Review of The Last Man (1826)
This is a novel, of which the subject is sufficiently extraordinary. Two of the most successful poets of the day, Byron and Campbell, have dared only just to touch upon it in a few detached lines; and yet here we have three volumes of prose devoted to it by a female writer. Whether the bards were wise in their restricted flights, or whether this bolder undertaking could possibly succeed, we will not here inquire. The author, suffice it to say, is not unknown to the reading world, for her scarcely less bold, and certainly not altogether unsuccessful attempt under the title of Frankenstein. We shall, therefore, merely glance at the plan and conduct of the fable, and present a few extracts, as specimens of the manner in which it is executed. There is an Introduction, not very skillfully imagined, which gives us to understand that the work is to be looked upon as a sort of free translation of certain "Sibylline Leaves," picked up by a party of modern travellers in the (so called) cave of the Cumæn Sibyl, on the shores of the Bay of Naples: and the story (as the name indicates) relates to the life and fortunes of "the Last Man," who remains on the face of the earth after it has been desolated of its human inhabitants by a great plague, which rages during the last two or three years of the twenty-first century of our present era. The story, however, commences about the year 2073--thus affording scope for much matter not connected with the catastrophe, and enabling the writer to indulge in every possible (and impossible) flight of her anticipative imagination, touching the nature of human society, and of all other mundane matters, a hundred a fifty years hence!
The story is at first almost exclusively confined to a very few persons, who, for a while, figure in the highest circles of political life at the period in question. But the events related, and the scenes which are introduced to develop the characters, refer chiefly to the private life of those persons, and to that universal passion which woman is so well fitted to illustrate, and which, it appears, is to enjoy at least as much influence on human affairs in the year 2080 as it does now. It is not till the beginning of the second volume that the existence of plague is announced; and here commences the chief novelty of the design. Until the middle of this volume, plague confines its ravages to the eastern parts of the globe; though, from its extensive progress there, fears and misgivings are entertained every where, and corresponding precautions are taken. At length, however, it reaches England, and the whole narrative comes to be absorbed by a detailed account of its progress here--of the flight of those who are spared by it--of their melancholy journeyings from place to place of the almost-deserted world--and, finally, of the death of all, save and except the hero of the story, who survives alone--survives even the plague itself, and is left living and to live on the still productive earth--the Last Man.
Such is the monstrous fable. We shall now present our readers with a few extracts, to shew the manner in which the work is executed in its different departments of description of character and of passion. It appears that, in the days to come (according to these prophecies of our Cumæn Sibyl), we are to call for our balloon as we now do for our travelling chariot. Here is a short description of a journey in one:
Every thing favoured my journey. The balloon rose half a mile from the earth, and with a favourable wind it hurried through the air, its feathered vans cleaving the unopposing atmosphere. Notwithstanding the melancholy object of my journey, my spirits were exhilarated by reviving hope, by the swift motion of the airy pinnace, and the balmy visitation of the sunny air. The pilot hardly moved the plumed steerage, and the slender mechanism of the wings, wide unfurled, gave forth a murmuring noise, soothing to the sense. Plain and hill, stream and corn-field, were discernible below, while we, unimpeded, sped on, swift and secure as a wild swan in his spring-tide flight. The machine obeyed the slightest motion of the helm; and the wind blowing steadily, there was no let or obstacle to our course. Such was the power over the elements--a power long sought, and lately won, yet foretold in by-gone time by the prince of poets, whose verses I quoted, much to the astonishment of my pilot when I told him how many hundred years ago they had been written:--They are to love in those days much as they do now. England, it appears, is to be a republic then; but the kingdom of Love is to remain an absolute monarchy, and its subjects are to be slaves. We quote a passage as superlative in the way of lady-metaphysics.
"Oh human wit! thou canst invent much ill,
Thou searchest strange arts: who would think, by skill,
A heavy man like a light bird should stray,
And through the empty heavens find a way?"
"Is there such a feeling as love at first sight? and if there be, in what does its nature differ from love founded in long observation and slow growth? Perhaps its effects are not so permanent; but they are, while they last, as violent and intense. We walk the pathless mazes of society vacant of joy, till we hold this clue, leading us through that labyrinth to paradise. Our nature dim, like to an unlighted torch, sleeps in formless blank till the fire attain it; this life of life--this light to moon, and glory to the sun. What does it matter, whether fire be struck from flint and steel, nourished with care into a flame, slowly communicated to the dark wick, or whether swiftly the radiant power of light and warmth passes from a kindred power, and shines at once the beacon and the hope? In the deepest fountain of my heart the pulses were stirred--around, about, beneath, the clinging memory, as a cloak, enwrapt me. In no one moment of coming time did I feel as I had done in time gone by. The spirit of Idris hovered in the air--her eyes were ever bent on mine--her remembered smile blinded my faint gaze, and caused me to walk as one not in eclipse, not in darkness and vacancy, but in a new and brilliant light, too novel, too dazzling for my human senses. On every leaf, on every small division of the universe, (as on the hyacinth AI is engraved), was imprinted the talisman of my existence--she is! she lives! I had not time yet to analyse my feeling, to take myself to task, and bask in the tameless passion--all was one idea, one feeling, one knowledge--it was my life!"Were this not written by a woman, it would be sad, vapid impertinence: as it is written by a woman, we male critics do not know what it is. We wish we did! Who will teach us?
We intended to have given further extracts from that part of the work which precedes what may be said to comprise its direct object. But we had better go at once to the portion of it immediately connected with the catastrophe. The following description relates to the period immediately preceding the departure from England of its few remaining "people."
