Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote The Last Days of Pompeii before he inherited his family estate, in the days when he was forced to make his living as a hack writer. His mother, who disapproved of his marriage, refused to support him in the manner to which he had hoped to become accustomed. He had made his name with mildly scandalous novels of high society and with crime thrillers. The Last Days of Pompeii was a calculated move upmarket, into the genre of historical romance, which had proved not only popular but also respectable thanks to the endeavors of Sir Walter Scott.
Bulwer-Lytton began to write The Last Days of Pompeii in a more conscientious spirit than he had applied to his earlier works, and he put a great deal of effort into the background research. He paid a lengthy visit to the partly excavated city, which had by then become a popular stopping-off point for European tourists. Although subsequent research has provided much more information about the era in which the novel is set, and about Pompeii itself, the lavishly footnoted reconstruction of everyday life in the city that Bulwer-Lytton provides in the early chapters of his novel are as good and as full as could have been expected at the time.
Bulwer-Lytton presumably thought this research work was justified, because he had great hopes for the novel. The idea was full of potential; in setting out to write the book he was forearmed with a ready-made climax far more spectacular than any that had recommended itself to Scott: the eruption of Vesuvius and the devastation of Pompeii. Regardless of whether he chose to represent this event as an act of God, punishing the wickedness of the decadent Romans, it was there to be invoked as a deus ex machina whose fallout could destroy the villainous characters and provide the virtuous with a magnificently narrow escape.
The book became one of the best sellers of the Victorian era and obtained a new lease on life when it was reprinted in a cheap format in the mid-nineteenth century as one of the earliest “railway novels.” It cannot be said, however, that Bulwer-Lytton exploited the story’s melodramatic potential to the full. The story seems to lose its way toward the end, and the volcanic eruption—when it arrives—is described in a cursory and distinctly...
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