• A Woman Out of Time: Rebecca Solnit on Mary Shelley’s Dystopian Sci-Fi Novel The Last Man

    In Praise of a Truly Innovative Writer

    Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley is now widely credited with writing the first science-fiction novel with Frankenstein in 1818, and you could extend that to make her author of the second as well, the one you hold in your hands now. Revisiting Shelley’s life and work makes me wish I could wield what would become one of that genre’s favorite devices, time travel,
    on her behalf, to amend the maladies and masculinities that were the causes of her life’s great griefs.

    With a time machine, I would send medical care back in time, all the way to her 1797 birth. Had a more sanitary doctor tended her mother, the legendary feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759-1797), than the one whose unwashed hands likely gave her the infection that killed her, her namesake might not have been motherless. Other interventions could perhaps have prevented three of Mary Shelley’s four children from dying so young and, for her, so heartbreakingly.

    But for the other half of her trouble we’d have to send her into the future, because it wasn’t only the medical realities of her time that shaped her life; it was the limits put on her as a woman. As a man, she would have cut a swathe through nineteenth-century English intellectual life and paid no price for living with her future spouse before marriage. As a woman she was cut down to nothing again and again.

    Her imagination was itself confined by its time in some ways. In others, it soared above it as the airships in The Last Man soar above the late twenty-first century landscape. In both Frankenstein and this novel, she simply bypasses the conventions of Christian theology to reimagine the world.

    In the former, life is created neither by God nor by biology but by a scientist; in the latter human beings face extinction, though the Christian apocalypse and Last Judgment are nowhere in sight, and this plague is natural, not divine punishment. All the rest of life goes on blooming without us—human beings seem to be neither necessary to life on earth nor the pinnacle of creation. Charles Darwin was just a schoolboy when she wrote these books, and the ruptures he and the geologists would produce in the understanding of the earth and its living beings had yet to happen.

    As a man, she would have cut a swathe through nineteenth-century English intellectual life and paid no price for living with her future spouse before marriage. As a woman she was cut down to nothing again and again.

    So Shelley was plunging out ahead, on her own. That nature seems to thrive without humans in The Last Man recalls contemporary ecological visions—notably Alan Weisman’s 2007 book The World Without Us, in which he imagines how nature would restore itself were our species to vanish suddenly.

    In the age of climate chaos, in which human beings are so obviously the source of destruction from pole to pole, from oceans to peaks, from burning forests to flooded plains, the world without us can seem blessed rather than cursed. The current Thirty-by-Thirty plan seeks to preserve that portion of earth and sea percentage of the earth, by 2030, for wildlife and the natural carbon sequestration plants engage in, realizing human withdrawal in a more positive way.

    But the thriving natural world is not a welcome sight in The Last Man, and her protagonist declares, “We feared the balmy air—we feared the cloudless sky, the flower-covered earth, and delightful woods, for we looked on the fabric of the universe no longer as our dwelling, but our tomb….” But at a later point, he sees all nature thriving: “Where was pain and evil? Not in the calm air or weltering ocean; not in the woods or fertile fields, nor among the birds that made the woods resonant with song, nor the animals that in the midst of plenty basked in the sunshine.”

    From the perspective of our time, a catastrophe that leaves the natural world untouched seems a relief. In 1826, this decline of the species does lead to one interim boon: social and economic equality among the survivors, as titles and rank come to mean nothing, and palaces and treasures become available to all.

    Mary Shelley also shows an insurrectionary interest in equality and a distaste for monarchy, writing when government by hereditary elites threatens to return: “The half extinct spirit of royalty roused itself in the minds of men; and they, willing slaves, self-constituted subjects, were ready to bend their necks to the yoke.” This so outraged a reviewer that he wrote, “A king of England, in conformity with the wishes of the people, retires from his throne, to make way for the establishment of a republic. Can we wonder at the plague that was to follow, and sweep off all the inhabitants of the earth? The holy salt of royalty removed, what was to preserve the mass from corruption?”

    In these ways her work is subversive. In others it’s conventional. She dethrones kings in this book, but not husbands. The protagonists of The Last Man, Frankenstein, and some of her other novels are male, because despite her own mother’s famous screed against the suppression of female possibilities, she cannot or at least did not imagine women with the agency to participate so fully in life.

    Instead, she ventriloquizes through a series of male narrators, so much so she seems to see women through men’s eyes. The good women of The Last Man, though they live and breathe in 2073 and after, are demure wives, devoted mothers, a dutiful niece. Only the minor character Evadne takes a more adventurous and creative path and plays a role in public life, at a cost.

    Shelley herself lived a life strangely stretched between speech and silence, deference and adventure. In her journal for 1822, she recalls that six years earlier, at the Lake Como villa of the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, “incapacity and timidity always prevented my mingling in the nightly conversations,” so she merely listened as her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron, and the other men present conversed.

