The Very Strange World of Mary Shelley

The Writer of Frankenstein Left the World More than a Little to Worry About

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At the end of August 2006, a helicopter was scheduled to hover above the red bluffs near Tucson, Arizona, and film scores of National Guardsmen dumping corpses from garbage trucks into a pit of fire.

It would mark an initial production stage in A.I.A. Film Productions’s screen adaptation of The Last Man, a novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, that, published in 1826 and not reprinted until 1965 (University of Nebraska Press), has attracted little attention compared to the author’s first and still wildly popular novel, Frankenstein or The Mod­ern Prometheus, published in 1818.

Though The Last Man was panned by critics when it first appeared, it is a brilliant and complex account, written in the grand romantic manner, of the annihilation of humanity in the years 2073-2100 by a devastating worldwide plague. One man alone, Lionel Verney, survives the plague (which originated on “the shores of the Nile”) to tell the story. As the novel ends, he sets sail for India in hopes of finding survivors on the other side of the earth. Verney’s last words are, “Thus around the shores of deserted Earth, while the sun is high and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney—the LAST MAN.”

The A.I.A. Productions film version, scheduled for 2007 release, has been radically altered from the Mary Shelley story. In the movie, the plague victims have metamorphosed into blind or semi-blind mutants who resort to canni­balism for food. As the action moves from Siberia to Arizona, the eponymous hero, untouched by the plague, tries to wipe out the mutants one by one with an automatic rifle. Despite the differences, the producers insist their film is based on Shelley’s The Last Man, even arguing that the “last man on earth” genre, ostensibly launched by the 1954 Richard Matheson science-fiction novel I Am Legend (and continued by such movies as The Omega Man with Charl­ton Heston) was actually inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel.

In both the book and the movie versions of The Last Man, God does not intervene to save mankind. The life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was so crowded with remarkable achievements, in an age when women were not allowed to express themselves as freely as men, that she must have wondered sometimes if she herself were the recipient of divine guidance. But there were other, powerful, reasons why Mary was able to accomplish all she did. The first was heredity. She was the daughter of two geniuses, William Godwin (1756-1836), a radical philosopher who believed man should live by reason alone and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), an educator and the author of the first great feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Though Godwin’s books had an impact on his times, his greatest influence came through the works of his devoted disciples, who included Robert Southey, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others. William Wordsworth said of Mary Wollstonecraft that she was the most influential of Enlightenment radicals, with the possible exception of William Blake.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died ten days after giving birth to Mary. William Godwin, remote, unemotional and preoccupied with his work, would be forced to raise a daughter on his own. Not quite four years later, he eased the burden on himself by taking a second wife. But he insisted Mary be schooled at home. He increasingly allowed his in­tellectually precocious daughter to take part in the almost nightly meetings with his disciples at his home. This was the second source of Mary’s future strength: She was educated and very quickly treated almost as an equal, by some of the greatest Romantic poets and artists of the time.

A number of these atheists, agnostics and pantheists of genius nonetheless took an interest in spiritualism. From age eight to twelve Mary listened in on brilliant discussions about ghosts and unexplained physical manifestations of spirits from other worlds. She developed a keen interest in the occult, devouring the part of her father’s library devot­ed to the subject. Though discouraged from doing so by her father and stepmother, she began visiting her mother’s grave in the cemetery behind Saint Pancras Church; there, lying on the grass, she talked to her mother’s spirit.

When Mary was 17, a third, enormous and unorthodox, influence entered her life. This was Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), aged 21, soon to become one of England’s great Romantic poets, who began appearing regularly at her father’s house as his newest disciple. Shelley soon fell desperately in love with the very brilliant and very attractive, Mary. Soon, Mary reciprocated his feelings, even taking him to her mother’s grave and telling him her dead mother’s spirit actually answered the questions she asked. Totally sympathetic, smitten forever, Shelley begged Mary to run away to Italy with him.

But there was a problem. Shelley was already married, with two children. The high-minded Mary refused his ad­vances again and again—but, every bit as smitten as he was and a person whose totally unconventional upbringing made her open to unorthodox behavior, she finally yielded to Shelley’s advances and the two of them (along with Mary’s half-sister Jane Claremont) set off together for Venice.

Soon the trio was out of money and had to return to London. They had sparked an enormous scandal and now faced near-total ostracism. Mary became pregnant and had a baby girl who, born prematurely, died two weeks later. Mary became pregnant again and her second child, William, was born in January 1816. The couple fled once more to Europe—again with Jane (now Claire) Claremont, who was pregnant by the now world-famous Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824).

