Six friends through the years (and plague!) – “The Last Man” by Mary Shelley
Okay, not really. “The Last Man,” is the memoir of the last man left alive on earth after the plague ravages Europe. Only Englishman Lionel Varney, wandering around Rome, is left alive to recall the years that got him to where he is.
So, not everyone dies.
Mary Shelley loves to wrap up her stories in secondary narratives. In her timeless “Frankenstein,” the narrative of the Monster’s tale is told by Victor to Captain Walton, who in turn tells it to his sister in letters. “The Last Man” kicks off the same way, only this time it’s with Shelley herself claiming to have discovered the story she’s about to relate in a cave in Naples. (Apparently there were other folks left alive to re-populate the human race.)
From there the book follows the lives of a group of six young nobles (Lionel, Perdita, Idris, Raymond, Adrian, and Evadne) as they navigate romantic entanglements, inter-personal relationships, war, and plague.
It’s like “Friends.”
But not funny.
And with war and plague.
Eventually, as the plague destroys all of England, a group of survivors head out on the run to anyplace they can find shelter and safety from this vile disease. One by one, everyone dies off until only Lionel is left.
The literary criticism I’ve read of this book often declare that Lionel, Adrian, and Raymond can be read as fictionalized versions of Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. On the surface, this makes sense. Lionel seems overtly focused on the splendor of Adrian, and Mary was said to have adored her husband to extreme measures. Lord Raymond, like Lord Byron, is a noted crowd-pleaser and a famous face, who was full of ambition and had a serious soft spot for the country of Greece. (FYI — Did you know Lord Byron carved his name in the Poseidon Temple in Greece? You can still go see it, if you visit.)
Having only read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and “Mathide” before this, I found myself incredibly impressed by her use of words. Though she’s known for writing striking images, this book is a lot more theoretical, with ideas and concepts bandied about. There’s elegantly written dialogue, and some truly beautiful turns of phrase.
In the below passage, a greiving man laments the loss of his family and the end of days,
“Hear, O ye inhabitants of the earth,” he cried, “hear thou, all seeing, but most pitiless Heaven! hear thou too, O tempest-tossed heart, which breathes out these words, yet faints beneath their meaning! Death is among us! The earth is beautiful and flower-bedecked, but she is our grave! The clouds of heaven weep for us—the pageantry of the stars is but our funeral torchlight. Grey headed men, ye hoped for yet a few years in your long-known abode—but the lease is up, you must remove—children, ye will never reach maturity, even now the small grave is dug for ye— mothers, clasp them in your arms, one death embraces you!”
Only a few lines later, he dies of plague. That’s pretty much how it goes. You get a few beautiful lines to spout, and then you’re killed off.
“The Last Man” is a really terrific and sweeping novel, sort of science-fiction with romantic ideals. As a Mary Shelley-phile, I thought it was splendid despite the overwhelming sadness of having every single character (save one) die by the end. But it’s lovely, I promise! Don’t believe me? You can read it (FREE!) at Project Gutenberg.