The Last Man
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This is a book that you will not forget, even though you might want to. This may be the most depressing tale of love, death, futility and the end of all human life ever told – a hymn to humanity, its hopes and its achievements, and a dirge at its grave that offers no consolation.
130 years later, Nevil Shute tells a somewhat similar story in On The Beach, but there the reader can at least find comfort in the knowledge that it is a cautionary tale, a warning that mankind can bring its end upon itself through nuclear war – no such comfort, no message to be heeded, no way out, can be found in Mary Shelley’s tale. A beautifully written masterpiece that cherishes human life, drawing from the author’s own experience of inconsolable loss.
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About the Author
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London on August 30, 1797. Her mother was the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, her father the anarchist philosopher William Godwin – they had married in March, after Mary Wollstonecraft had become pregnant. She had previously been in a troubled relationship with an American adventurer, from whom she had a daughter, Fanny, and had twice tried to commit suicide after he had left her. She met William Godwin in 1796, not long after her second suicide attempt. They were, by all accounts, very happy, but it was not to last long – Mary Wollstonecraft died on September 10, 1797 from complications at the birth of her second daughter, Mary.
In 1801 William Godwin remarried. His second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont, brought two children into the marriage, Charles and Claire, who was almost the same age as Mary, and with whom Mary became very close, while her relationship with her stepmother remained strained.
In 1814 Mary began a relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married; together with Claire they travelled through Europe. On their return to England Mary was pregnant, her daughter died after a premature birth; in January 1816 she gave birth to a son, William. In that year 1816, the famous “year without a summer,” Mary Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Claire Clairmont, together with Lord Byron and John William Polidori, spent several weeks in a house overlooking Lake Geneva, entertaining each other by inventing ghost stories – here Mary thought up the novel that would make her famous, _Frankenstein_, which she would complete the following year. Claire and Lord Byron had been lovers in London, and she was pregnant with his daughter, who was born in January 1817.
In October 1816 Fanny committed suicide, early in December Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife ended her life. He and Mary, who was again pregnant, married on December 30; their daughter Clara was born in September 1817. In March 1818 Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, accompanied by Claire, travelled to Italy, escaping financial troubles, not intending to return to England. Clara died in Venice in September 1818, William in June 1819 in Rome; in November 1819 their fourth child was born, Percy Florence, the only one who survived. In April 1822 Claire’s daughter died, in June a miscarriage that almost cost her own life ended Mary Shelley’s fifth and last pregnancy. Percy Bysshe Shelley died in July, one month before his 30th birthday, drowning when his sailboat sank in a storm. Byron, for whom his affair with Claire had only been a short episode, died from fever in April 1824, on a military expedition in Greece.
Mary Shelley’s biography would deserve to be told (and has been told) in much more detail than can be given here, but even this short overview may show how her life was filled with adventure, happiness, tragedy, and ever present death – experiences that are reflected in The Last Man. Of all the end-of-the-world tales ever written, this may be the most harrowing one, because it is so personal and draws so much from the author’s own experience – but also, of course, because of the author’s immense literary skills. Despite all the echoes of her own life, the quotes from Shelley’s works, the references to places, in England and Italy, which she and Percy had seen or where they had lived – often in, if short-lived, happiness – despite all this, and although the novel’s characters are unmistakably based on herself (as the male narrator) and the people who had been close to her, The Last Man is anything but a _roman a clef_. It does not reveal any details from Mary Shelley’s life; it only mourns, on a grandiose scale, the loss of what had been, of what might have been, and of what they had dreamed of.
To give one small example of many that could be given: “The house had nearly fallen into ruin, till in the year 2090, an English nobleman had bought it, and fitted it up with every luxury,” she writes in Chapter 8 of Volume III about a house at Lake Como called the Villa Pliniana – in reality, the Shelleys had stayed there in April 1818, and, as we know from his letters, had thought of buying that house, “which was once a magnificent palace, & is now half in ruins (…). It is built upon terraces raised from the bottom of the lake, together with its garden at the foot of a semicircular precipice overshadowed by profound forests of chestnut.” An idyll, a potential future, fondly remembered, forever lost, resurrected in the novel to be lost again – the sum of all that can be lost, and the loss of it, make up The Last Man, and make it such a unique and haunting work of literature.
Starting with Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, Mary Shelley has written seven novels, but she also wrote short stories, travel narratives, articles, reviews, and children’s literature, and worked as an editor. In her final years, suffering from illness, she lived with her son and his wife; she died on February 1, 1851.