This essay examines the interrelations of religion, civilization, and imperialism in Shelley’s The Last Man. Though Shelley may envision the negative effects of imperialism in this novel, I argue that she does not critique the discourse of civilization itself, which helped justify imperialist designs. Furthermore, by viewing the aesthetic in Shelley’s novel as enmeshed with the political, I see Shelley’s aesthetic imperialism curiously aligned with the Evangelicals’ version of middle-class religion. Shelley would reject the Evangelicals’ arguments for the moral norms of Christianity as the means of civilization, but her aesthetic imperialism, through its emphasis on the self-regulation and discipline produced by literature and culture, also becomes a means to train the uncivilized in these bourgeois values.
Nothing is more certain, than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France 173
Edmund Burke’s Reflections provides a famous example of the way conservatives emphasized religion’s role in promoting manners and civilization as a restraint that would help defend Britain from revolutionary upheaval. Similarly, Anglican Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce and Hannah More responded to events in France by connecting their “religion of the heart” to proper taste and manners, seeking to produce a civilized subject who displayed respectable middle-class values.  Indeed, for Burke and the Evangelicals, French irreligion and manners were seen as a contagion that could infect British society, and the most effective inoculation against this revolutionary plague was a religion that fortified the body public. Through an emphasis on such norms–manners, taste, culture, and civilization–conservative religious discourse effectively aestheticized social power by focusing on the self-governance of the body and its emotions through an internalized restraint. By making the restraint of religion appear as a matter of culture and civility rather than of power relations, the Evangelicals’ view of religion became a more palatable and effective means for social control. Their view of religion, however, also provided a justification for Britain to expand its role as an imperial power. Through the work of the Evangelical mission societies, the task of civilizing people through religion achieved an international level as they sought to improve the manners and morals of people throughout the British empire. One of the results of this greater contact with indigenous peoples was the spread of disease. Ironically, then, the discourse of civilization, which was perceived as a potential force in staving off the plague of revolution, through its role in spreading British civilization actually helped to bring about real disease, particularly the cholera epidemic of 1832.
Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), which presents the depopulation of the world by a plague, foregrounds the interrelations of civilization and imperialism, and recently critics have examined how Shelley’s mapping of disease throughout the world questioned Britain’s role as an imperial power. In particular, Paul A. Cantor reveals the underlying imperial aspects of The Last Man; however, he reads Shelley’s plague also as a critique of modern commerce that becomes a fantasy of a “new aristocracy of artistic talent” (206). Thus, he argues that “[f]or all her critique of imperialism . . . Shelley in the end seems to accept a form of aesthetic imperialism” (206). For Cantor, the last surviving characters on their version of the Grand Tour are “left with the pursuit of beauty” (206), since “[w]ith the exhaustion of political forces, . . . only the realm of the aesthetic [is] left” (204). Though Shelley may envision the negative effects of imperialism, I suggest that she does not critique the discourse of civilization itself, which helped justify imperialist designs. Furthermore, by viewing the aesthetic in Shelley’s novel as enmeshed with the political, I see Shelley’s aesthetic imperialism curiously aligned with the Evangelicals’ version of middle-class religion. Shelley would reject the Evangelicals’ arguments for the moral norms of Christianity as the means of civilization, but her aesthetic imperialism, through its emphasis on the self-regulation and discipline produced by literature and culture, also becomes the means to train the uncivilized in these bourgeois values.
The Evangelicals’ project of reforming British society was complementary to their civilizing missionary projects, for they predicated both upon the efficacy of their religion of the heart to transform manners and morals. The Church Missionary Society (CMS), which was spearheaded by the Clapham Sect and featured Wilberforce as its first president, justified the need for mission work in India and Africa because of their perceived lack of civilization. Wilberforce himself was motivated toward mission work in India in particular due to the influence of his neighbor, Charles Grant, and much of the rhetoric about the need to civilize and Christianize India and Africa derives from Grant’s influential Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain, Particularly with Respect to Morals and on the Means of Improving It (1797). The influence between these men, though, was reciprocal, for Grant’s critique of the Hindu religion’s effect upon the Indians echoes Wilberforce’s indictment of the immoral upper and lower classes in his Practical View (1797):
Upon the whole then, we cannot avoid recognizing in the people of Hindostan, a race of men lamentably degenerate and base; retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation; yet obstinate in their disregard of what they know to be right, governed by malevolent and licentious passions, strongly exemplifying the effects produced on a society by a great and general corruption of manners, and sunk in misery by their vices, in a country peculiarly calculated by its natural advantages, to promote the prosperity of its inhabitants.qtd. in Stokes 31
As a remedy to the dilapidated manners and morals of India, Grant advocates “a proposal for the further civilization of a people, who had very early made a considerable progress in improvement, but who, by deliberate and successful plans of fraud and imposition were rendered first stationary, then retrograde” (qtd. in Stokes 33). Grant’s proposal, adopted by the CMS, featured Christianity as the means to civilize and subsequently anglicize India. As Andrew Porter points out, Grant believed “that the civilization and reformation of Indian society was not only necessary, but entailed nothing less that the steady introduction of Western learning. He pressed increasingly for the dissemination of Christianity, not just as a body of doctrine or collection of sublime truths, but as the essential ingredient required to bind western ways and culture together” (602). The Evangelicals believed that the civilizing of India through religion and culture would bring about a gradual but total change in India. As Wilberforce puts it, “the natives of Hindostan . . . would, in short, become Christians . . . without knowing it” (qtd. in Porter 603), and in becoming Christians, they would become anglicized without knowing it.
