Towards the end of The Ruin of the Rogue, Marcus and Anne visit Fonthill Abbey. I had a plot reason for this: Anne needed to consult a certain book in a library and in 1800 that meant going to a great house. But I’ll admit that I was dying to include Fonthill Abbey in a book. Its proximity was one reason I located Hinton Manor, Marcus’s estate, in Wiltshire.
In the book, they join the party at Fonthill when Lord Nelson and his beloved Emma, Lady Hamilton were visiting William Beckford, the builder and owner of the Abbey. Nelson and the Hamiltons really did spend Christmas of 1800 at Fonthill. Emma’s husband, Sir William Hamilton, was related to Beckford. Both men were noted collectors of art and antiquities, though Beckford was by far the wealthier.Beckford was shunned by many in polite society for a suspected homosexual affair. He lived abroad for a while (where he met Marcus!), wrote a famous Gothic/Oriental novel called Vathek, and returned to England to spend a fortune on building the one of the biggest private houses in the world, inspired by medieval cathedrals and abbeys. Driven by Beckford’s impatience, the architect cut corners and the soaring spire in the center of the Abbey collapsed, a few years after Nelson’s visit. Undismayed, Beckford had it rebuilt on an even grander scale.
The Nelson visit, which took place before the Abbey was finished and while Beckford was still living in his father’s Palladian mansion a few miles away, was the only big entertainment ever held at Fonthill. Beckford lived there virtually a recluse. A twelve foot high wall was constructed about the boundary of the park, adding to his legend. He claimed it was to keep out the hunt. “I consider we have no right to murder animals for sport,” he once said. “I am fond of animals. The birds in the plantations of Fonthill seemed to know me. They continued their songs as I rode close to them. The very hares grew bold.”
Eventually Beckford’s extravagance caught up with him and financial reverses forced him to sell. But the construction had been shoddy. The unfortunate new owner enjoyed it for only a few years before it collapsed again. Only one small tower still remains of this incredible structure, one of the greatest follies in the history of architecture.
What famous building would you like to see used in a book? What kind of scene would suit it?