Why did Susan Sontag write this book? Essayist and cultural critic, interpreter of Aids, cancer, the cinema, Fascism and pornography, recipient of Jonathan Miller’s burdensome accolade ‘probably the most intelligent woman in America’, why should she want to attempt a historical novel? It’s been a success of course. There have been the entries into the bestseller lists, the interviews and profiles in the right magazines, the respectful and often rapturous reviews. Only the occasional still small voice has risked pointing out – what is almost certainly true – that the bulk of those who have purchased this book have wanted the latest high-cultural artefact for their glass-topped tables, not ideas or literature. It is easy to read. It is even entertaining. But why did she write it?
It concerns, apparently, one of the two best-known British ménages à trois of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: the relationship between the Ambassador to Naples, Sir William Hamilton, the one-time prostitute who became his mistress and eventual second wife, Emma Lyon, and the naval hero and victim of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson. The other famous trio of this time, William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire, his wife Georgiana and Lady Elizabeth Foster, concealed their goings-on and their miscellaneous progeny in the grand seclusion of Chatsworth and Devonshire House. Less socially-exalted, the Hamiltons and Nelson were at once more notorious and far more vulnerable.
All three were outsiders of a kind. Hamilton was only the fourth son of a Scottish nobleman, and his posting at the Court of the repulsive King Ferdinand of Naples and his clever, fecund Queen, Maria Carolina, placed him very much in the outer circle of British diplomacy. Emma was a blacksmith’s daughter who never lost her Lancashire accent. She went to London, as so many did, and saved herself from the streets by intelligence, beauty, a capacity to attract successive wealthy protectors, and a willingness to discard her love-children, both an early mistake and – perhaps – one of a set of twins she had by Nelson. And the sailor-hero, what of him? Again, he was a marginal figure, the son of a minor Norfolk clergyman, with relations who were shopkeepers, as well as a few with noble blood and lofty positions in the state. All three had to work hard at inventing themselves anew when ambition and accident brought them to prominence; all three – as Sontag seldom fails to point out – were capable of vulgarity, all three were ardent collectors, of objects, people, victories, medals, praise, anything that might increase their value in the eyes of others.
Just what the business of collecting means is a subject that Sontag has discussed before, and her frequent discursions on it in this book are sharp and predictably intelligent. Sir William Hamilton, the Cavaliere as he is called here, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a bibliophile, a connoisseur of ruins, and a dealer in paintings and Greek vases (including the recently-mended Portland Vase). He was also volcano-mad, one version of the volcano lover of Sontag’s title. For him, she suggests, collecting art objects, like the bits and view of Vesuvius he risked his life for, were defences against official neglect, local squalor, the limits of his first wife, an ‘amiable, not-too-plain, harpsichord-playing heiress’, and his own essential emptiness of involvement: ‘The Cavaliere was not looking. He was looking away.’ Then, with bereavement, came his chance to emulate Pygmalion, and collect something new. His nephew, Charles Greville, handed over his luscious and unaware mistress, Emma, on the tacit agreement that Hamilton would not re-marry and cut him out of his will.
Greville and an earlier protector had already pruned Emma of some of her original rusticity, teaching her how to pour tea and how to ride a horse. Now, Hamilton added Italian, French, singing, art appreciation, even a sprinkling of the Classics. And he had her perform her famous ‘attitudes’. First in a specially constructed frame; then with the addition of some diaphanous shawls, she learnt how to freeze herself into different Classical postures. She was Dido, or Ariadne, or Medea, or any other heroine from Hamilton’s books and vases, not just Pygmalion’s statue come to life, but a creature who could revert to a tasteful immobility whenever it pleased her keeper and his guests. Just what Emma herself thought of all this is a question that has perplexed her recent biographers. Used to monitoring and catering to the whims of men as the only way to survive, she was rarely self-reflective on paper, so we can only guess what went on in her mind. Sontag presents her as a woman of enthusiastic plasticity, torn from her roots and avidly collecting love and the lifestyles of her lovers as a means of giving herself shape and purpose. The only rebellions that Emma permitted herself, in this version, were alcoholism, extravagance, and putting on weight.
