Summer of 1816: Villa Diodati on the Shores of Lake Geneva

“DURING A STRETCH OF COLD, dismal summer days brought about by an environmental catastrophe, two of the most influential Gothic horror stories were born within the walls of this villa.” —

Non-comprehensive timeline:

July 18, 1814 — Percy and Mary’s initial elopement, with Jane (Claire): first to Calais, then to Paris, and on to Switzerland. Back in England by September 13, 1814.

February 18, 1815 — Mary gives birth prematurely, baby dies in infancy.

April 10, 1815 — Eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia; causes worldwide climate change such that the following year became known as the Year Without a Summer. This is to explain the excessive amount of darkened skies and rainfall at Villa Diodati, Summer 1816.

January 15, 1816 — Lord Byron experiences the official loss of his wife; Lady Byron and daughter Augusta Ada left London by carriage for Kirkby Mallory before Byron rose that morning.

January 24, 1816 — Mary Shelley gives birth to a healthy son, William.

Spring 1816 — Jane (Claire) deepens her status as Lord Byron’s mistress. Later, she persuades Percy and Mary, with Baby William, to travel to Switzerland to meet up with Byron at Lake Geneva.

May 25, 1816 — Lord Byron with John Polidori arrive in Geneva, Switzerland; Percy, Mary, Baby William, and Jane (Claire) are waiting for them. Byron and Polidori lease the Villa Diodati, a large porticoed house once occupied by John Milton; Percy will lease Maison Chapuis at Montalègre.

June 10, 1816 — There begins days of ongoing darkness and rainy weather, which led to immense boredom among the group.

June 16, 1816 — A book of ghost stories entitled Fantasmagoriana (1812) is presented as a means to quell the ennui. Lord Byron then suggested having a contest in which each of them would write a ghost story. Byron didn’t follow through entirely, producing what has come to be known as “A Fragment.” And yet this is the work which John Polidori built upon to produce The Vampyre (1819). Percy wrote “A Fragment of a Ghost Story” while Mary conceived and essentially drafted what was to become her master-stroke of unparalleled, literary art.

By the hearth at Villa Diodati. From the left: Mary Shelley (Elle Fanning), Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley), Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), John Polidori (Ben Hardy), and Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth). As seen in the movie Mary Shelley (2017).

July 1816 — Percy and Mary travel through the valley of Chamonix, which contributed to the realism of setting in Frankenstein.

August 29, 1816 — Percy and Mary are returned to England where, over time and with input from Percy, Frankenstein is refined into its 1818 version.

December 30, 1816 — Percy and Mary are married.

January 1, 1818 — Publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

April 1, 1819 — Publication of Polidori’s The Vampyre

October 31, 1831 — Publication of revised edition of Frankenstein

The publication of these two works will go on to become supreme icons of literature, phenomena unto themselves by which, their status as influence over the realm of storytelling approaches that of existing among the gods. The level by which the Villa Diodati and its surroundings contributed to the production of these works cannot be understated.

The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is a compact novel of character development that distinguishes itself with the visceral elements of sheer battle terror. Henry Fleming is a young man who is more than aware that a war is taking place, he’s compelled to make decisions with regard to his relationship with that war. This is a personal affair that doesn’t concern the larger issues at hand but rather, focuses on the effects that war can have on a person who is eligible for recruitment. Crane’s novel delivers on the introspection required to understand how someone in this situation might really feel, while naturally questioning the purpose of enduring the experience.

Now, if there were any novel in print that would demand analysis for its “form and content,” this is one that most certainly fits the bill. With its one and two sentence paragraphs, each of their terse and concise natures, always avoiding the drawl and forever getting to the point, reading through the chapters is exceptionally navigated — much like the act of being suctioned into a war might actually be. And because the overall narrative clocks in at around 50,000 words, every sentence, every word, becomes critical to a storytelling performance that is mired in a sense of being hurried along: Henry Fleming had taken note of the atmosphere of war around him, made the announcement to his mother that he’s joining rank, and was thrust into the life of a soldier — the elevated rate of the memory is supremely crafted, as it takes place during the regiment’s tense wait for its first battle. What we get is the realistic sensation of what it might be like to learn that a family member has decided to join the armed forces: time runs out; the person is at once, there with us, and is soon, gone, off in the military for reasons that seem to defy rational explanation.

