A future world ravaged by illness and fanaticism. A lone narrator standing at the cusp of humanity’s oblivion. It’s not the newest Hollywood blockbuster–it’s an 1826 novel by author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, born on this day in 1797. Shelley is better remembered for science-gone-wrong novel Frankenstein, but she also pioneered the genre of apocalypse novels in the English language.
Unlike today’s audiences that devour stories of future (and present) dystopias, nineteenth-century readers did not take to her story. “A sickening repetition of horrors,” one reviewer said, according to literary scholar Morton D. Paley. Another: “The offspring of a diseased imagination and of a most polluted taste.” Surviving letters from Shelley to her publisher suggest that the novel sold poorly, and it wasn’t reprinted until the 1960s. But, as with Frankenstein, Shelley was playing on some very real anxieties in Industrial Revolution-era society–anxieties that live on to the present day. And, just like with Frankenstein, she got flack for it.
The Last Man seems profoundly modern. It is set close to the year 2100 in an England that looks very different than it did then or does today. Technologically, it’s more like 1826–except people can travel around in balloons, Paley wrote elsewhere. (Balloons were cutting-edge technology at the time.) Politically, however, the world of 'The Last Man' looks very different. England is governed by a Protector. Britain is “called a republic but seems more like an oligarchy,” Paley wrote. The rest of the world is mostly at peace, except that Greece and Turkey are still at war, as they were during Shelley’s life. (It was this conflict that claimed the life of her friend Lord Byron.)
The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney, tells the story of his life before and after becoming the Last Man: The only human remaining alive after plague sweeps the world. He’s friends with the son of the last King of England, who abdicated less than a generation earlier, and they hang out with a bunch of other aristocratic figures before the plague breaks out in Europe. The heroes eventually make it to England, then travel from place to place trying to find somewhere safe. Verney, who survives the plague through some kind of immunity, describes societal breakdown and destructive doomsday cults.
The Last Man was the first apocalyptic novel written in English (Le Dernier Homme, a French apocalyptic novel of the same title, was published in 1805). It deals with things that deeply concerned the Victorians–among them, disease. The plague in the novel is mysterious: No one can figure out what caused it, where it came from or how to cure it, writes literature scholar Anne K. Mellor.
One of the reasons Shelley's book didn’t get better play was her gender. When it became known that she’d written Frankenstein, critics said the teenage writer was just copying her father’s style and that the novel wasn’t worth reading because it was written by a woman. "The writer of it is, we understand, a female,” wrote one review; “this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment."
When reviewing The Last Man, one critic snarked, “Why not the last Woman? she would have known better how to paint her distress at having nobody left to talk to: we are sure the tale would have been more interesting.”
But although Shelley wasn’t successful in selling the English-speaking public on apocalypse fiction, other apocalypse novels by other writers followed in the nineteenth century and up to the present. Chew on that, critics.