A detour to Venice leads to disaster at sea.
I am indebted to Ian Coulling, creator of the remarkable Images of Venice website, for permission to include two of his photographs with this sad installment, in which The Last Man’s last surviving heroine meets a watery end. To me these images seem like direct visual impressions gathered by Clara on the day before her death, from her seat in the gondola—with eyes more alive, perhaps, to the beauty of the vacant city than Lionel the narrator brings:
Violated palazzos lined our route; the tide sloshed sullenly through broken doors, across drowned thresholds. Seaweed and monstrous decay blackened their marble facades, while salt ooze defaced the matchless works of art that adorned their interiors. Seagulls flew in and out of shattered windows at the Gritti Palace.
After what she did to Istanbul earlier in the novel, readers won’t be completely surprised at the level of destruction Mary Shelley can bring to a foreign locale. But in Venice, she’s revisiting a city that brings back bad memories; there’s a personal edge to what she does here. In 1818, the Shelley’s one-year old daughter Clara Everina died in Venice. She’d contracted dysentery on the family’s journey there to see Lord Byron on urgent out-of-wedlock child business (he’d fathered a daughter by Mary’s step-sister Claire Claremont; the little girl died young but Claire Claremont went on to outlive practically everyone, a fascinating life). Projecting her Venice of 2099, Mary Shelley floods the place and leaves it to rot; the modern reader finds this all too easy to picture. A blog post at Ian Coulling’s Images of Venice shows why.
The girl in the gondola is actually the third Clara brought into the world by Mary Shelley; while Clara Everina was the second. The first Clara was the daughter born prematurely in 1815, when her mother was 17; she lived two weeks. A doomed name—or a name of doom—for a doomed character who practically drowns in bitter ironies before the storm takes her. Having made it all the way to 14, she’s now on course for a premature love affair with the only man in the world who isn’t her uncle—Adrian, the stand-in for Percy Shelley himself. The shipwreck is his; the overconfidence and heedless risk-taking are his. And the sexual impulses which won’t be controlled, which threaten domestic peace, reputation, health, everything—these, Mary Shelley nudges close to suggesting, are what the third Clara is spared.