Novel * Mary Shelley * Romantic Apocalypse * 1826
I wonder if scholars of English literature have established rivalries based on their areas of study. I wasn’t in academia long enough to find this out, but I have to imagine that it’s a thing. This feeling is based on my own bias towards Modernism, and against Romanticism. Like, I’m cool with the Classic Era, and Medieval, Renaissance, and even those Enlightenment dorks. Victorians and Post-Moderns are cool, too. But man, double-fuck those Romantic dipshits, am I right? Shut the hell up, Wordsworth, I don’t care. Suck it forever, Byron, nobody likes you. Maybe I feel a little too strongly about this, but I just cannot tolerate the endless strings of useless adverbs and flowery nonsense that was pretty much the exclusive realm of these guys. Just a bunch of idealistic claptrap from a group of ultra-entitled rich kids who didn’t have to work for a living but still kicked against the aristocracy because they wanted to go hiking and enjoy open marriages. I could go on in this fashion, but I suppose I should get to the work in question, which is a Romantic novel about the death of Romanticism. You’d think I could get behind that, but Shelley makes is so, so hard.
You’ve probably read Frankenstein. If not, you’re at least likely familiar with it (but please don’t be that insufferable drip who insists on correcting people about it being Frankenstein’s monster), considering the cat has his own breakfast cereal. That novel was Mary Shelley’s first, and it was a Romantic Gothic story about the principals of rationality and science run amok, which in a roundabout way promoted the Romantic ideals of art, nature, and purity. The Last Man, conversely, is more about the failures of these things, in addition to the failure of various ideologies such as freedom of thought, expression, and all human feeling. It’s a dark book. The novel also makes a lot more sense if you understand some things about Mary Shelley herself. Without reiterating her entire biography, it suffices to say that she led a rough life. She hooked up with Percey Shelley – a filthy Romantic poet – and got knocked up at sixteen (which in early 19th century England was a problem). Mary then spent the next ten years travelling around Europe with her common-law husband, giving birth to several children who would immediately die, and watching the love of her life cheat on her constantly before finally dying young himself. After all that, she wrote The Last Man while raising her one surviving son and enduring the public shaming of her dickhead father-in-law. So yeah, it has every reason to be a dark book.
As indicated by the title, this novel is about the last man on earth. That said, the story has everything to do with this man’s life leading up to the point where he winds up alone and wandering. In fact, for the first third of the novel, there is not even the slightest hint that anything apocalyptic is going to happen. Eventually, after many, many chapters of Romantic nonsense, a plague breaks out and starts spreading across the planet. Lionel Verney, who will eventually become the last man, is a former ruffian-turned-gentleman who hangs out at Windsor Castle with his extended family while millions drop dead around them. His best bro, Adrian (Earl of Windsor), is a highly idealized leader and takes control of a depopulated England during these last years. Eventually the Windsor group gives England up as a loss and moves south to France. Everyone dies anyway. Finally, in Italy, Verney winds up with only his son, his niece, and Adrian left alive. Then they all die too. The end. Literally.
The Last Man is a strange book, in that it appears to be an early science fiction novel about an imagined apocalypse. The story is set in the late 21st century and recounts the attempts of an elite group of friends to survive a super-plague. They fail, which is almost unique by itself, considering the typical point of apocalyptic fiction is to elicit human understanding by placing characters in unusual circumstances. To get real reductive about it, end-of-the-world stories are still about the world, only drastically changed. At the end of The Last Man, there is no world. Yet here’s the thing: The Last Man isn’t even really about the end of the world. Sure, it’s set 250 years in Shelley’s future, but she spent exactly zero seconds imagining what the England of 2090 might look like. Everything from technology to social structure is almost exactly how it was in the 1820s. Likewise, the plague has no real reason for existing or spreading throughout civilization (over a period of years, because it hibernates in winter). It’s not that Mary Shelley was incapable of imaginative fiction. I mean Frankenstein, hello. The reason for this kind of weirdness is that this novel is a thinly veiled allegory about Shelley’s own fucked up personal life.