Stokes County Arts Council presents the community theater production of The Red Badge of Courage (Summer of 2016).

By Crane’s masterful understanding of the art of literary storytelling, there’s a sort of fearful sublimity that trickles in and even comes to dominate the narration. That is, in a manner that comes off as innate, gifted, yet not overbearing, he colors his passages with imagery and metaphor so that the mind is frightfully energized by the relational power of the technique. Here are some lines taken at random to illustrate the point:

“The slaves toiling in the temple of this god began to feel rebellion at his harsh tasks.”

“He knew at once that the steel fibers had been washed from their hearts.”

“It was not well to drive men into final corners; at those moments they could all develop teeth and claws.”

“The song of the bullets was in the air and shells snarled among the treetops.”

This last one is my favorite for the way it transforms the turbulence of battle into a musical piece in which the instruments themselves assume the prospect of being animals that snarl — it’s metaphor within metaphor, simply phenomenal.

The action of this linguistic power goes beyond mere “showing” vs “telling.” In fact, what it tends to reveal is how the writerly act of “showing” is nothing more than the process of giving narrative stage directions, which can often become tedious in and of themselves, e.g. “she rolled over in the bed and slammed the alarm off,” or the “dog’s ears fell over the bowl as he ate.” Skilled used of the metaphor does more; it conveys meaning in the act of showing so that not only is the reader perceiving what is happening, but by the associative imagery, comes to “understand” the messages that are being conveyed at a deeper level, as they relate to the overall narrative arc.

Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming in the movie version of The Red Badge of Courage (1951).

The war’s causes themselves are not mentioned and so the thematic material is different from what it could’ve been; that is, issues of slavery and secession are not intended to play a role in the novel’s design. Instead, at surface level, the main theme is brought to us not only by the progression of Henry Fleming’s psychological development, but the narrative exposition itself even speaks about “manhood” during its final passages. Part of the trick up the author’s sleeve is that people knew in advance that the book was about the Civil War when it was published — and so it is, in this way — Henry’s transformation into manhood has been coupled with and sanctified by the notion that he was fighting for the good guys (on the side of the “blue demonstration”), all the while becoming a man. The result is a feel good moment, for the individual, for the moral portrait.

Consider by contrast that the causes of the war have nothing to do with Henry’s transformation, and the matter becomes more complicated. We learned at the beginning that Henry had become alert to his surroundings, because there was obviously something going on in and around the community. The scale of these activities “might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them.” When the church bell rings, he becomes overwhelmed and decides to join in on the effort, but there doesn’t seem to be any critical thinking as to exactly why he should be fighting. Henry probably knew the politics of the war, but his feelings are drawn towards glory for glory’s sake. The moral portrait in this case is happenstance, rendering the morality itself moot: as he went through the journey of becoming a man, he just so happened to be fighting for the good guys.

If we imagine in the same vein some soldier, say, during the Stalin era, who heeds the call of service without completely understanding this leader’s propensity for evil, the question becomes: Can manhood be achieved out of loyalty itself, blind to the larger reasons at hand? Why would anyone take up arms for a man who killed millions of his own people? For glory? Likewise, if Henry saw glory in the fight, it’s safe to say that a rebel soldier felt the same and thus, if the south had won the war, would that make this person a man?

By not delving into the causes of the Civil War, and instead focusing how recruitment might’ve really felt, we do get the story of overcoming cowardice, learning how to be brave. At a different level, though, the novel’s message seems in some ways to be, that this is how the battles are fought — by destroying the lives of citizens no matter what they may or may not believe, and that valor is a means by which the motivation to fight can be secured. Of the statistics that emerge from the American Civil War, one in particular is exceptionally depressing: “[O]ver 30% of Union bodies in national cemeteries are marked as ‘unknown,’ and the ratio of Confederate unmarked graves likely exceeds 50%, which deprived hundreds of thousands of surviving loved ones a sense of closure” (Source). This is a statistic that represents a vast gulf of death in its ultimate form: the effacement of the individual from the realm of existence, never to be heard or known of again for all time. It’s obliterative, such that Stephen Crane has given them a name in the person of Henry Fleming. These men may have fought for glory or they may have been die-hard abolitionists or they may have been completely on the wrong side of the fence, but they’re existence was served at the grunt level, which means, in all honesty, most were probably and merely plain people with feelings and emotions of their own, and now they’ve been erased from the book of life.

