The Fall of Fonthill
LOUISA:This is Louisa, Louisa Beckford. And the tale that I have to unfold is not one for the squeamish. Neither, however, is it a tale in the Gothick style, a tale of unrequited love and half ruined abbeys, mysterious nuns, saintly prioresses, oh no. It is a tale of love requited! Passionately requited! Of two young creatures as young and shy as they were beautiful!
Three, I should say. For there was a third. The dew of his creation was still fresh upon him. He was a Cupid on to the wild romps that sprang up so naturally to even further titivate our exquisitely tormented sensibilities! But not an ineffectual winged little creature shooting arrows from afar without intended destination. No, he became entirely and valuably a part of it all! Sometimes even first, or at any rate first among equals in the fray; most potently armed of all when he stood naked and unarmed in his natural grace. All other weapons, darts and arrows, he has left beside the bed! Oh! (SHE SIGHS, MOMENTARILY OVERWHELMED BY HER EXCITING MEMORIES. THEN, MORE SOBERLY;)
It is also a tale of another man. My husband. Most popular with his peers. Master of Hounds. Our handsome home, in the approved so called modern style, with an orderly park and always crammed with neighbours. Hard riding men, hard drinking. After dinner most nights they stay behind and drink themselves silly! There is so much consumption of oceans of claret, mutton and beef. Fine place it may be. It is, however, no place for a young wife, pretty (so I am told) and made in tune with this ages more refined sensibilities.
Marriage keeps me a prisoner. Sometimes it seemed to me that the only way out might be to have an affair with a man who understood me and my romantic needs. But with whom? None of my husband's set seemed appropriate, although of course of fulsome compliments there was no lack. And then my thoughts turned to my cousin by marriage.
(IN A GARDEN, OR OUT RIDING, OR TAKING A BRIEF TURN IN A CARRIAGE)
DOLLY:He is most wonderfully eligible.
LOUISA:Eligible for what?
DOLLY:What you will. I tried. No success. You may lead your mount to the water. Without his wish you may not prevail on him at all to drink! He's yours if you want him. But, as you say, for what? You're married!
LOUISA:(THOUGHTFULLY) Yes ... I have not even seen him more than once or twice, but I have observed a countenance that is witty, mischievous, but also, sensuous. Spoilt, a little, perhaps? What is that something else I have seen in his face?
DOLLY:Very. Or will be when he comes of age. Not just wealthy, but the wealthiest! Rolling in it! Even more than the King, so they say.
LOUISA:I don't believe that!
DOLLY:Very, anyway. All from West Indian sugar plantations.
LOUISA:Dolly, already I know that I love him! But would he look at me?
DOLLY:(UNDERSTANDING WHAT HER FRIEND IS THINKING AND REALISING A SERIOUS QUESTION HAS BEEN PUT TO HER, SO SHE REPLIES QUITE SERIOUSLY) It could be a match. Like you, I'd say, he's obsessed with the spectacle of the passing pageant of his own emotions.
DOLLY:And very in tune with the spirit of his times. Already, they say, he has become the idol of London society. He might be a wonderful person for you to, er, get to know better.
LOUISA:Maybe, though, he's already looking for a bride. That, alas, I could never be.
DOLLY:No! He is not seeking matrimony!
LOUISA:You seem very sure!
DOLLY:Yes, because gossip has it ... he is quite healthy in his normal appetites.
DOLLY:They say that he does have a 'sentimental attachment' to a young lad - of very lofty birth!
LOUISA:Oh. Do they ... ?
LOUISA:Would there, I wonder, be any way I could turn this 'sentimental attachment' to my advantage? Who is he anyway?
DOLLY:I can tell you, but it must be in a whisper. There.
LOUISA:Oh. Now I love him even more so. Poor soul. How he must suffer. What a delicate yet delicious affliction! How my heart yearns to have a share in the skirmish! Could I?
DOLLY:It's worth a try if you really want to. Let us choose a worthy pitch for so important a call to arms. The ball at Fonthill is not too far away. Shall you try to get your husband to bring you?
(A BALL AT FONTHILL SPLENDENS. BACKGROUND MUSIC AND CROWD, WHICH COULD HAVE BEGUN UNDERNEATH THE END OF THE PREVIOUS SCENE. LOUISA AND BECKFORD TALK IN FOREGROUND. SHE LOVES HIM ALTHOUGH HE MAY NOT KNOW IT YET)
BECKFORD:No ... Nothing. Only a most ghastly melancholy which even makes me in the midnight hours start, raving, from my bed.
