The narration [of history] inspired me with strange feelings. . . . -The Creature (Frankenstein)
The Creature's distressed and feminized reaction to historical experience, which causes him to weep along with Safie for the accumulated sufferings of humanity, embodies one of the most compelling concerns of Mary Shelley's overall writings--how the construction and gendering of the past affects the present. The Last Man constitutes her most complex engagement with that question, which merits particular attention in this virtual forum because it intersects with a widely shared and relatively unexplored pattern of historical investments among the period's women writers.
In a recent survey of the new and important critical revisionings of Romanticism, gender, and women writers, Stuart Curran notes that we have only begun to recognize "the pervasive engagement with history" that runs throughout the period's writings by women (191). The astonishing range and diversity of this "engagement" includes various types of straightforward and parodic historical narratives by figures like Catharine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Hester Piozzi, Lucy Aikin, Anna Jameson, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Benger, to name but a few, as well as countless forms of historically grounded poems, novels, and plays attempted, it would seem, by the great majority of women writers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such a vast array of historiographical experimentation by so many women who, to varying degrees, thought of themselves as champions of their sex implies that they clearly recognized the power of historical narration in reforming social relations and the politics of gender. Yet as Gary Kelly, Nanora Sweet, and Antoinette Burton reveal in their recent exploratory studies of the historical writings of Mary Hays, Felicia Hemans, and Jane Austen, we are only in the earliest phase of trying to map this crucial site of contention where Romanticism interrogated its own ideologies of gender and power. I would like to suggest briefly how such a critical enterprise can be enriched and, at the same time, problematized by a study of the historiographical procedures of The Last Man.
That inquiry would situate the historicism of The Last Man within a broad, creatively varied effort by many of the period's women writers to reformulate the basic narrative and epistemological patterns of mainstream history. Such a revisionary maneuver had grown so urgent because historical representation had developed by the turn of the nineteenth century into a foundational ground for all knowledge, and the "truth" it revealed was generally, in Christina Crosby's phrase, "man's truth"--a gendered structure of knowledge that excluded women and other marginalized groups from "historical and political life" (1). Its pivotal role in supporting systems of gender inequality helps explain that "pervasive engagement with history" among women writers, many of whom realized that their era's developing clash of gender ideologies would be fought out primarily on the field of history. Rewriting the past in the service of current gender politics required, as Joan Scott notes for our own time, dismantling the fundamental structures of historical representation in patriarchal versions of the past--displacing the rhetorical and epistemological frames of understanding in traditional history, that is, with what Josephine Donovan calls a "women's way of seeing, a women's epistemology" (98).
For Romantic era women writers, such a re-engendering of the structures of knowledge and power in their period's mainstream history entailed direct critiques of its totalizing inclination to delineate grand sweeps of historical process that subsume and efface individual subjects, particularly women, within universal paradigms of historical development. For all of the rich variety of tropological, narrative, and political strategies in mainstream historical writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of these differing historical renderings share a common tendency to theorize their accounts of the past within abstract, totalizing frames of linear progress and decline. The drama of this type of history subordinates human actors to such universal patterns of growth and degeneration, which may be construed variously as the liberal progressions of Whig history, the millennial advances of Priestly, Godwin, and the early advocates of the French Revolution, the cyclical patterns of destruction and renovation outlined by Volney, Condorcet, Cuvier, and Hegel, the brutal oscillations of supply and dearth in Malthus' population theory, or the degenerative motion of Gibbon's history of empire. Missing from all these highly theoretical accounts of history is the individualized story of the human subject, particularly the marginalized ones. Recent feminist critiques of Romantic ideology have demonstrated how totalizing transhistorical systems of this sort remain deeply implicated in patriarchal codes of knowledge and law. The rights and privileges such histories support, however differently inflected in political terms, will always remain, in Tom Paine's famous and revealing title, "The Rights of Man." To contest such universalizing histories of "man's rights" by feminizing the past and the way one looks upon it was thus to challenge fundamentally the gender ideologies and subordinations that operate throughout much of Romanticism's dominant social and writing practices.
