The saddest event occurs in the most beautiful place.
The large bright formal rooms still dazzled with their carved and painted ceilings, inlaid marble floors, and walls hung with splendid tapestry. Colonnades and terrace lawns overlooked the deep dark water and the exquisite view—silvery vistas set between blue mountains speckled with church spires—up the lake towards Belaggio. The famous fountain burbled on schedule in a courtyard on the property’s landward side. Here rose a mountain, its steep slopes carpeted in myrtle, where clusters of giant cypresses seemed to pierce the sky; while higher still, as if from among the clouds, an immense waterfall began a descent that the woody cliffs absorbed and broke into a thousand channels.
I’ve worked some of Percy Shelley’s account of the place, which appears among the letters in the Six Weeks Journey, into the revised description of the Villa Pliniana on Lake Como in Italy, where most of the action in this installment occurs. Today it’s operated as a luxury rental property and appears to be in one of its splendid-looking phases such as Mary Shelley pictures for it in The Last Man. Images like the ones above (from 1820) and below (earlier, around 1805) include the waterfall which is not so evident these days.
The Shelley’s first son, William—her favorite of the four she had—died of malaria in Rome in June 1817 at the age of one and a half. The illness which claims Lionel’s little boy at Lake Como is a “virulent typhus.” I wrote a good deal about epidemic typhus in my novel Lament: A Soviet Woman and Her True Story, in the scenes that take place inside a Jewish ghetto in Ukraine during World War II. Both typhus and malaria were endemic to Italy during Mary Shelley’s lifetime; both, also, rely on insect vectors carrying the disease between infected and non-infected human hosts. Neither could exactly flourish under the conditions of The Last Man in these late chapters. So I’ve elected to change the disease to an aggressive blood cancer. Since I enjoy working with child characters, I’m sorry to report that Mary Shelley gives the little boy (Evelyn in her original) not one line of dialogue in the entire novel, a choice which seems to reflect his source in the much younger William Shelley. We are stuck with a major character who never lives to say a single word.