Lionel Verney, the first-person narrator of the story, is a surrogate for Shelley herself. The characters that surround Verney throughout the novel are all pretty much one-to-one versions for people in Shelley’s life. Adrian, the impossibly noble, wise, and learned leader of men is Mary’s late husband, Percey Shelley. Lord Raymond, the expansive, charismatic, and ambitious Lord Protector is Lord Byron, another filthy Romantic poet. The entire first third of the novel is essentially an idealistic re-imagining of Shelley’s personal life. Verney was a wild shepherd boy with rough intelligence but no polish until he was rescued by kind, understanding Adrian. Very subtle, Mary. Switching genders really threw me off your trail. The group of super-friends hole up in Windsor for a few years of paradise, which consists of debating Greek philosophy and presumably spouting terrible verse at each other while patting each other on the back for being so much more sensitive and smart than everyone else. Goddamn Romantic jerk-faces thinking they’re better than me. Anyway, you get the idea. I know I’ve been trashing the Romantics this entire time, so I think I should probably provide an example of what I’m complaining about. Here’s a thing:
“She threw open her window, which looked on the palace-garden. Light and darkness were struggling together, and the orient was streaked by roseate and golden rays. One star only trembled in the depth of the kindling atmosphere. The morning air blowing freshly over the dewy plants, rushed into the heated room. ‘All things go on,’ though Perdita, ‘all things proceed, decay, and perish! When noontide has passed, and the weary day has driven her team to western stalls, the fires of heaven rise from the East, moving in their accustomed path, they ascend and descend from the skiey hill. When their course is fulfilled, the dial begins to cast westward an uncertain shadow; the eye-lids of day are opened, and birds and flowers, the startled vegetation, and fresh breeze awaken; the sun at length appears, and in majestic procession climbs the capitol of heaven. All proceeds, changes, and dies, except the sense of misery in my bursting heart.”
That… that hurt to just type out. All that bullshit just to say: “The days keep going by and still I’m real sad.” Yes, I understand about the poetic language. There is some pretty imagery here. Yet this is the entire book. Every paragraph sounds like this, and it just keeps going. I was continually losing the thread of what little plot there is because of these extended poetic interludes. If that’s your jam, then by all means get in here and enjoy, there is plenty of it.
The Last Man, then, is a testament to one woman’s tragic pain and suffering. Mary Shelley had a rough go of it, but even though she died relatively young (53), she never gave up. This novel, which is less apocalyptic fiction and more Shelley working through some shit, isn’t necessarily good. But I think it was necessary for Shelley to write. Also, while I hate her writing style, I respect the writer. Mary Shelley was brilliant, by all accounts. Even in this morass personal tragedy, Shelley has some larger things to say about the overall world she found herself in. Year after year of personal tragedy have a way of stripping idealism from people, and The Last Man is a good example of this in practice. Her entire young life was dedicated to education, philosophy, and writing, and all it was seemingly good for was being more sensitive to her losses. You see this with Lionel as the world deteriorates around him. All that effort, all that beauty gone to waste, because life is meaningless. Here, one more example of many words expressing a simple thought.
“I did not tell her, that to spare her the pang of parting from inanimate objects, now the only things left, I had resolved that we should none of us return to Windsor. For the last time we looked on the wide extent of country visible from the terrace, and saw the last rays of sun tinge the dark masses of wood variegated by autumnal tints; the uncultivated fields and smokeless cottages lay in shadow below; the Thames wound through the wide plain, and the venerable pile of Eton college, stood in dark relief, a prominent object; the cawing of the myriad rooks which inhabited the trees of the little park, as in column or thick wedge they speeded to their nests, disturbed the silence of the evening. Nature was the same, as when she was the kind mother of the human race; now, childless and forlorn, her fertility was a mockery; her loveliness a mask for deformity. Why should the breeze gently stir the trees, man felt not its refreshment? Why did dark night adorn herself with stars – man saw them not? Why are their fruits, or flowers, or streams, man is not here to enjoy them?”
Well, because it’s not all about YOU, Lionel. Anyway, Shelley lost all of her beautiful friends, most of her children, and her husband. She must have felt much like the above passage most of the time. Ever been depressed on a beautiful autumn day? The above passage is that feeling writ across all of humanity. That the world carries on unperturbed despite your pain only magnifies those feelings of worthlessness and apathy. How dare it? This passage effectively sums up why The Last Man exists in the first place. Shelley not only lost people close to her, she lost an entire ideology. The enormity of her loss could only be represented properly on the page by destroying the entire human race, save for one man left wandering the abandoned globe. Yet in the end Lionel doesn’t kill himself, even though he is sorely tempted, because of the bane of human existence: hope. Lionel lives because he clings to a desperate hope that maybe – a very tenuous and unconvincing maybe – someone else is wandering alone in the empty world too. Likewise, Mary Shelley must have seen herself hoping against hope that she’d find someone or some way to reignite that lost passion and love.