Edward George Bulwer-Lytton is best known for coming up with the immortal phrase that Snoopy is always typing: "It was a dark and stormy night." Unfortunately, he's never that concise in "Last Days of Pompeii," a bloated and melodramatic historical novel full of Victorian cliches, and without a character who acts like a real person.
It focuses on the final days of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was buried in a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. In particular, it focuses on a virtuous young Roman man, Glaucus, who is stuck in a love quadrangle with a beautiful, equally virtuous young lady, a blind slave girl, and a sinister Egyptian who beguiles the virtuous young lady.
In the background is a turmoil of religious and social problems, with a deadly volcano smoldering behind it all. Then, a murder is committed -- and Glaucus is arrested for the crime, and sentenced to be sent into the arena. When Vesuvius blows, will any of them survive?
"The Last Days of Pompeii" is one of those novels that had immense promise. Unfortunately, Bulwer-Lytton turns it into a Roman soap opera. Rather than focusing on the more interesting aspects of Pompeii, Bulwer-Lytton decided to focus on a contrived web of very boring people.
It doesn't help that "Last Days of Pompeii" is also written in a chokingly dense style, very ornate and full of bad poetry. The dialogue is even worse, with lines like, "'With all his conceit and extravagance he is not so rich, I fancy, as he affects to be, and perhaps loves to save his amphorae better than his wit." Okay, whatever. The story might be more palatable, had Bulwer-Lytton not tried too hard to make the language stand out.
Bulwer-Lytton also seems to have been showing off his knowledge of Roman architecture and clothing, since the descriptions of the atrium and triclinium are more complex than anything he gives the characters. He regularly interrupted the narrative just to lecture readers on historical trivia, on everything from medieval necromancy to Italian herbs.
Apparently in the interest of keeping the novel "human," Bulwer-Lytton introduced some romantic tension. Unfortunately, his characters don't act like real people -- really, who would fuss about their love lives while escaping from an erupting volcano? It's hard to imagine anyone so oblivious and self-absorbed, but the annoying blind slave Nydia apparently can't think of anything else.
Glaucus is a paragon of virtue, despite what Romans of the time were like; he even converts to Christianity for no apparent reason, in keeping with the attempt to make him fit the Victorian ideal. On the flipside, Arbaces is a rather cartoonish -- even slightly racist -- villain, who is just there to make trouble because he wants to.
"The Last Days of Pompeii" is an intriguing idea for a novel, but a flop as Edward Bulwer-Lytton actually wrote it. Too bad the volcano didn't blow a lot sooner.