A dream has power to poison sleep. — Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'Mutability'

decorated initial 'E'dward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii shows us the lengths that Victorian artists and writers would go to to provide their audiences with an archeologically sound, vivid depiction of Rome. The novel does implicitly question the Victorian notion of authenticity and in the preface the author admits to combining historical fact with Romance — 'raising scholarship to the creative' — but it is still subservient to the public's inherent interest in the Classical Roman lifestyle. In the preface to the 1834 edition the author expands on his research ethic:

From the ample materials before me, my endeavor has been to select those which would be most attractive to a modern reader: the customs and superstitions least unfamiliar to him, — the shadows that, when reanimated, would present to him such images as, while they represented the past, might be least uninteresting to the speculations of the present.

The author here admits to selecting certain aspects of Rome for the benefit of his audience, in other words consciously appropriating history or the supposed facts of antiquity for his own artistic ends. The 'most attractive' or 'least uninteresting', whichever way one looks at it, turns out to be for a large part 'the commonplace routine of the classic luxury, which we recall the past to behold' — 'the feasts and the forum, the baths and the amphitheatre' — mentioned in the preface. Not surprisingly, then, one entire chapter is dedicated to describing the house of, the wealthy, established Grecian, Glaucus which is entitled 'Parentage of Glaucus. Description of the Houses of Pompeii. Classic Revel' [text]. The 'revel' the author speaks of consists in the reader relishing the luxurious description of the house, the copious detail which affords him a near photographic picture of the Classical life. The reader is given a guided tour of the house, a realism bent walk through all of the rooms — the cestibulum (prosaically known as the entrance hall), impluvium (read the book), the atrium (hall), the tablinum (apartment), various tricliniums (dining rooms), the peristyle (or portico), the library, the viridarium (garden) and the slave quarters —, and shown the objects they hold and lectured on their cultural significance.

The heaped historical information and pervasiveness of what we could call hyper-realism in the novel make the whole project seem obsessed with fact (although there is a story in there as well) and entirely preoccupied with providing the reader the illusion that they are having first-hand empirical experience of Rome. Close inspection of the language Bulwer-Lytton uses to describe the novel and its authorial origins is very telling of his almost obsessive insistence on the factual basis for his account of Rome. His little question in his preface —

What could afford such materials for description, or such field for the vanity of display, as that gorgeous city of the world, whose grandeur could lend so bright an inspiration to fancy, - so favorable and so solemn a dignity to research?

— suggests that part of the Victorian preoccupation with realism when it came to Rome was the realization or embodiment it provided for their lofty ideas of 'grandeur' and the 'gorgeous' which inspired their 'fancy'. 'Fancy' seems almost synonymous with dream here, and looking at the content of the novel and well as the language the author uses to describe it, this suggests that Rome is being used here more as a simulacra than as a historical representation of a past that did happen, a simulacra which is substantiated by reification of the dream. The supposed facts of the novel merely act as vessels to hold the highly idealized and therefore Romantic vision the Victorians want to have of themselves. Again in the newer preface to the 1850 edition of the novel Bulwer-Lytton belies a preoccupation with the historical accuracy of his novel

The profound scholarship of German criticism, which has given so minute an attention to the domestic life of the ancients, has sufficiently testified to the general fidelity with which the manners, habits, and customs of the inhabitants of Pompeii have been described in these pages.

'Testified' and 'fidelity' are both high diction, legalistic words that again suggest an insecure author who really has something to prove in the positivistic sense and that the novel desperately feels as if it needs empirical validation for the audience that will consume it.

Why then does the novel schizophrenically admit that it is both romanticizing the past at the same time as purporting to represent a real true Rome? The problem here is essentially the problem of using an already idealized past to burnish one's own ideals — which are seen here through the author's aesthetic references to the grandness and gorgeousness of Rome and the fancy it inspires, and the aspects of the past he has selected as most applicable to the these ideals. Note that Bulwer-Lytton also mentions in the original preface that he represents the Roman Empire at the time it was most 'civilized'. If art reflects life then there needs to have been (or be) a life in the first place for it to do the reflecting of (were the Olympian dreamers aesthetes who though they were realists?) In other words, the insistence on fiction being fact, or on representation being reality, is really the faith in the dream, the tenuous but necessary assertion that our ideals have tangible phenomenological existence. Without the vessels of fact Bulwer-Lytton seems to believe that the Victorian dream of Rome could never be a prophecy the British present, that the fiction could never be realized.

The Victorians as Olympian Dreamers: The 'Togification' of Britain

Related material


1. Bulwer and Vesuvius: The Topicality of The Last Days of Pompeii. Simmons, James C. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.1 (1969): 103-105.

Last modified 18 May 2007

Last modified 8 June 2007