LOUISA:But a ball like this at Fonthill, that's far better than nothing, Cousin William. If only we could have one.
BECKFORD:Ask my mother then. She dreamed all this up. Perhaps she'll arrange one for you, Louisa.
LOUISA:My husband would never allow it. He prefers more down to earth entertainment. So, go and dance now. Cut a dash with the young and - unmarried.
BECKFORD:I'll dance with you. You're young.
LOUISA:Standing here now I don't feel it. These young things have a future. For me, nothing.
BECKFORD:There is nothing much here for me though, either, except you.
LOUISA:Me! Ah, but you see, I know. I know there is one who could for you bathe all this scene in splendour with one soft glance. I know the cause of your melancholy.
BECKFORD:Do you? I had not thought that cause famously known.
LOUISA:Only by the perceptive. And I too have spent time with the lad in question.
LOUISA:I understand you. I too know what it is to pine.
BECKFORD:In your case, pining not for him? No ... (WORKING IT OUT) ... for escape from a marriage to someone you don't love? Or something - or someone - more?
LOUISA:That would be telling.
BECKFORD:Would I were yet my own master. I'm not. I'm being sent again to Europe.
LOUISA:To help you to forget?
BECKFORD:I suppose so.
LOUISA:Will you write to me? To make our exile more bearable. Your months in Europe, my lifetime in Dorset!
BECKFORD:Well, yes. Yes.
LOUISA:It may be there's something else I could do for you. (FLIRTATIOUSLY)
BECKFORD:(AT THIS POINT A LITTLE GUARDED, THOUGH HE FINDS HER ATTRACTIVE) And what's that?
LOUISA:You can send your letters to him care of me, if you wish. And I can secretly get them to him. I suspect you can't write direct.
BECKFORD:(WITH TREMENDOUS RELIEF) Oh, thank you!
LOUISA:There, you see, I understand you!
BECKFORD:Well, now that that is all arranged to our satisfaction, shall we join the dance?
LOUISA:Why not? (THEY ARE GETTING UP) Oh, my William. (AS HE PUTS HIS ARM ROUND HER, BREATHLESS) Yes!
(SWELL BACKGROUND MUSIC TO FOREGROUND AND THEN PULL BACK AND HOLD UNDER)
BECKFORD:(URGENTLY AS THEY DANCE) Louisa, this Christmas I will be back from Europe. I will be of age. Fonthill Splendens will be finally mine. I plan a party. Not like this. A proper party. A dozen youthful fresh persons like us will be there, you must come. Can you escape your husband?
LOUISA:(REMINISCES) I had wondered whether I would be shocked. I was not shocked. I have read the poets of ancient Athens where even philosophers and military commanders had their boyfriends. Perhaps, I asked myself, William Beckford loved him because he had not yet found a woman to truly love him and understand him? Though the boy had the wanton grace of a girl.
(A CARRIAGE DRAWN BY HORSES AT FULL GALLOP. TOOTING HORN. IT DRAWS UP OUTSIDE FONTHILL SPLENDENS. THREE PEOPLE ALIGHT. A BELL RINGS DISTANTLY IN THE SERVANTS QUARTERS. THE DOOR BURSTS OPEN, OPENED FROM INSIDE)
BECKFORD:My Kitty! Louisa! Alexander! At last! Come in!
COURTENAY:(ABOUT 15) William! Jolly terrific!
BECKFORD:Alright, take the team round the back and tell them to feed them royally.
GROOM:Very good, sir.
(THE CARRIAGE CLATTERS AWAY)
BECKFORD:The others have not yet arrived. So, you three will be the first to behold...
(THEY STEP INDOORS. GREAT DOOR SHUTS, AWESOMELY. LARGE, ECHOEY INTERIOR)
(THEY ARE ALL SOMEWHAT ASTONISHED)
COZENS:What has occurred? Fonthill Splendens seems to have changed somewhat now you've come to own it. We seem transported to a warm, illuminated palace - raised by spells in this lonely Wiltshire wilderness, no doubt?
COURTENAY:Can this be the same house I came to before?
BECKFORD:Fonthill Splendens transformed.
COURTENAY:Yes, but how?
BECKFORD:By the genius of de Loutherberg and others.
COZENS:Ha! I fancy I recognise some of those theatrical devices he created on the stage at the Adelphi!
