Britain: 21st Century.
There are rumours of a faraway plague. It doesn’t worry most people though as the locations of the plague may as well be on the moon. As the plague creeps closer, some people start to talk about it, others even begin to make plans but most view those plans as a waste of time, we are protected by water and it won’t come here. Anyway, the people who make decisions in Britain are far more important with sweeping political changes. The epidemic finally arrives in Britain but, “the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was generated and increased.” Then things get bad but the leader, elected for his big political ideas is ‘incapable of meeting these evils by any comprehensive system.”
One of the effects of plague on the characters in this book is they start reading plague fiction and the coronavirus pandemic has done the same with us. Having already read Journal of the Plague Year, I decided to read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The plague hits almost exactly halfway through the book, so we have a very even split between before-plague and after-plague. It’s a clever decision, spend half the book setting up a world with expectations, victories and conflicts which is torn down in the second half of the book - everything that seemed to matter is now gone.
It may also explain how old fashioned the book seems. The first half, with its improbable love matches, frolics in the forests and brushes with royalty all seem like they come from a book written far before 1826. It has an early eighteenth century quality to it, like the romances of Haywood and Mary Davys. It almost seems that Mary Shelley is evoking those older novels, which may have had a nostalgic and cosy atmosphere to the modern 1820s reader, in order to create a warm Arcadian life which is destroyed in the second half of the book. The Last Man doesn’t use its futuristic, twenty-first setting in the way a modern sci-fi author would, she’s rather using it the way an early eighteenth-century author would use Turkey or Persia, a way of smudging details and creating a gauzy otherness to the setting. She foresees steam ships and dirigibles and the British political system is an oligarchy rather than a monarchy - but otherwise it would seem the world has not moved on since her time.
Our narrator is Lionel, he is the son of a disgraced court jester and he lives in Cumbria with his sister, Perdita. Adrian is former prince and heir to the throne but his father stopped a civil war by renouncing all claim to the throne. He finds Lionel and his sister and civilises them. They also meet his sister, Idris and later meet the ambitious Raymond. After a little shuffling they fall into couples, Perdita and Raymond and Idris and Lionel with Adrian functioning somewhat as spare wheel and spiritual advisor. It’s well known that this book reflects on Mary Shelley’s time with her husband Percy and their friend Byron, with Adrian being the first and Raymond being the second. They live in a bliss of fun and frolics around Windsor Forest;
“Jealousy and disquiet were unknown among us; nor did a fear or hope of change ever disquiet our tranquility. Others said, we might be happy - We said - We are.”
This is broken by Raymond’s urge to be important, he becomes Lord Protector and then, when his term is up, goes to Greece to fight against the Turks. When he is captured the others all decamp to Greece also. There are victories and tragedies - and this whole part of the story don’t really have much purpose because now the plague is coming…
The second half of the book is definitely better than the first. The creeping dread of the plague, the way some areas of society collapse but others stay surprisingly strong, the human ability to hope, love and find joy even as it is doomed. We start getting more of the modern day narrator comparing the horrors he is describing with the horrors to come and we know that everything is going to fall apart, that Lionel will become the last man.
The very best sequence of the book has Lionel in London, wandering the streets as the plague has had everything in its grip. He wanders into a pub but it is too noisy and gaudy and the smiles are plastered on by drink so he goes to a theatre. There, they are playing Macbeth but the highly strung mood of the audience mean that the weeps and wails keep coming in and strange times. Lionel goes to a church where there is the beautiful sound of a choir, it feels him up with calm but just as it does, one of the choirboys drops dead of plague and is hurriedly pushes into an open crypt. Then he steps outside and finds the peace he was searching for in the beauty of the stars and heavens.
Mary Shelley is very good at describing the depression that leads to suicide as, “monotonous, lethargic sense of unchanging misery” rather than anything magic. She is also very good at finding moments of beauty, in music and the natural world which give the characters respite from the tragedy around them - though it’s not long till Lionel reflects that it is nature or God who has determined that the human race die. It’s a book full of interesting ideas about the salve of imagination and its limitations, the pleasure and pain of nature, and the way human relationships are both what makes us strongest and what weakens us most of all.
So many interesting ideas, formulated as so many engaging story moments, expressed in such dull, plodding prose. It’s not that the book is old, I’ve read many old books but they were not as stilted as this. There are similes piles on eight high, where the last seven tell you no more than the first. Nothing is referred to directly, a plant is called the, “divine infoliations of the spirit of beauty”. The chapters are so very long.
What’s more, for writing that is so wordy, it isn’t lush but seems slapdash if anything. Raymond returns to Greece where he is a hero and mothers train their children to “lisp his name”. Aside the notion of cute lisping children being a cliché by this time, Raymond is a pretty hard word to lisp. I suppose they could have weak ‘r’ and say ‘Waymond’, is that a lisp? If it’s not then it’s impossible. This chapter must have annoyed me because I also wrote down a phrase describing a small boat crossing, “the vexed Pacific”. I know the Pacific is the name of the ocean and if it’s choppy it may well be called ‘vexed’ but pacific also means calm so a ‘vexed Pacific’ sounds almost contradictory.
There were a lot of moments like this in the book. A child remained three for five years of the story, I suppose she always pictured him as such despite the moving timeframe of the book. As the plague parts continue, people dying are often described as being ‘asleep’ but this did mean that when two important characters fell asleep, I briefly thought they had died.