Falco in Pompeii
I am just back from a great conference in Bristol on Pompeii: “Ruins and Reconstructions”. This wasn’t on the ancient history of the city, but its history since its rediscovery. Fascinating titbits of information were flying around (one speaker informed us that the average time spent by tourists in the reconstructed brothel on the site was 30 seconds – surprisingly long, I thought). But much of the talk was about Pompeian fiction, in particular Bulwer Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii.
This is the classic (1834), much-filmed, pre-Robert Harris story, of the virtuous couple, Glaucus and Ione, who manage not only to escape the nasty schemes of Arbaces, the priest of Isis, but also the lava flow of the eruption (with the help of a conveniently loyal blind flower seller) – and end up happy ever after, married and Christian, in Athens.
Delegates were divided on the literary merits of the book. One group regularly inserted the adjective “ghastly” in front of every mention of it. In fact one speaker pointed out that in the USA there is an annual Bulwer Lytton prize for the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel. (The organisers have in mind “It was a dark and stormy night”, the first line of his Paul Clifford; but “Ho, Diomed, well met”, the opening of Last Days, is in the same style.)
Others opined that it was a neglected gem – and, in any case, a good deal better than any of the historical fiction of Sir Walter Scott. Though that’s perhaps not saying very much.
What everyone did agree was that it had been one of the greatest literary hits of the nineteenth century (until it was overtaken by Ben Hur). But why? One idea was that it actually modelled a version of elite gentlemanly British life onto Roman Pompeii – and so appealed to generations of British public schoolboys (this didn’t seem to fit very easily with the massive sales). Another was broadly the reverse: that the novel was actually a critique of nineteenth-century elite culture/luxury/imperialism . .. . seen through the lens of the destroyed city (and contrasted with the virtuous Athens where Glaucus and Ione end up).
There was of course no chance of quizzing Bulwer Lytton himself! But a worthy substitute was found in the person of Lindsey Davis, who dropped in on her way to the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate. Lindsey is the creator of the Roman gumshoe Falco, who has now solved 18 mysteries in various places across the Roman empire. Part of one of these (Shadows in Bronze) is set in Pompeii.
I have quite a soft spot for these books. And Davis is always good value, in a deliciously down-to-earth self-ironical kind of way (and has done a lot of work supporting Classics in schools and universities since Falco became a superstar). On this occasion she talked about the kind of background research she does for the books, and how Pompeii comes into that more generally (not just in Shadows in Bronze).
It hadn’t escaped the notice of many in the room that the dramatic date of the Falco novels had now reached 76 CE – only three years from the eruption itself. But, from what Lindsey said, it didn’t seem that Falco was fated to be one of the victims. Phew.