The idea of civilizing a nation through Christianity was not limited to India but played a significant role in the larger context of mission work. For the Evangelicals, Christianity became the universal civilizing doctrine. According to Christianity the Means of Civilization (1837), Christianity was “a complete moral machinery for carrying forward all the great processes which lie at the root of civilization” (175). Thomas Fowell Buxton’s views on Africa also echo Grant’s position on Christianizing India. At the first meeting of the Aborigines Protection Society in 1837, he argues: “The complete civilization and real happiness of man can never be secured by anything less than the diffusion of the Christian principle” (qtd. in Bradley 85). The CMS saw its role as providential and boasted in its 1818 report that it was “situated for the influence of the Mohammedan and Heathen world” (qtd. in Stokes 121). The Society, though, measured its influence by its ability to civilize nations, which varied in their states of barbarity and irreligion. Their report sees these different nations as “varied shades of light and civilization” (qtd. in Stock 121) that require different types of missionaries. In fact, they categorize their own mission work based on a nation’s civilization, which they index by its religion:
On the review of these Missions it will be seen that the Society has to deal with man in almost every stage of civilization; from the noble but uncultivated New Zealander, upward through the more civilized African, and the still more refined Hindoo, to the acute and half-enlightened Mohammedan, and the different gradations in which Christianity is enjoyed by the Abyssian, the Syrian, and the Greek Churches.qtd in Stock 121
The Evangelicals’ civilizing mission project thus is not only thoroughly connected with their attempt to reform British society but also with Britain’s imperial project of civilizing and Westernizing the world. Indeed, as Ian Bradley notes, “In India, Evangelicals and Utilitarians worked hand in hand to further the cause of anglicization” (88). This convergence was logical, since the Utilitarians made similar arguments about the lack of civilization in the East and thus promoted Western culture, which could lead to a cultural hegemony that would provide trade benefits. Eric Stokes sums up the Utilitarian view: “If the new British empire were to be a dominion not over territory but over the wants of a universe, it followed that it was more important to civilize than subdue” (43). Or, as Thomas Macaulay puts it, “To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages” (11: 584). This linkage of commerce and civilization, however, also characterized Evangelical thought. Reginald Coupland demonstrates that the “‘positive policy’ of the Abolitionists” was “woven from its earliest conception of three distinct but interrelated threads–Christianity, commerce, [and] colonization” (85). Both the Evangelical and Utilitarian “missions,” then, provided a matrix that helped form nineteenth-century British imperialist ideology. The imputed barbarism of “backward” nations such as India and Africa justified–and sacralized–Britain’s imperial aim by bestowing upon it cultural, moral, and spiritual superiority.
The discourse of civilization that helped normalize British culture and justify its spread abroad also plays a significant role in Shelley’s The Last Man, a novel that grapples with Britain’s dominant position in global politics. Indeed, the novel’s opening highlights the transformative power of civilization by beginning with the conversion of the narrator, Lionel Verney, a rude shepherd boy who becomes a cultured citizen who mixes with royalty. He describes his younger self as “rough” and “unlearned” (Shelley 11); he was a “savage” who “wandered among the hills of civilized England” (Shelley 11). In recalling his “lawless career,” Verney traces his rebellion against society to this lack of civilization and to his uncultivated, animal nature:
My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that which informs brute nature. Until now, my savage habits had done me no radical mischief; my physical powers had grown up and flourished under their influence, and my mind, undergoing the same discipline, was imbued with all the hardy virtues. But now my boasted independence was daily instigating me to acts of tyranny, and freedom was becoming licentiousness. I stood on the brink of manhood; passions, strong as the trees of a forest, had already taken root within me, and were about to shadow with their noxious overgrowth, my path of life.Shelley 14
Verney, however, also evidences a desire to enter society: “I clung to my ferocious habits, yet half despised them; I continued my war against civilization, and yet entertained a wish to belong to it” (Shelley 14). Verney’s situation seems unresolvable because his “savage” and “ferocious” habits and his unrestrained “passions” cause him to fight against the very civilizing influence that could lead him to his rightful place in society. Shelley’s characterization of Verney echoes the Evangelicals’ view of the upper and lower classes in England as well as of the indigenous peoples that inhabited their mission fields: he is in need of a life-changing conversion that will civilize him and thus ensure his cooperation with the norms of society. Verney’s conversion, however, does not come from an Evangelical missionary but through Adrian, the Earl of Windsor, who is patterned after Percy Shelley. And instead of religion working a civilizing change in Verney’s manners and morals, the gentle influence of the aesthetic converts him to the restraint and discipline needed in a civilized society.
