The Last Man is beautifully written, poetic and dramatic. It’s also one of the grimmest and most depressing books I’ve ever read.
A prophecy, found by the author in a cave, tells the story of Lionel Verney. Although set in the late 21st century, it’s not really a prediction of how the future will be, as society is rather similar to Mary Shelley’s day, except that England is now a republic on the verge of civil war. The focus is on the relationships that Lionel builds with his friends, the romances between them, and his travels in Greece and Italy. A plague then spreads through the world, eventually reaching London and devastating the population. By the end of the story (this isn’t a spoiler – the clue is in the title) no one is left except for Lionel, the last man, writing his memoirs which no one will see.
The author of Frankenstein, by the time she wrote The Last Man, had returned from the Continent, having lost her husband and three of her children. We can see the heartbreaking effects of this in the novel, which has many dreadfully sad scenes of people losing their loved ones. Maybe this was a kind of therapy for Shelley, writing her grief into her work. The novel is also a tribute to the landscape, architecture and classical literature of Greece and Italy.
It’s not an easy read at all and in these particular times, the content is uncomfortably topical. By a strange coincidence, the random generator (which I now use to choose my re-reads, in addition to which new books on my shelf to read next) chose this book for me to re-read.
First published in 1826. My edition was published by Wordsworth Classics in 2004.