A Modern Genre Novel: Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Catherine Coulter is one of those powerhouse writers whose oeuvre is comprised of 85 novels and counting. Her novel Labyrinth was published in 2019 and is part of a series that follows Savich and Sherlock, a pair of FBI agents who happened to be married. This particular novel is an oddity in that two different plots are developed, but are curiously intertwined by themes of family and the different kinds of family life that are described, apart from the essence of deception that ties everything all together.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is one of the more popular agencies that writers of crime fiction like to tap in to, because of the realism it provides to the stories being told.

Coulter’s two plots are launched into action in media res: a wonderfully described car accident directs the course of the first plot-line. And what are the odds that the perpetrators of the accident just so happen to be involved in a scheme of international intrigue? It’s very delicious and mind-tickling, considering that the accident victim is none other than Agent Sherlock herself, who proceeds to experience a case of retrograde amnesia. From this point another plot-path forms from out of the woodwork: in a different part of the country, one of Agent Sherlock’s associates encounters a crime-in-progress, and it’s through the connective force of an FBI camaraderie that the two stories are interwoven.

But if the notion of two plots isn’t enough to dazzle a reader, leave it to a master-of-the-craft like Coulter to introduce supernatural elements to spice up the game. Psychic powers are introduced and mind-control concepts are layered in so that the whole of the novel starts to bear the semblance of a gigantic chocolate cake, dripping with chocolate icing and syrup, topped with fresh strawberries. In truth, it does seem a little much, but it’s highly entertaining, and I believe this is entirely the point.

Imagine a novel that is so enticing and delicious you could reach out and eat it like a cake.

Many people the world over believe that psychic powers are a natural, very realistic phenomenon.

Much has been written about the differences between “genre” writing and that which may be considered “literature,” to the extent that it tends to generate controversy. For someone like Coulter, I don’t think it really matters, her résumé speaks for itself. As a reader, what I noticed most was that no matter how much a person was described “tossing their keys in the air,” or that I got to visualize “cute little dog ears over the side of a food bowl,” or that I encountered myriad variations on the “painting of her toenails” — I didn’t find myself caring as much about the characters as I did the plot. I kept glossing over phrases and whizzing through sentences so that I could hurry to the end of the book, so that I could find out what all the fuss was about. In this fashion, one thing I most certainly noticed was the difference between how long it took to read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Coulter’s Labyrinth: around 22 days to read the one, about 8 hours to read the other.

Another noticeable thing were the continuous descriptions of FBI agents reputed to be astonishingly “good-looking.” Agent Savich is depicted as seriously in-shape and great to look at; Agent Sherlock is quite the looker, known to her husband for wearing tiger-striped underclothes; their colleague Agent Hammersmith is something of a living god of whom, women apparently get hot and heavy when they see him; and wouldn’t you know it — the girl he saves just so happens to have the looks of a supermodel. When the task force assembles to fill in the blanks of a later scene, it’s like we’re being treated to a law enforcement team that was formed from a workout club in Los Angeles. No less than four of these individuals have some kind of telepathic power, not counting the antagonist, and so it strays a little into the theater of the absurd; and yet it also feels a little like being drawn into superhero territory, the FBI being the people we can count on to give us hope. Alternatively, the details of their good looks, I believe, is quite naturally intentional, the goal being to make the experience feel as though it’s all playing out on television, which is part of the appeal of genre writing.

From Emmy Award winner Dick Wolf and the team behind FBI and the “Law & Order” franchise, FBI: MOST WANTED is a high-stakes drama that focuses on the Fugitive Task Force, which relentlessly tracks and captures the notorious criminals on the Bureau’s Most Wanted list. Seasoned agent Jess LaCroix oversees the highly skilled team that functions as a mobile undercover unit that is always out in the field, pursuing those who are most desperate to elude justice. Series premieres Tuesday, Jan. 7 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured (L-R) Kellan Lutz as Kenny Crosby, Keisha Castle-Hughes as Hana Gibson, Roxy Sternberg as Sheryll Barnes, Julian McMahon as Jess LaCroix and Nathaniel Arcand as Clinton Skye Photo: Mark SchaferCBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

At one point, members of the team end up at the CIA building in Langley, Virginia, where I was intrigued to have KRYPTOS brought to my attention. KRYPTOS is a sculptured cryptogram created by the American artist, Jim Sanborn.