Adrian’s civilizing influence begins even before he speaks to Verney. Verney immediately recognizes that Adrian possesses “an excess of sensibility and refinement” (Shelley 19), while he views himself in comparison as the “merest ruffian that ever trod the earth” (Shelley 19) with a “savage revengeful heart” (Shelley 20). When Adrian does begin to speak, Verney describes the effect of Adrian’s words in terms similar to an Evangelical conversion: “As he spoke, his earnest eyes, fixed on me, seemed to read my very soul: my heart, my savage revengeful heart, felt the influence of sweet benignity upon it; while his thrilling voice, like the sweetest melody, awoke a mute echo within me, stirring to its depths the life-blood in my frame” (Shelley 20). Just as the Evangelicals’ religion of the heart produced dramatic effects, so does Adrian’s civilizing influence: “he had touched my rocky heart with his magic power, and the stream of affection gushed forth, imperishable and pure” (Shelley 22). Through history, philosophy, and literature rather than religion, Adrian teaches Verney to “subdue” his “reckless and uncultured spirit” (Shelley 24). Steven Goldsmith contends that “Lionel becomes ‘human’ as he disengages himself from his body” (286), but Adrian actually writes culture onto the body, so that passions become self-restrained, just as Evangelicals cultivated an emotional religion yet tempered it with manners. Indeed, Adrian does not destroy Verney’s “manly virtues” (Shelley 24); rather, as Verney puts it: “all was softened and humanized” (Shelley 24). Verney exchanges a Hobbesian belief in the “law of the strongest” (Shelley 11) for the “law of the heart” and the “free bondage” (Eagleton 56) of the aesthetic. Adrian civilizes Verney through an aesthetic education instead of religion, but such civilization is still characterized by a middle-class notion of refinement predicated on the restraint of the passions and the self-discipline needed in civilized life.
Shelley frames Verney’s transformation in terms of a savage being led from the wilderness of a distant land to the civilization of society. Verney declares, “The trim and paled demense of civilization, which I had before regarded from my wild jungle as inaccessible, had its wicket opened by him; I stepped within, and felt, as I entered, that I trod my native soil” (Shelley 21). Adrian had found Verney as “an unlettered savage” (Shelley 23), but now he was “admitted within that sacred boundary which divides the intellectual and moral nature of man from that which characterizes animals” (Shelley 22). As Goldsmith argues, “Culture validates itself by means of its divisions, its sacred boundaries. Lionel becomes human, becomes a citizen, in other words, when he internalizes those divisions” (286). This metaphor also reflects the British imperial desire to draw indigenous people into the boundary of British culture. Alan Bewell notes how Shelley “employs colonial language” here and argues that “Verney undergoes an education that colonizes him, yet strikingly he see his ‘transmigration’ as equivalent to coming out of the ‘jungle’ to recover his own native ground” (303). As Bewell contends, through her “association between Verney’s education and colonialism,” Shelley “applies a colonial model to England itself, seeing it as a colonial prototype, a region whose landscape and people have submitted to a civilizing process that has transformed them” (303). Moreover, though Verney is, on the one hand colonized; on the other hand, his aesthetic education also empowers him to feel like a colonizer. He says, “I felt as the sailor, who from the topmast first discovered the shore of America; and like him I hastened to tell my companions of my discoveries in unknown regions” (Shelley 23), and he takes up this role more literally at the end of the novel in his tour of a depopulated world. In Verney’s conversion, aesthetic ideology replaces yet mimics the dual purpose of the Evangelicals’ civilizing religion, which served to fortify middle-class power at home and to extend British power abroad. Further, Shelley presents Verney’s colonization and civilization through the aesthetic as a positive influence, especially when compared with Lord Raymond’s more violent imperial designs.
Shelley uses the contrast between barbarism and civilization to frame the important imperial encounter in the novel: Lord Raymond’s conquest of Constantinople. The novel begins with a truce between the Greeks and the Turks, but near the end of Volume One the war revives, and Raymond resigns his protectorate to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence. When Raymond is convincing Adrian to accompany him, he describes his mission in the same terms that Evangelicals used to convince their missionaries: the promise of adventure coupled with a sense of fulfillment of England’s duty to civilize the world. Raymond thus promises Adrian, “You will behold new scences; see a new people; witness the mighty struggle there going forward between civilization and barbarism; behold, and perhaps direct the efforts of a young and vigorous population” (Shelley 117). Though Raymond’s speech echoes the Evangelical rhetoric that helped support an imperialist enterprise, he claims his objectives are “liberty and order” (Shelley 117). These motives, which are much like Byron’s, whom Raymond is modeled after, may be viewed as anti-imperialist. Indeed, radicals such as Byron and Percy Shelley viewed the Greek revolution as a compensation for the failed revolution in France. Raymond, however, is more motivated by the discourse of civilization than the ideal of liberty. He describes the Greeks’ struggle for independence from the Turks as a “mighty struggle . . . between civilization and barbarism” (Shelley 117), and his “hatred of the barbarian government” becomes the motivating factor in his resolve “to eradicate from Europe a power which, while every other nation advanced in civilization, stood still a monument of antique barbarism” (Shelley 137). For Raymond, Constantinople is the contested site between the forces of civilization and barbarism, for he feels that this city “which for many hundred years had been the strong hold of the Moslems, should be rescued from slavery and barbarism, and restored to a people illustrious for genius, civilization, and a spirit of liberty” (Shelley 138). Though Raymond fights for the Greeks’ liberty, this liberty is figured as a corollary to civilization, while the slavery the Moslems impose derives from their barbarism. His crusade is not just motivated by the mistreatment of the Greeks or the specific political situation but by the larger struggles between barbarism and civilization.