COURTENAY:Evidently, and even more ingenious.
BECKFORD:Did you see his work in London too, Kitty?
COURTENAY:Of course! I'm up there at school now, don't forget!
BECKFORD:(A LITTLE THROWN BY KITTY'S SOPHISTICATION) My plan is that here will ten of us be immured for many days.
COZENS:(ENJOYING IT BUT ALSO RELISHING THE ABSURDITY OF IT ALL) You mentioned. But - no visits or neighbours? No jaunts?
BECKFORD:No. Doors and windows will be strictly closed, so that neither common daylight nor commonplace visitors can get in.
COZENS:Won't we suffocate?
BECKFORD:We don't need these County people. What are they to us?
COZENS:I mean from each other!
BECKFORD:On the contrary, our own company will be an inspiration! Because careworn faces will be completely absent. No sunk-in mouths or furrowed foreheads will be permitted.
COZENS:That leaves me out.
BECKFORD:Apart from your grizzled visage, dear Alex, our society will be youthful and lovely to look on. But come and see! (FADE)
(ANOTHER LARGE INTERIOR AT FONTHILL SPLENDENS)
COZENS:Yes, sublime. Vault upon vault.
COURTENAY:What is this rising vapour? How did you do that?
COZENS:De Loutherberg once more, I suspect.
BECKFORD:Yes. But don't ask how. Just enjoy it. Come onwards. Let's roam through the galleries.
COURTENAY:What a strange light! Sublime!
COZENS:See how it gleams on the marble pavements.
LOUISA:And what warm breezes! Where do they come from?
BECKFORD:It is to be inclement weather so they say. For us, no worry. For while the world outside is dark and howling, the very air of summer will play about us!
COURTENAY:But how? It does feel like the breath of summer.
BECKFORD:(FEELING THAT WILLIAM HAS GOT A BIT PROSAIC) Do not seek to know. Just let's wander through it all - yes, why not? - hand in hand!
COURTENAY:(JUST A LITTLE 'KNOWING') Why not?
BECKFORD:And let me show the remarkable acoustics of this chamber with a verse I wrote myself;
LOUISA:Verse! You write poetry as well!
BECKFORD:Like the low murmer of the secret stream
That through the alders winds its shaded way
My suppliant voice is heard -
O do not deem
That on vain toys I throw my hours away.
(AN EXOTIC, ECHOEY MUSIC)
COURTENAY:What's the music?
BECKFORD:Oh, strains of music - "No one knows whence."
COURTENAY:You must do.
BECKFORD:(ROGUISHLY) Not at all.
COZENS:Certainly no one could divine from whence on earth - or anywhere damnably else - it comes.
COURTENAY:Yes, but who's doing it?
BECKFORD:Would not those melting tones bring even those least beloved, least susceptible, into tears?
COURTENAY:Yes. (SEDUCTIVELY, BUT ALSO CAMPING IT UP JUST A LITTLE) How true!
LOUISA:(FEELING A BIT LEFT OUT) How true.
BECKFORD:(A LITTLE BREATHLESS BUT PULLING HIMSELF TOGETHER, TRYING TO CONTROL HIS ATTRACTION TO COURTENAY) Delightful, these romantic wanderings, the straying about this little interior world in all the freshness of our early bloom, so fitted to enjoy it.
COURTENAY:(ALSO A LITTLE BREATHLESS) Through the vapours I'm catching sight of distant walls and ceilings, all very fairly painted, cost a few pence, I'll wager. Fine classical attitudes - from the antique I suppose.
BECKFORD:Yes. And due to these vapours I fancy it may be impossible for any person to define exactly where he may be standing, so perplexing is the confusion of so many stories and galleries and - sensations.
COZENS:Yes. Well, at this point it strikes me I have a notion to invite young Louisa here to wander on, wander forward a little, to make a more exact appraisal of certain points concerning the winds and vapours etcetera, leaving you two alone.
BECKFORD:Only if you so desire.
COURTENAY:(OVERLAY) Thank you!
(SWELL 'ETHEREAL' MUSIC AND THEN TAKE DOWN)
COURTENAY:(RATHER BREATHLESS) The vapours are thicker now.
BECKFORD:(BREATHLESS) And we are to be surrounded by nothing but lovely beings. Soon another old tutor, Henley, arrives with a band of -
COURTENAY:What, schoolmasters and clergy?
BECKFORD:No, a handful of fresh picked young lads from among his pupils.
