Reveals the famous last days of Pompeii in great detail. Interesting reading both for the mystic and the scholar.
Bulwer-Lytton was one of the most popular fiction writers in the 19th century (and his reputation has really only waned in the last 60 years or so). Our ancestors weren't naive dupes; they rightly recognized that there was something exceptional about Last Days. If the book is now out of fashion, it nevertheless remains a fascinating read.
Briefly, the story concerns four people in Pompeii in the period leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the city in ash in AD 79. They are Glaucus, a Greek-born, rich young man who is a bit of a rake (he gambles on the gladiatorial games) but fundamentally decent; Ione, his lover (in the author's words, "The wealth of her graces was inexhaustible -- she beautified the commonest action; a word, a look from her, seemed magic. Love her, and you entered into a new world, you passed from this trite and common-place earth"); Nydia, a blind slave girl passionately and uselessly in love with Glaucus; and Arbaces, a brilliantly malevolent high priest of the cult of Isis.
The reader, too, passes out of "this trite and common-place earth" in the book's pages. The style is of another time, to be sure, one that is unashamedly colorful and romantic. To some poor cynical souls I suppose it will seem corny; to those who still look at the stars and sunsets with awe, the language will resonate with a thousand delicate tints.
Last Days is not only an evocative re-imagination of a historical time and place, and a craftily plotted story; it also touches on deep philosophical matters. Bulwer-Lytton was interested in the Mystery cults of the Roman empire, including that of Isis. Although, probably to avoid offending the conventions of his time, he had Glaucus and Ione eventually convert to Christianity, it's hard to doubt that he was sympathetic to earlier pagan religions. Although Arbaces is the villain, his literary portrait is drawn with keen psychological insight and his religious rites are thoughtfully and strikingly portrayed. (The scene in which Arbaces tries to initiate Ione's brother into the secret -- highly sensuous and erotically tinged -- rituals of the cult is electrifying!) Mystical undertones are not far from the jewelled surface of this novel.
So read this as a period piece, but not in a condescending way; let yourself be drawn into the sun-glazed temples and forums, the loves, the cruelty and the jealousies of ancient Pompeii. See them through a dreamy, extravagant early-Victorian literary sensibility. Give yourself up to Bulwer-Lytton's magic, as so many did in generations before you.
The plot revolves around the constant intrigues of the characters, which include magic love-potions, betrayals and heroism. But at the back of the action, there is a volcano about to explode and leave this town covered by tons of dust and volcanic rock. The characters are planning their lives and lusting for passion, without knowing that they have no future. Like some of us, maybe.
Summing up, this novel is great entertainment, intelligent fun. The best, in my opinion, is the re-creation of a lost world, a city full of color and passion, living in full while Destiny works its own way.