Raymond’s association of Turkish barbarism with Islamic faith also partakes of the Evangelicals’ stress of Christianity’s role in civilizing other countries. Raymond specifically correlates the tyranny and despotism of the Turks with their non-Christian faith, and Verney continues this correlation in his assessment of Raymond’s mission. Raymond becomes “the conqueror of the infidel faith” (Shelley 147) who will bring the “empire of the Mahometans” to “its close” (Shelley 148). Adrian, though, has concerns about the Greek cause, and these concerns also shed light on Raymond’s motivations and undercut his idealist philhellenism. Adrian still believes that the Greek cause “is beyond every other good cause” (Shelley 123), yet he also feels sympathy for their enemies: “The Turks are men; each fibre, each limb is as feeling as our own, and every spasm, be it mental or bodily, is as truly felt in a Turk’s heart or brain, as in a Greek’s (Shelley 123). Shelley, however, qualifies Adrian’s sympathy, for he still evidences a bias against Islam: “They were men and women, the sufferers, before they were Mahometans, and when they rise turbanless from the grave, in what except their good or evil actions will they be the better or the worse than we?” (123-24). In other words, Adrian feels sympathy for all humans, but the Turks are only humans when they are not Muslims, before their conversion and after their death (Goldsmith 292). Furthermore, as we saw in Verney’s conversion, a person is not really “human” until he or she has been civilized through culture. The Turks display the same “brutal appetites” (Shelley 124) that Verney did in his animal-like pre-civilized state; however, the Turks are trapped in their barbarism through their religion.
Shelley critiques Raymond’s crusade by emphasizing throughout his egoism and ambition and by delineating the effects of Raymond’s mission, which unleashes the plague that eventually destroys the world. By connecting the plague with imperialism, Shelley questions Britain’s global influence, but it is necessary to distinguish between Shelley’s critique of Raymond’s action and a critique of Raymond’s ideology, which is based on the discourse of civilization. I contend that Shelley takes pain to question Raymond’s method of civilizing the Turks rather than his belief in their need for civilization. Such a distinction becomes clear by noticing that once Adrian agrees to accompany Raymond to Greece, Shelley shifts the narrative back to Verney and his civilization of Perdita. This juxtaposition brings into sharp contrast Raymond’s violent civilizing mission and Adrian’s more gentle methods. Goldsmith compares Adrian’s and Verney’s missions: “one enacts on the battlefield what the other valorizes in the intellectual sphere: the subjugation (or in Raymond’s case, the annihilation) of the other in service of the prerogatives of Western cultural power” (291). This distinction is crucial. Raymond uses force to civilize, while Adrian and Verney use culture. Indeed, Verney’s comments on the moralizing influence of literature echo those of the Evangelicals, except that literature replaces Christianity:
For my own part, since Adrian had first withdrawn me from selvatic wilderness to his own paradise of order and beauty, I had been wedded to literature. I felt convinced that however it might have been in former times, in the present stage of the world, no man’s faculties could be developed, no man’s moral principle be enlarged and liberal, without an extensive acquaintance with books. To me they stood in the place of an active career, of ambition, and those palpable excitements necessary to the multitude.Shelley 120
The paradise of “order and beauty” provided by the aesthetic replaces the “palpable excitements necessary to the multitude.” Through literature, selfish passions become refined into more social feelings that provide a self-imposed order that seems like a “paradise.” Indeed, Verney’s restraint and lack of “ambition” stand in stark contrast to Raymond’s uncontrollable passions and excessive ambition. Thus, the methods Verney uses to civilize Perdita also differ strongly. Verney seeks to replicate the gentle aestheticizing influence that Adrian had on him: “I was an outcast and a vagabond, when Adrian gently threw over me the silver net of love and civilization, and linked me inextricably to human charities and human excellence” (Shelley 205). The violence of Raymond’s sword is replaced by the “silver net of love and civilization.” Yet, just as the overtly less violent means of civilization promoted by the Evangelicals provided a more effective means of subjugation, so Adrian and Verney’s “silver net” is still a net that disguises the potential violence of subjecting one’s will to another by making it appear as a pleasurable and autonomous decision.
Verney feels it necessary to civilize Perdita because, especially in contrast with the “elegant and cultivated Evandne,” Perdita was “still to a great degree uneducated” (Shelley 119). He goes on to argue: “It was the pleasure I took in literature, the discipline of mind I found arise from it, that made me eager to lead Perdita to the same pursuits” (Shelley 121). To bring Perdita the benefits of civilization, the “discipline of mind” found in the “paradise of order and beauty,” he proceeds stealthily: “I began with light hand and gentle allurement; first exciting her curiosity, and then satisfying it in such a way as might occasion her, at the same time that she half forgot her sorrows in occupation, to find in the hours that succeeded a reaction of benevolence and toleration” (Shelley 121). Under Verney’s tutelage, Perdita gradually becomes educated: “She sought to improve her understanding; mechanically her heart and dispositions became soft and gentle under this benign discipline” (Shelley 121). Though it is “benign,” Verney’s education leads to a “discipline” and the softening of her “heart” and “dispositions,” and such actions bring self-regulation: “Erringly and strangely she began the task of self-examination with self-condemnation” (Shelley 121-22). Shelley’s emphasis on the “soft” and “gentle” education, its “benign discipline” that produces the effects of restraint and self-discipline through gentle coercion links her idea of civilization with aesthetic ideology. Just as Wilberforce envisions Indians becoming “Christians without knowing it,” so Shelley portrays Perdita’s civilization. In the battle against the Turks, Adrian is dismayed to discover that “words were blunt weapons” (Shelley 124). Words, however, through the civilizing influence of culture become a more lasting and effective weapon in the promotion of the British social order.
