Review of The Last Man (1826)
Mary Shelley, true to the genius of her family, has found this breating world and the operations and scenes which enliven it, so little worthy of her soaring fancy, that she once more ventures to create a world of her own, to people it with beings modelled by her own hand, and to govern it by laws drawn from the visionary theories which she has been so long taught to admire as the perfection of wisdom. She seems herself to belong to a sphere different from that with which we are conversant. Her imagination appears to delight in inventions which have no foundation in ordinary occurrences, and no charm for the common sympathies of mankind. We praise our most successful authors for the fidelity with which they paint the human character, for the simplicity which marks their representations of the living drama of life, and for the air of probability which they are sedulous to observe, even when they borrow most abundantly from the resources of imagination. If Mrs. Shelley is to be set down amongst our popular writers, she will owe her good fortune to the boldness of her departure from all the acknowledged canons of inventive literature; for the whole course of her ambition has been to pourtray monsters which could have existed only in her own conceptions, and to involve them in scenes and events which are wholly unparalled by any thing that the world has yet witnessed.
The idea of 'The Last Man' has already tempted the genius of more than one of our poets, and, in truth, it is a theme which appears to open a magnificent and boundless field to the imagination. But we have only to consider it for a moment, in order to be convinced that the mind of man might as well endeavour to describe the transactions which are taking place in any of the countless planets that are suspended beyond our own, as to anticipate the horros of the day which shall see the dissolution of our own system. The utmost efforts of thought are absolutely childish, when they seek to fathom the abyss of ruin, to number the accumulation of disastersm to paint the dreadful confusion, which await that final scene. Every writer who has hitherto ventured on the theme, has fallen infinitely beneath it. Mrs. Shelley, in following their example, has merely made herself ridiculous.
She generously permits our orb to roll on in its accustomed course until the year 2100, when the 'Last Man' is by her fiat left to perish. He is an Englishman, whom she names Verney and to whom, of course, she assigns a principle part in the conduct of her story, although he is originally brought up in the humblest of rural occupations. Her story commences about the year 2073, when the last of our kings is supposed to have abdicated 'in compliance with the gentle force of the remonstrances of his subjects, and a republic was instituted.' The view, however, which Mrs. Shelley gives of the practical effects of this system, is by no means an inviting one; the whole of the period which she describes, is remarkable for civil strife, and so difficult did she find it to manage this part of her subject, that she was obliged to change the scene to Greece, in the final liberation of which she employs one of her heroes--for she has a number of them. This event accomplished, (we hope, however, that this part of her tale will be aniticipated even in our own times,) her dramatis personæ returns to England, where pestilence soon destroys the whole population, with the exception of some fourteen or fifteen hundred souls who emigrate to Switzerland. On their way thither they find the continent also desolated, they themselves fall away like blighted ears of corn, till they are reduced to three individuals, two of whom perish by shipwreck. Verney survives them a few months to write this history, which Mrs. Shelley has obtained by some sort of magical incantation, in the mysteries of which we are not initiated.
There is nothing in the conduct, in the characters, in the incidents, or in the descriptive matter of this work, to which we feel any pleasure in referring. The whole appears to us to be the offspring of a diseased imagination, and of a most polluted taste. We must observe, however, that the powers of composition displayed in this production, are by no means of any ordinary character. They are indeed uncontrolled by any of the rules of good writing; but they certainly bear the impress of genius, though perverted and spoiled by morbid affectation. Mrs. Shelley frequently attempts to give her style a rythmical conciseness, and a poetical colouring , which we take to have been the main causes of the bombast that disfigures almost every chapter of this anamiable romance.
The descriptions of the operations of the pestilence are particularly objectionably for their minuteness. It is not a picture which she gives us, but a lecture in anatomy, in which every part of the human frame is laid bare to the eye, in its most putrid state of corruption. In this part of her subject, as indeed in every other, she amplifies beyond all the bounds of moderation. We are reluctantly obliged to pronounce the work a dedicated failure.
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