Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s speculative work The Last Man starts very much like a run-of-the-mill regency-era novel with its three-book structure. You even start to wonder whether much of interest is ever going to happen.
And then a plague hits. Book three, especially, where people drop off like flies, felt rather grim even before living through a pandemic myself. (I read it a few years ago.)
Since the plague aspect is a little too on the nose, I’m going to skip all of that for now. Instead, below is what the protagonist thought about reading:
“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.”
– Lionel Verney in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man
Sounds astonishingly like Mr. Darcy’s line about a truly accomplished woman who must improve “her mind by extensive reading” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, doesn’t it? It must’ve been very much in the air in the early 19th century.
If you’re interested, a free e-version of The Last Man is available on Project Gutenberg.
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2004 [originally published 1826], p. 124.
Image by Eppu Jensen
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