Shelley’s emphasis on the civilizing influence of literature also helps to explain the overriding trope of the novel: the plague. More specifically, looking at the plague through the discourse of civilization reveals how Shelley’s desire for political reform is connected to her aesthetic imperialism. The origin and progress of the plague in The Last Man is quite similar to the cholera epidemic that began in India in 1817 and spread across Europe and Asia, eventually reaching England in 1831. Shelley is not anachronistically influenced by the cholera debates in Britain, yet her representation of the fictional plague similarly advances middle-class values and normalizes a social order that endorses such values. In Shelley’s novel, the survival of particular characters reveals and normalizes the social order that she envisions. As Mark Canuel argues, the plague “reconfigures the meaning of population as well as the meaning of other persons to the self” (151). Indeed, Shelley introduces a plague that has a leveling effect on the class system: “The pomp of rank, the assumption of power, the possessions of wealth vanished like the morning mist. One living beggar had become of more worth than a national peerage of dead lords–alas the day!–than of dead heroes, patriots, or men of genius” (230). By projecting this disease as a leveler of class, Shelley presents a radical vision of society, yet this equality comes with great destruction. Furthermore, the plague’s reconfiguration of wealth leads to a reconfiguration of class, which causes a significant shift in politics. The political scheming and dreams of reform that dominated the first volume are wiped out by the plague: Raymond, who has abdicated to go fight in Constantinople is now dead, and Ryland flees from the plague, leaving Adrian to rule. Since all reforming ideals are wiped out by the plague, Lee Sterrenburg concludes: “The Last Man deals with politics, but ultimately it is an antipolitical novel” (328). Similarly, Anne Mellor contends, “Shelley’s novel is on the deepest level anti-political” (164). I would argue, however, that Shelley’s novel is not anti-political, per se; rather, Shelley’s narrative aestheticizes the political, thus making is appear non-political. With Ryland out of the picture and the Countess of Windsor rendered ineffective, the lower- and upper-class leadership is effaced, and Adrian–though technically a member of the aristocracy–as the embodiment of bourgeois values takes the leadership role.
Once Britain has been purged by Shelley’s plague, all that remains for leadership is Adrian and Verney, who lead the survivors to France. Verney continually refers to this group as “the remant” (Shelley 257, 261, 272) and “the elect” (Shelley 230), terms which takes on aesthetic rather than religious significance. A key episode that occurs in Adrian and Verney’s re-civilization of the globe is their confrontation with the imposter-preacher in France, for this confrontation foregrounds Shelley’s desire to replace religion with the aesthetic in a civilizing mission abroad. Before going to France, Verney is visited by members of what he calls “our colony at Paris” (Shelley 292), who report that three parties have formed from the first set of emigrants who “took uncontested possession of Paris” (Shelley 293). The first party “assumed a superiority of rank and power” (Shelley 294); the second party “asserted their independence” (Shelley 294); and a third party “was formed by a sectarian, a self-erected prophet, who, while he attributed all power and rule to God, strove to get the real command of his comrades into his own hands” (Shelley 294). The first party’s emphasis on rank and power associates them with the upper classes, while the second party’s emphasis on “independence” echoes the familiar cry of lower-class radicalism. This third party, who called themselves “the Elect” (Shelley 295), had the fewest in numbers, but “their purpose was more one, their obedience to their leaders more entire, their fortitude and courage more unyielding and active” (Shelley 294).
According to Verney, the leader of the Elect was “an impostor” (294), and he singles out lower-class religion as the root of his ambition: “His father had been a methodist preacher, an enthusiastic man with simple intentions; but whose pernicious doctrines of election and special grace had contributed to destroy all conscientious feelings in his son” (Shelley 294). The enthusiasm of Methodism proves to be especially powerful in the aftermath of the plague, for the preacher “zealously propagated the creed of his divine mission” to people who “believed that safety and salvation were to be afforded only to those who put their trust in him” (Shelley 294). Besides associating the preacher with a religion that was often perceived as appealing to the lower classes, Shelley also uses Verney to point out the class composition of his followers. He notes, “They were mostly drawn from that which, when such denominations existed, was denominated the lower rank of society” (Shelley 303). Adrian wants to rescue this “deluded crew” from the “pernicious influence of superstition and unrelenting tyranny” (Shelley 302) and to “prevent the contagion of rebellion” (Shelley 314) from reaching his own group of elect. As the conservatives in England reacted by linking the cholera epidemic with the plague of reform, here Shelley provides a link between a world-wide plague and the epidemic of lower-class rebellion. Thus, though class distinctions have been ostensibly erased by the plague, they still reinsert themselves back into the political structure. As the Evangelicals, both at home and abroad, countered such a dangerous revolutionary religion with a more civilized religion that produced restraint, so Adrian and his band of the elect counteract the potential violence of lower-class religion with middle-class values.