“Since its dedication on November 3, 1990, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the four encrypted messages it bears. Of these four messages, the first three have been solved, while the fourth message remains one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. The sculpture continues to be of interest to cryptanalysts, both amateur and professional, who are attempting to decipher the fourth passage. The artist has so far given three clues to this passage” (Source).

I run the risk of spoiling Coulter’s book if I analyze too much of it, since it’s relatively new, but I also get the feeling that if I did, it might be like trying to analyze a mini-series from the Rockford Files (1974-80). I mean, why would you want to do that? Not every published beast needs to undergo critical scrutiny; sometimes it’s nice just to have fun and let the words fly. Catherine Coulter’s novel is perfect for doing this, though it should be noted that her career is like a wannabe author’s dream. She’s in that position the woeful writers of the world, whose manuscripts rot away in the slush piles of publishing companies in and around New York City, imagine they’ll be in someday when that prized contract finally comes through. Coulter is the real deal, and I’m sure the day will come when I find myself blazing through another one of her fine crime thrillers.

In fact, as I’m always trying to balance out the tendencies I have for reading historic literature, I may as well fit Coulter’s novel into the list of contemporary works I’ve managed to read thus far:

Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris
The Body Farm (1994) by Patricia Cornwell
Pure Instinct (1995) by Robert Walker
Black Lightning (1995) by John Saul
The Poet (1996) by Michael Connelly
Lake of Dead Languages (2002) by Carol Goodman
Sharp Objects (2006) by Gillian Flynn
Labyrinth (2019) by Catherine Coulter

Harris’s book is the one I remember being riveted by the most, probably because I’m a character/atmosphere person; a view into the life of Francis Dolarhyde is something I will never forget.

The Body Farm will always stick in my memory for the novel idea that bodies were left to rot in the open for the purposes of conducting forensic science.

Pure Instinct draws forth memories of a nasty serial killer, mad Matthew Matisak, and the terror he instilled into the poor woman trying to conduct her investigation.

John Saul’s Black Lightning is impossible to forget because the killer was the only one I ever learned about who stripped naked to commit his crimes, after shaving his whole body, committing his acts on vast sheets of clear plastic; truly demented.

The Poet is memorable for precisely just how unmemorable it is, but I believe there were poetry quotes throughout the book.

Carol Goodman gets a bad wrap for this book, and it is just so wrong because it has everything I love: snow and frozen lakes, suspicious characters, dank gothic atmosphere, and plenty of mystery.

How can anyone forget the look of Amy Adams as she drives around the Mid-west with her spaced-out, alcoholic gaze? It’s because I saw the show before I read the book, so memorable.

And, of course, Labyrinth is the latest addition to this excellent genre list, because it has dueling plots — and nothing short of a matriarch with Force-powers.

The Last Man (1826): Shelly’s Plague Vision

Current events being as they are, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is fascinating because it’s presented as a prophecy that was made by a “sibyl” from ancient times. Sibyls were women who predicted the future and this one in particular concerns the Cumaean Sibyl, an oracle well-recognized by the Ancient Romans because of its location south of the great city of Rome. What makes this all so fascinating, or more plainly, a bit disturbing, is how the prophetic details speak directly to what we’re going through: rumors of plague are first mentioned; people believe it can’t really happen; deaths start to occur that are too close for comfort; symptoms are described; panic begins; widespread pandemonium unfolds; and then the after-effects become too hard to believe. Reading this novel, in real-time with the Covid-19 Pandemic, has been a thought-provoking if unsettling experience to say the least.

Stylistically speaking, the novel is a very different animal from Frankenstein (1818/31). Mary Shelley’s mind by this point in time has been both, riddled by the specter of death in her personal life, and saturated by the tremendous knowledge and research of the day in publication which enhanced her capacity to write. This is to suggest that reading The Last Man can be likened unto reading what I might call “brainiac literature.” Mary Shelley’s ability to consider high-powered concepts during the process of creating even the simplest sentences presents a reading experience that is — impeccably and pleasurably cumbersome. She is the master of eloquence which forces you to take time and think about what you’re reading, a phenomenon decried in the advice Jerry Jenkins gives when he tells fledgling writers to “omit needless words” and to “choose the simple word over one that requires a dictionary.” Of course, Shelley’s novel was written before courses in creative writing ever existed, but she really takes it to the hilt with her ability to intellectualize the hell out of her narrative form — effortlessly.

