Text Messages | Dust to dust

Humanity’s tenuous connection to what makes us human is severed after a mysterious global plague breaks out in Mary Shelley’s other great novel, The Last Man.

In the name-check stakes, Frankenstein is a certainty to be recognised. But Mary Shelley? Alas, rather less. And Mary Wollstonecraft will, these days, barely raise eyebrows.

The fates of women writers in English who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries is a tale of gender-bending names to secure publication. Think of the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, forced to masquerade as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, or of George Eliot, in real life Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans. At the time, Eliot was thought to be either a parson or a parson’s wife, such were the simplistic assumptions derived from superficial readings of her novels.

But back to Frankenstein – properly, Dr Victor Frankenstein – and his creator, Mary Shelley (nee Wollstonecraft). She published Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818, two years after a summer spent in Switzerland with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, two of the leading poets of the Romantic movement. It had been a rainy season and, confined indoors for much of the time, the literary trio whiled away some of the hours reading classic German ghost stories. The upshot was an undertaking for each to write a supernatural tale. The men did not; Mary did.

Frankenstein stands at the head of all subsequent science fiction, a genre that has a woman founder, regardless of what devotees of two of its early creators, Jules Verne and HG Wells, have to say. It is not merely a personal whim to assert this; here is what The Oxford Companion to English Literature (sixth edition revised, 2006) writes: “As if she wished to be understood as the mother of science fiction, Shelley repeated her futuristic experiment, publishing The Last Man in 1826. This disaster novel, set far into the future, features a plague which wipes out all humanity except for one man. It did not win the acclaim of its predecessor.”

Perhaps the subject matter was too bleak or maybe even then readers resented a novel that so clearly did not give a damn about a whopper of a spoiler in its very title. But The Last Man is not only a work of science fiction. It is also an extended examination of the Romantic notion of The Last Man, in which Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley, and many other literary and philosophical types of the first quarter of the 1800s, were much interested.

The end of humanity

The narrator, Lionel Verney, becomes the eponymous man of the title. He stands, finally, alone against the “invincible monster”, the global plague that has killed his fellow humans. Shelley, having advertised the ending by that declarative give-away title, does not disappoint. Lionel fetches up at last in the ruins of Rome, in the year 2100. On his way, Shelley provides a withering examination of human “sophistication” and “civilisation” and a devastating critique of vaulting human ambition and its accompanying arrogance. 

The veneer of civilisation is very thin, as William Golding was to show again 128 years later in Lord of the Flies. Throughout The Last Man there is a sense of Shelley’s philosophical and existential despair at those with whom she had to share the Earth. Little wonder then that the deathly fate she conjures up for humans is so terrible. 

The plague allegedly breaks out first in Egypt, later crosses the Mediterranean to Athens and lands up at last in Britain. That in itself is an interesting triangulation of civilisation: the Egyptians, the Greeks and the British – if you grant Britain as the birthplace of the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution. 

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What is terrifying about this plague is that it is not transmitted from person to person, except in one case. Its mode of transmission is never discovered by the scientists and medical men who today would be sitting on that self-regardingly named British body, Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). The disease strikes more in spring and summer, for no apparent reason. It is an irrational force, set against the apparent objectivity of the human world.

The most powerful resonance of The Last Man in this age of the coronavirus is that rampant biological function can so easily destroy all the most cherished attributes of being human. So it is that humans as Shakespeare’s “quintessence of dust” are similarly reduced by Shelley when she writes of Lionel contemplating his dying wife, Perdita.

He muses that when she is dead, all that makes her human will be gone abruptly: “For quickly the fair proportion of the edifice would be more defaced than are the sand-choked ruins of the desert temples of Palmyra.”

In setting Lionel on the road to Rome and the last stand of the Last Man, Shelley also laid the way to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose title character is an unforgettable representation of the human weakness of trying to suppress that which it is most difficult to: eros and, with it, the life impulse.

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