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It's taken me a fair old while to finish this book: in fact, I interrupted it for The Merlin Conspiracy for a while, as it seemed a bit much back in late February, and I was in need of something lighter. Bulwer-Lytton's prose style is so famously overblown that there is an annual bad fiction contest named in his honour; and as for the florid Victorian poetry which he inserted at every available opportunity - well, reader, I skipped it.

This is not to say he's actually a bad writer. Once you attune to his rhythms and get into the highly mannered spirit of his prose, it can be marvellous fun. Check out this fantastic description of the Witch of Vesuvius, for example:
"With stony eyes turned upon them — with a look that met and fascinated theirs — they beheld in that fearful countenance the very image of a corpse! — the same, the glazed and lustreless regard, the blue and shrunken lips, the drawn and hollow jaw — the dead, lank hair, of a pale grey — the livid, green, ghastly skin, which seemed all surely tinged and tainted by the grave!" (Book 3 chapter 9)
Now that's a proper witch, all right. But an endless succession of passages like that can get a bit tedious, especially when the subject turns to long-winded musing or moralising.

Nonetheless, it was worth persevering - not least, of course, because I have now finished it just in time to see whether or not it's conveyed a legacy to the forth-coming Who episode, The Fires of Pompeii. Judging from the trailers so far available, it looks like the influence isn't going to be that direct. But then again, this novel is really the ur-text as far as fictional representations of Pompeii go, and I can certainly see traces of it in the Who audio adventure, The Fires of Vulcan now I've finished it. More on that, later...

Read from a historian's point of view, Bulwer-Lytton's representation of Pompeii and its society is impressively accurate by the standards of his day (and vastly outstrips Robert Harris's by any standards). It's not just that he's clearly done his research for this particular novel - visiting houses, examining paintings, reading the relevant literary texts and so on. Rather, it's that his whole approach to his subject matter is so evidently steeped in a thorough and long-standing familiarity with the Classical world and its literature. Characters make jokes based on mythological allusions, customs and values are true to the time, and there's even the occasional scholarly footnote to his sources. The only slip I caught was a statement (ch. 4.17) that masters no longer had the power of life and death over their slaves at the time of the story (AD 79), when in fact that law was introduced by Hadrian (AD 117-138). But that's a pretty minor thing, really.

Much more importantly (and again in stark contrast with Harris), Bulwer-Lytton offers an eminently plausible portrait of the religious beliefs of his characters. Naturally, his Pompeii has a burgeoning early Christian community, and in some places the sentimentalism with which they are portrayed practically drips off the page - beware chapter 3.3 unless you have a particular craving for earnest piety, innocent children, and old men weeping to recall the face of the True Christ. They are, of course, morally superior to the pagan characters in the story (except for the hero and heroine, Glaucus and Ione, who in any case convert at the end of the book), and provide particularly good value by marching through the streets crying "Woe! woe!" and "Behold! the Lord descendeth to judgment!" during the climactic eruption (ch. 5.7), while everyone else runs round looting treasure and attacking one another.

But the picture is not entirely black and white. Bulwer-Lytton shows a clear understanding of the difference between first-century and nineteenth-century Christianity, and indeed offers a plea for religious tolerance in the present day (ch. 3.1) and outright criticism of the bigotry of the medieval church (ch. 4.1) while he is about it. He also takes the belief of his pagan characters seriously, and allows them to put their side of the argument. When the newly-converted Apaecides attempts to spread the word to his sister, Ione (ch. 3.5), she gives an impassioned speech about how miserable it would be to have to imagine the world stripped of its many gods, which is then followed by a narrative paragraph about how thoroughly religious belief penetrated every aspect of ancient life.

In any case, the real contrasts here are drawn not between the Christians and the traditional pagans, but between the Christians and the priests of Isis, headed by the deliciously villainous Arbaces. As Ronald Hutton has shown, the Olympian gods enjoyed a semi-dispensation in the 18th and 19th century from the general western prejudice against polytheistic religions, because they were associated with the widely-admired literature of the Classical world. By contrast, though, the cult of Isis can be freely associated with the prejudices against the orient that were rife at the time, still exist today, and indeed go right back to Classical Greece. Hence, Arbaces and his associates are self-conscious charlatans, duping the masses with clever illusions while they devote themselves to the pursuit of power and sensual pleasures.

Meanwhile, it's noticeable that N. Popidius Celsinus, who paid for the rebuilding of the temple of Isis in AD 62 is quietly overlooked, despite the fact that the temple was one of the earliest discoveries made at Pompeii, so that its building inscription must have been known to Bulwer-Lytton. Admittedly, this person was the six-year-old son of a probable freedman, whose origins could have been Egyptian - but it is clear from the Roman citizen name and the co-option of the son onto the town council as a direct result of the rebuilding that the family were keen to align themselves with local culture. For Bulwer-Lytton, the use of such a character would have diffused the menacing, alien character that he wants to attribute to the cult - and hence the substitution of Arbaces, who presents an uncompromisingly Egyptian identity.

