Tale of of pandemic published 1826

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THE LAST MAN by Mary Shelley

In the 21st century a pandemic breaks out in the east. As it spreads, illness and disorder quickly infect the globe.

Towns across England and in France are unrecognisable. The cobblestone streets of Italy are eerily quiet.

This isn’t another coronavirus story.

This is a story by the author of Frankenstein, and it was written nearly 200 years ago.

The science-fiction novel The Last Man, by Mary Shelley, was first published 194 years ago but remains an engrossing read.

As we while away our weeks of self-isolation, I suspect we may find that there is a limit to the number of movies we can watch.

For those up for something a bit more challenging, now more than ever is the time to be discovering literature’s classic hits.

The tale of the Last Man is told through the character of Lionel Verney. It follows his life from a childhood of poverty in rural England to an adulthood embroiled in the lives of the elite.

At first, political power games and love triangles occupy most of his time.

As he settles into marriage with his princess bride, the threat of the mysterious plague casts an ever-widening shadow.

Every summer the plague returns, and every year it takes more and more victims away with it.

Order loses its hold over society while Lionel loses loved ones.

Eventually Lionel leads a group of survivors across the English Channel and into mainland Europe in the hope of finding somewhere safe.

This is a story about human endurance, and it is a surprisingly optimistic read.

Lionel loses so much, but instead of giving up he perseveres. Finally he decides to write a book recording the tale of his life.

There are clear parallels to Shelley’s own life here that gives her descriptions a poignant realism.

By the time she wrote The Last Man, she was already a widow and all but one of her children had died.

The Last Man is a very wordy book.

Some descriptions are lovely. “Life is a light paradise” and to fall in love is the light “leading us from, the labyrinth to paradise”.

This is sort of passion to expect from Shelley, who at the age of 16 ran away with a married man, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who would later become her husband.

Other descriptions might cause eye-rolling. Lionel doesn’t “see a boat”. No, he “beholds a tiny bark”.

Personally I found these over-the-top descriptions to be entertaining more than off-putting.

You can almost picture the author squinting down the years at us through a dusty monocle. That this book still draws the reader in after such a long time is impressive. It should keep you entertained while you are in isolation.

Or, as Shelley would say, while you are “far from the busy haunts of men”.