Demon Temple deep beneath the earth set apart for tremendous mysteries…The glorious haze investing every object, the mystic look, the vastness, the intricacy of the vaulted labyrinth occasioned so bewildering an effect that it became impossible for anyone to define at the moment, where he stood, where he had been, or to whether he was wandering." (19)

The great oriental image of the Hall of Eblis, shared with Beckford, was evoked by Disraeli the socialite in a letter to his Sister Sarah on 16 January 1843 after a visit to a masqued ball at the Paris Opera:

"A thorough carnival, the sale of the Grand Opera, formed into one immense Belshazzar’s hall with a hundred streaming lustres. The grand galoppe, five hundred figures whirling like a witches’ Sabbath, truly infernal…the boxes filled with ladies in black dominoes and masks, very striking, and made the scene altogether Eblisian." (BDL. Vol. 4: 1272)

The absence of apocalyptic gleam and satirical bite from this brotherly gossip points to Disraeli’s relentless, albeit slow, shedding of former dreams. Beckford continued to work during his closing years to rescue the texts of his youthful genius. The interchange between the radical pair of ‘Oriental Voluptuaries’ has rarely been given close scrutiny. Alroy led Beckford towards of a mature understanding of Vathek, the masterpiece of his youth. Disraeli’s Alroy has been allowed to pale into almost total insignificance if viewed in the blaze of his later political fame. Yet if Vathek and Alroy are set down side by side, the novels suggest the subtleties and intricacies in forms of Western orientalism when the genre was coloured in apocalyptic hues by two remarkable English storytellers at times of personal and national crises.

1. The phrase is used in a letter to Beckford dated 6 January 1840 concerning the unforwarded copy of his Alarcos. Letter 1026 in Benjamin Disraeli Letters (1815-1847) ed. J.A.W. Gunn et al in 6 volumes (Toronto, 1982-1989). Other references to letters in these volumes will be indicated in the text as BDL.Vol No:letter No.
2. In a draft of the letter, Beckford had written ‘how startling’ instead of ‘how awakening’. (Beckford Papers in Bodleian c.14 fols. 69-70)
3. See Contarini Fleming with new preface (London, 1845), v-vii.
4. Contarini Fleming, 373. See Jane Ridley, The Young Disraeli (London, 1995): ‘The novel is portrait of both the artist and the prime minister as a young man’, 107.
5. The Consummate Collector: William Beckford’s letters to His Bookseller, ed. with introduction by R.J. Gemmett (Norwich, 2000), 182. Other references to letters in this volume will be included in the text as CC: page no.
6. See Ridley, The Young Disraeli for further background on Disraeli’s ‘High Tory radicalism’, 131, 183-4 & 340. Also BDL: Vol 1 Introduction, xiii-xxvi.
7. Isaac D’Israeli’s novels were Romances which included ‘ The Loves of Mejnoun and Lelia: the Arabian Petrarch and Laura’ (London, 1797). In his notes Isaac refers to the notes in Vathek without reference to Beckford. On the 18 March 1833, Beckford showed a preference for the spelling used by father Isaac when he wrote to Clarke: ‘Mr. Disraeli and not D’Israeli – he writes himself, though for my part I think D’Israeli in better taste.’ (CC, 188)
8. Robert Blake, Disraeli’s Grand Tour 1830-1 (London, 1982), 113-4.
9. Fatma Moussa Mahmoud’s essay ‘Beckford, Vathek and the Oriental Tale’ in William Beckford of Fonthill: Bicentenary Essays (Cairo, 1960), 121.
10. See E.W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conception of the Orient (London, 1978) for a comprehensive overview of the intellectual genealogy of Orientalism in the early 19th century. 92f.
11. See J.W.Oliver, The Life of William Beckford (London, 1932) for Chapter V about the composition of Vathek, 93f .
12. As Roger Lonsdale pointed out in his introduction to Vathek (Oxford Classics, 1983), the first edition of Vathek was widely reviewed before Beckford’s authorship had been revealed, xviii-xx.
13. William Beckford of Fonthill: Bicentenary Essays, 84-7.
14. Lonsdale’s Introduction in Vathek (Oxford Classics, 1983), xxv. Quotations from Vathek will be referred to in the text as Vathek, page no.
15. See Alroy (London, 1845). Quotations will be referred to in the text as Alroy, page no. In the 1845 edition, Disraeli added 82 notes, after the manner of Vathek, 253-266. There is an interesting note on the Mosque of Omar (‘The Dome of the Rock’) built by Moslem conquerors in Jerusalem after Alroy’s time. See Donald Sultana, Benjamin Disraeli in Spain, Malta and Albania 1830-2 (London, 1976) where Sultana claims that its was his visit to the Alhambra in Granada which inspired Disraeli’s description of the Caliph Palace, 25f.
16. See Boyd Alexander, England’s Wealthiest Son (London, 1962) for background detail, 91f.
17. Disraeli referred to Alroy’s death in a preface to his Revolutionary Epick (London, 1834) as ‘the celebration of a gorgeous incident in that sacred and romantic people from whom I derive my blood and name.’
18. See Blake, Disraeli’s Grand Tour for his conclusion about Disraeli’s self identification with Alroy’s struggles: ‘This was to climb to the summit in spite of being an outsider and an adventurer’, 113.
19. Quoted in Oliver, Life of William Beckford, 89-91.



Benjamin Disraeli. Painting by Daniel Maclise