"On the twentieth of November, Adrian and I rode for the last time through the streets of London. They were grass-grown and desert. The open doors of the empty mansions creaked upon their hinges--rank herbage and deforming dirt had swiftly accumulated on the steps of the houses--the voiceless steeples of the churches pierced the smokeless air--the churches were open, but no prayers were offered at the altars--mildew and damp had already defaced their ornaments--birds and tame animals, now homeless, had built nests and made their lairs in consecrated spots. We passed St. Paul's. London, which had extended so far in suburbs in all direction, had been somewhat deserted in the midst, and much of what had in former days obscured this vast building was removed. Its ponderous mass, blackened stone, and high dome, had made it look not like a temple, but a tomb. Methought above the portico was engraved the hic jacet of England. We passed on eastwards, engaged in such solemn talk as the times inspired. No human step was heard or human form discerned. Troops of dogs, deserted by their masters, passed us; and now and then a horse, unbridled and unsaddled, trotted towards us, and tried to attract the attention of those which we rode, as if to allure them to seek like liberty. An unwieldy ox, who had fed in an abandoned granary, suddenly lowed, and shewed his shapeless form in a narrow doorway. Every thing was desert; but nothing was in ruin: and this medley of undamaged buildings and luxurious accommodation, in trim and fresh youth, was contrasted with the lonely silence of the unpeopled streets."The finale approaches. What follows occurs at nearly the end of the last volume, when "the Last Man" has, for some time past, found himself literally alone in the world.
"As the fever of my blood increased, a desire of wandering came upon me. I remember that the sun had set on the fifth day after my wreck, when, without purpose or aim, I quitted the town of Ravenna. I must have been very ill. Had I been possessed by more or less delirium, that night had surely been my last; for as I continued to walk on the banks of the Mantone, whose upward course I followed, I looked wistfully in the stream, acknowledging that its pellucid waves could medicine my woes for ever, and was unable to account to myself for my tardiness in seeking their shelter from the poisoned arrows of thought, that were piercing me through and through. I walked a considerable part of the night, and excessive weariness at length conquered my repugnance to the availing myself of the deserted habitations of my species. The waning moon, which had just risen, shewed me a cottage, whose neat entrance and trim garden reminded me of my own England. I lifted up the latch of the door, and entered. A kitchen first presented itself, where, guided by the moonbeams, I found materials for striking a light. Within this was a bed room. The couch was furnished with sheets of snowy whiteness; the wood piled on the hearth, and an array as for a meal, might almost have deceived me into the dear belief that I had here found what I had so long sought--one survivor, a companion for my loneliness, a solace to my despair. I steeled myself against the delusion. The room itself was vacant: it was only prudent, I repeated to myself, to examine the rest of the house. I fancied that I was proof against this expectation; yet my heart beat audibly as I laid my head on the lock of each door; and it sunk again when I perceived in each the same vacancy. Dark and silent they were as vaults; so I returned to the first chamber, wondering what sightless host had spread the materials for my repast and my repose. I drew a chair to the table, and examined what the viands were of which I was to partake. In truth it was a death feast! the bread was blue and mouldy; the cheese lay a heap of dust. I did not dare examine the other dishes; a troop of ants passed in a double line across the table cloth; every utensil was covered with dust, with cobwebs, and myriads of dead flies: these were objects each and all betokening the fallaciousness of my expectations. Tears rushed into my eyes. Surely this was a wanton display of the power of the destroyer. What had I done, that each sensitive nerve was thus to be anatomised? Yet, why complain more now than ever? This vacant cottage revealed no new sorrow. The world was empty--mankind was dead--I knew it well--why quarrel, therefore, with an acknowledged and stale truth--yet, as I said, I had hoped in the very heart of despair, so that every new impression of the hard-cut reality on my soul, brought with it a fresh pang, telling me the yet unstudied lesson, that neither change of time nor place could bring alleviation to my misery; but that as I now was I must continue, day after day, month after month, year after year, while I lived."
The work closes shortly after this, leaving the unhappy subject of it to wander over the face of his earth, in a perpetual search after that companionship which he knows can never more be found.
When we repeat that these volumes are the production of a female pen, and that we have not ceased to consider Mrs. Shelley as a woman and a widow, we shall have given the clue to our abstinence from remarks upon them. That we must deem the tale altogether to be an instance of the strange misapplication of considerable talent, is most true. After the first volume, it is a sickening repetition of horrors, and a struggle after the display of morbid feelings which could not exist under the circumstances, nor even in the world as it now exists, with good and evil, joys and woes, mingled together. To hear a last man talking of having his "sensitive nerves anatomised" by any thing, is sheer nonsense: by the time a man had outlived his kind, Mrs. S. might be assured that the nervous system too was pretty nearly abolished. Then there is no keeping in any of the parts. In spite of the perfection of ballooning, people ride, and drive, and sail, as in the olden days, when aerial travelling was not so agreeable, when the remnant few of the world are all equal, of course--still, the principal characters hire chaises, have attendants, escorts, postillions! Really these are sad doings. We confess that we cannot get so seriously through the world in its last convulsions as we could wish; but there may be readers who can enter into the spirit of the thing, and to them the perusal of Mrs. Shelley's book may afford gratification. We will add, that there are some strong imaginings in it; and not the least cruel of these flights appears to us to be, the author's making the last human being an unfortunate gentleman. 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.
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