    But it was during those conversations, while the freakishly cold summer kept them indoors, that Byron proposed they each write a ghost story. Mary’s towering entry into the competition, Frankenstein, was initially published anonymously, and her husband was sometimes credited as the author (and later The Last Man was coyly credited to “the author of Frankenstein“). It’s a roundabout revenge that the girl who hardly dare speak wrote a book that would by the twentieth century loom far larger in the public imagination than anything those men did.

    While her husband lived, she was dependent on his income and his whims, and he was often capricious, improvident, and callous. When he died, his hostile father, Sir Timothy Shelley, furnished her and her surviving child with a modest allowance on the condition that she silence herself, so she was forced to publish anonymously while she strove to write for a living.

    The Last Man shows the tension between what she wants—to explore ideas and craft an allegory for her profound sense of loss and loneliness—and what she thought the market might want. So her flowery and sometimes florid prose style and her characters’ emotional lives seem conventional furnishings in an utterly unconventional premise.

    Before the Romantics, the word “lonely” mostly just meant alone, isolated, as likely to be used for isolated places and objects as for forlorn people—the 1755 edition of Doctor Johnson’s dictionary defines it as “solitary, addicted to solitude.” It lacked the sense of sad yearning and bereftness that it now evokes. Mary Shelley’s peers and their near predecessors, the first generation of Romantic poets, were preoccupied with solitary figures, outcasts, orphans, and with loneliness. A number of them wrote about the mythic figure of the Wandering Jew, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge modeled his Ancient Mariner after him (one of Shelley’s childhood memories was hiding behind the sofa as Coleridge recited the poem to her father and stepmother).

    Among all these figures, Shelley might be the one whose life was most threaded through with an actual experience of loneliness, and in making that emotion a subject for literature she was a true romantic. After her mother, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, died, she was raised by an unsympathetic stepmother and a father who prized her intellect more than he protected her wellbeing. When, at the age of sixteen, she ran off to France with the married Shelley, she was rejected and reviled, even by her own father, for violating the sexual rules circumscribing women’s lives.

    The stigma lived on long after the death by suicide of the first Mrs. Shelley and her marriage to the poet. During the eight years of their life together, she had at least five pregnancies, resulting in the early death of three of those children and a miscarriage. She nearly bled to death from the latter, a few weeks before her young husband and his friend died in a boating accident in early July of 1822. He was almost thirty; she not yet twenty-five. Her journal stops abruptly upon his death and then resumes a few months later, “Now I am alone—oh, how alone! The stars may behold my tears, and the winds drink my sighs; but my thoughts are a sealed treasure, which I can confide to none.”

    In April of 1824, Byron died, apparently of malaria and blood loss after being, in a common medical practice of the time, bled repeatedly by his doctors. Though her relationship with Byron had been conflicted, she felt his passing deeply—and, it’s often said, modeled The Last Man’s Raymond after him. In her journal for May 14, 1824, while in the midst of writing this novel, she wrote, “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.” Only her son Percy lived on as a companion to the widow and a relic of those hectic years among the poets.

    There are few books about loneliness more wrenching than The Last Man, but it’s hard to attribute it all to her bereavement when the novel she wrote in the midst of her marriage and the society Shelley brought with him was as fierce an exploration of solitude.

    There are few books about loneliness more wrenching than The Last Man, but it’s hard to attribute it all to her bereavement when the novel she wrote in the midst of her marriage and the society Shelley brought with him was as fierce an exploration of solitude. Frankenstein describes the utter loneliness of the singular creature cobbled together from corpses, brought to life with electricity, and then abandoned by his creator. Lionel Verney, the protagonist and narrator of The Last Man, is fated to become as unique and as solitary as this creature, to be the only one of his kind.

    But it’s worth remembering that Verney’s life begins in solitude as well as ends in it. As a child, he had been orphaned and sent out to herd sheep, becoming a “vagabond” whose life offered “companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness.” The latter part of the phrase negates the former: nature is indeed a companion, and beauties of landscape are much praised in this book, but it is no substitute for human companionship. Verney’s life echoes Shelley’s—a lonely childhood, an adventurous heyday among remarkable peers, and a return to isolation.

    I contemplate that time machine and the possible meddling with her hardships and losses, and then contemplate that had her life turned out differently her work might well have too, or never come to be. We need that work, and so I leave her to her fate and her readers to her books.


    The Last Man - Shelley, Mary

    From The Last Man by Mary Shelley, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LL. Foreword copyright © 2024 by Rebecca Solnit.

    Rebecca Solnit
    Rebecca Solnit
    Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-five books on feminism, environmental and urban history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and catastrophe. She co-edited the 2023 anthology Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility. Her other books include Orwell’s Roses; Recollections of My Nonexistence; Hope in the Dark; Men Explain Things to Me; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she writes regularly for the Guardian, serves on the board of the climate group Oil Change International, and in 2022 launched the climate project Not Too Late (nottoolateclimate.com).

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