Motivated by the recent Ebola news, I posted recently about Jack London's 1912 novella, The Scarlet Plague (about an infection that quickly destroys the majority of humanity--in the year 2013!), and I promised a later post about Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man (published on January 23, 1826), a novel with a similar--but, of course, earlier--theme.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, born in 1797, had already experienced so much with Death that it's no real surprise that she would feel that He was coming for everyone--and soon. Here's a partial list of those close to her who had died by the time the novel appeared:
- Mary Wollstonecraft (her mother), 1797--the mother she never knew but whose books she read repeatedly.
- An unnamed daughter--dead on March 6, 1815, only a few weeks old. (If she and Percy Bysshe Shelley named their child, no one has ever discovered it.)
- Fanny Godwin, half-sister, committed suicide on October 9, 1816.
- Harriet Shelley (Bysshe's first wife), committed suicide around December 10, 1816 (her body was discovered in the Serpentine).
- Clara Shelley, daughter, on September 24, 1818. She was about a year and a half.
- William Shelley, son, on June 7, 1819. He was about three and a half.
- Allegra Byron, the daughter of Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont (Mary's step-sister), April 19, 1821. She was about four and a half.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley (her husband) and Edward Williams (friend)--both drowned on July 8, 1822, off the Italian coast.
- Lord Byron, friend (it was his summer place in Geneva where she had conceived the idea for Frankenstein), April 19, 1824. Later, when friends brought Byron's body back to England for burial, Mary viewed his remains. He'd been stored in preservative wine for the transport and was now purple.
There were others--but these are people close to her circle--including, of course, her husband and three of her children. Her remaining son, Percy Florence Shelley (his middle name was for the Italian city of his birth), would outlive her, but Percy--this last possessor of the Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft genes--had no real intellectual interests and spent his adult years (childless) enjoying his substantial inheritance from the Shelley estate. He loved his yacht, loved putting on amateur theatricals at the impressive home in Bournemouth, England, the seaside city where he and his family now lie: Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Percy Florence and his wife. (Percy Bysshe Shelley lies in Rome--not far from Keats' grave.)
Mary, feeling alone, isolated, deeply depressed, had begun work on The Last Man over the winter of 1823-24. In her journal entry for May 14, 1824, she wrote: The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feeling, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me--" (The Journals of Mary Shelley, 476-77).
TO BE CONTINUED ...