The dispute between political parties in France had reached a boiling point when Adrian arrives. Even in a depopulated world, Shelley still evidences a fear of an “insane mob” (297) ready to do violence. The disputing factions, however, receive Adrian as a Christ-like figure: he appears as “an angel of peace” on his “white charger”, and “the women kissed his hands, and the edges of his garments” (Shelley 297). The savior, however, now is the cultured man of letters. Even in the “wild clamour” that ensues, Adrian’s voice is finally “heard” and “obeyed,” and at his presence “the crowd fell back” (Shelley 297). Adrian does not have the “look of victory” or the “majestic mien” (Shelley 297) of Lord Raymond, but he is able to influence the crowd in a different way: “His slight figure, his fervent look, his gesture, more of deprecation than rule, were proofs that love, unmingled with fear, gave him dominion over the hearts of a multitude” (Shelley 298). Adrian’s influence over the mob is gentle but complete: “No distinction was now visible between the two parties, late ready to shed each other’s blood, for, though neither would submit to the other, they both yielded ready obedience to the Earl of Windsor” (Shelley 298). Adrian, who is the figure that embodies civilization and whose aesthetic education had converted Verney, now unites the people into one voice. The gentle influence of the aesthetic is able to unite the upper-class and lower-class factions in the bourgeois fantasy of unity with restraint.
Adrian and his band of the elect then go on to reap the fruits of their success in this colony. They repose “amidst the luxuries of the departed Bourbons” (Shelley 299) and forage through the castle and town of Versailles. Indeed, Verney even explicitly compares Paris to a colony: “At first I likened it to a colony, which borne over the far seas, struck root for the first time in a new country” (Shelley 300). This colony life, however, is worsened by the fact that the impostor-prophet refused to be swayed by Adrian. Furthermore, even though he was based in Paris, the impostor-prophet’s “missionaries” (Shelley 302) continued to visit Versailles. Even more disturbing is the power he had to influence people, for “such was the power of assertions, however false, yet vehemently iterated, over the ready credulity of the ignorant and fearful, that they seldom failed in drawing over to their party some from among our numbers” (Shelley 302). Before leaving for Switzerland, Adrian’s group wants to increase their own party, but even more importantly, they desire to rescue these lower-class followers from the delusion of their leader. The problem is solved, though, when the plague strikes members of the prophet’s party, and he kills himself. In the end, the prophet’s group of the “Elect” dies off while Adrian’s group of the “elect” goes on to explore the depopulated world. In the clash between the influence of religion and the influence of the aesthetic in an imperial setting, Shelley provides a warning about the danger of religion and advocates instead the “[d]iscipline and peace” (317) brought by the aesthetic, which is divorced from religion and indeed replaces its influence.
Certainly, this political solution appears to be undermined by the fact that humanity is eventually wiped out by the plague. Yet, it is significant that Verney is narrating his past and, furthermore, that his story is framed as a prophecy. Thus, as Gregory O’Dea proposes, the novel “becomes a prophetic history in which the future and the past have collapsed into one another, ultimately to become the same thing” (291). This collapsing of time effectively makes Verney’s narrative a “history of the future” (O’Dea 284). As a sort of historical novel of the future, as Kari Lokke suggests, The Last Man marks the possibility of how things could have gone (and could still go) differently.As in her historical novel Valperga, which highlights possible turning points in history, Shelley demonstrates how events could have transpired if Raymond and his violent imperial designs had not altered Britain’s course and if Adrian could have emerged earlier as an effective leader. Though the aesthetic does not provide the ultimate solution in Shelley’s novel, she does emphasize how it could still provide an effective role for Britain when the time is ripe.
The figure of the impostor-prophet in Volume Three recalls the introduction to the novel, which frames Verney’s narrative as a prophecy. These two examples of prophecy serve as bookends to this apocalyptic narrative. Shelley’s framing of this narrative as a prophecy, along with the false prophet embedded in the structure, points to her argument for the replacement of religion with literature as the means of civilization. The introduction recalls Shelley and Percy’s visit to Baiae Bay, the Elysian Fields, and Avernus on December 8, 1818. In the novel, the editor and her companion enter the Sibyl’s cave and discover writings that “seemed to contain prophecies” (Shelley 3). These secular prophecies, however, are not taken verbatim but are subjected to an editorial process. They make a “hasty selection” (Shelley 3) of some of the leaves they could understand, and the result is a reconstructed prophecy: “I present the public with my latest discoveries in the slight Sibylline pages. Scattered and unconnected as they were, I have been obliged to add links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine intuition which the CumÆan damsel obtained from heaven” (Shelley 4). Though the narrative contains “truths” and “divine intuition,” it is still subject to the editor’s role, which Shelley highlights:
Sometimes I have thought, that, obscure and chaotic as they are, they owe their present form to me, their decipherer. . . . Doubtless the leaves of the CumÆan Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in my hands. My only excuse for thus transforming them, is that they were unintelligible in their pristine condition.4
Shelley describes the role of the artist in the creation of this prophecy with some hesitancy, leaving the reader to decide about her “imperfect powers” and the “merits” of her “adaptation and translation” to bestow “form and substance to the frail and attenuated Leaves of the Sibyl” (5). Shelley’s prophecy, though divine, is wrought by imperfect human powers and thus highlights a self-consciousness about the prophetic mode.
