Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii

One of the fun things about blogging about both science and horror fiction is the unusual connections that one can find between them.  On of my favorite science topics outside of physics is vulcanology, which is why I read blogs like Magma Cum Laude.

Recently, I happened across a very nice book by J.Z. de Boer and D.T. Sanders, Volcanoes in Human History.  In short, it looks at the major volcanic eruptions with a focus on their impact on human events.  Perhaps the most famed of these events is the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E., which resulted in the destruction of Pompeii.  What especially caught my eye, though, was the following comment,

Among the earliest books about the catastrophe of 79 C.E. is The Last Days of Pompeii, a novel published to popular acclaim in 1834 by the English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton.  Though overly sentimental and melodramatic for modern tastes, it presents a fascinating glimpse of Pompeiian life in the first century and a vivid picutre of what it must have been like when the earth shook, walls tumbled, and ash and lapilli rained down upon the city, turning day into night.

Emphasis mine.  To a horror fiction fan, Bulwer-Lytton is known as the author of one of the greatest haunted house stories ever written, The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain.  Of Bulwer-Lytton, H.P.  Lovecraft had the following to say in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature:

At this time a wave of interest in spiritualistic charlatanry, mediumism, Hindoo theosophy, and such matters, much like that of the present day, was flourishing; so that the number of weird tales with a “Psychic” or pseudo-scientific basis became very considerable. For a number of these the prolific and popular Edward Bulwer-Lytton was responsible; and despite the large doses of turgid rhetoric and empty romanticism in his products, his success in the weaving of a certain kind of bizarre charm cannot be denied.

The House and the Brain, which hints of Rosicrucianism and at a malign and deathless figure perhaps suggested by Louis XV’s mysterious courtier St. Germain, yet survives as one of the best short haunted-house tales ever written.

In light of this, I thought I would take a look at the ‘other side’ of Bulwer-Lytton, and read his most famous romance, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834).

First, let’s say a few words about Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873).  He was a prolific novelist, poet and playwright in his day; in modern times, his work is considered much as Lovecraft described: “large doses of turgid rhetoric and empty romanticism.”  The yearly Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest challenges participants to emulate the author’s overworked opening sentences, such as the opening to Paul Clifford (1930),

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

In spite of this opinion of Bulwer-Lytton’s writing talents, or perhaps because of it, his work survives.  We have already mentioned his classic horror contributions, which we’ll mention again at the end of the post.  Fans of the classic comic strip Peanuts will recognize “It was a dark and stormy night” as the opening to most of Snoopy’s abortive attempts to write a novel.  Lytton is also credited with writing perhaps the first science-fiction novel ever, The Coming Race, which may have led some credulous readers to form a secret society based on the the book’s ‘revelations’.  (The Coming Race is on my reading list, and we’ll return to it in another post.)

The Last Days of Pompeii itself was probably the first novelization of the catastrophic event.  The city was rediscovered in the mid-1700s and archaeological excavations followed soon after.  According to Wikipedia, Bulwer-Lytton was inspired to write his novel by the painting The Last Day of Pompeii by Karl Briullov, painted in the early 1830s,  which Bulwer-Lytton saw on a trip to Milan:

The novel itself tells the story of the Athenian Glaucus, his love, the beautiful Ione, and a blind flower-girl Nydia, who is secretly in love with Glaucus.  Threatening the love of Glaucus and Ione is Ione’s guardian, the decadent and deceitful Egyptian Arbaces, who lusts after Ione himself.

The early part of the novel introduces the characters, their interests, and the character of the city of Pompeii itself, and is unfortunately rather slow-going.  I typically can read a modern novel of 400 pages in the course of two days, but the first 100 pages of TLDOP took me two weeks to work through! (Which is nothing compared to the amount of time I’m currently spending on a truly monstrous reading project, of which I will speak more later.)  Quick reading is hindered by the rather archaic mode of speaking of the characters.

The descriptions of the city itself, though, are fascinating: Bulwer-Lytton seems to have spent much time researching the actual ruins of Pompeii, and his characters are housed in buildings that had apparently been uncovered in archaeological excavations of BL’s time.

Once through the first half of the book, the plot picks up significantly, though, mainly through the scheming of the evil Arbaces.  His attempts to disrupt the happiness of the lovers are legion, and even involve a visit to a crazed witch living in the depths of the increasingly ominous and unsettled Mount Vesuvius.  The actual eruption of the volcano takes up a small fraction of the novel — scarcely 20 pages out of 300 — but it decides the fates of all the characters.  The flower-girl Nydia plays an important role in the climax of the book.

The Last Days of Pompeii is a significant book in the history of literature, though not an easy read and certainly not for everyone.  I would really suggest it only to those who like very melodramatic historical romances, or those who wish to experience what must have been the Titanic of its day.

The novel does offer something for those of the atheist persuasion — or those who are opposed to fundamentalism of any kind.  Pompeii was destroyed in an era when Christianity was new, and worship of that crazy upstart Christ was forbidden.  The interaction of these early Christians with the worshippers of the accepted deity Isis is an important subplot in the book, and Bulwer-Lytton sees in it a message for ‘modern’ Christians.  After a crowd of citizens listen to the prophecy of doom pronounced by the Christian Olinthus, Bulwer-Lytton writes,

The crowd that heard these boding words gave them different interpretations, according to their different shades of ignorance and of fear; all, however, concurred in imagining them to convey some awful imprecation.  They regarded the Christian as the enemy of mankind; the epithets they lavished upon him, of which ‘Atheist’ was the most favored and frequent, may serve, perhaps, to warn us, believers of that same creed now triumphant, how we indulge the persecution of opinion Olinthus then underwent, and how we apply to those whose notions differ from our own the terms at that day lavished on the fathers of our faith.

In that paragraph lies a lesson that modern religious fanatics would be wise to consider!  I love the irony that, in Christianity’s early days, a Christian might have been considered an atheist.

I conclude this post with a brief mention of some of Bulwer-Lytton’s contributions to horror.  As it stands, I have read only two:

The Haunted and the Haunters: Or the House and the Brain.  This story starts as many haunted house stories begin: the narrator learns of a London house in which no person has been able to reside for more than three days.  His curosity piqued, the narrator decides to stay in the house, with his servant and his dog as company, to try and get to the bottom of the phenomenon.  He gets much more than he bargained for, and the haunting is wrapped up in the phenomenon of mesmerism and the strength of the human will.

It is worth noting that one can find two versions of this story: an abridged version which ends once the haunting is ended and a longer version which explores in more depth the source of the haunting.  I have linked to the full version; the material removed in the abridged version begins with, “But my story is not yet done.”

Monos and Daimonos.  This short and somewhat poetic tale, written when the author was still only ‘Edward Bulwer’, follows the life of a man who seeks above all else solitude.  In his attempts to be alone, however, he finds himself dogged by a disagreeable figure, who stays with the narrator against all conceivable odds.  This story of the doppelgänger is a nice, unsettling read.

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One Response to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii

  1. Cay says:

    Thank you for your excellent essay. I first read ‘The House and the Brain’ in the ’90’s, and it felt like a Victorian ‘X-Files’ episode. Thereafter, I always compared other literary sorcerers to Mr. Richards, but few match him in sheer intensity.
    I’ll try ‘Pompeii’. Some Victorian melodrama is just good snacking to me, and this might be it.

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