Bulwer-Lytton's view of ancient society belongs very much to the Romantic school, though. He's clearly read his Byron: a reference to the "yellow Tiber" (3.10) hints as much, while Arbaces' accusation that by condemning criminals to the arena the Pompeians "make murder pastime" (5.1) echoes Byron's famous line, "Butcher'd to make a Roman holiday". The balanced view of ancient polytheism in itself probably springs from Romantic values, while we also get a cautious argument for female emancipation (ch. 1.6), and possibly even a little homoeroticism in a scene where the effete gambler, Lepidus, inspects some burly and manly gladiators (ch. 2.3).

In a similar vein it's noticeable that, very much in keeping with the aesthetic preferences of Romanticism, the most idealised characters in this story are not Romans at all, but Greeks - Glaucus (Athenian), Ione (Neapolitan) and the tragic Nydia (Thessalian). While the Pompeian characters mainly drink, gamble, indulge in dinner parties (including two references to the consumption of nightingales' tongues, but not larks') and chase profitable marriages, the Greeks are portrayed as higher, more sensitive beings, who concern themselves with ancient ideals of freedom, art and romantic love. The contrast is made all the more vivid when these pure and noble Greeks come into conflict with the baser Roman characters - for example when Glaucus buys Nydia to save her from beatings by her abusive owners (ch. 2.3); when Julia attempts to drug Glaucus for the sake of petty vengeance (ch. 3.8); and of course, finally, when Glaucus is wrongly accused of murder and condemned to the arena.

Bulwer-Lytton even puts the icing on the cake by Christianising his Greeks. He puts St. Paul's claim that the Altar of the Unknown God at Athens was in fact an altar to the Christian God into the mouth of his Christian preacher, Olinthus (ch. 3.5), while the trial of Glaucus is given overtones of that of Jesus when it is made clear that the local senate would have pardoned him, but that the people were baying for blood (ch. 4.16). And of course eventually, living happily ever after for Glaucus and Ione turns out to mean escaping the destruction of Pompeii, moving to Athens and converting to Christianity.

There's an interesting dialogue going on with the Romantic movement in the visual arts, too. Bulwer-Lytton was clearly strongly steeped in the ancient paintings of Pompeii itself, so that several passages in the book constitute direct ekphrases of surviving paintings - for instance, the description of an Isiac ceremony in chapter 1.4. He'd probably also have seen Karl Briullov's Last Day of Pompeii (1830-33) when it was exhibited in Rome straight after its completion - certainly, they both share the motifs of a lightning storm, falling statues, citizens clutching their valuables (or looting those of others) and of course an early Christian (Briullov's bottom left-hand corner).

But Bulwer-Lytton doesn't just want to draw on the visual arts - he clearly wants to inspire them as well. One scene in which Olinthus accuses the evil Egyptian priest, Arbaces, of murder is described hopefully as a 'striking subject for the painter's genius' (4.6). I don't think anyone has ever actually painted it, but more than one later Victorian painter did draw their inspiration from other passages in Bulwer-Lytton - Sir Edward Poynter, for example, in his Faithful Unto Death (1865). Meanwhile, reading Bulwer-Lytton's prose with a knowledge of works by later artists like Sir Laurence Alma Tadema (flourished 1860-1912), I found that my mental images of his Pompeii were unavoidably clean, pastel-toned, and awash with rose-petals and round-cheeked, artfully-draped beauties.

Finally, because I can, and because I want to know what's come from where when reading or watching further fictional representations of Pompeii, I finish with a table summarising key story elements in the three main examples I've encountered so far:



Fires of Vulcan

Robert Harris

Point-of-view character

No single one

Seven and Mel


Central lovers

Glaucus and Ione

Seven and Mel?

Attilius and Corelia

Major supporting character

Nydia – blind flower-girl.

Aglae – slave of Valeria

Attilius’ work-mates; Elder Pliny

Villainous male

Arbaces, priest of Isis– pursuing power over others and Ione.

Popidius Celsinus – pursuing Mel. But Eumachia is real villain.

Ampliatus, freedman of Popidius – pursuing wealth and power.

Self-serving female



No prominent example.

Magical practitioners

Arbaces, witch of Vesuvius, Nydia (though she only fakes it).

None – though Doctor and Mel are mistaken for agents of Isis.

Sybil (Biria). NB sacrifices snake to Sabazius.

‘Low-life’ characters

Gladiators, Burbo (tavern-keeper) and Stratonice (Nydia’s mistress).

Gladiators, bar-maid (Valeria).

