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Mary Shelley and 9/11

09/09/2011 03:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 09, 2011

If the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has put you in an apocalyptic mood, you might try reading Mary Shelley's The Last Man.

That very underrated 1826 book by the author of Frankenstein was out of print from 1833 to 1965, but I think it's one of the great 19th-century British novels. Even if The Last Man doesn't quite reach the level of a Jane Eyre or a Wuthering Heights or a David Copperfield, it remains a tour de force.

Shelley -- just 29 the year The Last Man was published -- packs in romance, battle scenes, literary excerpts, philosophical musings, political commentary, feminist meditations on the limited sphere of women, and gruesome depictions of a plague sweeping the world in the late 21st century (our century). Maybe it was all too much for 1826 sensibilities, because the novel unfairly bombed with reviewers and the public.

Besides being a great read, The Last Man also gives us veiled biographical looks at several notables of the day. The book's Adrian character is partly based on Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary's poet husband who drowned in 1822. (Indeed, the novel's pessimism was influenced by the premature deaths of Percy and three of his and Mary's children.) Lord Raymond is modeled on poet Lord Byron, whom the Shelleys knew well and who also died young, in 1824. The Last Man's narrator, Lionel Verney, is partly based on Mary herself, who -- like Willa Cather nearly 100 years later, with Jim Burden of My Antonia -- was a female author channeling a book's central character of the other gender.

The Last Man does have its flaws. Though the novel is set more than a quarter millennium beyond 1826, little has changed technologically. For instance, characters still use horses (and the occasional balloon) to get around in the 2090s! Also, Shelley's writing can be wordy (not atypical of 19th-century prose), though also quite beautiful. One excerpt from soon after the plague hits:

The experience of immemorial time had taught us formerly to count our enjoyments by years, and extend our prospect of life through a lengthened period of progression and decay; the long road threaded a vast labyrinth, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, in which it terminated, was hid by intervening objects. But an earthquake had changed the scene -- under our very feet the earth yawned -- deep and precipitous the gulph below opened to receive us, while the hours charioted us towards the chasm.

Then there's a flaw in believability, but a flaw that's very appealing in a wishful-thinking way. When the plague sends people from other countries streaming into England (before the contagion reaches that nation, too), Shelley has the wealthy make sure the non-wealthy have food by giving up most of their estate lands for anyone to cultivate. Contrast that with how most of America's rich currently refuse to make any sacrifices -- such as paying higher taxes -- to help the many millions of non-rich slammed by the economic meltdown caused by the rich.

It's obvious what Shelley would have thought of that selfishness if she were alive today.

And, in an eerie harbinger of the Bush administration's invasion of a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with 9/11, The Last Man has a scene in which Americans "attacked" by the plague in their nation invade an England that had nothing to do with bringing that plague to the U.S. But this action wasn't "mission accomplished," as readers will find in a book published 175 years before 9/11.

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