Vathek, conte Arabe.

A Paris, Chez Poinçot ... 1787.

8vo., pp. 190, [2, advertisements]; a fine, large copy, some fore-edges untrimmed, in contemporary marbled calf, marbled endpapers, spine decorated with small crosses, gilt (slightly rubbed), green morocco label; gift inscription dated 23 December 1852.


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First Paris edition of Beckford’s gothic masterpiece in the original French, so considerably revised from the Lausanne edition (also 1787) as to amount to ‘almost a new version’ (Chapman & Hodgkin, p. 127). Beckford also took the opportunity to expand the notes from one to twenty-four pages.

Beckford wrote Vathek in French in 1782, completing the first draft in ‘three days and two nights’ in January, following a ‘voluptuous’ Christmas house party at Fonthill where the trappings of an Egyptian Hall with its ‘infinitely varied apartments’ provided inspiration for the Halls of Eblis. By May the novel was finished. Beckford encouraged first his tutor John Lettice and then his friend the Rev. Samuel Henley to prepare a version in English, but expressly forbade publication before the French text appeared. Henley nonetheless sent his translation to the press, and when it appeared in 1786 it was obvious that he had compounded his disobedience by implying that Vathek was translated from an Arabic source, with no mention of the author.

Beckford, who was in Lausanne, was furious. He ‘retaliated as best he could’, hastily publishing the French original ‘from a manuscript which he must have had with him, in a slightly earlier state than that translated by Henley’ (Roger Lonsdale, citing the textual studies of Professor André Parreaux, who disproved the old theory that the Lausanne edition was retranslated from the English). The Lausanne printing reflects his immediate anger; the Paris edition provides a more considered text.

Despite continuing close attentions to Vathek in French, Beckford produced no English version himself, although he finally consented to make some corrections to the third edition of Henley’s translation. All the editions of Vathek in which Beckford was directly involved are textually important, and the two first in French are very uncommon – ‘extrêmement rares’ – wrote Beckford in the revised French edition of 1815.

Chapman & Hodgkin 3(B)(ii); Robert J. Gemmett, ‘An annotated Checklist of the Works of William Beckford’, PBSA, LXI (1967), 245; Vathek, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford English Novels, 1970).

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