When Shelley wrote Frankenstein she was fresh out of the gate with a vivid idea as to how the novel should affect readers. She had that verve which accompanies youthful expression, coupled with the input of her literary-genius lover and husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Mary Shelley followed this performance with Valperga (1823), which did relatively well, only to overstep the mark with The Last Man by combining the magnitude of her intellectual prowess with a lack of help from someone like Percy to help her smooth out the rough edges of her manuscript. What I envision nowadays, and in the spirit of my sincerest sincerity, is a task created by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in which The Last Man is presented to students for an exercise in revision from which polished forms of the novel take shape; but obviously, these are views that come from an era 200 years later into the evolution of novel-writing.

Make no mistake, The Last Man is no minor work of art to be scoffed at. Her contemporaries complained about the thematic material, its grim attributes, its culmination in the depressive aspect of isolation; but it’s not the case from a historicist point of view. That I notice the intellectuality of Shelley’s linguistic style is a mere circumstance of reader-response theory and the passing of time. The fact remains: the passages that flow from the pen in The Last Man are at times, downright breathtaking. People don’t write like this anymore; and it’s always simply and purely amazing to me that a novel like this, clocking in at approximately 175,000 words, was written by hand without the luxuries of word-processing software. To be sure, The Last Man is yet another of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s masterworks of canonical English literature.

The novel has been labelled a roman à clef for reasons that are easy to see for someone who studies Romanticism, which materializes most pointedly in the character of Lord Raymond, who is meant to represent the “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” Lord Byron. The narrator, Lionel Verney, has been noted for representing Mary Shelley herself, with the character of Adrian representing the all-encompassing glory that was her deceased husband Percy. This particular character could do no wrong, apparently, created in light of the fact that Mary had been mad at Percy for his infidelity, but came to feel bad about her feelings after he drowned in a boating accident. From here we have the rest of the group: Perdita, who is Lionel’s little sister; Idris, younger sister to Adrian; the Countess of Windsor being Idris and Adrian’s cold and calculating mother; Princess Evadne, who is a visitor at court; with Lord Raymond being the factor that seems to tie it all into a neat bow.

Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were popular figures of the Romantic Era, circa 1780-1832.

The momentum of the story is triggered when Lionel crosses paths with Adrian, by which the lowly Lionel and Perdita are thrust into the lives of the aristocracy in a post-monarchal England. It’s a device that offers narrative life while at the same time, dragging it all down, for its service as a platform for the authoress to discuss politics, which is always a story-telling mistake [unless it’s intended to be the specific point; but even then, consider a book like Felix Holt, the Radical (1866) by George Eliot]. In spite of the drag, we do manage to feel like we’re getting to know the group, which is really all we have with regard to a subject in which total annihilation is the name of the game. Adrian, for example, is the type of person who approaches hillsides with a view and launches into glorious elocution:

“O happy earth, and happy inhabitants of earth! A stately palace has God built for you, O man! and worthy are you of your dwelling! Behold the verdant carpet spread at our feet, and the azure canopy above; the fields of earth which generate and nurture all things, and the track of heaven, which contains and clasps all things” (Vol. I, Ch. IV).

It’s so very traditionally English, so very Shakespearean. Mercy, what a dour literary agent in the modern age might think of this in a submission.

Our impression of Adrian is nuanced by the illustrious Princess Evadne from Greece, who taunts him with a spell of unrequited love. Evadne is certainly interesting in that she is pitted as experiencing a fall from grace, Shelley’s way of chipping away at the aristocrats of her day. Not only does Evadne meet with a life of despair, but her behavior comes to suffer from the effects of near-derangement. In contrast with a person like Lionel, who endures the trials of war and plague with calm and reserve, Evadne is depicted as one whose semblance of strength has been subjected to the ultimate cracking point and she loses, a spin on the notion that someone truly aristocratic doesn’t understand the real world.