Such a challenge widely took the form of alternative efforts to humanize the past, replacing abstract patterns of historical development with localized evocations of the interior, often devastated lives of individual subjects, particularly women, within domestic communities that have been ravaged by social and political tyranny. Most of those women writers who exerted a significant influence on Mary Shelley experimented with different forms of such a personalized historicism---including Mary Wollstonecraft, who pauses significantly in her political history of the French Revolution to "weep" for the domestic sufferings of individual victims of revolutionary violence; Maria Edgeworth, who renounces in Castle Rackrent what she calls "heroic history" for "secret memoirs" and "private anecdotes" (2) of loss and suffering; Mary Hays, whose Female Biography generally prioritizes the private "tears" and "sufferings" of historical figures like Joan of Arc over their public accomplishments. Catharine Macaulay presents the most complex and theoretically sophisticated form of this kind of personalized historicism in her widely read History of England--a work inspired, she announces in an explanatory preface, by "sympathising tenderness" and focused specifically on what she calls "the situation of sufferers" bound together by ties of relation and affection (History 8: 59; 6: xii; Letters on Education 177). The political significance of this revisionary historical attention to individual sufferings and sympathetic communities may be gauged by its recurrent promotion of something like the "ethic of care" that Anne Mellor, drawing on Carol Gilligan, finds so many women Romantic writers opposing to the abstract epistemologies and exclusionary gender politics of the period's masculine systems of writing and power (Romanticism and Gender 3).
These forms of revisionary historicism helped inspire in Mary Shelley a lifelong fascination with what she called "the philosophy of history" (Lives 2: 73), and she put the "lessons" she learned from her extensive reading in such a historical school to use in a wide variety of experimental formats--from the Creature's tearful response to historical suffering in Frankenstein, to the records of domestic relations that control the historical formats of most of her later novels, to the "history of [the] heart" that she foregrounds in her five-volume 1830s series of biographical lives (Lives 1: 90). Shelley's critics have begun to examine the innovative character of these historiographical procedures (O'Dea; Lew; Smith), but it would be particularly revealing at this point to trace the strategies through which The Last Man offers one of the most complex and problematic formulations of the revisionary historiography practiced by so many of Shelley's female contemporaries.
I only have space to gesture toward such an analysis with several queries and speculations. Why does Shelley shape the historical framework of The Last Man, for instance, with such a staggering multiplicity of temporal vantage points? The narrative looks forward prophetically to the twenty-first century, from the Sibyl's perspective; it looks backward, for the "Author," into the "covered fragments of old Roman villas," and forward into the fractured future etched out on the Sibyl's leaves. It pauses retrospectively, for Verney, on the ruins of Rome and dwells still more poignantly on the recent history of his departed friends and family, while also grimly prophesying an errant future of ceaseless global migration. The whirligig of time set in motion by these crosscurrents of historical perspective, we might speculate, functions both to expose the limitations of mainstream historiography and to promote a new form of the revisionary, personalized history that Shelley was learning from her female predecessors and contemporaries. For the Sibyl's "prophetic history," whose general character loosely resembles the mode of visionary prophecy to which figures like Godwin and Percy Shelley aspired, never coheres in any intelligible way--what is the significance of the Sibyl's gender in this respect? The fragmentary leaves must be "transform[ed]" (7) and rewritten in a way that makes sense to the "Author." And that "transformation" results not, as it seems at first to promise, in a visionary history of republican progress, but rather in a sustained record of personal sufferings among friends and relatives--individual sufferers whose community is ravaged by the plague that is also the force of human history.
Similarly the broad historical retrospects in the novel always prove dissatisfying in their abstraction--Raymond and Ryland invoke competing histories of English glory conditioned by political bias, neither of which seems valid in the end; Verney contemplates the marvels of ancient civilization in Rome, but ultimately finds them offering no succor for his misery. What does bring him a modicum of comfort, in the end, is his decision to write a personal history of his loving, often sorrowful interactions with those individuals closest to his heart. These moving "record[s] dear to [his] heart" (470), which express the agonizing "woe" of his isolation from community and chronicle the "virtues" of his "companions" (466) constitute the last, or the ultimate, human history written by the last man. But, to spin the whirligig round one more time, Verney's testament is also a complex form of the "new history" aimed at modifying social and gender relations in the future by personalizing the life of the past.
Such a revitalized, re-engendered history does not finally offer very much to Verney, however, as he looks out hopelessly upon a desolate world. And that iron conclusion to The Last Man should raise one last question about Romanticism's revisionary historiography: did its predominant emphasis on suffering, particularly in its sorrowful records of woman, help foster social reformation or actually reinforce the period's gender stereotypes of women as helpless, inferior victims? Historical visions of this sort, Cˇcile Dauphin has recently argued, can "sometimes lead to a sort of hypnotic auto-fascination with misfortune. . ." (570). Shelley's revisionary historiography in The Last Man reveals the enormous complexity with which Romantic era women writers could, to use Benjamin's phrase, "brush history against the grain" (257), but it should also make us question whether that brushing cut into or only polished over the grain of establishment and authority.
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---. Letters on Education: With Observations on Religion and Metaphysical Subjects. London, 1790.
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