150+ essays on literary topics
To have invented one literary genre is a remarkable enough achievement, to have invented two is almost beyond belief, which is perhaps why Mary Shelley’s second achievement has been largely forgotten. Most people know that Frankenstein, the novel she wrote when she was the poet Shelley’s eighteen year old mistress, was the first horror novel. Hardly anyone knows that The Last Man, which she wrote when she was his twenty-eight year old widow, was the first apocalyptic novel.
Frankenstein was the name of the monster’s creator, the monster himself having no name. The horror in this first horror novel is that of the creator who, from the moment he brings his assemblage of old body parts to life, is so horrified at what he has done that he spends the rest of the novel running away from it.
‘I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…’
She would have been as horrified and disgusted by her creation as he was by his if she had been able to see all the third-rate horror films which were the unintended consequence of her inspiration on that famous evening at Byron’s villa on the shore of Lake Geneva in June 1816 when, prevented from going out because of the rain, they stayed indoors and made up ghost stories instead. Hers was not a ghost story but the story of an over-reacher, a man who plays God. Her Dr Frankenstein is like Marlowe’s Dr Faustus.
The novel’s subtitle is ‘The Modern Prometheus’, the god who stole the secret of life and gave it to man. In Shelley’s version, the creator is the victim of his own creation, the monster’s revenge on Frankenstein being like that of Zeus on Prometheus. Frankenstein’s creature wishes he had never been born. Life has given him glimpses of happiness, but the rest is sorrow and despair. Like Adam, he asks his maker to give him a mate. “I consent to your demand,” says Frankenstein, “on your solemn oath to quit Europe for ever, and every other place in the neighbourhood of man, as soon as I shall deliver into your hands a female who will accompany you in your exile.” But Frankenstein goes back on his promise and thereby seals his own fate.
Our sympathies veer one way and another throughout the book, but in the end they must lie, not with Frankenstein, but with the monster. In Mary Shelley’s creation myth, the created being is denied a mate or any hope of happiness. “Soon,” the monster says when he has taken his revenge, “these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”
Mary Shelley invites us, not least by using a quotation from Paradise Lost as the novel’s epigraph, to see the monster as man.
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
It is perhaps not simply that Frankenstein is God and the monster man, but that Frankenstein and his monster between them, human and god-like, represent two aspects of human nature, at war with each other, bent on mutual destruction.
The Last Man is a longer, more complex, more fragmented novel than Frankenstein. It is partly about the poet Shelley and the poet and politician Byron, partly about human relationships and partly about the end of the human race. It is nothing if not ambitious. Wagner could have made an opera of it. Perhaps one day somebody will.
Adrian and Lord Raymond, two of the principal characters, are idealised, or rather mythologised, versions of Shelley and Lord Byron. All the characters speak in the kind of language that we expect in the verse dramas that Shelley and Byron wrote, but not in a novel. That was perhaps less true in 1826 than it is now (though Kazuo Ishiguro has attempted a revival in his latest novel, The Sleeping Giant) but even then its purpose and its effect must have been to raise the story above everyday reality and give it a mythical quality. The narrator writes in good nineteenth century prose, but the characters say things like, ‘Nay, my sweet sister, you ask me more than I can well answer,’ and ‘Methinks his spirit remains here as well as that dust, which, incommunicable though it be, is more precious in its nothingness than aught else widowed earth clasps to her sorrowing bosom.’
The novel is set in the twenty-first century. There are flying machines, but the most common form of transport is still the horse. If she had worked harder at this aspect of it, she could have invented science fiction as well, but that was not what she was interested in. It was the end of the world that caught her imagination, not the technological advances that might have caused it. The apocalypse, when it comes, is not man-made. The last man of the title, the narrator, is the sole survivor of the plague.
His name is Verney. He is the low-born friend of high-born Adrian and Raymond, his father was ‘one of those men on whom nature had bestowed to prodigality the envied gifts of wit and imagination’ and whose ‘impulses, never under his own control, perpetually led him into difficulties from which his ingenuity alone could extricate him’. A bit like Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. One of the few things Mary Shelley does not quite bring off is giving Verney a voice of his own to hide the fact that he is really her. This is especially true when he gives us the kind of insights into the character of Lord Raymond (ie Byron) and his relationships with women that only a woman could give. The other clues are that Verney’s feelings for Adrian (ie Shelley) are more like love than friendship and that he outlives not just him but everyone else.
In The Last Man Mary Shelley gave us, as she did in Frankenstein, a literary form which enabled generations of later writers to escape from the constraints of realism. Earlier generations had re-rold classical myths and biblical stories. The stories told by novelists, as the name suggests, were new. They were expected, as by and large they still are, to be about ‘real life’. In Mary Shelley’s novels, as in the now familiar genres to which they gave rise, the made-up story that takes the place of myth or legend adopts the same form. The ideal is preferred to the real, the universal to the particular.
‘A solitary being is by instinct a wanderer, and that I would become… it was still possible that, could I visit the whole extent of earth, I should find in some part of the wide extent a survivor… Neither hope nor joy are my pilots – restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on.’
Verney’s words at the end of The Last Man recall the closing lines of Paradise Lost.
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
A modern Milton would be a novelist and he or she would write like Mary Shelley.
The first instalment of a new seven-part short story, Dirty Tricks, will be posted on 1 April.
Vive le Mole! is my latest publication, a children’s story for grown-ups – go to Bookshop for details.