Like many people, including ones who’ve read Frankenstein, up until the pandemic of 2020 I’d never heard of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel The Last Man. The story of a plague that wipes out the entire human race, leaving one survivor, it was inevitably written up in a few on-line outlets during that scary time last spring. Project Gutenberg offers a download. Prepared to be highly entertained, I found to my disappointment a rather meandering story of British ruling class politics and infidelity, which leads into an endless bog of battle descriptions. “Greeks” fight “Turks” on horseback and foot, with cannons and swords—this though the year is supposed to be about 2090. There was no sign of a plague yet when I shut the file and set the book aside. A few weeks passed before my curiosity got the better of me. How, I asked myself, could a book by Mary Shelley not be worth taking the time to finish?
After getting poor reviews when it was published in 1826, The Last Man only went to two editions: a disappointment to its author, who needed the money. Though not yet thirty years old, she was four years widowed and the mother of a son (her three other children had all died in infancy) whose rich but hostile grandfather was her main financial support; her own father, also a writer, was constantly in debt and relied on what she could get from the father-in-law, too. She was sitting on a gold mine, for she had all her husband’s papers, the last known drafts of essays and poems that would add to his legacy as one of the great Romantic poets, prose artists, thinkers, revolutionaries, visionaries, untamed spirits—Percy Bysshe Shelley was all those things. He was also an extremely difficult person to be married to, and he threw away his life for a whimsical trip in a badly-designed boat. Never less than notorious, he had fame in life and in death; a memoir would sell, the last poems and essays would sell; but the Baronet, Percy’s unforgiving father, would not allow them onto the market. His son had been a source of shame to him for years, he thought enough was enough. The old man would relent eventually; but his sporadic mean intransigence had helped to make Mary Shelley a writer in need of a best-seller.
She’d worked for over a year on the book. The battle scenes that almost defeated me came straight from letters a friend and eyewitness sent her from Greece, where the people’s fight for independence from Turkish rule had just claimed the life of their superstar partisan: Lord Byron. Poet, idol, anti-hero, restless soul, Byron, a man Mary Shelley knew well (he did not seduce her), is easily recognized as the model for Lord Raymond, a major character in the novel; likewise the royal-born Adrian, her narrator’s closest friend, stands as a portrait of Percy Shelley. Contemporary readers knew very well who “The Author of Frankenstein” was (she never published a thing under her own name), and to them these likenesses would have been all the more apparent. (Indeed, a reviewer mentioned Mary’s name in one of those terrible reviews, prompting the Baronet to cut off her funds for a time.) For its roman à clef aspects alone, the book should have drawn a big audience.
Why, even now, read The Last Man? Why, for that matter, spend hours and hours on the editing job one has made of it? A major reason has to be for how close it brings the reader to Shelley and Byron and Mary Shelley herself, brilliant young people as they were when they were living and breathing; as it felt to be in the same room with them (not always comfortable); and as it felt when the great poets were gone, and the spells they’d cast with them. In a troubled moment like ours, warring and windswept by idealism, bewitched by youthful promise, on the run from disillusionment, this material feels timely.
Then there’s the last half of the book, where humanity slips through an hourglass and Mary Shelley’s strengths as a writer really come into play. Rest assured: The Last Man is a very challenging and complicated novel; and also extremely frightening. It delivers on its promises.
But in its day the story’s idea was attacked and called unoriginal; the style was savaged. Could it be more difficult, as well, for “a female writer,” as one critic called her, to build up a reputation strong enough to carry two major works into posterity? While Frankenstein’s popularity has never waned (its author profiting zero from this, though play after Frankenstein play got produced for the stage even during her lifetime—her monster, made common property), The Last Man stayed in the hands of a small audience. Which did not stop Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, whose admirably, infinitely fearless self-respect marked her as her mother’s daughter. She continued to live a rich though often financially insecure life, full of friends and interests and relocations and greatness; her biographical notes to Shelley’s poems are great—as a document of their age, essential. Her boy, Percy Florence Shelley, would live and grow up to inherit and marry and, with his wife, be his mother’s support up to the end of her life; she died at 53.
Overall, and today, the critical consensus is that the book could have been better edited. Considering that Volume 1 has two fourth chapters, reproduced ever since as 4/I and 4/II, the publisher’s attention to the text must have been minimal. For a novel of such length, sixteen months wouldn’t have given Mary Shelley much time to work on the finished manuscript herself. She might not have been the best editor of her own work, anyhow. (Percy did a lot of editing on Frankenstein.) Redundancies abound in Volume 1 and internal inconsistencies aren’t absent. Long passages seem repurposed from old letters and journals dating from her marriage. Then come those battle scenes in Volume 2. Grateful that I did, as someone who came out the other side a changed reader, I’ve wondered how many others don’t make it to the last half.
Advocating for The Last Man before me was the wonderful British writer Muriel Spark, who published her first book, Mary Shelley: Child of Light, in 1956. At that time, the novel was long out of print and only available on the antiquarian market. She describes it as “not. . .a Gothic novel entirely;”
nor is it realist fiction, for the whole work is a fantasy; and neither is it a domestic tale, for the work deals with society at large as well as family life; moreover, it is not a sociological novel, since the disintegration of the social scene leaves a large part of the book to a study of individual man. The Last Man, in fact, defies classification in any known fictional genre. . . a group of three futuristic pictures, associated with, yet distinct from, each other.
Really, then, a very modern novel, she might have added. I’d also argue for a unity of halves in addition to (behind?) the triptych, adding to its strength and power; otherwise I could not improve upon Spark’s discussion of the book and where it came from. She quotes one of Mary’s letters from 1824, when she’d just begun writing it: “’The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.’” And she concludes:
Evidence of the physical analogy between the novel and its author occurs throughout; she depicted, in terms of enormously wide invention, the narrow and individual process that led to her own isolated situation in the years immediately following Shelley’s death.
Her estimation of The Last Man was high enough, that in the hope “that wide recognition of its merits may lead to its being reprinted,” Spark included an abridged “utilitarian” version as an appendix to Child of Light’s first edition. (After 1965, when the novel itself was finally reissued, this appendix was dropped; it appears, though, in the Carcanet Press edition currently available for Kindle.) Here, she intersperses a detailed plot synopsis with key passages of text. No word processors, no scanners, not even a copier—this was a massive job at the time, undertaken freely, all for the sake of a worthy cause, the increase of a good writer’s reputation and readership. As an act between writers, it inspires emulation.
In revising and editing The Last Man for modern readers, I take the comprehensive line-by-line approach enabled by digital technology. That means moving some passages around to heighten the action of the plot; paring back redundancies; generally “fixing” how things sound; and now, of course, presenting the results in a WordPress blog. Though each chapter is some hundreds of words shorter than its original, the content remains the same. My goal is to offer The Last Man to the public in the form of the gripping, well-edited nineteenth-century novel it always had the potential to be.
Doubtless the leaves of the Cumæan Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in my hands. My only excuse for thus transforming them, is that they were unintelligible in their pristine condition.
These words of Mary Shelley’s (I left them unchanged) from what I’ll call the first installment, overstate the present case but capture the elements of mission and transmission at work here. This is a literary project begun during the latest pandemic, which seeks to honor a writer who was at work on the subject almost two hundred years ago. It takes its place beside the countless thousand theatrical and literary projects her writing constantly inspires. Why Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley? Maybe because her mother died when she was born; maybe because of all that befell her; maybe because she was a prophetess; maybe because by nature she wrote scary things. Somehow, across the centuries, she enlists us to her side.