In The Volcano Lover: A Romance, Susan Sontag brilliantly evokes one
of English history’s most notorious love affairs. Lady Emma Hamilton, second wife of the celebrated British envoy to Naples, Il Cavaliere (Sir William Hamilton, the “volcano lover” of title) fell in love with the admiral represented by the statue a top of the imposing monument at Trafalgar Square, Horatio Nelson -- known throughout Sontag’s book as “the Hero.” Her love was reciprocated by the Hero, and the Cavaliere was stoically complicit. The novel, which covers the years 1772 to 1805, is set primarily in Naples and plays out against a backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. From 1764 until his recall under a cloud in 1800, the Cavaliere represented England at the corrupt, even licentious, Bourbon Court of Naples, capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
Above all it plays out against an aspect of the era’s aristocratic culture – the custom of “collecting,” that is, buying, appropriating or stealing ancient art objects to have as one’s own. The Cavaliere is a collector extraordinaire, almost as infamous as his contemporary, Lord Elgin. Emma and the Hero’s adultery (Like Emma, the Hero is also married.) and the Cavaliere’s collecting take place ominously at the foot of the smoldering Mt.Vesuvius and a mere hour’s horseback ride from the intimidating Pompeii and Herculeum.
Typically historical fiction focuses on events, but in this book Sontag has chosen instead to spotlight her characters. Daringly she imputes thoughts and motives to people who actually lived; we are allowed to look inside their minds. The Emma, Cavaliere and Hero that she conjures for us are not, of course, the historical persons, but they are compelling fictional characters with whom we feel a genuine intimacy. With her remarkable imagination and knowledge of both human nature and the historical era, she presents to us her version of the truth about three fascinating people.
Following a brief post-modern prologue in which Sontag searches the flea- market of history presumably looking for a topic for her writing, the novel abruptly opens in London in the autumn of 1772 at the conclusion of a fine- arts auction. We meet the Cavaliere who has been in England for a home leave after serving in Naples for some eight years. Indeed, the first seven chapters of the book feature the Cavaliere and his world, and it is this section that is arguably Sontag’s primary achievement. A real person seems to step off her pages. Sontag establishes him as a circumspect, reserved man of decorum and reason with two consuming life interests: collecting ancient art and witnessing the unruly energy of Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano that presides over Naples and serves as the novel’s central metaphor, a metaphor for life’s unpredictability and chaotic forcefulness. For example, when love erupts between Emma and the Hero, the Cavaliere can only observe and accept it as a natural phenomenon like the volcano.
Before Emma comes into his life, while Catherine is still alive, the Cavaliere studies Vesuvius. In her clear, accomplished prose, Sontag captures the erupting volcano and its effect on him:
“Watching from the terrace, the Cavaliere saw bursts of white vapor rising pile after pile to a height and bulk three times as great as the mountain itself, and gradually filling with streaks of black…A summer storm followed, the weather turned torrid, and a few days later a fountain of red fire ascended from the crater. One could read in bed at night by the gloomy blaze of the mountain a few miles away…August 1779. Saturday, at six o’clock. The great concussion must have rocked the foundations of the Cavaliere’s villa at the foot of the mountain, if not worse. But he was at home in town, and from the safety of the observatory room watched the mountain flinging showers of re-hot stones into the air. An hour later a column of liquid fire began to rise and quickly reached an amazing height, twice that of the mountain, a fiery pillar ten thousand feet high, mottled with puffs of black smoke, scored by flashing zigzag lines of lightning. The sun went out. Black clouds descended over Naples.”
In rendering the Cavaliere’s musings and reflections, Sontag establishes the fact that he strives to maintain a balance between depression and enthusiasm. For him the importance of collecting cannot be overestimated; it is collecting lovingly-chosen objects that provides him with self-definition. With objects, the Cavaliere wished to demonstrate, “the beauty and interest there is in the world.”
As the action unfolds we become acquainted with Emma. Like a collectible, she has been “sold” to the Cavaliere by his unscrupulous London nephew, Charles, who thought that since the death of the Cavaliere’s first wife, his uncle might need female companionship. In return for Emma the Cavaliere must agree to pay off Charles’s substantial debts. The Cavaliere first meets Emma in London and is predictably struck by her beauty. The fact that she has been painted by both Reynolds and Romney reinforces his first impressions. Emma introduces herself as Mrs. Hart, a widow. But Sontag fills us in on her lamentable background: She is the daughter of a village blacksmith. She “had come to London as an under-housemaid, was seduced by the son of the house,” and was then forced to find “dubious employment.” Unaware of Charles’s transaction with this uncle, Emma soon travels to Naples along with her mother, the ubiquitous Mrs. Cadogan.
Possessing an ambiguous disposition, Emma is by turns sunny and light-spirited, vulgar, selfish, a lover of life, blatantly cruel, and quick to learn. She is clever enough, indeed, to persuade the Cavaliere to marry her – no small accomplishment in view of the snobbery so prevalent at the Court of Naples. The Cavaliere is besotted with her and consequently perceives her as affectionate and gifted with the rare ability to enter into his feelings.
Another instance of Sontag’s skill at rendering the Cavaliere’s state of mind is her convincing and sensitive depiction of a dinner scene at the Envoy’s residence. Emma tells a lie at dinner. Sontag reveals the succession of emotions with which he reacts to her falsehood.
By the time we know the Cavaliere well, the chief dramatic interest of the novel has shifted to Emma’s involvement with the Hero. Their meeting and immediate romantic attachment to one another is plausibly portrayed. Nelson’s pivotal role in the English struggle against the French-backed republican rebels for control of the Kingdom of Naples means that he spends time with the Cavaliere. And he meets frequently with the besieged King and Queen of Naples, King Ferdinand II and Queen Maria Carolina, who are close friends of the Hamiltons.
Underpinning Sontag’s portrayal of Emma and the Hero’s grand passion is a clear-cut skepticism. One of the book’s truths concerns the delusions with which lovers must often sustain a relationship. If Emma possessed basic good looks, she was by the time she met the Hero, noticeably plump and her hair was an offensively-garish blond color. If Nelson was an acclaimed naval hero, he was at the same time an insensitive person who could be a merciless tyrant. He apparently felt no compunction over breaking up the Cavaliere’s marriage nor at ending his own. A man shorter than Emma and weighing a great deal less, he had lost his right arm, an eye, and his upper teeth. As one would expect of an essayist, Sontag peppers her narrative with delightful discursive personal remarks. Concerning Nelson and his foe Napoleon, she writes, “It was a time for concentrated men of preposterous ambition and small stature who needed no more than four hours of sleep a night.”
As history has revealed, Emma’s final days back in England are filled with misery, and she dies a pauper. In winding down and concluding her enchanting narrative, Sontag gives her imagination full rein, and offers us many forceful passages, particularly about the book’s most outstanding character, the Cavaliere.