BECKFORD:School hasn't changed you!?
COURTENAY:Do you think so?
(SWELL MUSIC: AND A TRANSITION TO SOMETHING MORE ECSTATIC, SUGGESTING SENSUAL DELIRIUM: BOYS CHOIR SINGING IN SPEM ALIUM)
(CROSSFADE MUSIC INTO DINING ROOM AFTER-DINNER WINE-DRINKING WITH OTHER FRIENDS IN THE BACKGROUND. PERHAPS SOME DIFFERENT EXOTIC MUSIC PLAYED BY THE HIRED MUSICIANS. ALL ARE A LITTLE TIPSY)
COZENS:So great an ability for so many different types of endeavour, eh, Louisa?
LOUISA:Yes. It seems you have the power to win anything you seek, William Beckford!
COZENS:(A TRIFLE IRONIC PERHAPS) Surely now after all this it must be agreed that you may be, must be destined for great position in the affairs of this Nation. Just like your father.
BECKFORD:True. (MODESTLY) True, the blood of the Hamiltons flows in my veins. And there are many kings in my lineage.
LOUISA:Not maybe but surely. The blood of the Hamiltons, the wealth of a limitless fortune. Surely you will go into politics?
BECKFORD:(AFTER A BRIEF PAUSE) Boring.
OTHERS:(SYCOPHANTIC CHEERS AND HANDCLAP FROM ONE OR TWO)
BECKFORD:No, Louisa. What good could such as I do amid the squalid gloom of parliament?
COZENS:You don't care to tread in your father's footsteps?
BECKFORD:No. I'm not my father. No, let me be happy and flutter in the light a few years longer. Scamper on verdant banks. All too ready, alas, to crumble but rainbow tinted and flower strewn. Age will soon draw on for all of us. Then can we mumble and mutter and growl and snarl and bite and be political!
OTHERS:(LAUGH AND APPLAUD)
BECKFORD:No, I see my place in the world as something greater than any earthly ambition.
BECKFORD:I dream of Sultans and Caliphs! The fantastic powers of Oriental despots!
(THE CHATTER HAS GONE QUIET)
COZENS:Good heavens! And how do you plan to get them?
BECKFORD:Magic! I will rule the multitudes through magic! And there are those here who will help me!
COZENS:Don't count on me.
LOUISA:Are you asking me?
BECKFORD:You know that I have studied something of Oriental crafts while abroad, and have read books on the secret arts! I shall teach you, Louisa.
COURTENAY:And what about me?
COZENS:Something tells me you'll have some willing pupils.
(SWELL MUSIC. THEN, AS IT SINKS, COMES A DRAB, RATHER 'MORNING AFTER' FEELING)
BECKFORD:(SIGHS) Our experiments seem less effective, now Kitty's back to school.
BECKFORD:And why have the servants allowed the warm air currents to expire? They're worked by gigantic bellows, you know. Very exhausting to operate. Perhaps they're changing shifts. I'll have to enquire.
LOUISA:We still have ourselves.
BECKFORD:That's true, Louisa.
LOUISA:And I'm distraut I can provide no further little victim to sacrifice on your altar. I wish to God my eldest was old enough.
BECKFORD:Ah. How old is he?
LOUISA:Young as yet. But he grows every day more and more lovely. In time I'm sure he'll answer our purpose to perfection!
BECKFORD:Wonderful! But meanwhile ...
(SWELL MUSIC: PERHAPS HERE A TRANSITION TO OUR SENSUAL DELIRIUM THEME)
LOUISA:(EXULTANTLY, AWARE THAT HER MOMENT HAS COME) Let us not sink into the dark abyss without having experienced all the pleasures to the utmost - both innocent and otherwise. I am ripe for any mischievous undertaking you suggest, my lovely prompter! Point out any who will be your victims! It shall be my care to lure them into your snares and you shall find them at your wish - panting on your altars!
BECKFORD:(ALSO ECSTATIC) Louisa!
LOUISA:And your apartments adorned with the youthful sacrifice may in the ultimate be sanctified by his presence!
LOUISA:Yes, in the mystic shape of a goat he will receive in person our adorations!
BECKFORD:(NOW IN A STATE OF DELIRIUM) Louisa!
The Rest in Synopsis Form
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now is Louisa's chance. Beckford is in Switzerland, she in the South of France. 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. She implores him to come to see her. Louisa 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Beckford goes to warn the new owner, who says he reckons it will last his time.
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.
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?'
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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