Book review: “The Last Man” by Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley, the mother of science fiction around the time she wrote The Last Man.  By Reginald Easton (1820)  via Wikimedia Commons

Panning for gold and letting the sand go in the stream of time, Literature selects timeless books by their quality. If a writer is known by only one book while she wrote prolifically, it’s usually for a reason. I found it’s true for many writers from J. D. Salinger to H. Beecher-Stowe.

Mary Shelley is not an exception. She is known as “the mother of science fiction” for “Frankenstein“, arguably the first SF novel, but most of us would struggle to name any of her other books, while she wrote 7 novels, 2 travelogues, biography, poems, short stories, and children’s books.

The Last Man” was Shelley’s third novel published in 1826. It is an apocalyptic novel, allegedly the first apocalyptic novel, the subgenre “death by plague”. It’s nowhere as good as “Frankenstein” and a great deal longer.

The first 250 pages are an example of a novel that parents were advised against in the 19th century.  There are two noble orphans living in poverty as the father was a witty spendthrift and squandered friendship of the last king of England. He died, children’s mother died. The son is a shepherd and hooligan who supports his dreamy sister.

shelleylastmanThe action starts when the son of the abdicated king, Adrian, the Earl of Windsor befriends the shepherd. The noblest Adrian was modelled on Mary’s late husband, romantic poet Percy Bissy Shelley.

The children grow into adults. Under the angelic Adrian tutelage, the shepherd acquires education fit for a diplomatic aide in a year.

The Earl of Windsor is in love with a Greek princess. The princess rejects him as she secretly loves The General and the Earl goes mad.  The shepherd is in love with the Earl of Windsor’s sister. The sister is courted by The General, a cross between Lord Byron, Alexander the Great and Napoleon as he has the imperial ambitions. But The General is in love with shepherd’s sister and renounces his ambitions to be with his love.

The language is florid and pompous, I always imagined the speaker in Roman robes,  arms raised to Heaven declaring:

“Nor are outward objects alone the receptacles of the Spirit of Good. Look into the mind of man, where wisdom reigns enthroned; where imagination, the painter, sits, with his pencil dipt in hues lovelier than those of sunset, adorning familiar life with glowing tints. What a noble boon, worthy the giver, is the imagination! it takes from reality its leaden hue: it envelopes all thought and sensation in a radiant veil, and with an hand of beauty beckons us from the sterile seas of life, to her gardens, and bowers, and glades of bliss. And is not love a gift of the divinity? Love, and her child, Hope, which can bestow wealth on poverty, strength on the weak, and happiness on the sorrowing.

The novel set at the end of the 21st century but the progress is minor, it’s early 19th century all around. The most shocking development is the king of the United Kingdom abdication and replacement by the Lord Protector, sort of president. Incidentally, two centuries later there’s no serious republican movement in the real UK as the Royal family settled in a role of a cross between a tourist attraction and the Kardashians.

In the book, although some politicians want to abolish aristocracy, there’s still abject poverty where people die from hunger. The world is sharply divided between “people of value and leisure” and everybody else.

The other conspicuously absent change that I expected from the daughter of one of the first European feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft is the role of women. They are always talked about in the context of marriage and looking after their family. All members of parliament and officials, even inn-keepers are men. Women are shown as caring and emotional beings incapable of any intellectual occupation. When a man shows an emotion, he apologises for behaving like a woman.

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A painting inspired by Thomas Campbell’s poem with the same name  – The Last Man  by John Martin (1849)

The technology did not progress. People still travel by carriage or riding a horse, the only concession to the future is to travel by an air balloon, and a steamship mentioned once. They still fight with bayonets and swords. There are no methods of communication on short or long distances except letters. If you want to see how horrible the relatively recent part was, just read this description of the future.

After 250 pages and with some main characters tragically dead, the plague that was smoldering in barbaric Turkey inundates Europe and reaches England’s shores. As the science did not advance, there is no way to do something about it and the population of British Isles is reduced to a couple of thousand people. This enlivens the narrative to no end.

A lot of apocalyptic cliches are already there. “Vegetation” growing on the pavements of London. The abundance of material goods per person, which leads to breaking ranks. Although nobody produces any food, nobody starves. A cult leader splits the survivors.

The novel was written following the poem of the same name  (1823). Essentially, the book is n interminably long, an indulegnt love letter to Shelley’s late husband. The contemporary critics didn’t like the book and it was forgotten for almost 200 years.  I say let it remain in Lethe.

You may ask why didn’t I quit this book after the first 50 pages. It was a part of the book club (read the review) and I was one of the 4 people who has managed to finish it.

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