Beckford’s Tower: Holiday in a Writer’s Retreat

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Austen's England & The Open Palace Programme

The Book

Purchase Vathek on AmazonVathek by William Beckford

Genre: Classics, Fiction, Gothic

Summary: A man makes a deal with the devil for infinite knowledge.

*I haven’t read this yet.

Location: Bath, England

Purchase on Amazon (*affiliate link)


The Experience

While some reclusive writers favor retreats hidden away (say in the woods by a pond- Thoreau style), William Beckford instead built a tall tower everyone could see, with no inclination of inviting anyone inside- except those who he felt would “ooohh and ahhhh” over his collections. This tower was built to house his collections which included his vast library, and his own personal reading nook. Every day he would walk a mile from his house to view his treasures and then climb the pink marble spiral staircase with book in hand to the top of his tower where he would look out over the fields surrounding him… and write in the margins of his books! According to our guide, Dr. Amy Frost of the Bath Curatorial Staff, we know Beckford read all approximately 10,000 novels in his library because he annotated the pages in each one! The propensity for this crime against books was just one of many oddities of this writer whose tower you can holiday in today.

William Beckford was a privileged Englishman of the 1800s with inherited wealth who became the reclusive author of a classic French novel that has never been out of print. Having lost his father at age nine, and inherited his wealth, Beckford came of age like many young British men by taking a Grand Tour of Europe. Beckford, however, wasn’t like other men. It seems from this point on, his life was filled with high drama. The story goes that upon returning from the Grand Tour he threw a wild and lavish birthday party for himself and then in what we can only assume was a drunken stupor, he locked himself in his room for three nights and three days during which he neither slept nor ate. Instead he wrote, and the result was the classic French novel Vathek, about a man who makes a deal with the devil for infinite knowledge.

Beckford's Tower Interior Door
The door from the tower reading nook to the tower’s very top.

Unfortunately, during his lifetime, being the British author of a French classic was not what he became known for. Having married, it was quite a shock to society when he was caught having an affair…with a man! The bisexual author, in order to further avoid the growing scandal, exiled himself and his wife from Britain. Ten years later, Beckford’s wife had passed away and he returned once more to England, this time alone. Having amassed a good sum of money through the slave trade, he commissioned a huge abbey be built. Beckford was the kind of go-big or go-down trying it seems. The building of Fonthill Abbey threw him into debt and he was forced to sell off everything. Today only one wing of Fonthill Abbey remains and items from Beckford’s collection can be found all over the world.

Dejected, and frustrated with the world, Beckford moved to Bath. This was about the same time Jane Austen’s family resided in Bath. The city was in decline, hardly glamorous, and not wanting to mix with society anyway, Beckford built his home and tower on the outskirts of town. He had the tower built in such a way that it looked like part of the landscape, so that his view from his house might look like the Italian landscape paintings he had seen during his Grand Tour. And he built his tower so that he couldn’t see Bath from his high reading nook. It is perhaps understandable why at this point Beckford wanted his personal retreat to rise above and separate himself from society.

Beckford's Tower Reading Stool
There is just space for one chair by the windows on the reading nook landing of Beckford’s Tower.

Beckford would be disappointed in the view today, as Bath has grown in the intervening years,  however I still found the view pleasing. From the top platform in the tower I could see the rooftops of the outskirts of Bath miles away. Inside the tower there was just room enough for the one stool in the corner. At its feet several books lay strewn about the floor, which I assume weekenders have left for later guests. I noticed the title of one book shoved haphazardly next to the wall, The Boy in the Tower. How appropriate, I thought.

Beckford Tower View
View of the outskirts of Bath from the window of Beckford’s Tower’s reading nook.

Plan Your Visit

If you’re looking for a quiet retreat with a reading nook above the rooftops, The Landmark Trust makes the lower rooms of Beckford’s Tower available for weekend rentals.

Read more about the preservation of Beckford’s Tower in this post.

Let’s Talk!

What is your ideal reading nook like? Do you prefer to be hidden away? Or would you rather have a bird’s-eye view? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Series Navigation<< Preservation of a Bibliophile’s RetreatBrighton, Sanditon, and Why You Should Never Humiliate Jane Austen >>

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