Ampliatus’ hired men (esp. Corax), Africanus and Zmryina at  brothel


Lydon, Niger and others.


Some of Corax’s men?

Historical characters

Various house-owners (Pansa, Diomedes, Sallust).

Popidius Celsinus, Eumachia (though anachronistic), Murranus (graffiti)

Multiple politicians; Ampliatus + son; Elder Pliny; Younger Pliny.

Characters imprisoned

Nydia, Ione and Calenus by Arbaces. Sosia by Nydia. Glaucus by state.

Mel by state on Eumachia’s accusation; later again with Aglae

Corelia by Ampliatus

Character drugged

Glaucus by Arbaces / Julia / Nydia

Doctor by Murranus / Valeria


Fates of main characters

Killed – Arbaces, Calenus, Burbo, Diomedes, Julia. Escape – Glaucus, Ione, Sallust, Nydia (but suicide).

Doctor and Mel escape. Fate of other characters left unspecified.

Attilius and Corelia strongly implied to escape. Most others killed – specific descriptions for Pliny and Ampl.

Religious tensions

Christian vs. pagan (esp. Isis).

Trad paganism vs. cult of Isis

Cynical atheist vs. credulous masses


Arbaces controls cult; Apaecides and Calenus are priests. No ref  to characters in real inscription.

Popidius Celsinus is priest of it; Valeria is a devotee; Eumachia hates the cult.

Celsinus is priest, unhealthily obsessed.


Not mentioned

Slave at start says it is Vulcanalia; offerings of fish left for him.

Regularly referenced; offerings made in forum.

Corrupt politicians

Pansa and senate please crowd rather than deliver justice

Elite (Popidius, Eumachia) generally lustful, self-serving.

Popidius, Holconius et al. under control of Ampliatus.


Clodius is an inveterate gambler

Doc plays dice for Mel with Murranus


Lavish banquet

Yes – hosted by Diomedes

Yes – hosted by Eumachia

Yes – hosted by Ampliatus


Apaecides (by Arbaces).

Murranus tries to kill Doctor, but not cold-blooded.

Corax attempts to murder Attilius

In-story precognition of disaster

Witch of Vesuvius notes changes in mountain from her cave, warns Arbaces and leaves.

Only Doc and Mel know what is going to happen; Doc mistakenly believes he cannot escape.

Sybil prophesies future tourism; Attilius works out what is happening from aqueduct and Exomnius’ notes.

Water stops running before eruption

Not mentioned



City still being rebuilt after earthquake of 62

Not mentioned

Not mentioned

Major plot point

Houses of main characters readily identifiable by informed reader

Yes – Glaucus (‘Tragic Poet’), Pansa, Diomedes, Sallust.

Not really – too little description, no visuals.

Yes – Popidius / Ampliatus

Amphitheatre scene

Climactic ending. Glaucus saved partly by eruption (but also Sallust’s evidence).

Murranus takes Doctor to empty amphitheatre to fight him – saved by eruption.


Scenes set outside (ancient) Pompeii

Witch’s cave on Vesuvius; shore and boat at end; various refs to modern Italy.

Scenes in necropolis; with UNIT in present day.

Multiple – Misenum, Vesuvius, Stabiae, shore, boats.

Just a few more hours now till I can see how The Fires of Pompeii fits in with all that!


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 12th, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)
You know, I think I remember seeing a TV adaptation of this in the 80s. Unfortunately I don't remember whether it was any good!
Apr. 12th, 2008 05:06 pm (UTC)
Fascinating, and added to memories for future reference. I just finished the novel myself this morning, and I'm still digesting it. But a few points come to mind.

1. When you wrote about Harris' Pompeii, you complained of the intrusive explanations, and implied that Harris is deliberately showing off his research. But one of the things that struck me about Lytton is how much more intense this is, to the point of saying "I've actually looked at these objects that I am now describing to you". And yet it didn't annoy me. (Interestingly, Harris himself, in his Classical Association Presidential Address, identified intrusive research as a flaw in many historical novels, one he certainly tried to avoid, and by implication thought he had.)

2. At least one Alma-Tadema is directly inspired by Lytton: Glaucus and Nydia (1867).

3. Arbaces reads through astrological study a premonition of 'some danger, violent and sudden in its nature' (Book II, Ch. VIII). We know what that is, of course, though he doens't quite.

4. For the suggestion that Seven and Mel could be the 'central lovers', you will go to a special hell.
Apr. 12th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Cool to hear you have been reading it too!

1. Yes, you're right. I think the difference is largely that Lytton is a better writer. Overblown those descriptions may be, but they don't come across as intrusive. Rather, he manages to make them an enjoyable part of his general scene-setting. Interestingly, the edition I read (from 1891) included prefaces written for the previous editions of 1834 and 1850, and the 1834 one includes some fascinating explicit commentary on the issue. He is critical himself of authors who overdo the historical 'detail' in an attempt to look erudite, and speaks of having to restrain the same instinct in himself, preferring give the emphasis to his plot and characters. Harris' historical details, meanwhile, seem to get in the way of both.