Between Adrian and Idris, the engines are forever turning in the mind of their mother, the Countess of Windsor. The story goes that, in the noble hope for establishing a democratic-republic for England, the husband of the Countess, the ex-king, had abdicated his throne, much to her dismay. In this manner, she forever views her children as potential stepping stones for restoring the monarchy, for restoring her position as royalty. Ultimately speaking, it’s all slightly less than deliciously-demonic, where the goal is more-or-less to paint life-portraits of the characters, whether realistic or fancied, before the plague comes along to demolish everything. And it’s hard to say whether or not this makes the overall story interesting or not; I suppose it depends on whether you’re reading the book for college, or during an actual pandemic. It was certainly uncanny to find myself reading about life at Windsor Castle during a fictional plague, even as Queen Elizabeth II was delivering a very real speech from that very spot amid the turmoil in England during those first few days of April 2020. Very eerie.

From Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II delivered a speech to the citizens of Great Britain and the world on April 5, 2020.

As a work of futuristic story-telling, we have to be tender considering the year was 1825 when The Last Man was written. The fictional years provided are 2073 through to the millennia, and yet the most we get technologically speaking is when balloons are taken for transportation — the rest is essentially Victorian England. But Mary Shelley doesn’t entirely let us down so far as the fantastical is concerned. A curious moment unfolds when she describes a “black sun” that terrifies the peoples of the east, which is obviously a total solar eclipse — it’s one that occurs not far in time from one that is actually set to occur on September 23, 2090, according to NASA.

However, she additionally allows for a moment that is, in essence, an astronomical impossibility, when she describes an event which astonishes the emigrating group as they proceed to vacate the island of England. Standing at the edge of the English Channel facing France, “suddenly, a wonder! three other suns, alike burning and brilliant, rushed from various quarters of the heavens towards the great orb; they whirled round it” (Vol. III, Ch. IV). It’s a welcome diversion, a venture into the realm of pure and joyous fantasy; yet it’s alarming: the end of mankind is unfolding and the heavenly bodies are taking note with rapturous glee.

The arrangement and flow of The Last Man are really its only shortcomings, such that to say that its impressions and fascinations profusely compensate feels an odd thing to declare, because it’s basically an understatement. As mentioned, Adrian’s hilltop elocution is definitive of the English mindset, to make every moment, even the most trivial, to feel as though great things have been achieved. This is the art of apostrophe defined, appearing throughout so that it’s not plot or story or character that we care about so much as we feel the emotion of the expression, such that we want the moments in our own lives to feel equally as important. In addition, as I perpetually consider the definition of “great literature,” I always find myself at some point finding the argument between “showing” and “telling” a petty thing when I consider metaphor and its ability to convey meaning. The Last Man is rife with metaphor: I scrolled for less than a minute, at random, encountering several similes, before learning about Lionel’s high-anxiety about his family via pure metaphorical device: “I might heap high the scale with logic, courage, and resignation—but let one fear for Idris and our children enter the opposite one, and, over-weighed, it kicked the beam” (Vol. II, Ch. VI). Great literature is found in the writing that comes from one who entices the mind intuitively with the power of metaphor.

Animals roam the empty streets during the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020.

The lasting impression of The Last Man, as its contemporary critics have noted, does appear in the nihilistic, pervasive erosion of humanity as the plague spreads, obliterating everything that is specifically human in its path, focalizing the final acts of the novel. Cows are seen going about their business, sheep are free to roam at will, birds continue to flutter about, and the fish carry on as though nothing of any particular interest is occurring at all. It’s a nasty concept to consider, that nature abhors us, to the extent that tiny organisms exist that can wipe us out from the face of the planet. The thought doesn’t escape Shelley’s mind when she likens our existence to a hill of ants, by which, its destruction engenders not the slightest shred of empathy the universe may have to offer. We have to shudder off the feeling, delude ourselves if necessary; we have to assure ourselves and our children that we do, in fact, matter. I think the point is that we have to do so in accordance with and respect for nature itself, lest Mother Nature inform us who’s really the boss. Well before and long after events like the Spanish Flu of 1918, or the SARS scare of 2003, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man comes off as an interesting, albeit, frightening piece of fictional literature; but if you happen to perform a reading during the real thing as it unfolds all around, the implications can be more than difficult to grasp.

And so it is, at the very least, remember as best as you can the guidelines provided by the CDC during this very trying time, and if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading and stay safe out there.

