Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel about a mysterious pandemic that obliterates human beings attracted attention during the advent of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s; once again The Last Man has a sad currency. Her reflection in her ‘Journal of Sorrow’, ‘The last man! Yes, I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me’ conveys her grief over the loss of two of her children to fever, the death of Percy Shelley by drowning, and the death of Lord Byron in Greece. Yet the novel presents wider implications than a mere roman à clef. The premise of The Last Man is that its story is constructed from a discovery of the Sibyl’s leaves offering a prophetic vision of the future that questions the powers of civilization over nature, and for readers in 2020 correspondences with COVID-19. The news of plague comes from a distance. The Greeks have destroyed Constantinople, ‘and the supposition that winter had purified the air of the fallen city’ proves false as Greeks who attempt to rebuild the city catch the plague. The disease spreads and attempts at quarantine are futile. Even then the reality of the disease seems unthinkable; the ‘English for the most part talked of Thrace and Macedonia, as they would of a lunar territory, which, unknown to them, presented no distinct idea or interest to the minds’. Preoccupation with political events in England mean that the ‘extreme compassion’ the plague might have evoked is ignored. But the ‘air is empoisoned, and each human being inhales death’; people traveling to places of safety help spread the pandemic throughout the continents and eventually to Britain whose ‘cloudy isles’ are not immune to plague.
Nor can a secluded domestic circle of goodness and love escape infection. By the conclusion of the novel, Lionel Verney, a stand-in for Mary Shelley, has lost all those he loves and is ‘alone in Rome; alone with the world’ with a dog for a companion. He visits libraries and monuments and finds writing materials by which he writes a book dedicated to the ‘Illustrious Dead’. Verney ascends St Peter’s Basilica and inscribes ‘on its topmost stone the aera 2100, last year of the world!’ The novel concludes with what seems illusory hope as Verney takes a boat with provisions, his dog, and some books including Homer and Shakespeare and leaves Rome, led on by ‘restless despair and fierce desire of change’ searching for a companion. Shelley offers a powerful recognition of how deeply entwined are the personal and the political. Verney’s circle includes the ruling elite—the Shelleyan Adrian is heir to the British throne and the Byronic Lord Raymond is a liberator in the fight between the Turks and the Greeks. While their noble actions are tragically futile, it is as individuals that their deaths bring the greatest sorrow to Verney.
Shelley considers the loss of individual lives against what seems to have that ‘no distinct idea or interest’ at a more abstract level. She would recognize the present devastation of private griefs balanced against daily reports of numbers and statistics and debates about the value of economic factors versus individual lives. Verney’s book and his recourse to libraries and volumes of Homer and Shakespeare also offer powerful testimony about the importance of literature to console. Mary Shelley’s novel points to the power and value of the imagination to sustain us in times where sorrow seems to overwhelm all that might bring comfort.