The Last Days of Pompeii 
by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton.
Sidgwick, 522 pp., £6.95, December 1979, 0 283 98587 9
Show More
Show More

The recent Pompeii exhibition has been a success in America; and this is why we are offered a handsome new edition of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, based upon one produced at the Officina Bodoni in Verona for the Limited Editions Club. Sixteen reproductions of Pompeian paintings from the catalogue of the exhibition illustrate the book; there are also some somewhat drab woodcuts by Kurt Craemer. There is a lively introduction by Edgar Johnson.

Bulwer’s book first appeared in 1834, when the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum were the object of great interest in this country. The discovery of the buried cities was by no means new. Interesting things had been found there as early as 1607, and sporadic digging had taken place from 1689. But it was not till 1734, when Charles III of Naples became interested in the sites, that anything like serious investigation was begun, under the direction of an engineer from Spain, Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubierre. Alcubierre was interested only in treasure-hunting; eager only to find statues to decorate the royal gardens, he threw away as rubbish inscriptions splendidly incised on bronze.

From 1737 the Philosophical Transactions informed the British public about the discoveries; in 1748 the Nouvelles littéraires of the Abbé Raynal made them known in Paris. In 1758 the Chevalier de Jaucourt contributed to the Encyclopédie an enthusiastic article about Herculaneum and a short notice about Pompeii. Between 1757 and 1792 appeared a series of handsome volumes of the Antichita di Ercolano. But the encyclopedists in general showed little interest in the discoveries. The contempt for history of the French intellectuals of the time is often exaggerated; we cannot reproach Voltaire or Montesquieu with being unhistorical. But though they had regard for ‘antiquity’, they had none for ‘antiquities’, which they despised. Montesquieu remarked that all antiquaries were charlatans, and Voltaire in all his voluminous writings makes no mention of the buried cities. Diderot made fun of the learned Comte de Caylus:

Ci-gît un antiquaire acariâtre et brusque.
Ah! qu’il est bien logé dans cette cruche étrusque!

But if literary men were indifferent, artists were not. The baroque and the rococo were losing favour, and the cult of noble simplicity and classical austerity was spreading. The first really informed guidance to the understanding of Pompeian art came during the Sixties from Winckelmann, the first scholar to distinguish the different styles of ancient art to whose writings artists paid attention. After Vien, the representative artists of the new movement were Mengs and David; it was not from literature but from art that André Chénier learned the importance of the buried cities. His work was affected by this knowledge; so was the Anacharsis of the Abbé Barthélemy, published in 1788. Even women’s fashions showed the influence of Pompeian art. Despite the distractions of the great wars, work at the buried cities continued; during Murat’s brief reign in Naples, his wife Caroline, Napoleon’s sister, did all she could to encourage excavation.

In England, too, Classicism came into fashion: this was the age of Stuart and Revett’s journeys, the folios of the Society of Dilettanti and Wood’s essay on the original genius of Homer. During the Seventies, Sir William Hamilton, who had personally taken part in the excavations, did much to make the new discoveries known. After England’s isolation from the Continent was ended by Napoleon’s defeat, interest in the buried cities heightened. Two very different poets, Shelley and the banker Samuel Rogers, were inspired by the dramatic nature of the catastrophe that had overwhelmed them. In 1817 and 1819, the dilettante archaeologist Sir William Gell published the two handsome volumes of his Pompeiana. He guided round the sites Sir Walter Scott, then nearing the end of his life. Like Shelley, Scott was less moved by the remains than by the thought of the destruction of the cities, and repeatedly exclaimed: ‘The City of the Dead!’

