The Last Man and Masculine History: between the Revolutionary Aftermath and the Founding of the Modern Liberal State
Gary Kelly

The French Revolution and the Revolution debate in Britain recontextualized the meaning of history and the use of historiography. The male polemicists of the Revolution debate recurred repeatedly to history for analogies to the French Revolution and as a guide or a warning to Britain. Yet the widely acknowledged unprecedented nature of the French Revolution challenged the meanings hitherto derived from history and indicated the limits of historiography as a guide to the present and immediate future, or as "philosophy teaching by examples."

In the Revolutionary aftermath various movements subsumed reformist impulses of the late eighteenth century and the Revolutionary decade, in forms less threatening to order and continuity. This sublation reconstructed models of subjectivity, domesticity, gender, locale, and nation from the proleptically Revolutionary culture of Sensibility and addressed post-Revolutionary anxiety about the groundedness, integrity, and reproducibility of discursive orders of all kinds, and personal identity, sociality, and the "nation" as a spatio-temporary condition and continuity. Resolving these issues produced the elements of the cultural revolution that founded the modern liberal state.

The place of women in these post-Revolutionary reconstructions was problematic, and women writers adopted several strategies to survive as writers and to engage even more powerfully than hitherto with the public and political sphere and their class's revolutionizing of it. As a result, women writers were able to play a major, hitherto unrecognized role in the cultural revolution that founded the modern liberal state. Their strategies included rapid development of representations of domesticity, especially in its afflicted relations to the vitiated public and political sphere, and rapid exploitation of the local as an extension of the domestic sphere, and including region and nation. A more important though now overlooked strategy was feminine and feminist critique and reconstruction of history, as discourse, discipline, and genre.

According to this critique, history up to the present had been characterized by "masculine" activities of conflict, violence, and destruction, and by states that operated by exercise of main force on its subjects and on other states. Thus "masculine" history damaged individual subjectivity, domesticity and the domestic affections, localism and community, and ultimately the "nation" as an agglomeration of subjectivities birthed and berthed in domesticity, appropriately extended into local society and the national sphere, but marginalized, afflicted, oppressed, and even extinguished by "masculine" history. Historiography up to the present was the record of "masculine" history. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, as well as the conflicted reaction and unsettled restoration that followed them, showed that history could not be reformed or revolutionized by "masculine" means, that is, by main force--the historic domain of male action. Rather, history was to be reformed by appropriately "feminine" action; this would include the pacific and widely acclaimed revolutionizing force of writing, or literary discourse. A feminized historiography, not necessarily restricted to historiography as such, would include what had been left out of masculine history and historiography--the subjective, domestic, and local experiences and knowledges that were conventionally and historically recognized as authoritative female knowledges. Notoriously, however, such experience had rarely been recorded and was thus beyond the disciplinary practice of historiography as such. Equally notoriously, such experience was represented in fiction--a discourse conventionally and historically conceded to women.

Thus feminized history contributed largely to founding what subsequently became the modern liberal state, based on individual subjectivity, constructed in the domestic and local sphere, and engaged in the nation as civil society. This was the state founded in the subjectivity of its individual (male) citizens, rather than the pre-Revolutionary state--and indeed certain kinds of revolutionary states--based on main force. Mary Shelley was a leading exponent of feminized history between the Revolutionary aftermath and the founding of the modern liberal state. Four of her six novels engage directly with "masculine" history, though in different modes, in precisely this way. The Last Man, published in 1826 after the failure of premature liberal revolutions in Spain and elsewhere, is perhaps her most complex critique of "masculine" history, however.

As in the earlier Valperga and the later Perkin Warbeck, Shelley treats history in The Last Man by analogy, though not between present and a particular moment in the past but between present and an imagined future, yet a future that has strong resemblances to recent as well as distant revolutionary moments in the past. The political context of the story is a revision of the transition in England from the Commonwealth of the 1650s through the Restoration of court monarchy in 1660 to the constitutional monarchy of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. This period was much discussed in the Revolution debate as the foundation period of modern England; it also offered an analogy to the transition in Shelley's own day from Revolutionary republic through Napoleonic imperial era and Restoration of court monarchy to the liberal revolutions of the early 1820s, which called for constitutional monarchy on the British model. Thus three cycles of revolution and restoration are implicated in Shelley's novel. All three involve conflict and destruction; all three are implicitly futile, according to the novel's plot. The similar but fictitious future cycle in Shelley's novel marginalizes the feminine, intrudes on the subjective and domestic spheres, and proves futile, just as readers would suppose that the earlier and contemporary cycles had done.

In Shelley's novel, then, the mass death that was a man-made consequence of earlier cycles of revolution and restoration is outdone by the "natural" phenomenon of a plague, a catastrophic deus ex machina beyond human power or control, defying revolutionary optimism. This force then progresses westward, steadily breaking up human society and even historical and cultural meanings, in effect revealing the "merely" human, constructed character of identity, culture, society, nation, and history. Nevertheless, this revelation creates a powerfully elegiac sense of what is about to be completely lost. The plague finally seems to leave the feminized male narrator alone in the world, the "last man" in history, hoping to find a partner somewhere in the Orient and restart the human race and, by implication, human history. This closure offers, again, a slim hope, but a hope nevertheless, for humanity to escape "masculine" history through some of the central discourses on which the modern liberal state was to be founded in the following decades.

GK, 9/97

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