Last time, I wrote a bit about the background of Mary Shelley's 1826 novel The Last Man, a novel that she began to write while she was still experiencing the despair of the loss of her husband (1822 drowning) and children (three little ones had died) and friends (among them, Lord Byron).
As I've said, too, the novel deals with an infection that sweeping through humanity, killing virtually all in its wake. Shelley created a frame story for the tale: She begins with an 1818 visit to a cave near Naples (by the way, she and her husband had climbed Vesuvius during the same trip). She says that she found, wandering around in the cave, the remains of a long-ago tale, which she reassembled for her story.
The shepherd boy (Lionel) narrates; he has a sister, Perdita, three years younger (who looks, by the way, a lot like Mary Shelley herself). Soon, we learn that we're in the year 2073 (when, I guess, we still have shepherd boys) and that England now is a republic. The mother of a young man named Adrian, who would have been king had England remained a monarchy, educates the boy as if he will be the king. (Mary's physical description of Adrian reminds us of the appearance of her late husband.)
Adrian brings Lionel and Perdita into his circle. Lord Raymond arrives in the story now--a character based on Byron. He is "supremely handsome; every one admired him; of women he was the idol. He was courteous, honey-tongued--and adept in fascinating arts" (Oxford World's Classics, 40). Lord Raymond, unlike Byron, however, survived wars in Greece, where he became a hero. Anyway, Perdita, seeing Lord Raymond, is smitten.
More smiting comes soon: Adrian has a sister, Idris, whom Lionel promptly falls for. And soon Perdita marries Lord Raymond, and Lionel, desperately poor, is too proud to ask for $$, so, he says "my sole companions were my books and my loving thoughts" (77)--words very similar to the words Mary had written in her journal in the aftermath of her husband's drowning.
And--after much parental objection--Lionel marries Idris. Soon the bunch of them are living in Windsor Castle. Children arrive. Lord Raymond finds another attraction (as Byron often did, as Bysshe Shelley often did), but keeps the news from Perdita. She finds out; he vows to give up the other woman; he fails to do so.
Lionel decides to try writing and is soon cranking out books. Perdita wishes that she had a career, too. Meanwhile, Raymond, who has gone off to Greece, is reported dead. Lionel and Perdita will go there to look for him--or for his body.
TO BE CONTINUED ...