Meanwhile, excavation continued to be desultory and unsystematic. A few people like Chateaubriand realised how much the sites could teach us about ancient life, particularly if the objects found there were not at once carted off to the museum; but it was not until Italy had been united under the Piedmontese dynasty that the work took on a modern and scientific aspect. By great good fortune, Giuseppe Fiorelli, already known as a numismatist, became secretary to the brother of Victor Emmanuel II and so made the acquaintance of the King, who put him in charge of the excavations. This excellent appointment was the beginning of a new era. Systematic study and excavation have continued ever since then, revealing vast quantities of information about ancient life and art; and within the last few years, a buried city, Opluntis, has been discovered. Literary scholars look on this find with somewhat mixed feelings. They would like to persuade the archaeologists to cut down through the solid lava – harder, unfortunately, than rock – in the hope of finding libraries that might contain the lost masterpieces of ancient literature. In the 18th century the excavators fetched up from tunnels papyri that proved to contain valuable texts relating to the Epicurean philosophy; another such library might possess Archilochus, or Ennius, or lost tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Many of the papyrus rolls discovered long ago are carbonised, so that they have not been opened; scholars are working at a new technique for dealing with them.

Late in 1833, Gell guided round the sites the rich, well-born novelist and politician Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, with his termagant of an Irish wife. The spoiled child of a doting mother, Bulwer – he added his mother’s maiden name of Lytton to his own – had had a desultory education, part of it at Cambridge, had experienced a romantic tragedy and also a brief affair with Lady Caroline Lamb; and at 29 had already published several novels. The idea of writing about Pompeii had been suggested to him by a picture he had seen in the Brera at Milan. Till now the picture’s identity has remained unknown, but my colleague Robert Dingley, to whose learning this review is much indebted, has identified it as one by the Russian artist Karl Brullov; it shows, in the sentimental fashion of the time, a series of pathetic incidents during the destruction of Pompeii. A year later, Bulwer published The Last Days of Pompeii, which was to prove the most successful of his many works. Critics as various as Isaac D’Israeli, Felicia Hemans and Lady Blessington wrote to congratulate the author; their high opinion of the work was shared by the British public; and even in recent times the book has not been forgotten.

At that time the craze for historical novels was at its height: in his Parisian garret Lucien de Rubempré was working on L’Archer de Charles X, the work that was to make his fortune. Lukacs, in his study of the historical novel, argues that the best specimens were written while Hegelian ideas permeated the atmosphere. These not only depicted with real truthfulness the whole culture to which their characters belonged, but showed those characters as thinking in the fashion peculiar to their place and time. This is far harder for a novelist to achieve if he has chosen to write about the ancient world. Ancient literature is seldom colloquial and still less often confessional; the materials for writing a novel that tried to give the ‘stream of consciousness’ of characters in the ancient world do not exist. The only historical novel about the ancient world that I have found at all convincing is Salammbô; and Flaubert was wise to locate it not in Greece or Rome, of which we know a good deal, but in Carthage, of which we know little and possess no literature. Flaubert took immense trouble to get the externals right: an Italian scholar later systematically checked the details and established the novelist’s accuracy beyond question. Yet the psychology even of Salammbô does not convince: when Sainte-Beuve pointed out the resemblance between Salammbô herself and Madame Bovary, Flaubert hardly managed to refute him.

But it is absurd to mention Flaubert in connection with the novel we are now discussing. Bulwer certainly took trouble about the details of daily life. Parts of his book remind me of the German professor, A.W. Becker, who published two books designed to illustrate the daily life of Greeks and Romans respectively in fairly full detail. He gave these works the form of novels, depicting short periods in the lives of a young Greek, Charicles, and a young Roman, Gallus, after whom the books are named; they were successful in Victorian England, in the translation of the Rev. Frederick Metcalfe. Since Becker’s aims were scholarly rather than literary, it is not fair to judge him by literary standards: but I prefer his writing to that of Bulwer in the sections of his book that venture upon Becker’s territory. Wishing to give a description of a Pompeian house that shall be ‘as clear and unpedantic as possible’, Bulwer gives us six pages about the vestibulum, the atrium, the impluvium, the tablinum, the triclinium; at the rich merchant’s banquet ‘the seats were veneered with tortoise-shell, and covered with quilts stuffed with feathers,’ and ‘the slaves showered flowers upon the couches and the floor, and covered each guest with rosy garlands, intricately woven with ribands, tied by the rind of the linden-tree, and each intermingled with the ivy and the amethyst – supposed preventives against the effect of wine.’ There is a good deal more of this.

