Lionel has company when he pays another visit to the royal tomb.
On September 19, the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral, the countless people who watched got a direct and extended look at the setting for this week’s installment.
Streaming live to my desk at work, I took some photos of the great procession up the Long Walk and cried while Emma, her black pony, watched HM’s coffin rolling past along the broken bouquet-lined approach to Windsor Castle. Recognizing the same route Lionel’s wagon takes, I followed the coverage closely, from the courtyard at the castle entrance, down through ancient turns and archways to the Lower Ward. Finally there was St George’s Chapel and many camera views of the Queen’s committal service; to my surprise, they even showed her bagpiper playing inside the royal vault itself.
Save for the pony and bagpipes, which only came in with Victoria (bagpipes, that is, not ponies), it was a display of solemn splendid pomp such as Mary Shelley must have begun to envision in 1815, when she and Percy lived in the neighborhood. That time she remembered as the happiest in her life, when her favorite child, William, was born, included many visits to Windsor Castle. The present royal vault was only a few years old then and would have been a point of interest. Nearby, above the altar, was a monumental and heroic view of Christ’s resurrection, commissioned by George III in stained glass from the American-born artist Benjamin West in 1782 and eventually replaced, in 1863, by what’s there now. While her text refers more than once to moonlight streaming through the painted glass, Mary Shelley offers no details about this window. Considering the circumstances of the extended scene she conjures up beneath it, I can’t help feeling she missed an opportunity here to draw some real knife-twisting ironic contrasts; but it seems like the subject matter failed to impress her. She had no interest at all in religion of that kind.
What she was interested in, passionately, was life inside castles, palaces, stately homes. Besides Windsor, readers of these installments so far have visited aristocratic properties in London, Scotland, the Lake District, Athens, and Istanbul, with most of Europe still to come. Every so often she’ll bring some horrified fascination to bear on a major scene of squalor and make it stick in the memory, like Evadne Zaime’s garret, or Victor Frankenstein’s student lodgings—both cases of creative squalor. In her peripatetic life with a restless and debt-ridden poet, jumping from address to address while pregnant, travelling by carriage with children, children who died (William too), Mary Shelley would have seen, at the very least, creative squalor in the making. She had to borrow enough to live on many times. These were among the personal aspects that drove her to try and write a best-seller in The Last Man; but her imagination was different, a native of the ruling classes.
Mary Shelley, deep down, identified Windsor Castle as Home. For ten years she had a funeral there in mind—or rather, a funeral with ten years’ worth of variations and assorted vault scenes. Taking place so much at Windsor as it does The Last Man was naturally due for a rendition of one of them. Which would be perfectly fine, if only it came sooner in the book. Third chapter into the last volume, finally out of London, bound for the Channel, all at once the entire novel turns around and goes back to Windsor Castle for the express purpose of riding up the Long Walk and down into the Lower Ward, entering St George’s Chapel (by moonlight!) and placing Idris in the royal vault; of course, it also has to kill her first along the way.
When I was telling my sister about this, she called it Mary Shelley’s Meghan Markle Moment. It’s true, I believe she aspired to a place in that vault, somehow, as mourner or mourned; I think it likely that she’d pictured (possibly with Percy’s encouragement) her husband crowned and herself made Queen of a revolutionized and regenerated England ruled by poet-philosophers. She had this vanity, demanding outlet, determining plot points and manufacturing pretexts like the distressed ladies in Datchet whose hand-delivered siren call draws Idris to her death, so improbably. More than her book (or her readers) needed it, Mary Shelley needed to get back to Windsor and have an impossible mother-in-law scene beside the tomb mouth, when the interloping commoner who married in against its wishes is welcomed to the family at last by remorseful, comprehensively humbled royalty.