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Book review

The Last Man

by Mary Shelley

The Last Man

This is a difficult book to review, because it’s very much a book of its time, reflecting the social mores, the power hierarchies (both social and domestic) of the early 19th century. It was written by Mary Shelley, and published in 1826.

Ten years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “Frankenstein”, born out of a competition between herself, Percy Shelley (her lover, and future husband) and their friend Lord Byron, as to who could write the best horror story. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was an instant hit, and has remained famous ever since.

“The Last Man”, however, was severely suppressed at the time, and only emerged from obscurity in the 1960s. It is likely the first dystopian science fiction novel ever written, set in the very late 21st century, but in a society and with technology barely advanced beyond the early 19th century. (Almost the only advanced technology is the occasional use of aerial blimps as a means of rapid transportation.) It is set as a prophecy, recovered from the Sibylline caves near Athens, and purports to be the first-hand account by Lionel Verney, born in poverty to a fallen nobleman, and befriended by Adrian, Earl of Windsor,. Adrian’s father had been a friend of Verney’s late father, and sets out to educate and settle him into the upper classes of the time.

The whole book is, I think even by the standards of its time, written in hugely romantic language, with flowing and flowery sentences at every turn, no opportunity missed to use five words and an extended metaphor where two words would have done. Here’s an example, when the hero meets his future wife:

“Her tall slim figure bent gracefully as a poplar to the breezy west, and her gait, goddess-like, was as that of a winged angel new alit from heaven’s high floor; the pearly fairness of her complexion was stained by a pure suffusion; her voice resembled the low, subdued tenor of a flute.”

The first third of the book recounts Verney’s adoption into society, his growing friendship with Adrian’s sister Idris, and a little of the politics of the Republican England of the book’s setting. We meet Verney’s younger sister, Perdita, and see her fall in love with Lord Raymond, the political rival of Adrian. Raymond was also courting Adrian’s sister, Idris: he’s a deeply dashing hero, had a sparkling career fighting as a volunteer in the Greek army in his youth, and he’s clearly based somewhat on Lord Byron. Perdita marries Raymond, which leaves Lionel clear to woo, and in due course marry, Idrs. Meanwhile Lord Raymond seeks to be elected Lord Protector of England, in competition with Adrian. After a great debate, Raymond wins, and sets about producing great public works.

The setting for the whole book is a future England, recently turned a Republic, and there’s quite a lot about the politics:

“England had been the scene of momentous struggles, during my early boyhood. In the year 2073, the last of its kings, the ancient friend of my father, had abdicated in compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects, and a republic was instituted.”

Lord Raymond, through his offices as Lord Protector, meets Evadne, a fallen Greek princess, who was his lover in his youth. He becomes emotionally entangled with her, and although their relationship probably doesn’t cross the line into physical, when Perdita finds out about it, he feels he must resign as Lord Protector, leave England, and return to Greece. Raymond is portrayed in this decision as taking the honourable path (in yet more clouds of adjectives):

“Genius, devotion, and courage; the adornments of his mind, and the energies of his soul, all exerted to their uttermost stretch, could not roll back one hair’s breadth the wheel of time’s chariot; that which had been was written with the adamantine pen of reality, on the everlasting volume of the past; nor could agony and tears suffice to wash out one iota from the act fulfilled.”

In the second third of the book, Verney goes to Greece to seek out his sister’s husband, and talk some sense into him. Perdita and her daughter, Clara, persuade him to take them along as part of the mission. Lionel himself gets caught up in the war that Raymond is now prosecuting against the Turks, which eventually leads to Raymond as the general, besieging the remnants of the Turkish army in Constantinople.

Now the whole course of the book begins to turn, for there are rumours of plague in Constantinople. The siege is won, but Raymond’s forces refuse to enter the city. Raymond enters alone, finds the city almost deserted, but is killed in an explosion. Verney recovers the body, and lays him to rest near Athens. In true romantic fashion, Perdita throws herself upon the tomb of her husband, and refuses to leave. Fearing for her life, Lionel drugs her, and brings her back to England by steamship. When Perdita awakes on the ship, she throws herself into the sea and drowns.

Plague follows Lionel and Clara back to England, and the scene is set for the last act. Slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity, the plague kills. First the remote towns, then the cities. Lionel and Adrian, together with Clara, attempt to sit it out in Windsor Castle, taking in waifs and strays and helping out where they can.

“We had many foreign friends whom we eagerly sought out, and relieved from dreadful penury. Our Castle became an asylum for the unhappy. A little population occupied its halls.”

Adrian meanwhile finds himself more and more involved in leading the last remaining English people, and eventually leads the fifteen hundred or so who they can gather together on a voyage to the Continent, to escape the increasingly desolate English climate.

As they progress down France, various mishaps befall them. There is a mad religious sect in Paris, more deaths by plague, and more desolation. By the time they get to Switzerland, where they plan to spend the summer, they number fewer than a hundred. By the start of the next year, there are only a handful left. Eventually, it’s down to Adrian, Lionel, Clara (Adrian’s niece, daughter of Perdita), and Evelyn, Lionel’s son. It’s now the year 2099, and these are likely the last four humans left alive. Evelyn catches typhus, and succumbs: the last three set off by boat from Venice, planning to return to Greece, to visit Raymond’s tomb, but a storm breaks up their boat, and Adrian and Clara drown.

In many ways, I found the last twenty pages or so the most affecting of the whole book. Lionel is alone – The Last Man. He contemplates his fate, wanders around Italy, and settles in the hills above Rome, with a sheep dog that he found.

“Every new impression of the hard-cut reality on my soul brought with it a fresh pang, telling me the yet unstudied lesson, that neither change of place nor time could bring alleviation to my misery, but that, as I now was, I must continue, day after day, month after month, year after year, while I lived.

At the very end, Lionel Verney sets off by boat down the Tiber, planning to roam along the coast of the Mediterranean, until he finds another human companion, or dies alone:

“Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney–the LAST MAN.”

Three and a half stars, rounded down to three for the difficulties that I, a puny modern reader, had with ploughing through some of the wordier passages.