Memory at the End of History: Mary Shelley's The Last Man[Notice]

  • Lisa Hopkins

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  • Lisa Hopkins
    Sheffield Hallam University

At a crucial moment of Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man, the author makes a strange slip of memory. A character whose story has been recurrently mentioned, named Juliet, has been widowed, and is living with her small child in a group of plague survivors, led by a charismatic despot, who instantly weed out anyone who shows signs of the disease. Juliet is terrified of losing her baby, the only thing left to her; so, the narrator informs us, "her love for her child made her eager to cling to the merest straw held out to save him." But when, a mere three pages later, the baby has indeed been taken from her, Juliet's exclamation of grief is an unexpected one: "My child, my child! He has my child; my darling girl is my hostage" (286). The baby has changed gender. It is the smallest of slips, in a long and complex novel with a proliferation of characters; but all the same it is a curiously disruptive one. Either it breaks the thread of the narrative illusion by reminding us of the existence - and fallibility - of Mary Shelley herself as author, or - even more disturbingly - we preserve the illusion and read it as a lapse on the part of the mother. We could, conceivably, even take it to heighten the verisimilitude of the illusion, if we imagine it to register a distress so great that the character has genuinely forgotten the gender of her child; and such a reading could in fact be curiously suggestive, since gender ambiguity is in many ways at the heart of this story. As Betty T. Bennett comments, "[t]he roles of women and men are consciously displaced throughout, beginning with the ungendered narrator and the ungendered companion", so it would be richly appropriate for this process to culminate in a literally ungendered child. The narrator of the events, Lionel Verney, is a clear portrait of Mary Shelley herself, focusing particularly on her position as sole survivor both of her mother's family and of the Shelley-Byron group. The motif of the survivor is one often used by Mary Shelley in her work - it is deployed with particular force in the figure of Lady Katherine Gordon in The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck - and Lionel Verney provides an obvious, and very poignant, example. His isolated upbringing in the north also points to Mary Shelley's own childhood experiences in Dundee (which are similarly reworked for the childhood of the heroine in Mathilda), and his close relationship with Adrian - Mary Shelley's only acknowledged portrait of her husband - is another clearly autobiographical factor. Nevertheless, Mary Shelley has chosen to write herself into her novel not as a woman, but as a man. It might well be possible to argue that a similar strategy has already been used in Frankenstein, where the creature has often been read as a representation of Mary herself; and there are perhaps similarities between the relatively low-key gender roles of both the Monster and Lionel Verney, neither of whom takes pains to define themselves in ways closely associated with traditional images of masculinity. When we recall Mary Shelley's role in abetting the cross-dressing of Mary Diana Dods, it might well be possible to see a similar degree of androgyny at work in the characterisation of Verney. In addition to this instance of fictional transvestism, The Last Man as a whole is pointedly structured around brother-sister pairings, and consistently counterpoints the very different fates that befall siblings of different genders. Lionel Verney has a sister, Perdita; they …

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