The Fall of Fonthill
Story Line with Louisa as Narrator
1. Louisa is talking to us across two centuries. It is the 1780s. An exciting time, like now. New ideas, new sensibilities, a new school of novel writing and poetry, all passion and dramatic moments. And as an art form, the Gothick, leading people to construct mouldering ruins and employ hermits in their parks to add just that right touch of frisson.
An exciting time to be alive but, oh dear, poor Louisa, only 26, is losing out. Her husband is a popular man, master of hounds, author of 'Stalking the Prey with Rod and Gun'. Their Georgian home in its ordered park is always crammed with people. After dinner most nights the men stay behind and drink themselves silly. It's a hard riding hard drinking world - and no place for Louisa, that exquisite creature whose moods are so delicately tuned to the more romantic passions.
Sometimes she thinks the only way out might be to have an affair with a man who understands her and her romantic needs. But who? None of her husband's set seems appropriate. And then she meets her cousin by marriage, William Beckford, just 20.
He is wonderfully eligible. Witty, mischievous, going to be very wealthy, and like her obsessed with the spectacle of the passing pageant of his own emotions, and very in tune with the spirit of his times. Already the idol of London society, he loves to shock. Soon he'll be 21 and he might be a wonderful person to, er, get to know better. Only one snag, gossip has it he, although quite healthy in his normal appetites, does have a 'sentimental attachment' to a young nobleman's son, William Courtenay, just 13.
2. Discussing this with a confidante, she learns that he's not just wealthy, but going to be the wealthiest man in England! All from Jamaican sugar plantations. Poor Louisa! Already she knows she loves him. Perhaps there is some way she can turn his 'sentimental attachment' to her advantage? A letter arrives. Goodness, it is an invitation to Fonthill Splendens, his family home, to his coming of age ball!
3. At the Ball. They clearly find each other attractive. She momentarily throws him with her disclosure that she knows of his 'sentimental attachment'. And, appreciating that communication with the boy may be difficult, offers to be a go-between. He is grateful and asks her to procure the boy for, and come herself to, Christmas celebrations at Fonthill. Don't bring your husband. It's going to be quite unusual.
4. That Christmas. Beckford has spent a fortune on food, music, and an exotic decor. He discloses his interest in magic. His sentimental attachment for the boy flowers, accompanied by our 'sexual delirium theme' (which may be choirboys singing Allegri's Miserere).
5. The boy has to leave. Term is about to begin at Westminster School. But Louisa now offers her own son on the 'altars of [Beckford's] lust' and we hear the sexual delirium theme again as the hope is expressed that their rituals may be sanctified by the Devil himself in the form of a goat. Louisa gets her man and is now hopelessly in love with him. There is just a touch of worry at their moment of parting. What will the world think of all this? Beckford replies that the world won't know.
6. He's wrong. From his mother and the family solicitor he learns that the goings on at Fonthill Splendens are the talk of the town and are being disclosed in the gutter press. 'We live in an age of newspapers. Things can no longer be done in private as they used to be.' There is only one, drastic solution. He must never see Louisa, or the boy, again. And he must marry.
7. Louisa is distraught. Combined with her despair at losing William is an uneasy feeling that they have done something whose consequences may be terrible. She has become ill and is ordered abroad for her health.
8. At first Beckford is haunted by the past and goes through the motions of marriage. Then he comes to love his wife. Their first baby is born dead.
9. Back from their long honeymoon, the Beckfords are invited to Powderham Castle, home of the boy. Beckford's mother implores him not to go. Beckford explains that 'all that' is now over.
10. Beckford and his wife go to Powderham Castle. He is caught in allegedly scandalous circumstances with the boy. The press picks up on it, Beckford flees the country, his wife stays behind because she is pregnant, she dies in childbirth, the press says it was Beckford's fault, it is not safe for him to return, even for the funeral.
11. Now is Louisa's chance. Beckford is in Switzerland, she in the South of France. But - Louisa is dying. She recalls how Beckford, once the most fortunate young man in Britain, has now lost his seat in parliament, his novel (which has been pirated), his wife, and is in danger of losing his fortune (he is being sued by an illegitimate brother).
He has been ostracised by British Society. Louisa could save him, but she is dying.
Increasingly she has come to feel that she, Beckford, and the boy have done things which can not be undone, but which will destroy them all. In saying goodbye to this world she wishes Beckford luck and good fortune. She hopes that Beckford and the boy can still make something of their lives, and that he may one day return to England, to do something worthy of his talent.
Above all she hopes that her worrying premonitions are not correct.
12. When we next encounter him, Beckford seems to have got his second wind. He's back in England. Though the whole of society and even the local parson and villagers still combine to ostracise him. But he's engaged on something spectacular. He's briefing his architect, Wyatt, to construct what will be the Gothick Revival's most splendid monument, Fonthill Abbey, to be built on an escarpment above Fonthill Splendens. He's building a vast wall round the estate, to keep out foxhunters and 'prying eyes'.
Polite society is closed to him, and the company he keeps is unusual, including a dwarf or two. And there is an ex-Lisbon choirboy, Gregorio, for whom he has bought a Portuguese title, and who acts as estate manager and occasional pimp.
Our sexual delirium theme is now used for particularly dramatic moments in the building of Fonthill Abbey and especially, of course, for mentions of the height and splendour of the tower, which will be the tallest in the West Country.
13. In a slow crescendo we encounter the various stages in the building including the unexpected collapse of the tower at one point, and the vagaries of the architect and workmen, some of whom are also employed by the King at Windsor Castle.
14. Beckford destroys the old Fonthill Splendens and puts on an extraordinary entertainment for Nelson and Emma Hamilton his mistress, involving bands, cannon, 'vapours', and general exoticism. It's not unlikely the earlier Christmas festivities (4) except that the ingredient of strange sexuality is not present and it all seems maybe a bit tacky.
Emma, five years his junior, like him a social outcast, flirtatiously pretends to know less than she does and, after Nelson has dropped off, snoring, asks him, 'Haven't you got a wife? Don't you find it all a bit draughty? I thought abbeys were for worship not habitation!' And, above all, doesn't he think of putting his talents to the service of his country (like Nelson)?
Beckford is evasive in some of his replies but of one thing he is clear; Fonthill Abbey is to be the finest building of its age. This is his gift to England, thus he serves his country and surely she has heard that the tower is the highest in ... (sexual delirium theme).
15. The voices of Beckford's advisers break in with the news that the price of sugar has dropped and Beckford's building activities have ruined him. There is only one way out ... Fonthill must be sold.
And sold it is, to a man even more nouveau riche than Beckford.
16. Beckford is summoned to the deathbed of the master builder who confesses the great tower was built without foundations. It could fall at any moment.
17. Beckford goes to warn the new owner, who says he reckons it will last his time.
18. He's wrong. There are crackles, bangs, a fissure appears, and (sexual delirium theme) the Great Tower at Fonthill falls, bringing much of the rest of the Abbey with it, never to rise again.
19. As the dust settles and the sounds die away, two comments are heard.
Firstly, an estate worker with a strong Wiltshire accent asks, 'What was it all about anyway? Why did he want to build a tower so high in the first place, the silly bugger?'
20. Secondly, we hear Beckford in a stanza from a poem of his that we've already heard. Asking, with dignity in this moment of disaster, in a 'suppliant voice', that our verdict should not be that 'on vain toys I throw my life away.'
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