A U of G professor has uncovered a missing piece of literary history hidden in the 200-year-old manuscripts of eccentric English novelist William Beckford.
Prof. Ken Graham, Literatures and Performance Studies in English, has discovered a story originally written as the first in a sequence of stories that follow Beckford's most famous novel, The History of the Caliph Vathek. It tells a tale of pederasty - a tormented love story between a man and a boy that might be autobiographical in nature. It differs from a published version of the story in which the young boy turns out to be a girl.
"The story, as Beckford originally wrote it, is audacious, even courageous in its flouting of social standards," says Graham. "In Beckford's time, homosexual practices could be punished by death."
During his lifetime, Beckford was less known for his writing than for his wealth and unconventional lifestyle, including the construction of Fonthill Abbey, a huge neo-Gothic tower that later collapsed.
Graham says the discovery of the missing story is extremely significant to the small genre of English literature known as Gothic fiction, but has even greater societal implications. It raises questions of cultural and societal standards of acceptability in the 1700s and how they have changed - or not - over time.
"The scene was never published; it just lay among his papers," says Graham. "But biographers had access to the manuscripts before now, and I would say it is very likely that they knew this version existed but never mentioned it. I am astonished at this. It shows how rigid social mores were. Until quite recently, some subjects were not mentioned, even by scholars."
Graham made the discovery last winter in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, while poring over handwritten copies of The Episodes of Vathek, which tell of the atrocities of the damned. He had been commissioned to unite Beckford's The History of the Caliph Vathek and The Episodes of Vathek into one publication and thought he should check the original manuscripts, which have become accessible to scholars only during the last few years. The Episodes were published after Beckford's death, and the manuscripts were part of the private estate of the Dukes of Hamilton for more than 200 years.
Graham has long been interested in Beckford's writing and has always been bothered by a scene in The Episodes that features a tormented king damned for having an affair with a young prince. The prince is wounded in battle, and when his clothing is torn away, he is revealed to be a woman.
"I was always puzzled by this story; it seemed to me that the pieces didn't fit together. I always imagined it was a rewritten version to make the story safe and that Beckford got rid of the first version. I had no realistic expectation nor belief that it really existed."
While leafing through Beckford's manuscripts, Graham came across the scene from The Episodes that has baffled him for so many years. "I kept turning the pages, looking for the part when the young man turns into a woman, and it wasn't there. The young man stays a young man. I couldn't believe it; my brain just started spinning. Before, the story didn't make sense when it was an affair between a man and a woman. There was no atrocity, no reason why they should end up damned. Suddenly, everything started falling into place."
Graham concluded that the original version was written around 1784 when Beckford was 24. It was during this time that the writer was in the midst of a scandal over his romantic liaisons with a young boy that allegedly occurred while Beckford and his wife were on their honeymoon.
"The scandal never really blew over," says Graham. "Beckford went abroad and continued writing, but mostly travel works."
His wife later died in childbirth, and their daughter went on to marry the Duke of Hamilton.
"The permissible version was probably written when he was in his sixties or seventies, when he was an old man and wanted to get the stories published," says Graham, whose discovery of the missing scene has "completely transformed" his initial task. He has begun the painstaking process of comparing all versions and recording the differences among them, then combining The Episodes and Vathek, something Beckford always wanted. The collection will now include the original version of the love story between the king and prince.
For Graham, it is the culmination of decades of research of an enduring interest. "It is something I started 30 years ago when I did my master's degree and PhD on Beckford but never had access to his papers. I've now come full circle."
This summer, Graham organized and chaired a round table on Beckford at the Tenth International Congress on the Enlightenment in Dublin. He also chaired a session on "The World of Books" and presented the paper "British Reviewing and the 1790s."