Mary Shelley and Sibylline Drag

Elizabeth Fay

The Last Man was Mary Shelley's first novel written from the memory, rather than the literal presence, of her husband's voice and ideas, and from their textual presence in his poems she had just finished editing. As a novel written in mourning, not only for him but for virtually their entire literary circle, she monumentalizes them all, creating figures as far from the realistic weaknesses and frailties of her first novel's characters as possible. As if escaping from realism, she idealizes everyone in this novel, reducing them to fairy tale figures of good and evil as in the pitting of Adrian and Idris against their mother. The ambiguities of real life so important to Frankenstein, where genius leads one astray and love is proof against nothing, disappear from this work written for the dead. It is a "posthumous" novel from the perspective of the lone survivor for whom the past is a romance and the future cannot exist. In many ways we could read this novel as a continuation of Frankenstein, with Victor's vision of a world where disease is conquered and leisure and peace the norm ("disease was to be banished; labour lightened of its heaviest burden"), and yet where all goes wrong anyway, where creation avenges itself on man. But we should also read The Last Man against Frankenstein, as a revision of its insights about subjectivity, gender, and individual achievement.

The Last Man aspires to a progressive vision, set in the twenty-first century and detailing a republic of peace and prosperity not known in Shelley's own time. It asserts its own prophecy of that future through "leaves" supposedly found in the Sibyl's Cave by the author and her companion. Yet life in the 2070s looks very much the same as in the 1820s, telling us that this is not a progressive novel of science fiction and social criticism as was her first work, but a sentimentalization of history, commemorating the age not glimpsing the future. Shelley does to the future what Scott does to the past, using romance and nostalgia to retouch and transform the known into an ideal worth living for. Yet, if the characters are ideal, particularly the men--self-sacrificing rather than selfish, responsible rather than immature, brilliant yet loving--the world is not. Everything in this future can be reduced by the wrath of nature to ruin and remains. This is the known world as remaindered, with none to contemplate its achievements but the last man. It is regression, an antithesis of everything Percy Shelley worked for, a way of wrapping him into textual presence so that his ephemeral and future-oriented soul simply has to stay put. "Oh my pen! haste thou to write what was, before the thought of what is, arrests the hand that guides thee" cries her protagonist.

As sole survivor, of course, Mary Shelley has the opportunity to rewrite not only her husband and their circle, but herself as well. However, the romance heroines she chooses are inadequate for her vision: Idris and Perdita are too perfect, and Evadne too imperfect for this task. Instead, Shelley invents a male protagonist to play herself, a woman's version of the ideal man. Lionel Verney is the perfect knight: loyal in friendship, unbeatable in love, heroic in his personal battles. He is also perfectly domesticated, the ideal husband and father, preferring idyllic life with his family to any other pursuit except when performing rescues. "[T]ears filled my eyes. . .The joyful welcome of my boys, the soft gratulation of Clara, the pressure of Adrian's hand, contributed to unman me." He chooses feminine tears, self-denial and starvation as proofs of his manhood, suffers for love, and generally rewrites medievalism to become the model of future man. Many critics have read Frankenstein's creature as the site of authorial identification in Shelley's first novel, and although it is generally agreed in The Last Man that Shelley puts parts of herself, as well as of her husband, in several characters, Verney is the clearest location for Shelley's own textual presence just as Adrian is that for Percy Shelley's. Despite his feminizing traits, Verney is curiously more male than Adrian in his strength and endurance, yet also more female in his inability to change events or even individual intention. Verney exists, indeed, as an indictment against the grandiose attempts of the other male characters to inflict their ambitions on history and on others. The feminized ideal, Verney is superior to such men simply because he withholds his strength, restricting his acts to the rescue of others and to a feeling witness of history.

Still, why not a female protagonist? Shelley chose to place herself as observer, inductor, and user of knowledge in the male creature of her first novel, and in her third she uses a male protagonist to extricate herself from social engagement, from knowledge, from effecting change. Clearly the need to remember what is already known replaces all earlier cognitive and libidinal needs. Yet why not locate memory in the female? Perhaps Verney is neither gender, thus making him the only fitting companion for Percy/Adrian. Shelley shows how fitting a companion she herself was through her knowledge of male experience and its world, including the workings of politics, warfare, history, and men's ambitions. Surely there is a translation of gender here, the character of Verney nearly managing to escape it altogether. Yet for this he only endures, an accomplished witness. Or perhaps this is the point, that without a witness history (and genius) does not actually take place. Just as we might say that without readers literature does not actually exist. Verney reads his fictive time; Shelley reads Shelley.

Jane Miller argues in Women Writing about Men (1986) that literature has always been male territory (we might add history and genius to this as well), and women who "invade" this territory are "[d]isguised perfunctorily as men, they find themselves, colonials or provincials in the metropolis, confronted by their . . .desires and bodies, as they have been defined and described by men" (18). Lionel Verney discovers himself in the same textual predicament, a provincial in London, an outsider to ordinary civilization, and when alone, forced to consider his own life and nature through prior terms that can no longer define the world he sees before him. Finally he is no man ("I started. . .What wild-looking, unkempt, half-naked savage was that before me? . . .I perceived that it was I myself") but Frankenstein's monster, a denatured being wandering through wild nature and deserted houses alike, having his reflection only for company. He is without gender and without vision, except as reflection. This is an accurate rendering of the state of mourning; it is life without history and without textual presence. It is most essentially life without Adrian. In her "Author's Introduction," Shelley refers to Percy Shelley as her "companion" and "friend," and reveals at the end of this short text that although he helped her for a while with the "translation" of the Sibylline prophecy into the present tense, he has now left her and she is all alone. Her reversal of these introductory terms into their opposite-- she/Verney is the companion of P.B.Shelley/Adrian; not just he but everyone leaves her by the end of the text; she must translate the past and the present into the future, which Verney must witness the passing of--creates a nightmare vision of absolute negation. It is written from the standpoint of the dead (or of emotional death), with Verney thinking by the end, "Why talk of days--or weeks--or months. . .The next morning I eagerly began my rambles in search of oblivion." Yet what Verney has witnessed, his ability to read the depths of everyone's heart and to record this accurately and generously, becomes the reason for his sole survivorship. Any single woman is too absorbed in the present, and any single man is too consumed by ambition. Even Evadne, with the passionate strength of a man, and fighting in drag in Raymond's army only to die, is too conflicted by her woman's heart to achieve any real goal.

Unlike Evadne, Verney is more than a female in male clothing; he is also more than a cross-dressed sibyl. The Sibyl herself embodies the utmost strength of the feminine spirit, and his witness of this strength, not its imitation, provides Shelley with yet another translation. Verney does not disappear into the Sibyl, as Perdita and Evadne both do, but becomes himself the Sibylline leaves, the very poem of the West Wind. He becomes the voice of Adrian. This is a potent witnessing, a sacrifice not of self to art but of self to truth, a translation of the self into something more than mere memory. It is a transcendence of literary remains. If this vision is regressive, it regresses to the most cherished mystery of ancient Greece, thus turning pain into something beyond history, beyond individual purpose, even beyond the subjectivity of self.