. . .and all roads lead to Rome. The novel ends.
A final audacity in the real estate department finds Mary Shelley installing her narrator in what remains to this day, the private, family-owned Palazzo Colonna. Its opulent galleries have always been open to the public and while she was in Rome she must have visited them. I’ve brought the text’s flock of sheep back to graze in the gardens.
As this part of the literary project reaches its close, I’ve been wondering about what the modern reader will find most missing from The Last Man in this new form—what lack will feel strangest, or hardest to accept. I think it might be the absence of zombies. When Lionel in the final pages proceeds so fearlessly from place to place , entering any building at will, sleeping anywhere he likes, I, for one, kept falling prey to uneasy, foreboding feelings that the text didn’t justify–I was projecting them, while the horror Mary Shelley had attempted to convey got past me. Everyone but Lionel has died; and my imagination has been trained by the culture of my time to expect a zombie attack exactly then. Zombie or vampire or some such murder-minded specimen of the undead–despite having created such a famous one herself, Mary Shelley denies poor Lionel Verney even that much companionship. (Though it’s nice to speculate about whether she ever envisioned a Volume 4, in which The Last Man encounters and befriends that same Creature who’s wandered the earth, immortal and alone, since the last scenes of Frankenstein.) She’s not trying to generate painful suspense in the reader. When she says “LAST” she means LAST. She is uncompromising, though she lets Lionel keep some hope.
If zombies per se are absent, there’s something like the threat of them in Mary Shelley’s treatment of vegetation and the Italian landscape. Near the end she recurs several times to images of vines overrunning structures built by human hands. Finally the Coliseum is “entirely concealed behind veils of shimmering verdure.” Omnivorous, voracious plant life will eventually engulf all remnants of our relatively brief existence as a species, she suggests. In that case (which doesn’t sound too bad, compared to several other likely alternatives), we can speculate again about whether some of the creepers running up the Coliseum’s sides are also, like Lionel, the last of their kind. According to historian Scott Samuelson, in his excellent new book, Rome as a Guide to the Good Life (which he discusses here on my favorite podcast):
The staggering arena probably held upward of fifty thousand people, could be flooded to simulate sea battles, had a retractable roof to protect patrons from the sun. . .and operated with an elaborate underground network, the hypogeum, for exotic beasts to spring up unexpectedly. Nowadays we’re familiar with the gladiatorial battles (gladiator means “man with the sword”), but there were other spectacles, including circus performances, executions, and the “hunting” of rhinos, hippos, giraffes, elephants, gazelles, antelopes, jackals, hyenas, cheetahs, panthers, bears, boars, leopards, camels, wolves, horses, lions, and ostriches. To give you a sense of the scale of the nonhuman carnage: the emperor Trajan hosted a single set of games in which eleven thousand animals were slaughtered. In 1855 Richard Deakin published The Flora of the Colosseum, an illustrated botanical that chronicles the exotic plants—some otherwise extinct by the nineteenth century—that grew in the soil of the arena’s ruins, originally sprung from seeds carried in the animals’ fur.
We end with a sad portrait of Lord Byron’s dog, engraved as the tailpiece for an 1870 edition of his collected poems. Lion was with him when he died in Greece and accompanied his coffin back to England. I’ve pictured this as a glimpse beyond the novel’s end, to the last being left to mourn its hero–but I can see it also looks ahead to the mid-Victorian era which produced the image. Readers back then chose to forget Mary Shelley’s The Last Man entirely. Hopeful that I’ve given its posterity a new fighting chance with our present generations, and grateful for the opportunity, I close my present labors.