Complications beset the plan to leave France ahead of plague season; fatalities ensue.
I’ve written before about my approach to making The Last Man more palatable for modern readers. Quite recently, I’ve talked about tinkering with plotlines and tweaking the original settings. What might be the biggest and most consequential “update” claims center stage in this installment. The 1826 text has Lionel’s solitary all-night ride take place on horseback; indeed, in a sad scene the exhausted horse drops dead when they reach Versailles. Here he’s on (probably) the same bicycle he’s been riding since Volume 2, when I first introduced them to the novel: for there are no bicycles in Mary Shelley’s version.
Not that there couldn’t have been. Take a look, courtesy of our Library of Congress, at this popular print from 1819 satirizing the craze in Britain for “dandy-horses,” also known as hobby-horses, which are recognizably bicycles despite lacking pedals.
I’ve never heard of any standing rules for literary projects of this type; at the same time I’m aware of being surrounded by requirements. To be respectful and true, to take all necessary pains, come first. Then come others, more technical but no less strict; invisible lines to keep within, for best literary results. Departures that go too far from Mary Shelley’s lived experience as it stood in 1826, are not allowed.
So take, in this instance, transport. The Last Man is set around 2092: why not provide, from my vastly better-informed vantage point, a zippy little futuristic roadster for Lionel to drive? Partly, of course, because it would mean changing too much and too many words, far more than I’ve set out to change. And once you add cars, why not add airplanes, too, and computers, and leaky nuclear power plants? Where to stop? And all for what? Mary Shelley looked ahead and saw horses where we’re inclined to see cars; neither case involves clairvoyance, only projection. Realistically, between horses and cars, the means of transporting one person from point A to point B most likely to exist seven decades from now is by bicycle. The novel itself almost anticipates a need of them. Back in Volume 2, amid the first years of plague, England’s well-off households are encouraged to take fewer carriages and cut down on the number of horses they keep. And name two characters more likely than Lionel and Adrian to start cycling everywhere in response.
The editorial effort behind the substitution turns out to be fairly minimal, while bringing the text a lot closer to the lived experience of modern readers who’ve done more cycling than horseback riding, and probably have some familiarity with the Tour de France. Of course Mary Shelley spent no time on horseback either; she rode in carriages. If she ever tried out a dandy-horse at the height of the craze, it didn’t make a big enough impression to affect how she portrayed life on the roads in The Last Man. But whether she tried it or not; whether or not she was even aware of the invention of the bicycle when she wrote the novel, the fact is she might have been. Two-wheelers crossed her world. The rule is obeyed.
And I get to save that poor horse’s life!