Those Neglected Books

Portrait by George Romney; Lady  Emma Hamilton was a well-known beauty in her times and painted no less than 30 times.

No income, no new books. I had to turn to my own bookcase and tackle those books I always wanted to read, but never did. I bought Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover at a flea market many moons ago, wanting to impress a certain scholarly guy. The man moved on. The book stayed put – until lockdown compelled me to face my impulse buys gathered over decades.

The Volcano Lover is about love, passion, feminism, collecting, Vesuvius, Naples, politics and history of the south of Italy during the 18th century, when French nobility lost their heads across the border.

Sir William Hamilton loves his collections more than first wife . . . until she dies. He; however, soon forgets his grief. With a vague reference to the groin, he falls head over heels for the commoner, Emma. Initially, his passion for this much younger ex of his nephew equals his fascination with volcanoes. Then enters one of Britain’s most famous war heroes, Lord Horatio Nelson, and the love triangle that would rock the aristocracy of Naples and Britain during the 18th century. Nelson’s and Emma’s love is not mere physical or infatuation, but the epitome of love that does not presuppose perfection. He lost an arm and an eye; she got excessively fat, but their love defied all social rules of the time.

It is immensely enriching to explore in detail Sontag’s references to people, places, paintings, vases, and events: Pliny The Elder (AD 23 – 79); the painter Correggio (1494 – 1534); Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792). This is not name dropping to add authenticity to her interpretation of history; she adds layer upon layer of meaning with each reference.

The fable of Pygmalion is a good example. Sontag uses the fable to build on the themes of feminism and collecting. Pygmalion found the statue of a woman so beautiful that he wanted her alive. As king of Cyprus, he had ultimate power and allowed her one sense only, that of smell. Delighted, she tried to preserve the newly found scents. She could not distinguish between good and bad thus, wanted to hold on to all, even the smell of dog excrement. Bernard Shaw based his play, Pygmalion, on this story of male dominance and a woman ‘s awakening to herself. My Fair Lady, the story of Prof Higgins and Eliza, is also based on this fable.

 Sir William Hamilton is the main collector in the book, displaying an all-consuming passion for beautiful and valuable objects, books, historical artefacts; as well as less valuable objects such as lava deposits from the mountains. There are several other collectors in the book, each displaying an interesting nuance of the psyche of the collector. The Earl of Elgin known for the Elgin marbles, artefacts stolen from the Parthenon is received with great splendour by Sir William and Lady Emma.

Collecting has a dark side, though. The highly esteemed ambassador buys rare books from desperate political prisoners, his erstwhile friends. He illegally obtains objects from Pompeii and sells it at a profit.

The last chapter in the book is given to Elenora de Fonseca, a poet and political activist the late 18th century. Elenora does not beat about the bush: ‘Who was the esteemed Sir William Hamilton but an upper-class dilettante enjoying the many opportunities afforded in a poor and corrupt and interesting country to pilfer the art and make a living out of it and get himself known as a connoisseur. Did he ever have an original thought, or subject himself to the discipline of writing a poem, or discover or invent something useful to humanity, or burn with zeal for anything except his own pleasures and privileges annexed to his station? He knew to appreciate what the picturesque natives had left, in the way of art and ruins, lying on the ground.’

The Volcano Lover reminded me, working and living in several African countries for the last decade, to tread very softly in my guest country. This is after all what a good book does; it speaks across time, physical and cultural borders.


Helena Opperman©

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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