CHAPTER V — THE ORIENTAL TALE OF TERROR. BECKFORD.
Beckford’s History of the Caliph Vathek, which was written in French, was translated by the Rev. Samuel Henley, who had the temerity to publish the English version—described as a translation from the Arabic—in 1786, before the original had appeared. The French version was published in Lausanne and in Paris in 1787. An interest in Oriental literature had been awakened early in the eighteenth century by Galland’s epoch-making versions of The Arabian Nights (1704-1717), The Turkish Tales (1708) and The Persian Tales (1714), which were all translated into English during the reign of Queen Anne. Many of the pseudo-translations of French authors, such as Gueulette, who compiled The Chinese Tales, Mogul Tales, Tartarian Tales, and Peruvian Tales, and Jean-Paul Bignon, who presented The Adventures of Abdallah, were quickly turned into English; and the Oriental story became so fashionable a form that didactic writers eagerly seized upon it as a disguise for moral or philosophical reflection. The Eastern background soon lost its glittering splendour and colour, and became a faded, tarnished tapestry, across which shadowy figures with outlandish names and English manners and morals flit to and fro. Addison’s Vision of Mirza (1711), Johnson’s Rasselas (1759), and various essays in The Rambler, Dr. Hawkesworth’s Almoran and Hamet (1761), Langhorne’s Solyman and Almena (1762), Ridley’s Tales of the Genii (1764), and Mrs. Sheridan’s History of Nourjahad (1767) were among the best and most popular of the Anglo-Oriental stories that strove to inculcate moral truths. In their oppressive air of gravity, Beckford, with his implacable hatred of bores, could hardly have breathed. One of the most amazing facts about his wild fantasy is that it was the creation of an English brain. The idea of Vathek was probably suggested to Beckford by the witty Oriental tales of Count Antony Hamilton and of Voltaire. The character of the caliph, who desired to know everything, even the sciences which did not exist, is sketched in the spirit of the French satirists, who turned Oriental extravagance into delightful mockery. Awed into reverence ere the close by the sombre grandeur of his own conception of the halls of Eblis, Beckford cast off the flippant mood in which he had set out and rose to an exalted solemnity.
Beckford’s mind was so richly stored with the jewels of Eastern legend that it was inevitable he should shower from his treasury things new and old, but everything which passes through the alembic of his imagination is transmuted almost beyond recognition. The episode of the sinners with the flaming hearts has been traced to a scene in the Mogul Tales, where Aboul Assam saw three men standing mute in postures of sorrow before a book on which were inscribed the