To label "The Volcano Lover" a romance, as its author Susan Sontag does, is perhaps a misnomer. An affair of state would be more like it.
One of America's foremost critics presents us with a historical novel featuring the personages of Sir William Hamilton ("the Cavaliere"), his second wife, Emma ("the Cavaliere's wife"), and her lover, Adm. Lord Nelson ("the hero"). It is, of course, not an uninteresting story.Much of what Sontag does well vivifies the trio, her imaginative prowess conjuring for the reader three fully realized human beings paroled from history to enact their oftimes sorry story before us. And yet, this novel's innate power is somewhat tamed by the author's encompassing portrayal of their lives and times. We are given the whole picture, but to take it in we must stand distant from the story.
The novel first concerns itself with Sir William Hamilton, the British emissary to the court of Ferdinand IV, who would become Ferdinand I, King of the Two Sicilies. Initially disappointed with his appointment to Naples, Hamilton has fashioned a life there that suits him well.
He is a collector, devoted to elevating the common taste through preserving and, not incidentally, selling for a sustaining profit, treasures he is able to loot from the unsavory or unknowing locals. He is also a devoted student of the volcano, Vesuvius, a chaotic, natural force presented insistently as a symbol of the eruptions that will spew change throughout Hamilton's ordered life.
His second wife comes to him as a young woman of incomparable beauty whose vulgarity is somewhat obscured by her intelligence, but, still, in all her long life she will laugh too loud and exhibit her enthusiasms too ardently to ever be considered refined.
She is sold, or perhaps swapped, or, at any rate, sent along to Hamilton by his nephew Charles, who merely asks for a forgivable loan in return. Emma, only 21, does not understand the deal until many months along in her tutelage with Hamilton. Yet she comes to accept the terms, eventually marrying him and becoming a darling at the Bourbon court.
Then along comes Nelson, the British admiral, first a loving friend of the Hamiltons and then Emma's lover. He rescues them, as well as the royal household, from the flurry of republicanism that seized Naples in 1799, Then, at the king's order, they return to the city where Nelson deals death to even the great and good in Neapolitan society who were suspected of playing a role in the new, if short-lived, order.
Such brutality should have brought him disgrace, but the whispers blamed Emma, saying she incited him to commit atrocities. Nelson was needed to fight future engagements. Emma, who returned to England pregnant by her lover and with an aging husband weltered by debt, was expendable. She was coarse, fat and little welcomed, while Nelson was lionized and sent into battle again and again.
They planned a future, a country home (their daughter to consider), and following Hamilton's death in 1803, it seemed possible. But Nelson died, the hero of Trafalgar, with her name on his lips, and she was left profoundly impoverished with a child to rear.
A moving tale, no? But lest we leave the book too caught up in their story, Sontag gives the final pages over to one of their victims, a leading Neapolitan intellectual who died at the scaffold. She scorns the "nullity" of Emma and has only contempt for Nelson as the "champion of British imperial power," condemning them both.
In this novel, obviously, we are not to be swept along, but to be fully informed from every perspective, which in the end makes it something far more, and something less, than a romance.