The various episodes contain reminiscences of Petronius, Juvenal, Plautus and other writers; but neither the dialogue nor the behaviour of the characters suggests a Roman atmosphere. The characters frequently exclaim ‘Tush’ or ‘Fie’; they often swear by Pollux or by Hercules; and their speeches are sometimes interlarded with the kind of Latin phrases one remembers from the fifth form: but in general they speak the ordinary language of Victorian romantic prose, with a thick patina of archaism. ‘What!’ exclaims the villain, ‘thinkest thou Arbaces will brook such a rival as this puny Greek?’ Even worse than Bulwer’s prose are the many poems inserted in the text; the verse is sub-Shelleyan, with some influence from Thomas Moore.

When the element which Bulwer has in common with Becker is abstracted, we are left with a romantic novelette of melodramatic character, spiced with a particularly mawkish kind of Evangelical Christianity. A rich young Greek, Glaucus, ‘an Alcibiades without ambition’, falls for a Greek lady called lone, in comparison with whom the dreariest of Scott’s young heroines seems a ball of fire. Glaucus’s rival for her affections is the Egyptian Arbaces, the Aleister Crowley of his time, who claims descent from Rameses, dabbles in magic, and while exploiting the charlatanism of the cult of Isis really respects no gods but Nature and Necessity. Ione’s wet brother Apaecides falls under the Egyptian’s influence and becomes a priest of Isis, but then breaks away and becomes a Christian. Arbaces murders him, and cunningly makes use of the hopeless passion for Glaucus of the blind flower-seller Nydia (who bears a marked resemblance to Little Nell) to get the innocent Glaucus convicted of the murder and condemned to be eaten by a lion in the amphitheatre. Like that of Androcles in the story which Shaw took from Pliny, this lion turns out to be an amiable puss; then Glaucus is saved by the eruption of Vesuvius, in which Arbaces perishes, crushed by the falling statue of the Roman Emperor. The cruel and greedy loungers of Pompeii perish, but Glaucus and Ione escape, redeemed by their conversion to the faith of the Nazarenes; poor Nydia, however, slips away and drowns herself.

Macaulay as an undergraduate at Trinity, won the Chancellor’s Medal with a poem on Pompeii, and when his father complained that the poem lacked a moral, replied that the subject seemed not to offer one. Lytton found a moral where Macaulay, despite the background of the Clapham Sect, had failed: the success of the book doubtless owed much to its religious element. In fact, Pompeii was by no means a mere playground for the idle rich, as modern excavations have shown. Mr Johnson in his introduction feels obliged to say what he can in favour of the book: but it is an uphill task. He admits that it is full of undigested information, and that the dialogue is ‘often clumsy and unconvincing’: for ‘often’ I would say ‘always’. But he thinks the book ‘triumphs over all its deficiencies’, because the applause it earned for its ‘truth to history and its vividness’ is well deserved: Bulwer has ‘distilled a real vitality of understanding’ from Plautus, Terence, Horace, Catullus, Ovid, Petronius and Juvenal. Let anyone who thinks that read three pages of Petronius and then turn to Bulwer: it will be like starting a meal in the Tour d’Argent and finishing it at London Airport. The descriptions of life in Pompeii, Mr Johnson finds, ‘are handled not only with accuracy, but with brilliance and dash’; ‘it is, indeed,’ he thinks, ‘one of the great reconstructions of the past.’ The characters are ‘clearly and sharply drawn’, and most of them – though not even Mr Johnson can take lone – are ‘portrayed with a swift and unfaltering hand’. Mr Johnson praises the ‘tautly mounting suspense’ achieved by occasional mentions of a dark cloud hovering over Vesuvius: certainly we know the eruption will start just in time to save the hero. He finds that Bulwer’s aspiration to have achieved ‘a just representation of the human passions and the human heart’ has been fulfilled. I prefer the products of Bulwer’s spiritual descendant. Cecil B. De Mille, which are less boring and a good deal less pretentious. Landor, in a poem written when the book was new, did it perfect justice:

If aught so damping and so dull were
As these Last Days of Dandy Bulwer,
And had been cast upon the pluvious
Rockets that issued from Vesuvius,
They would no more have reached Pompeii,
Than Rome, or Tusculum, or Veii.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences