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 halfhearted fashion. It may be that the pressure of financial necessity made the author determined to get the final part of the text over and done with. It is also possible that Bulwer-Lytton found his story an increasingly uncomfortable straitjacket and hurried through the final chapters.
The most interesting aspect of the text is the role played by Arbaces. He is cast as the villain and is duly destroyed in the climax, but the author seems far more interested in the priest’s cynical view of the world than in the careful piety of the Christian characters. Beneath his hypocritical pose as a priest of Isis, Arbaces practices his true faith, which substitutes the “Necessity of Nature” for the gods and includes an occult “secret wisdom.” This places him within a long tradition of Bulwerian mystics, which also included the enigmatic Volktman in Godolphin (1833) and the central characters of Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1861).
Bulwer-Lytton remained uneasily skeptical about the occult, but it always fascinated him, and the rejection implied by his allocation of villainous roles to these charismatic magicians rings false. His endeavors in this regard were much appreciated by some, including the Theosophist Helena Blavatsky, who borrowed heavily from Bulwer-Lytton’s occult fiction in compiling her “secret...
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wisdom.” Bulwer-Lytton was equally skeptical about orthodox religion and Victorian morality. This skepticism is also evident inThe Last Days of Pompeii, most obviously in the priggish fashion in which Glaucus announces his eventual conversion to Christianity.
This ambivalent quality is all the more interesting by virtue of its being somewhat hidden. Victorian puritanism ruthlessly repressed the fascination that English writers might otherwise have found in contemplation of pagan antiquity; Bulwer-Lytton’s description of the orgies that take place in the secret chambers of the temple of Isis is very carefully censored. The author’s fascinations, some considered incorrect in his time, always seem to be seething beneath the surface of the narrative, rather like the pent-up fires of the volcano. Some of this impatience is revealed in what looks suspiciously like an act of wanton cruelty, when the author flings the unfortunate Nydia into the sea to die a suicide simply because there is no clear happy ending ready to receive her.
The “confused and perplexed” character of Arbaces, formed by the “spirit of discontented pride,” is a far closer reflection of Bulwer-Lytton’s own personality (and his fierce resentment of his temporary disinheritance) than anything to be found in the character of the hero, Glaucus, or in that of the ascetic Apaecides. Bulwer-Lytton was not in the least attracted to the kind of Christianity that could rejoice in humility, and he despised those who could take comfort from the belief that the end of the world might arrive at any moment in a flurry of fire and brimstone. In order to secure publication and an adequate measure of popularity, however, he had no alternative but to meet the expectations of his audience by bringing Glaucus into the Christian fold.
As a depiction of the classical world, The Last Days of Pompeii has been superseded by more recent research, and its melodramatic potential is at best only partially fulfilled. As a specimen of the way in which one era’s contemplation of another can reveal all kinds of insights and prejudices, however, it remains an interesting and valuable work.