2. Ah, thanks for that link. I knew the picture existed, but couldn't find an image of it myself. What I meant really, though, about Alma-Tadema, was more that the seeds of the kind of art in general which he later produced are very much detectable with hindsight in Bulwer-Lytton's descriptive style. It's very obvious that they are both parts of the same developing movement.

3. Yes, this is true, too - although he reads it as being specific to himself, rather than a widespread disaster. Mind you, that's entirely in keeping with his character, of course - even if the stars had foretold disaster for the whole town, he'd only have cared insofar as it applied to him!

4. Hey, I did include a question mark! Which, unpacked, is meant to indicate, "You can read it that way if you choose to - though I, personally, don't." ;-)

Will look forward to hearing any further thoughts you have about it.
Apr. 12th, 2008 05:44 pm (UTC)
Irritatingly, my (undated) copy omits the prefaces. However, one of the online versions appears at least to have the 1834 preface, but I'd be interested in reading the 1850 one some time.

When I finally write the sf/classics book, I am going to have something about elements of the fantastic (usually accurate prophecy) in otherwise non-fantastic works like The Last Days of Pompeii) and I, Claudius.

Right, off to watch Who.
Apr. 12th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)
I'd be interested in reading the 1850 one some time

Scanned for your reading pleasure:


THIS work has had the good fortune to be so general a favourite with the Public, that the Author is spared the task of obtruding any comments in its vindication from adverse criticism. The profound scholarship of German criticism, which has given so minute an attention to the domestic life of the ancients, has sufficiently testified to the general fidelity with which the manners, habits, and customs, of the inhabitants of Pompeii have been described in these pages. And writing the work almost on the spot, and amidst a population that still preserve a strong family likeness to their classic forefathers, I could scarcely fail to catch something of those living colours, which mere book-study alone would not have sufficed to bestow; it is, I suspect, to this accidental advantage that this work is principally indebted for a greater popularity than has hitherto attended the attempts of scholars to create an interest, by fictitious narrative, in the manners and persons of a classic age. Perhaps, too, the writers I allude to, and of whose labours I would speak with the highest respect, did not sufficiently remember, that in works of imagination, the description of manners, however important as an accessory, must still be subordinate to the vital elements of interest, viz., plot, character, and passion. And, in reviving the ancient shadows, they have rather sought occasion to display erudition, than to show how the human heart beats the same, whether under the Grecian tunic or the Roman toga. It is this, indeed, which distinguishes the imitators of classic learning from the classic literature itself. For, in classic literature, there is no want of movement and passion - of all the more animated elements of what we now call Romance. Indeed, romance itself, as we take it from the Middle Ages, owes much to Grecian fable. Many of the adventures of knight-errantry are borrowed either from the trials of Ulysses, or the achievements of Theseus. And while Homer, yet unrestored to his throne among the poets, was only known to the literature of early chivalry, in a spurious or grotesque form - the genius of Gothic fiction was constructing many a tale for Northern wonder from the mutilated fragments of the divine old tale-teller.

Amongst those losses of the past which we have most to deplore are the old novels or romances for which Miletus was famous. But, judging from all else of Greek literature that is left to us, there can be little doubt that they were well fitted to sustain the attention of lively and impatient audiences by the same arts which are necessary to the modern tale-teller: that they could not have failed in variety of incident and surprises of ingenious fancy; in the contrasts of character; and, least of all, in the delineations of the tender passion, which, however modified in its expression by differences of national habits, forms the main subject of human interest, in all the multiform varieties of fictitious narrative - from the Chinese to the Arab – from the Arab to the Scandinavian – and which, at this day, animates the tale of many an itinerant Boccacio, gathering his spell-bound listeners round him, on sunny evenings, by the Sicilian seas.

Edited at 2008-04-12 11:00 pm (UTC)
Apr. 12th, 2008 11:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that.
Apr. 12th, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
Bugger, I meant that to be a comment to your post, not to qatsi's comment.
Apr. 12th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
I see it has BRIAN BLESSED in it, though, which has got to be a good sign!

One of my next jobs is to work my way through the film and TV versions of the book - which could be quite an undertaking!
Apr. 12th, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)
It is of course only proper that first-century Roman Christians should issue dire predictions of disaster in Cranmerian English.
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC)
And Bulwer-Lytton actually rails at length in his preface about how wrong it is when authors try to make their historical characters talk in the mannered style of Cicero, too. Doh! Had he perhaps not read his own prose? (I wouldn't blame him if so!)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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