Shelley’s framing of her prophecy in the introduction highlights several points. She does not argue that prophetic discourse gains power from being derived from traditional religion; rather, she locates the source of power in classical literature, particularly in the CumÆan Sibyl, and in the artist’s ability to shape and revise the prophecy. O’Dea argues that through the Sibylline leaves Shelley is able to give her “historical narrative” “origins” that are “supposedly supernatural rather than human” (291), yet the framing device also helps place her prophecy at a double remove from traditional religious prophecy: its divine intuition is actually secular in origin and its mediation through a human editor is emphasized rather than obscured. Morton Paley, in comparing Shelley’s novel to other Last Man works, rightly points out that Shelley’s novel “has no sovereign God and no supernatural agency” (110) and that “eschatology has been secularized to a great degree” (110), and this is precisely what Shelley is pointing toward in her introduction. In comparison to the impostor-prophet, whose prophecies evoke fear, aggrandize power, and are promoted with a great sense of surety, Shelley’s secularized prophecy is hesitant and self-conscious about its own status as prophecy. Audrey Fisch argues that “although the frame narrator believes in the ‘genuineness’ of the Sibylline leaves, the narrator seems strangely unaware of any public and political function for the prophetic narrative. . . . To the frame narrator, the manuscript, instead of offering lessons about politics and survival, instead of functioning as prophecy, has offered ‘solace’” (279-80). This notion of solace plays a key role in Shelley’s portrayal of the aesthetic in The Last Man. Shelley’s novel argues for the aestheticizing of social power through the civilizing force of literature and culture; however, even this political solution does not save the world from being wiped out. The Last Man portrays the aesthetic as a political solution but also demonstrates that if the situation is not right, it can fail. The aesthetic, then, in the introduction and conclusion of the novel, renders solace through an escape from a society that is not yet ready for change. Significantly, the Last Man is Verney, the cultivated citizen who eventually turns author. By tracing his last steps through the world, we are brought back to classical Rome, the home of civilization.
Adrian and Verney’s trip throughout the world, with the final destination as Rome, re-enacts an imperialist mission as well as a sort of Grand Tour. Accompanied by Clara, they move on to Italy, which becomes important only in its aesthetic display. They venture into “voiceless towns” where they “visited the churches, adorned by pictures, master-pieces of art, or galleries of statues” (Shelley 336). They soon arrive in Milan where they “wandered through the palaces, in search of pictures or antiquities” (Shelley 336). Verney reflects on their bittersweet existence:
Were we not happy in this paradisiacal retreat? If some kind spirit had whispered forgetfulness to us, methinks we should have been happy here, where the precipitous mountains, nearly pathless, shut from our view the far fields of the desolate earth, and with small exertion of the imagination, we might fancy the cities were still resonant with popular hum, and the peasant still guided his plough through the furrow, and that we, the world’s free denizens, enjoyed a voluntary exile, and not a remediless cutting off from our extinct species.Shelley 338
Verney and Adrian relish being able to enjoy Europe to themselves; the only obstacle to full enjoyment is that their “voluntary exile” is permanent. In this sense, Cantor is correct in arguing that they are experiencing “what a travel brochure would call ‘the vacation of their dreams’” (203), for “is the realization of any English tourist’s dream–to be able tour France without having to put up with the French, and Italy without the Italians” (205). Referring to Verney’s “appropriating an Italian palace” (Cantor 205) and even admitting he is a “robber” (Shelley 362), Cantor argues: “For a novel that seems so profoundly anti-imperialist, it is curious to see the hero finally acting out a kind of imperialist fantasy” (205-06); thus “the final movement of Shelley’s travelers through, Europe recapitulates the imperialist sins that originally unleashed the plague’s destructive powers” (stet). Though Verney and Adrian’s travels do recapitulate a sort of imperialism, their imperialism again is different than Raymond’s and does not produce disastrous effects. In fact, their plucking of artistic treasures seems to echo the editor’s own aesthetic treasure hunting in the cave of the Sibyl.
Adrian and Verney move on to Milan, but in their effort to sail to Athens, Verney looses both Clara and Adrian. Once Verney washes ashore on the Italian coast, he reverts to an uncivilized state. He compares himself to Robinson Crusoe and feels that the “wild and cruel Carribee, the merciless Cannibal—or worse than these, the uncouth, brute, and remorseless veteran in the vices of civilization, would have been to me a beloved companion, a treasure dearly prized” (Shelley 350). Yet this description also recalls his earlier state in the novel. When he finally sees himself in a mirror, he looks with “renewed wonder”: “What wild-looking, unkempt, half-naked savage was that before me?” (Shelley 354). His discovery of his uncivilized state leads him to venture to Rome. Julia Wright argues that Verney “reclaims his civility through temporality” (142), but I would assert that he regains his civility through reappropriating the aesthetic. By going to Rome he is able to saturate himself in the literature and art of the home of civilization and thus reclaim the status of civilized in imperialist discourse.
Indeed, once Verney arrives in Rome, he is immediately succored by the comforts the aesthetic gives to his imagination. He writes: “The knowledge that I was in Rome, soothed me; that wondrous city, hardly more illustrious for its heroes and sages, than for the power it exercised over the imaginations of men. I went to rest that night; the eternal burning of my heart quenched,—my senses tranquil” (Shelley 359). As he passes through Rome, the “sovereign mistress of the imagination,” he finds that “[t]he sight of poetry eternized in these statues, took the sting from the thought, arraying it only in poetic ideality” (Shelley 359). This escape through art allows Verney to gain a solace, much like the editor of his narrative: “At length, then, I had found a consolation. I had not vainly sought the storied precincts of Rome—I had discovered a medicine for my many and vital wounds” (Shelley 360). He again can almost imagine “the countless multitudes” (Shelley 361), but he is alone to enjoy Rome’s aesthetic pleasures. Wright argues that though the imagination here “appears . . . as a consoling mechanism” (143), this “consolation remains tenuous” (144). Similarly, Paley contends that Rome’s “masterpieces appear not as bringers of solace but rather serve as self-born mockers of man’s enterprise” (114). While the imagination may remain as a tenuous faculty, what is eternized and transcendent is the aesthetic. Moreover, civilization, through the aesthetic, has endured and becomes transcendent over politics.
