Saturday, 1 August 2009

Memoirs of William Beckford of Fonthill


It was six months after his return from Switzerland, and the breaking up of his domestic establishment on his favourite shores of the Leman, that he made his voyage to the south; a visit respecting which there has been no end to exaggerations. A visit of eight or nine months has been magnified into one of years in duration, and into housebuilding and permanent establishments in a foreign country, that never had a real existence. He took with him a large household establishment, because it suited the Portuguese taste; and from twenty to thirty persons composed his train. [278] Less would not have comported with the figure he desired to make abroad. The second visit he paid was while the contractor erected the wall round Fonthill, which was completed in about September or October, 1796. Yet Byron apostrophises Montserrat, in Childe Harold, and wrote:—

" There thou, too, Vathek ! England's wealthiest son,
Once formed thy Paradise, as not aware
When wanton wealth her mightiest deeds hath done,
Meek peace voluptuous laws was ever wont to shun.

"Here didst thou dwell, here schemes of pleasure plan,
Beneath yon mountain's ever-beauteous brow ;
But now, as if a thing unblest by man,
Thy fairy dwelling is as lone as thou!
Here giant weeds a passage scarce allow
To halls deserted, portals gaping wide,
Fresh lessons to the thinking bosom, how
Vain are the pleasaunces on earth supplied;
Swept into wrecks anon by Time's ungentle tide."

This would have been striking had it been true. That Mr. Beckford, going to Portugal for eight or nine months, after his wife's death, when he was still grieving her loss, and that for such a term of residence he should build a house, was rather too extravagant. Indeed, on his first visit, he did not reside at Montserrat at all, [279] because the owner, Mr. De Visme, a merchant, who built the factory hospital, would not let it. On his second visit to Portugal, which lasted some months more than the first, he was successful in becoming a temporary holder. It was a barbarous Gothic imitation house, built by a carpenter from Falmouth, which had been erected on the foundations of the older house of Mr. De Visme; and of this new building Mr. Beckford succeeded in becoming the tenant. The site was lovely, and surrounded by a most delightful country. He proceeded by way of Madrid, in 1794, and spent a year and better in Portugal, during which he inhabited Montserrat.

Hear another jeremiad about Montserrat:— " The princely mansion of Beckford is now mouldering in ruins. It was an exceedingly elegant and tasteful building, quite in the English style. Not a vestige of the roof remains; and within, the bramble, the thorn, and the thistle, flourish in undisturbed luxuriance. A few short years more, and a guide will have to lead the traveller to the spot where the eccentric author of 'Vathek' held his court. It is a most romantic spot, commanding, in its prospect, every [280] beauty that Cintra and the surrounding country affords. The lofty, tree-clad mountains behind, the undulating cultivated plains before, in the distance the illimitable sea, and around groves of the finest orange and lemon trees, force an exclamation of rapture, sadly qualified by regret at the utter destruction to which this most lovely of retreats is fast hastening. On the western turret still stands the flag-staff from which the silken banner of Old England so often fluttered in the breeze; it seemed conscious of the dignity it once possessed; and, in defiance of the ruin going on around, was determined to ' spin it out, and fight to the last!'" This is from " Wilde's Travels," which show un grand talent, as the French have it, for building castles in the air.

Memoirs of William Beckford of Fonthill
Cyrus Redding
London, C.J. Skeet, 1859

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