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The Last Man (1826) by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein was not Shelley’s only sci-fi novel, but those who feel a vision of 21st century England ravaged by plague and aristocratic power struggles may be a little too close to home, may wish to avoid this apocalyptic dystopian disaster story.

Written in the wake of Frankenstein this also features a hero tormented by isolation, and is framed as a first hand account by one Lionel Verney, an impoverished nobleman.

International trade breaks down a plague of biblical proportions sweeps the globe, England suffers mass unemployment and becomes the destination of destitute immigrants.

The English government enact strict emergency powers which are presented as being temporary. The aristocracy hold the government to ransom, refusing to provide cash to the aid the poor unless their elite status is secured, and allowed to raise land rents.

Amid the plague, ‘while the decree of population was abrogated, property continued sacred’ which seems less sci-fi prediction than current government policy.

England is flooded by storms and frozen by harsh winters, and the plague ridden population starve, England falls into licentiousness and social order breaks down. Religious and political extremists exploit the situation for power.

Remarkable for its prescience, a happy read this is not.

Characters seem very contemporary, such as the icy queen who never eats except for necessity, the swaggering posh braggart, and the English visitors to Italy complain about the heat.

The Last Man is a more hefty work than Frankenstein, and as many subsequent writers have proved, a greater wordcount does not always equate to an improved experience for the reader.

Nor does it endear the narrator to us. Shelley’s keen eye for adventure is compromised by the presumably marketing need to write in the romantic style of the day.

The style is so florid and stuffed with literary and biblical allusion one might suspect Shelley is satirising it.

Shelley sees virtue in rural tasks and outdoor labour, pleasure in simple living,  beauty in the natural landscape. There are long descriptive passages of the countryside, each an ode to rural splendour and beauty. These are the least engaging passages.

When Shelley allows her radical impulses full rein the book springs free. In painting political battles which take place in the grand English tradition of political fudge and bribery, Shelley displays a biting satirical bent.

Amid the vignettes of squalor and destitution, starving US immigrants arriving in Ireland in search of food and ‘seizing upon the super abundant food’ they find there.

And Shelley merrily reverses Shakespeare’s St Crispin’s day speech from Henry V by having the Lord Protector interrupt a battle and appeal for peace, imploring the combatants to ‘cast away the hearts of tigers that burn in your breasts.’

Although The Last Man has failed to achieve the same widespread appeal or cultural resonance as Frankenstein, it has been hugely influential and echoes of The Last Man can be detected in many subsequent novels such as those by Emily Bronte, HG Wells, Cormac McCarthy and much Hollywood cinema.

There’s a great deal of gothic intensity that sits nicely alongside Bronte’s 1847’s Wuthering Heights. Mood swings feature heavily. Grief struck men prostrate themselves until death on the graves of their wife and children, and mourning women drown themselves.

As young women knock on cottage doors on stormy nights, there are kidnappings, frantic carriage journeys, raving deathbed curses, the carrying of corpses through snowstorms and delirious women are lost in the rain. And there is death, lots of death.  

An American ship arrives at Plymouth, UK, in a manner which anticipates the arrival of Dracula in Whitby, and makes you suspect Bram Stoker borrowed his striking imagery from here.

And among the lengthy discourses on the nature of love there’s something vampiric in love’s effects. Love has an intoxicating, almost hallucinogenic effect and one character says, ‘Day [is] hateful to me’.

When Shelley’s focus is on the drama the action flies along, anticipating Cornick McCarthy’s The Road, and her heroes long journey is full of death and pestilence.

Far from an essay on futurism there is little in the way of advanced technology, though the flying machines perhaps inspired HG Wells’ 1908 adventure, The War in the Air.

The scenes of a deserted London falling slowly to overgrown ruin anticipates John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids.

And when the protagonist witnesses a merry park fair, he thinks of them all crumbling to dust with age, a vividly drawn moment which rhymes with scenes of nuclear destruction from the 1991 movie blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

While the English port of Dover is violently flooded in a meteor shower with descriptions which would flatter any Hollywood disaster movie.

As ever, contemporary views are revealed through how characters and events are framed.

In The Last Man Turks are bad, the Irish are wild. The Greeks are a symbol of liberty, intellect, art and culture. A war between the Christian Greeks and ‘Mahomaten’ Turks, is framed as a battle of civilisation versus barbarism.

That the narrator isn’t surprised by the appearance of a ‘Negro’ in London says a great deal about the cosmopolitan nature of England’s capital at the time, but the view of ‘The wild and cruel Caribbean, the remorseless Cannibal’ goes unchallenged.

Shelley is careful not to allow the plague to infect pets or livestock yet the only black character in the novel, a ‘Negro’, is a half-clad plague victim from who Lionel contracts the plague. And this despite the narrator being surrounded by a multitude of infected white people who don’t infect him.

One character, Adrian, is accused of suffering mental illness as he struggles to come to terms with himself. A political leader lacking any instinct for realpolitik, a humble, serene, compassionate and generally Christ-like figure, who seems to be coded as gay and who Shelley offers every sympathy.

Shelley also incorporates and riffs on elements of her biography but you don’t need to know any of that to understand or enjoy the book.

For all the dystopian horrors which Shelley presents us with, the most chilling aspect of this work is that Shelley, armed with a prodigious imagination, cannot imagine a 21st century England where an Eton-educated English aristocracy are still running the country.

Maybe that’s intended as part of Shelley’s dystopian vision. It’s the wave of women writers who follow in the later 19th century that have the imagination to put this to right in their utopian works.


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