The novel, however, does not end with Verney stranded in Rome. After he has visited all the museums and libraries of Rome and written his narrative, he is ready to once again bid farewell to “civilized life” (Shelley 366). His choice of phrase here, “civilized life,” is quite interesting since he is the only human still alive. If he is leaving civilized life, this phrase really connotes that civilization–the aesthetic transcendence–exists without people. Civilized life in Rome will continue without its inhabitants, and thus the particulars of human life even are swept under the importance of the aesthetic. Verney explains his motivation to travel:
Neither hope nor joy are my pilots–restless despair and fierce desire of change lead me on. I long to grapple with danger, to be excited by fear, to have some task, however slight or voluntary, for each day’s fulfillment. I shall witness all the variety of appearance, that the elements can assume–I shall read fair augury in the rainbow–menace in the cloud–some lesson or record dear to my heart in everything.Shelley 367
The “rainbow” recalls Noah’s duty to repopulate the world, but in a sense Verney has already done this figuratively through his narrative. His “restless desire” and his need for action points toward the desires that undergirded British imperialism. Significantly, as Cantor observes, “as Verney plots out the route of his last voyage, he does have a goal in mind and plans on following precisely the path of European colonization, indeed the route Vasco de Gama pursued to India” (207). As Verney sets out on this path, however, he is armed not with the Bible as the Evangelical missionaries but with Homer and Shakespeare. The imperialism through religion espoused by the Evangelicals is here replaced by aesthetic imperialism. Rather than aestheticizing religion, Shelley sacralizes the aesthetic, a position that tellingly echoes Coleridge’s idea of the clerisy and anticipates Matthew Arnold’s conception of literature as the means to maintain order in an increasingly secular society.
For the Evangelicals, reforming religion and manners were vitally connected, for both worked together to bring about the distinctly bourgeois values of self-control and restraint. See especially Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes, Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797) and More’s Thoughts of the Manners of the Great (1788) and An Estimate of Religion of the Fashionable World (1791). For example, in An Estimate of Religion, More argues that religion should work toward “the discipline of the heart” and should be a “a disposition, a habit, a temper” that creates “an habitual interior restraint, an early government of the affections, and a course of self-control” (C2:207-8, 319).
In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton demonstrates the importance of manners and taste in the aestheticizing of social power in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice and Distinction also provide discussions of how cultural practices–linked standards of taste, manners, and aesthetic disposition–become a means to normalize and reproduce social differences.
The Evangelical movement and its emphasis on manners illustrates a shift in the nature of religious arguments in the late eighteenth century that Robert Hole examines. He argues, “One of the effects of the secularising process was to move religious arguments away from the constitutional-philosophical agenda set in the seventeenth century and to concentrate them much more on social theory–the concept of restraint and sanctions” (84).
For a detailed examination of how Britain’s “globalized expansion” promoted greater “exchange of disease” (9) and how such “colonial disease” impacted Romantic writing, see Alan Bewell’s Romanticism and Colonial Disease.
For Shelley’s critique of imperialism, see Cantor’s “The Apocalypse of Empire: Mary Shelley’s Last Man”; Julia Wright’s “‘Little England: Anxieties of Space in Mary Shelley’s Last Man”; and Bewell’s Romanticism and Colonial Disease.
For the biographical elements of this novel, see especially Walter E. Peck’s “The Biographical Elements in the Novels of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley” and Ernest J. Lovell Jr.’s “Byron and the Byronic Hero in the Novels of Mary Shelley” and “Byron and Mary Shelley.”
Cantor argues that through her portrayal of the plague “Shelley raises profound doubts about England’s attempt to reach out and embrace the whole of the globe” (195). Bewell sees Shelley writing a “visionary postcolonialism” that “reflects on the important role imperialism has played in the global spread of diseases” (297-298). Barbara Johnson points to the importance of the plague and imperialist discourse: “The Plague, which extends out over the entire world from the point of encounter between East and West, is thus in a sense that which replaces the victory of the West over the East. Its lethal universality is a nightmarish version of the desire to establish a universal discourse, to spread equality and fraternity throughout the world. Thus the universal empire of the Plague would not be only . . . what is excluded from Western humanism; it would also be its inverted image” (264).
The plague did not reach England until 1831, and Michael Durey asserts that the “British reading public first became aware of cholera when Russia was infected in 1830” (135). As Robert Morris point out, however, when the East India mails arrived in the winter of 1818-19, the British press “began to take notice” (21) of the epidemic that was raging in India. Shelley’s locating the same origin and progress of her plague seems to indicate that she was familiar with the cholera epidemic and its migration even before it struck Europe.
Durey demonstrates how “[F]ear of cholera... neatly dovetailed with fear of reform” (190). On this point, see also Bewell (253-56; 263-66).
Lokke refers to The Last Man as a “profoundly historical novel . . . imputed to a sacred source beyond history,” but she also notes that it is a “prophetic narrative” that actually survives Verney, “as does humanity” (132). Lokke also observes: “In the character of Adrian, Mary Shelley’s republican sympathies clearly reveal themselves, as does her insistence that these beliefs manifest themselves in concrete practical actions rather than in utopian theorizing” (130).
- Bewell, Alan. Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.
- ———. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977.
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