The Last Days of Pompeii
For some reason I got it into my head that I should read something by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. If the name sounds familiar to you, this is almost certainly due to the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, a longstanding competition in which people vie to compose the worst possible opening line to an imaginary novel. He is the namesake of the contest due to his reputation for wooden prose -- a reputation that the popularity of the contest has done much to amplify and broadcast. But then, this is the man who began a novel (Paul Clifford) with "It was a dark and stormy night," a line now mostly famous for being mocked by a cartoon dog some 130 years later.
Yet back in the day Bulwer-Lytton was an bestselling author with a wide and enthusiastic following. He wrote well over twenty novels as well as a few volumes of verse. His books were widely translated into other European languages, and a number of them were made into operas. Nor was his fame especially fleeting; no less than six movie adaptations were made of The Last Days of Pompeii up to 1959. The 1946 edition of Last Days that I have just finished reading is from a series called "Great Illustrated Classics," which includes it among many books we still instinctively think of as "Great Classics" -- Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, Emma, Walden, the Odyssey -- along with others whose reputations, with Bulwer-Lytton's have paled somewhat over the last six decades: Ben Hur, say, or Ivanhoe, or something called The Talisman. It is worth mentioning, too, that as far as I can tell The Last Days of Pompeii has not been out of print since it was first published in 1834, and that a visitor to Amazon as of this writing could choose among more than thirty editions.
So it's an interesting question: who was right? The Victorians, who thought Bulwer-Lytton a ripping good read, and the editors of the early Twentieth Century who thought he was a great, important literary figure from their past? Or We Moderns, who think he's a something of a joke? Is it possible that for whatever reason -- simply to make room for more recent books, say, or perhaps to make room for more books by women, or more non-European writers, or just because of some colossal lapse of the collective critical judgement -- we have let one of the geniuses of our cultural heritage slip into obscurity? I wanted to find out.
The Last Days of Pompeii
Well, it's not much of a contest. Virtually any modern reader is going to find Bulwer-Lytton's prose style lodged somewhere between "wooden" and "laughable," perhaps painfully so. And to prove this point, I will now use a random number generator to pick out four sentences from the book. Whatever four sentences come up will do nicely to prove the point.
1. No! the conquest of the cestus was not sufficient -- he had not yet won the prize of victory -- his father was still a slave!
2. Something, I say, there was in this scene which peculiarly affected Apaecides; and, in truth, it is difficult to conceive a ceremony more appropriate to the religion of benevolence, more appealing to the household and everyday affections, striking a more sensitive chord in the human breast.
3. "Talk not of him," said Ione, covering her face with her hands, as if to shut out his very thought.
4. On the lower seats round the arena sat the more high-born and wealthy visitors -- the magistrates and those of senatorial or equestrian dignity; the passages which, by corridors at the right and left, gave access to these seats, at either end of the oval arena, were also the entrances for the combatants.
So, yeah, this is not what most of us call stellar prose writing. The chopped-up sentences, the breathless exclamation marks! -- and a certain pomposity of tone aren't the half of it. Bulwer-Lytton is constantly jumping into the frame, as in sentence 2, to comment on the action as if he was sending us a postcard. He scoffs at subtlety, making absolutely sure we understand, for instance, why Ione has covered her face with her hands (indeed, sentence 3 manages to tell more or less us the same thing about what's on Ione's mind three seperate times in a single short sentence). And, as sentence 4 illustrates, Bulwer-Lytton is very excited by all he has learned about Roman history. He wants to share his excitement with us, even -- as here -- when it matters not a whit to anything happening in his story. And I'm being a little kind to sentence 4 in this regard, having left off its explanatory footnote about where the equestrians sat relative to the senators.
Well, what about the plot? After a slow start in which very little seems to be happening, it turns into a reasonable enough sort of potboiler. Glaucus is in love with Ione, but her guardian Arbaces has the hots for her too, so when it comes out that the rich young Julia is jealous of Ione, Arbaces agrees to set her up with a love potion she can use on Glaucus. Except, he treacherously gives her a poison instead, but then the blind slave who is ALSO secretly in love with Glaucus steals the potion, and so on and so forth, and eventually there is a murder and gladitorial combat and the whole works. All of this plays out against sub-plots involving the penetration of early Christianity into Roman society, and Bulwer-Lytton's ideas about the relative merits of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and modern European civilizations.
So Is It a Lost Classic?
No. It's not. You can safely add this one to your personal list of books that Michael5000 read so you wouldn't have to. It's interesting as a historical artifact, but you're really not going to find much enrichment here. Especially during the slow-moving first half, the prose style renders Last Days so tedious that to read it is an act of sheer willpower carried out chapter by slow chapter.
Having said that, by the end of the novel I found myself having become fond of The Last Days of Pompeii's unintentional protagonist: Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He is such a smart, decent-seeming guy, and so very, very earnest! He wrote the book after visiting what was then the very recently excavated ruins of Pompeii, and he is clearly so excited to share his new knowledge and theories about life in that ancient town that he can hardly contain himself. His plotting is not particularly sophisticated, but you can tell he had an awfully good time working it all out. His material on the early Christians is every bit as pious as you would expect from a Victorian Englishman, but he uses it very generously to make a pointed critique of religious and cultural intolerance in his own time.
It's idle speculation, but I found myself wondering from time to time how much, if at all, Bulwer-Lytton edited his work. The Last Days of Pompeii feels, to me anyway, like the first draft of a decent Victorian novel, one that was written out straight from the first sentence to the last with no attempt ever made to go back and clean up the language. This is utterly improbable, but it does suggest an interesting assignment that could be used in a creative writing class: edit a chapter or more of Last Days to render it good. All the material for a fun romp of a book is there, after all. It's just waiting for someone to carve it out of the stylistic wood.