Fiction books Reviews

The Last Days of Pompeii

A review of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel

2023 marks two notable anniversaries: the 220th anniversary of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s birth in May and the 150th anniversary of his death in January. 

Bulwer-Lytton is one of the great unread of English Literature, some might add fairly unread.

An English politician, aristocrat and writer – he coined the term “the great unwashed” and all its derivatives thereof, as well as the iconic opening sentence “It was a dark and stormy night” much lampooned by Snoopy (who also recently celebrated a major anniversary last year).

He is more famous today as a bad writer. The annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, is awarded to the worst opening sentence of all possible novels. But in his time, he was not just a popular writer, but critically acclaimed. The Last Days of Pompeii, his most famous book, was listed in Sir John Lubbock’s Hundred Best Books of 1887

Bulwer-Lytton had the idea for The Last Days of Pompeii on a trip he made to Italy in 1833-4, with his wife. It was a difficult relationship by all accounts. At this point, he was already a published novelist and an MP.

Walking the streets of Pompeii, with its uncanny sense of everyday life stopped, he was struck by the idea of the people who had lived there. Pompeii is still a place where antiquity comes into close and emotional contact with the present day. Ancient history can often be quite dry, but many visitors to the town or exhibitions experience seeing an objects or having a moment that suddenly hits them with the sheer humanity of Pompeii. It’s a chapter of our shared human history that haunts us all.

The proper tools for excavating Pompeii, it turns out, are not the archaeologist’s spade and brush but rather the author and reader’s heart and mind; the City of the Dead thus invites modernity not so much to know antiquity as to feel it.

Meilee D. Bridges, p. 101

Many people have told the story of Pompeii in novels, paintings, films and video games. The Last Days of Pompeii was not the first to do this, but it was the most popular of its time going through several editions, becoming an important source for later writers. 

Yet it’s a challenging book to finish.

A modern reader will find the language of the characters quite difficult to read:

‘Isis seems a favorite divinity at Pompeii,’ said Glaucus.

‘Yes!’ said Pansa, ‘she is exceedingly in repute just at this moment; her statue has been uttering the most remarkable oracles. I am not superstitious, but I must confess that she has more than once assisted me materially in my magistracy with her advice. Her priests are so pious, too! none of your gay, none of your proud, ministers of Jupiter and Fortune: they walk barefoot, eat no meat, and pass the greater part of the night in solitary devotion!’

It feels stilted and inauthentic as speech, but there is a certain musicality and poetry to it. 

William St Clair and Annika Bautz argued that the heightened dialogue disguised the fact that these are English men and women of 1834, but this belies the fact that the characters don’t quite feel like fully rounded people. Eric Moormann called them “more or less one-dimensional”, which seems accurate.

It’s unfair to compare any author to Jane Austen (publishing in 1810s) or Charles Dickens (publishing from the 1830s), but the characters these two authors created still seem so real to us in a way that Ione, Diomedes and Nydia do not.

Really the novel is plot driven, rather than character driven. But even then, it has a fairly melodramatic plot involving forbidden love, witchcraft, poison, murder and one particularly notorious volcanic eruption. It’s noticeable that the book seems to be more popular both in dramatic adaptations and translations in other languages, where the archaic speech is modernized and readers can focus on the action.

The Isis Temple in Pompeii

An important theme of the book is religion. Two faiths compete against each other: the Isiac cults and Christianity. Pompeii was full of different gods. The city’s domestic shrines contain small statues and paintings of the Egyptian gods, the Roman gods, Campanian gods and more. The city housed various temples, including a small beautifully decorated Isis Temple in the shadow of the Theatre.

The Isis Temple inspired many creative artists including Mozart who visited the site in 1764. Bulwer-Lytton was also inspired to include Isis in his own novel by reading The Golden Ass, an ancient novel written by the African author Apuleius. The Golden Ass ends with the appearance of the goddess who turns everything back to normal. The main character then becomes an initiate of the Isiac cults. 

In The Last Days of Pompeii this is turned on its head: the Isis Priest converts people purely for power and self gain.

Of all the characters, Abraces, the Isis Priest, is the most real. A fully fleshed out man with a complex hidden life and competing motivations, he is nevertheless a villian, a man who owes much to Orientalist ideas of the ‘East’ but who still feels more real than the insipid Christians or jaded aesthetes he moves amongst. If Netflix were to commission the show, they would undoubtedly focus on him.

Image from a domestic shrine in the House of the Gilded Cupids showing Anubis, Harpocrates, Isis and Serapis(?)

There is less comprehensive proof of Christianity in the city, but the Christian sub-plot in the novel (they win of course) was an important reason it became so popular in America. 

At the time Bulwer-Lytton wrote the novel, he was inspired by the Oxford Movement, which sought to return ritual and theology to the Anglican church, and culminated with more Catholic liturgy. Yet ironically in America, his novel was warmly received by protestant evangelicals. 

As Margaret Malamud has argued, the book with its images of apocalyptic destruction struck a chord with Americans during the Second Great Awakening. Many protestant groups preached the imminent end of the world, including the Millerites who welcomed over a million Americans to their camp meetings by 1843. William Miller, predicted the end would fall on the evening of 21 October 1844. Followers gathered on high places to prepare for the second coming. Malamud writes, this was also a period in America where many people were experiencing democracy for the first time. Ancient Greece was being held up as an exemplar for the new republic. A Greek couple, and not a native Campanian or Roman, are the heros of the book.

It is interesting that the Apocalyptic asides of Buwler-Lytton reference more closely the fall of Empires than the fate of humanity as a whole.

Abraces, looking on the town, mutters to himself:

As ye now—jewels in the crown of empire—so once were the cities of the Nile! Their greatness hath perished from them, they sleep amidst ruins, their palaces and their shrines are tombs, the serpent coils in the grass of their streets, the lizard basks in their solitary halls. By that mysterious law of Nature, which humbles one to exalt the other, ye have thriven upon their ruins; thou, haughty Rome, hast usurped the glories of Sesostris and Semiramis—thou art a robber, clothing thyself with their spoils! And these—slaves in thy triumph—that I (the last son of forgotten monarchs) survey below, reservoirs of thine all-pervading power and luxury, I curse as I behold! The time shall come when Egypt shall be avenged! when the barbarian’s steed shall make his manger in the Golden House of Nero! and thou that hast sown the wind with conquest shalt reap the harvest in the whirlwind of desolation!

As fell Pharoah and his horses, the eagles of Caesar, the pomp of Britain, so will fall the other empires of man.

The Last Days of Pompeii is a great plot-driven novel, which can still move readers. At 400 pages, it’s perhaps a little too long and slow paced for many but it is worth prevailing with it. You soon get used to the archaic language and if the characters remain a little flat, you are ultimately drawn into the plot’s great crescendo that culminates in the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and many of its inhabitants.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics