Raymond’s tomb proves too strong an attraction for his widow. Lionel flies again. Philadelphia sends plague.
A kind of spiritual autobiography, filled with incidents and characters adapted from her own life, The Last Man really wouldn’t have been complete if Mary Shelley hadn’t included a young woman’s suicide. She’d been closely touched by two. First her older half-sister Fanny Imlay, who was Mary Wollstonecraft’s other child, took a fatal dose of laudanum; then, a month later, Percy Shelley’s wife Harriet drowned herself. This was in 1816, the year Mary started writing Frankenstein—and the year she married Percy, two weeks after Harriet’s body was found, pulled from the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park.
They were living in Italy in 1822 when Percy drowned at sea. After it washed up a month later, his body was burned in obedience to Italian quarantine laws; his ashes and heart were recovered by friends, and a burial arranged in Rome. Though she left their rented villa on the Bay of Spezia, Mary didn’t go back to England right away. With their one surviving child, a male heir, she spent another year moving around between Pisa and Genoa, staying with friends, living alone, writing letters, maintaining ties to Lord Byron—a difficult and grief-filled time that her letters, so ably edited by Brooklyn’s own Betty Bennett, illustrate very profoundly. I went back to them this week, looking for the genesis of Perdita’s act. Was this, I wondered, a plan Mary Shelley had devised for herself, during those first months of widowhood, should anyone have tried to force her to leave the country whose widowed earth clasped Percy to its sorrowing bosom, as she might put it?
If it was (and I still think it was) I couldn’t find any evidence to support the idea. In a few letters she contemplates a move to Rome and a future spent visiting her husband’s grave each day; but she didn’t move to Rome. No one forced her return to England when it came, either. Money was a problem, always, and Lord Byron offered to pay her passage. Then he didn’t pay, but she left anyhow—not by steamship, but by carriage, north through France, a journey during which she wrote as many letters as ever. A recurring theme is that she’s living, doing everything, for her boy; this echoes what Lionel urges his sister to do (that is, before he drugs and abducts her, just as the Ex-Queen once tried to drug and abduct his Idris—and he does it anyway! Readers can only shake their heads, because the coincidence is never mentioned).
With Perdita’s refusal to live for her child, Mary Shelley lives out the expression of her own most radical romantic feelings, the ones where motherhood is secondary. At the same time, she relives her own, primal, abandonment that occurred at her own mother’s death in childbed through the plight of little Clara, now orphaned in a world beset by a pandemic. Lionel, meanwhile, is her sibling self who failed the lost sister, unhappy Fanny. To Athens: this may be someone too—namely, John Keats. A volume of his poetry found in Shelley’s jacket helped identify the body. Keats had died at Rome the year before, when Shelley made him the subject of his long elegy, Adonais. Then, thanks to the British Consulate, he wound up interred not far from Keats’s grave in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery—as if directed there, willfully, by the name on the book in his pocket.