Yet I suspect that in reality she was a much harder woman than this, if no less masochistic. She succeeded, after all, in getting Hamilton to marry her in 1791, when he was 60 and she 26 years old. Seven years later, she demoted him to a kindly-treated cuckold. And she took Nelson away from his wife, Fanny, apparently without any qualms at all. ‘Mrs Tom Tit’ was Emma’s name for her pleasant, bird-like rival. Though there could be no real rivalry ... Nelson had lost his mother when he was nine, an arm, an eye, most of his teeth, and much of his health subsequently. He was an indisputable, incandescent and frequently immature hero who was desperate to collect battle honours, gongs, promotions, influential friends, approval and love. In 1798, the Hamiltons welcomed him to Naples after the splendours and hardships of the Battle of the Nile. And soon Emma had adopted another attitude, playing Cleopatra to his Antony, Dido to his Aeneas, a by now rather pneumatic enchantress distracting the warrior from his duty. ‘My Lord Thunder’, she called him, with just a touch of mockery. The lava in Mount Etna, he wrote, was no warmer than his passion. So Nelson, too, is the volcano lover of the title.
Sontag claims that her characters are the doubles of the ‘real’ historical figures, fictional creations ‘on whose behalf I have taken what liberties’ seemed appropriate to their natures. Yet she follows recent biographies of Nelson and Emma Hamilton very closely indeed, and only lets her imagination flow in the slightly embarrassing sex-scenes, and in her acute characterisation of Hamilton himself about whom rather less is known. In general, though, Sontag does her homework thoroughly: and this may well point to one very basic reason why she has selected the apparently bizarre literary form of a historical novel. As Balzac put it, characters in ordinary novels have to be roused to life by their inventors. But historical characters have already lived, and are consequently easier to flesh out in words. Sontag has turned to the historical novel because she needs this crutch, because she is not – despite all of her enormous gifts, and perhaps because of them – a natural novelist. She cannot write dialogue. Her powers of storytelling are limited. Her characters soliloquise in Sontag’s own voice.
This indeed is primarily why one should read The Volcano Lover, not for its rehearsal of an already well-documented relationship between two men and a woman, but for the snippets it contains of Sontag herself. There are the brilliant plays on words, which only occasionally go wrong (‘The sleep of reason engenders mothers’). There are the acid comments on human relationships and deceptions, the predictable division of roles among couples, the weight of male egos and the extent of female compliance in them: ‘Talking with him,’ Hamilton’s first wife muses sadly, ‘was like talking with someone on a horse.’ Most of all, there are the signposts to the state of Sontag’s mind and politics.
Historical novels tend to get written by those in search of an escape from the pressures of the present, or by those who want to use a version of the past to comment on the present. Initially, Sontag seems an escapist. The novel opens with a shudder at contemporary popular consumerism, a New York street market cluttered with ‘Navajo rugs ... World War II bomber jackets ... model cars’, then jumps back to Sir William’s rather more austere bargaining in Classical knick-knacks in the London of 1772. When the story reaches Naples, there is the same revulsion at modern squalor. An unlikely fortune-teller imagines a future Mount Etna covered in souvenir shops ‘scarves or plates with pictures of the mountain ... The future is a hole.’ Whatever the devastation of the French Revolutionary era, we are told, ‘people then did not know what ruin could be!’ Sontag leaves us in no doubt of her distaste for much of the present, and in particular of her revulsion at its masses.
On the other hand, she dislikes most of her quasi-historical characters almost as much. She is skilful at introducing each member of the famous trio to us in turn in a sympathetic light, then, after a while, exposing ruthlessly their various failings and cruelties. Hamilton dwindles from his first appearance as a reserved and rational scholar-diplomat and kind if distant husband into a selfish dilettante who refuses to feel. Emma, by contrast, is at the beginning the woman of feeling who clambers gamely over every social obstacle. By the end of the book, though, she seems an empty space, awash with sentiment, but with few scruples. As for Nelson, Sontag barely troubles to conceal her contempt. Of course he is a hero and desperately courageous. But, then, the 1790s were a time for ‘concentrated men of preposterous ambition and small stature’.
