Mary Shelley: The Last Man

August 12, 2016

41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_I think this is the fourth time I’ve read or listened to this strangely compelling novel. It’s so much better than Frankenstein, more leisurely paced, with more ideas and more complex characters, though still painfully overblown in the romantic strain in places. But what fascinates me most is that, as far as I’m aware, it’s the first ‘end of the world as we know it’ novel in history. (Do correct me if you know different!)

The Last Man is set in the closing decades of our current century, and ranges widely through different and challenging ideas: the future of England and how it is to be ruled, and its eventually becoming a republic when the heir to the throne steps down (though Parliament eventually votes him Lord Protector), and then the gradual disappearance of humanity with the world ravaged by seven successive years of bubonic plague.

The central characters are a group of friends centred around the ex-royal family of England and their associates; there are also various intermarriages and children, and we follow their lives, happinesses and ultimate fates over quite a lengthy period of time, which allows Shelley to develop real characters, feelings and attitudes.

As with any attempt to see far into the future, she too has problems, particularly with technology. She was looking two hundred and fifty years into the future, and yet cannot conceive of the world itself as radically different politically from her own time, so Greece’s attempts to achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire still figure prominently in the 2050s, while we hear very little of ‘the Americas’, and a love of Italy still looms large, as it did in the late eighteenth century. England is pictured as a relatively prosperous, if not semi-utopian land, and yet Shelley cannot conceive of any kind of industrial or technological progress, which surprises me, since she imagined Frankenstein’s experiments and achievements: travel is still largely by horse (when people actually need to travel), although apparently there are some Montgolfier balloon-type airships for use when speed is required, or in case of emergency. Otherwise we might well still be in 1800… England is not an industrial nation – nowhere is.

But, of course, it’s not hard science she’s interested in here, in contrast to Frankenstein; she is considering humanity under threat from an unseen enemy – plague. Medicine does not seem to have made any advances in the intervening centuries either, so the disease sweeps all before it, and all that it’s possible to do is manage the catastrophe and the depopulation. There are episodes of great heroism and also cowardice as the inevitable end approaches; the last band of 1500 English people set off for better climes in Europe, but give way to rivalries and are beset by religious mania; eventually we come to focus on the last four survivors, and then finally there is one, all alone.

I make it seem rather banal, describing it baldly thus, whereas Shelley does make us care about her characters and their fates, and does get us thinking about humanity’s reaction to total calamity; it is a compelling tale, and even the overwritten, hectically gushing and romantic sections where our emotions are wrung out in search of a response, do not diminish the overall effect of what is a rather neglected classic. Verney, the last man, writes his farewell to the world at the turn of the year 2100 at the top of the dome of St Peter’s in Rome, and then sets off into his unknown. Powerful stuff.

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