It was late spring 1816. The three rented a villa close to Byron’s on the shores of Lake Léman near Geneva in Switzerland. Mary was not yet 19. Several weeks of blossoming creativity—sprinkled with soupçons and actual expres­sions of sex—got underway. Just one element remained to be set in place for Mary Godwin to begin her first novel, Frankenstein. Nature itself supplied that final element. Across much of the northern hemisphere, the year 1816 was the coldest ever recorded, before or since. Severe climate anomalies destroyed crops in northern Europe, the Ameri­can northeast and eastern Canada. It’s now believed that these aberrations occurred because of the April 5–15, 1815, volcanic eruptions of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in the Dutch East Indies (in today’s Indonesia), which ejected immense amounts of volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere. As is common when such eruptions take place, temperatures fell worldwide owing to less sunlight passing through the atmosphere.

The eruption caused constant rainfall in Switzerland in the late spring and summer of 1816, far beyond the annu­al norm. The rain caused Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire and Byron’s friend John Polidori, to be clos­eted together in one house or another day after day. On a certain night, the enforced confinement caused the hot­house atmosphere, stoked by at least three persons of genius, to reach a kind of literary critical mass. The five invoked the spirit world and transcribed messages from the beyond (unfortunately, the transcripts are lost). They told ghost stories. Byron suggested they each try to write a ghost story. Mary seemed lost at first, but was obsessed by the project. All talked heatedly about the latest developments in science. Mary would write (referring to herself in the third person) in the 1831 edition of Frankenstein: “It was after one such conversation that Mary Shelley received the donnée, the gift every artist prays for that seems to come from beyond the self. Lying in bed, her eyes tightly shut, she saw ‘the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phan­tasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.’ ”

Mary completed the book the year after in London. She and Shelley had returned to an even greater scandal: Shel­ley’s wife Harriet had committed suicide. Happily if guiltily, Mary and Percy Shelley married. Frankenstein or The New Prometheus was published to acclaim in 1818 (anonymously; and for years people thought it had been written by Percy Shelley, or at least heavily edited by him). Mary was 21 at the time the book appeared and the couple had re­turned to Italy.

Frankenstein has been popularized in numerous movies and everyone knows the story. A scientist, Victor Fran­kenstein, creates an eight-foot-tall monster out of bits of flesh acquired from butchers’ shops. With blasts of electrici­ty the scientist brings the monster to life. From then on it makes Frankenstein’s life a misery, causing the death of all his dearest friends and even of his wife. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the dawning of an era when science would come to threaten the rule of theology. Her book seems to ask: Will man someday be able to create man, just as God created man? And should man try? Given the torment the monster himself endures and inflicts on others, Mary Shelley’s answer is at the least ambiguous.

Back in Italy, Mary wrote, studied and had five pregnancies in all, with only one son, Percy Florence Shelley, sur­viving to become an adult. But, in July 1822, an unspeakable tragedy struck: Mary’s husband, on the path to becom­ing an acclaimed poet, was caught in a storm while sailing near Livorno and drowned at sea on July 8, 1822. He was 29 years old.

Mary now showed the incredible strength that had matured in her over the years. She returned to London with her young son and over the next almost three decades came close to supporting herself with her writings while edit­ing and promoting the works of Percy Shelley. She wrote five novels in all after Frankenstein: Valperga: The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca; The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck; Lodore; Falkner; and The Last Man. Many of her works feature a single, absolutely unique (sometimes disastrously so, as in Frankenstein’s monster) indi­vidual who is set apart by his strange, almost occult, uniqueness. Often, the uniqueness is self-inflicted. In the short story The Mortal Immortal, an alchemist—in fact, the renowned Paracelsus—creates an ‘Elixir of Immortality’ which is consumed by his student Winzy, the narrator of the story. At the beginning Winzy, who is 323 years old, says: “I have lived on for many a year—alone and weary of myself—desirous of death, yet never dying—a mortal immortal.” At the end, he wonders, wistfully, hopefully, if he will ever die; he is not pleased with the change that the medieval “technology” of the Elixir of Immortality has wrought within him. Some of Mary Shelley’s other tales deal with life and animation. Roger Dodsworth and Valerius are about ‘reanimation’, a theme from Frankenstein. Her story Trans­formation deals with a ‘doppelgänger’, also used by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Robert Louis Stevenson in Die Dop­pelgänger and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde respectively. Mary Shelley plays continually in her works with the theme of the dangers of (purposefully or inadvertently) imposing technologies upon mankind.

If The Last Man is—quite literally!—the omega of Mary Shelley’s writings, Frankenstein or the New Prometheus is certainly the alpha. For Shelley, the creation of a human being by human hands comes to be the ultimate usurpa­tion of God’s power; it is the supremely heretical act. This is the problem of the modern world, where the constant making and remaking of nature by technology is a kind of idolatry. So, at least, the torment of Frankenstein’s mon­ster suggests. The annihilation of mankind in almost biblical fashion by God in The Last Man is God’s revenge, for there is nothing easier for the deity, who has created man, than to eliminate him. Perhaps we’d do well to take The Last Man—and Mary’s earlier, electrifying Frankenstein—as two cautionary tales to be pondered on carefully.

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