Sontag could scarcely have come to any other conclusion since events at Naples and off its shores between I798 and 1800 formed indisputably the nadir of Nelson’s career. The old, unreconstructed history books attributed his actions at this time to the malign influence of his seductress Emma Hamilton: newer accounts refer to the effects of his recent concussion at the Battle of the Nile, combined with intermittent malaria, plus the shock of unprecedented sexual bliss. Either way, the record is black. Nelson first helped the King and Queen of Naples to escape from local republicans. He then used the might of his fleet to blockade the short-lived Neapolitan Republic, and presided distantly but effectively over the show-trials and summary executions of its leaders and supporters. ‘Eternal shame on the hero!’ declares Sontag, and labels him the Bourbon executioner, an instrument of British imperialism.
One suspects that few aficionados of either naval or imperial history will be much drawn to this book, but the record should still be set straight. The British establishment, in fact, disapproved mightily of Nelson’s antics off Naples, not so much because of the inhumanity, as because naval officers were not expected to involve themselves in the politics of foreign states. As for Nelson, he seems to have acted as he did because he was ill, because – like Emma – he had a parvenu’s romantic attachment to monarchy, and because he believed that a Neapolitan republic organised on the new French principles of government might give Napoleon control of the Mediterranean. Moreover, the Italians were not just foreign, they were Papist to boot, the lot of them not worth the life of a single British seaman, as one of his crew remarked. But, in truth, it is not Nelson’s motives that interest Sontag, but his victims, and in particular a woman called Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel.
She was Portuguese by birth, an intellectual prodigy who wrote poetry, plays, economic treatises and mathematical equations. Separated from her husband, she lived on the bounty of the Neapolitan Court, a fashionable representative of its local Enlightenment. Then came the French Revolution and her conversion to republicanism. During the five brief months in which a new regime was able to cling to power in Naples, she presided over its principal newspaper, arguing for liberty, toleration, reform, and an end to the old superstitions. She, too, loved the volcano, and like so many others, was hanged for her pains, one executioner pulling at her feet, another cavorting on her shoulders. Sontag makes her the subject of her entire last chapter, and has claimed that writing it made her weep.
It is not, in fact, all that good or moving a chapter, but it does serve to confirm that Sontag wrote this book partly as an exercise in autobiography, and partly to vindicate certain ideas about what is important now. Hers is a historical novel slanted to the conflicts of the present, far more than it is nostalgic about the past. In particular, it is an argument for élitism. At one level, she demands that we defer to genius, even if it takes the form of Nelson’s genius for killing the enemy stylishly and in large numbers: ‘We like to stress the commonness of heroes ... We want to admire but think we have a right not to be intimidated ... The only ideals allowed are healthy ones – those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine oneself possessing.’ She will have none of this tepid democracy that drags distinction down. And makes the same point still more energetically (because now it is intellectual genius that is involved) when she has Goethe act the crashing bore at one of the Hamiltons’ cultural evenings:
How superior he had felt to these people. And how superior he was ... He is pretentious, overbearing, humourless, aggressive, condescending. A monster of egotism. Alas, he’s also the real thing.
The masses will not acknowledge this of course. Like the Neapolitan peasants, they hang Eleonora Pimentel and her sort, the intelligent liberals who offer them reform, and opt instead for the tinsel, superstition and tyranny of King Ferdinand. ‘The mob is unwilling to be high-minded,’ she writes. ‘Smite, stomp, throttle, clobber, stone, impale, hang, burn, dismember, drown’: that’s what the mob do. It’s an uncompromising position, but very much in line with some of Sontag’s expressed views in the past. She is reputedly often supercilious, an unabashed intellectual who takes herself seriously and has no taste at all for what the British tend to view as the virtue of ironic self-deprecation. This is one reason her books are little read here. But even in the States, she is often now attacked for her cosmopolitanism and neglect of popular culture – by Camille Paglia, for instance, who lays into her regularly with the pure and simple aim of rising on her ashes. So perhaps in this novel Sontag is getting her own back. For what could be more piquant than for an author to insert statements of the most unbridled élitism and intellectualism into a book that appears on the surface to be the most populist that she has ever written, a mere historical novel?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.