It's firmly autumn here in Chicago, so it was time recently to put away my beach-and-airport Lee Child and Elin Hilderbrand and whatnot, and instead turn to a series of very large and intellectually interesting tomes I'll be slowly getting through all the way until next spring and the return of warm weather. Coming later this winter will be my first-ever read of Gone With the Wind, a re-read of Neal Stephenson's Anathem, a binge-read of the entire seven-book "Narnia" series in a row, and my first attempt at Gene Wolfe's 950-page The Book of the New Sun; but first for these cold-weather long-form reads, it's the 150,000-word (i.e. Harry Potter-sized) 1826 forgotten "post-apocalyptic" "classic" The Last Man, by Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley, long overshadowed by her more famous book but now getting more and more of a serious 21st-century look again, when we take both genre literature and novels by women much more seriously.
I purposely put air-quotes around both the terms above, because part of what makes it famous is precisely that it's not considered a classic by any way you measure it; in fact, it was sort of angrily rejected by contemporary audiences in the 1820s when she first published it, a little less than a decade after Frankenstein, as she hit middle-age and her work first started to fall out of favor, along with the other Early Romantics who were dying like flies all around her. And now that I've read it, I'm not sure even if you can properly call it a post-apocalyptic novel, at least not in the genre-thriller way we largely mean it now when we use the term ourselves, which is why that's getting air-quotes too. It's still super-fascinating, though, for what it is instead is Shelley talking about all these Early Romantics she spent so much of her youth around, and who had all recently died in a very short period, leaving Shelley essentially alone in the world -- not only her husband Percy, but her sister-in-law Claire Clairmont, her child William, and the charming asshole George Byron who held their whole circle together, otherwise known as Lord Byron. So in other words, the "last man" of her so-called speculative proto-sci-fi novel is not the lone survivor of the futuristic plague seen in her book; it's Mary herself, and this book is a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about what it was actually like to live within such a group of people, with just a few showy genre details stitched on to nominally make it a sci-fi story.
So in this, it's really important to keep two things in mind about the world as it existed in the 1820s when Shelley wrote this: first, her father-in-law, the politically powerful father of Percy Shelley, had forbidden her from ever writing a memoir about her time with his son; and second, the entire post-apocalyptic "last man" trope of proto-sci-fi had already been around for over 20 years at that point, ever since the unexpected explosive bestseller The Last Man by French author Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville in 1805, which had suffered so many cheap ripoffs in the decades after that the "last man" trope was actually kind of a joke by the 1820s, even to the point that there were now popular parodies of the genre. That's why contemporary audiences angrily rejected the book when it first came out, because they took it all at face value and rightly concluded that this didn't hold a candle to the other, much more thrilling "last man" post-apocalyptic melodramas that had been published over the last 20 years. But we now 200 years later can clearly see it as yet another proto-example from the literary world, this time the prototype of the modern autobiographical novel, where Shelley is actually trying to record what her time among the tragic, often infuriating Early Romantics was like, and as such uses the "last man" trope only metaphorically to declare her the last among her artistic peers to still live and write new work, one of the only people who actually got to live long enough to approach it through the wiser filter of middle-age, and therefore has more complex and nuanced things to say about it than any of them did when they were in their passionate twenties.
It makes sense, after all, once you learn that she had been forbidden by her father-in-law from publishing a "true story" about her time with Percy, Byron and the rest; but this was the early 1800s, after all, not long after even the novel as an art form had even been invented, and when it was still largely considered silly rubbish only good for women and children by the exact sober, older white men like Shelley's father-in-law. Of course Shelley could get away with couching her memoir of these times within a so-called science-fiction melodrama, especially a trope that had already been around and trendily popular for the last 20 years, because readers literally weren't sophisticated enough yet to read something like The Last Man and say, "...Oh, wait, she's actually talking about Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, isn't she?" But sheesh, what else can you say about a character named "Lord Raymond," who is described as looking exactly like Byron, who in our late 21st-century setting of future England is a charming rogue asshole who wants to see England return to a state of monarchy, after the country fully converts into a secular democracy like the US in Shelley's "past future" timeline. Or what about his complicated, almost sexual relationship with who is supposed to be the current king of England if he hadn't abdicated, one Adrian Windsor who just happens to look exactly like Shelley's real-life husband Percy, who is 100% on the side of the rational Republicanists and has an antagonistic yet almost sensual relationship with Lord Raymond, who's trying to achieve the exact opposite thing and bring back "rule by the righteously ordained?"
So if we use all this as proof that what Shelley was truly trying to do here was actually write an autobiographical novel about the Early Romantic inner circle she was a part of, that actually makes this quite the interesting book, and especially in the ultra-complex, ultra-nuanced way she portrays her version of Lord Byron here, very easily the true protagonist of the book even though it's supposed to be a sweeping ensemble drama where the abdicated king is just as important, as is his Shakespearean mother who schemes with Lord Raymond to bring back the monarchy, as is another dozen characters based here and there on actual figures from her real-life circle in those years. Shelley's the only one left alive at this point in real history, after all, so she can say whatever she wants to about these people; and it's clear that, just as we think about him today 200 years later, Shelley clearly found Lord Byron to be the most complex and mesmerizing person of their entire circle, and largely devotes her ensemble drama here to examining the detailed ins and outs of his character in particular. And like we've often been discovering just now in our #MeToo years, one of the things making this book worth revisiting here in the 21st century is that Shelley's post-death brutally honest assessment of Lord Byron is of a real MeTooer type -- charming and seductive in a way you can't tear yourself away from, but that you can easily see right away is damaging and too intense for your well-being, the kind of person to both build up a fervent circle of true believers and eventually resign with disgrace from that circle (if they live long enough, that is, which in the case of both the real Byron and the fictional Raymond was not the case), much more honest and sophisticated an examination of this type of "intelligentsia bro" than the traditional "Byronic Hero" that grew together during the Victorian Age.
Unfortunately, though, I find myself once again paraphrasing Homer Simpson talking to Ricky Gervais when it comes to me discussing a novel from the Early Romantic period: "Lady, you take forever to say nothing!!!" And that's another reason you can see why contemporary audiences might've angrily rejected this book when it first came out, because for a post-apocalyptic thriller, it's slow as freakin' molasses, and I have to confess that I didn't make it all the way to the end of this thousand-page book before I had decided that I at least had read enough to write a measured and informed review. That review, as you can see, is that it's well worth your time to take on, at least the slow and extra-long first act which is where most of the character-building of these thinly veiled Early Romantics take place, before a second and third act that crank up the genre tropes considerably. (Also, be aware that Shelley didn't even bother trying to think of cool sci-fi what-ifs; the most cutting-edge thing anyone does in her book is travel long distances by hot air balloon.)
In it, you'll get a more refreshingly honest and complicated look at these "world's first whiny hipsters" of Shelley's generation than perhaps you've ever seen an actual member of that generation talk about themselves before; and understand that if any of them had managed to live beyond their mid-thirties, like Shelley turned out to be the only one to do, all of them might have had a quite different attitude about this "age of the tortured romantic artist" that still very much exists to this day, even while seemingly getting snuffed out more and more by our rapid transition into our current Woke times. You may not last the entire book, but even the first couple hundred pages are well worth the time to read, even if you Wikipedia the rest of the plot; and Shelley in general deserves to be remembered as a towering pioneer of her age, and not just a one-hit wonder for Frankenstein in the style of, "Isn't it nice that Percy's wife got to do something too?" These books and others show exactly why, so ahead of their times that we're only catching up to some of them now.