The Volcano Lover is the story of William Hamilton, a British ambassador to Naples. It is about his second wife Emma Hamilton and her infamous affair with Lord Nelson. It is about the history of Italy, just before it became a unified nation. It is about art, ancient ruins, and the tourists who admired and collected. It is about Vesuvius, and the irresistible pull the volcano has on the imagination.
The story begins with Hamilton and his wife Catherine living in Naples. In the narrative Hamilton is only referred to as ‘the Cavalier”. They live a quiet life; he spends most of his time searching for and collecting art and antiquities, she is devoted to music. However, Hamilton’s life is radically altered by the death of his wife. He is alone and drifting. Then his nephew asks him a favor; “Could you take in a former mistress that I am trying to get rid of?”. An unusual request, but Hamilton agrees. This is how he meets Emma, famous beauty and muse of artists.
Everyone knows the story from here- Hamilton marries Emma, she becomes a social sensation, then has a famously scandalous affair with Lord Nelson. Sontag is gentle with her characters- there is no blame placed, no judgement of their actions. Indeed, the three principles live in relative harmony, and hold very genuine affection for each other.
The personal drama of the characters is part of a much larger historical tapestry. Nelson is in Naples because he is leading the British Navy in the war against Napoleon. The Hamilton’s in Naples host a vast array of famous writers, artists, and nobles all participating in the ubiquitous “Grand Tour”. While Hamilton is ambassador in Naples the country revolts against their Bourbon king and the Hamilton’s are forced to flee with the royal family to Sicily. Finally Vesuvius erupts- Sontag juxtaposes this at the climax of both the characters passions and the historical dramas.
The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness style with no quotations used for dialogue and nick-names used for the characters, sometimes making it hard to guess who they are without historical knowledge. Sontag also interjects “asides” where she discusses history, human nature, and provides observations on characters and scenes; these are often humorous in a dry sort of way. I personally liked the style- it was unique and engaging, and made a story where all of the basic facts are already known that much more interesting.