“Charming Princesses, everything is ready; we have prepared beds for your repose, and strewed your apartments with jasmine; no insects will keep off slumber from visiting your eyelids, we will dispel them with a thousand plumes; come then, amiable ladies! refresh your delicate feet and your ivory limbs in baths of rose water; and, by the light of perfumed lamps your servants will amuse you with tales.” (Vathek, 1887)
The gothic genre relishes these Oriental tales. The influence of the Arabian Nights being indiscutable, there are native English precursors to the usage of Oriental elements in gothic. On the one hand, the great, and well-known, authors of gothic all used Oriental elements at some point – Maturin takes us to India and Parsons accompanies us to the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, Beckford’s Vathek stands as a very particular representative of the gothic movement in that it is entirely, exclusively, Oriental and that special flavour is felt not only in the content but also in the language itself. But Beckford’s text did not exist alone, nor was it the first of its kind.
John Hawkesworth published a work in two volumes entitled Almoran and Hamet. The author was purportedly a self-taught writer and an admirer (and imitator) of Johnson. The popularity of his book is astounding in the sense that in the absence of criticism, it survived and reappeared in print regularly in the company of early 18th-century novels. It was sometimes republished along with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It was “embellished” with illustrations and further distributed in a single volume. One of the earliest surviving editions is dated 1761 and this is a reprint of a previous version. Taking place in Persia, the story involves Arabian princes and a Circassian beauty. The setting and architecture are very similar to the one in Vathek – Oriental palaces, vaults and latticed windows, perfumes, gardens and riches immeasurable. Within, the rulers pace with ennui and dissatisfaction.
(on the left, Hamet is depicted running into the garden to see a burning tower and Abdallah mourning his daughter who, he thinks, is dead…)
The story starts with the traditional twofold gothic scenario where two brothers (one good and one bad) contest both the throne and the heart of a virgin. After the death of their father, they are under the obligation to rule together. This arrangement pleases neither and they engage in long discussions about ruling and ruled. The whole work being dedicated to the King (possibly George III), the political dimension of this complex metaphor is indiscutable. Furthermore, the two princes are under the constant surveillance of Omar, their teacher and old counsellor of their late father. One cannot fail to notice the parallel with the ca. 1749 Richard Wilson painting of the two princes (George and Edward) and their tutor.
Under this politically charged plot, the subplot of a love story is developped. Abdallah’s daughter is a Circassian beauty. She remains sheltered in a tower and is completely covered in veils until, one day, fate throws her (literally) in the arms of the good brother. A fire destroys her tower and she has to jump into the garden below. Luckily, Hamet catches Almeida and takes her to his room, away from the servants and everyone else. The following scene is a good example of what those interested in 18th-century literary eroticism can find in this book:
“She was covered only with the light and loose robe in which she slept, and her veil had dropped off by the way. The moment he entered his closet, the light discovered to him such beauty as before he had never seen: she now began to revive; and before her senses returned, she pressed the prince with an involuntary embrace, which he returned by straining her closer to his breast, in a tumult of delight, confusion, and anxiety, which he could scarce sustain.”
The supernatural and spiritual elements of the work are developed with the appearance of a beautiful and omnipotent spirit who tempts Almoran into usurping the throne for himself and then into stealing Almeida from Almoran. This happens during their marriage ceremony and is full of dramatic, theatrical effects of lightning, smoke and deep voices coming from the underground. Almoran tries to obtain power and riches. He also keeps Almeida locked up and repeatedly tries to force himself onto her. Almoran keeps asking the spirit for help until it actually goes on to change his bodily appearance so that Almeida mistakes him for her beloved.
(on the left, Almoran is tempted by the evil spirit)
By the end, evil is punished. Almoran transforms into a stone statue and the rest of the cast live happily ever after.
Hawkesworth’s book contains a vast number of elements found in gothic – from sibling rivalry escalating to a wide-spectrum political conflict to the supernatural apparition, the burning tower, the gloomy dungeon, the subterranean avenues, and innocents held in captivity. No religion is specifically mentioned but Islam is alluded to in a manner that is generally positive. What is more, the work contains debates that we can find in the novels and romances published towards the end of the 18th century – the idea of marrying for love and choosing one’s partner (for the domestic sphere) and the developing notion that a ruler must be chosen by the people (for the public sphere). The twofold nature of the work (the two simultaneously developing plots, the confrontation between tyranny and democracy on the political level, and between virtue and wickedness on the spiritual level) is what creates the impression of reading a gothic novel before its time.