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The Volcano Lover

Have you read it?

The Volcano Lover written by Susan Sontag (yes, she!) is an historical fictional romance starring the characters  of Sir William Hamilton, his young second wife Lady Emma Hamilton and later introducing her lover Lord Nelson. It is peppered with prominent artists and writers of the period, coloured with passion and lust. But what is most seductive about this piece of writing is its sheer poetic beauty. It is a magnificent opera of drama and wry humour. There is a contagious obsession with  beauty – within  landscape, objects and people, but with deft artistry the writer sinks us into the depths of utmost human depravity.

I particularly responded to the wax lyrical of Hamilton’s collecting zeal.

Sir William Hamilton by Joshua Reynolds, 1776.

“So the collector is a dissember, someone whose joys are never unalloyed with anxiety. Because there is always more. Or an ideal completing of your collection. But this ideal completion for which every collector hungers is a delusive goal.

A great private collection is a material concentrate that continually stimulates, that overexcites. Not only because it can always be added to, but because it is already too much. The collector’s need is precisely for excess, for surfeit, for profusion.

It’s too much-and it’s just enough for me. Someone who hesitates, who asks, Do I need this? Is this really necessary: is not a collector. A collection is always more than is necessary.” P 72

Unfortunately, the above spoke to me quite disarmingly directly. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I felt the guilt of truth within, guilt to admit that truth for myself (if I was not restrained by practical financial considerations). But also guilt that perhaps that is only one type of collector, and perhaps the bad sort? Oh dear, am I in the category of ‘bad, lustful, greedy’ collector? Then why does it feel so good? (Then empty, then good again, ad infinitum).

Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante by Elizabeth Vigee-Le Brun,c 1790. The artist made an appearance in Sontag’s book. Note the erupting volcano Mt Vesuvius in the background. Lovely Emma performed dances in sheer costumes for their many lucky visitors.

Sontag also struck a chord when she described others responses to a personal collection – and this could be anything – art, jewellery, gemstones, smurfs, aprons…The collector keenly shows their well considered mini-museum of objects, but the response from the audience doesn’t really quite reach the levels of the collector’s anticipation. Isn’t that a familiar feeling?

“This passion was about what always surprised, alarmed; what exceeded all expectations; and what never evoked the response that the Cavaliere wanted. But then, to the obsessed collector, the appreciations of other people always seem off-key, withholding, never appreciative enough.

Collections unite. Collections isolate. They unite those who love the same thing. (But no one loves the same as I do; enough.) They isolate from those who don’t share the passion. (Alas, almost everyone.) Then I’ll try not to talk about what interests me most. I’ll talk about what interests you. But this will remind me, often, of what I can’t share with you. Oh, listen, Don’t you see. Don’t you see how beautiful it is.” p.p. 28-29.

Ms Sontag knew The Collector psyche very well. But the novel doesn’t wallow in gratuitousness. There is a moral or two to the tale so to speak, and more then merely ‘owning’ things the author celebrates that which surrounds the practice – culture, ideas, intellect and relationships. The depth of the novel is much more than collecting.

Anyway, read it if you haven’t already. It’s quite a treat.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover, Vintage, London, 1993 (is the copy I read, hence the page references).

4 thoughts on “The Volcano Lover

  1. You’ve made me want to read this book, Marielle! And I can completely relate to the collector’s mania, and know you do too!

  2. I enjoyed The Volcano Lover & give a talk about Emma & Horatio (+ Sir William), but is that Emma as Thais? Waddesdon says it is Emily Pott!!

    • You know, I think that’s right ! It’s been misattributed elsewhere and I’ve made the same mistake. Thank you. It is still a lovely painting, but I’ll have to take it out – Emily is no Emma !

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