The Last Man: Character List

The Last Man (1826) is framed by an introductory passage, written by someone who is presumably a man. During a touristy day amid the ruins of Baiae, across the bay from Naples, Italy, at the Cave of Cumaean Sybil, this man and his companion find deep within the cave poetry that is written on “leaves, bark, and other substances.” The companion states they have found “Sibylline leaves,” i.e. poetry that has been written by a “sybil” — “One of a number of women regarded as oracles or prophets by the ancient Greeks and Romans.” The man takes it upon himself to collect and organize the material into a coherent narrative.

The first-person narrative that follows is written by Lionel Verney, son to a courtly man fallen on hard times. When he and his sister are orphaned, he maintains a vigilant relationship with her as they grow up. Life amid the climes of poverty make Lionel “angry, impatient, miserable…wild and rude,” much to the extent that sometimes he ends up in jail. His personality changes when his vindictive nature is confronted by the docile and peaceful tendencies of a young nobleman named Adrian. The relationship they form ushers Lionel into a state of maturity that seemingly prepares him for the pandemic-catastrophe that is to come.

Verney’s Father was an intelligent, personable person who came from a noble family with connections to the king of England, which proffered him friendship with the prince. By the time the prince himself became king, Verney’s father was welcome among fashionable society, for his vivaciousness and witticism. In time he grew careless with his finances, based on a gambling addiction, though the king continued to reverence their relationship. But the man became increasingly unreliable as a human being, falling in with continued dissipation such that the queen, aka Princess of Austria, Countess of Windsor, came to dislike him. After a bout of heavy gambling, Verney’s father self-exiled himself to Cumberland, where the “daughter of a poor cottager” nursed him in his despair; he married this cottager and with her had two children. Before he died from the pressures of rural family life, he sent a letter to his old friend the king, hoping for help for his family — a letter that somehow ended up lost in the shuffle.

Verney’s Mother came from an emigrant family of the peasant classes — they were “outcasts, paupers, unfriended beings.” Though she was tender and sweet, she forever remained “poorer than the poorest.” She died when Lionel was five years old, committing into his care that of his younger sister, Perdita.

Perdita had “golden hair clustered on her temples, contrasting its rich hue with the living marble beneath.” She was three years younger than Lionel and as she grew up, the problem of poverty and not having actual parents made her distrustful and reclusive. The intensity of her particular life-dramas came critically to destabilize her mental health, causing her to make irrational decisions that lead to her demise.

Adrian, Second Earl of Windsor: “every one admires and loves him.” He would’ve been king of England had not his father abdicated the throne. He befriended Lionel after catching him in the act of trespassing, from which a devoted friendship formed. From a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “calf love,” Adrian was thrown into a mental quagmire of depression; he gets through with Lionel’s help. Adrian’s kingly heritage, with his mind — “gifted as it was by every natural grace, endowed with transcendant powers of intellect, unblemished by the shadow of defect” — are what situate him as the appropriate leader when the world begins to crumble. He is the only one of the group who never marries.

The “beauteous” Idris, Adrian’s younger sister by two years, was a “frank and confiding” woman. She was a target for marriage by those seeking to restore the monarchy, including her scheming mother the Countess. Idris exudes elegance because of her rank and beauty, but is largely humble in her character; she marries Lionel and together they have three children, the middle of which unfortunately died.

The Countess of Windsor is defined by stereotypical definitions of the aristocracy. She wasn’t happy that her husband abdicated the throne; she wanted the monarchy restored because she desired power; she schemed to keep her daughter from marrying Lionel, knowing that it would compromise her restoration hopes; and she continued her condescending attitude towards Lionel until circumstances dictated how useless it was to keep behaving that way.

Princess Evadne was the daughter of Prince Zaimi, ambassador to England from the free States of Greece. Her father was often a guest at Windsor Castle as a “partizan” to the Countess, through which the lovely Evadne became accustomed to English life. She exerts “feminine prudence” in her rejection of Adrian’s love, but meets with curious irony when her situation devolves to the very level of despair that he went through earlier on.

Lord Raymond was the “sole remnant of a noble but impoverished family.” He comes across as highly self-confident in his mannerisms, entertaining at one point the interests of all three women in the novel. His political acumen is offset by his ego, by which he finds himself abandoning his post as England’s Protector. “Festivity, and even libertinism, became the order of the day.” His egotism functions as a form of nobility that the soldiery views as worthy of devotion, yet it’s the romanticized version of himself that seems to evoke tragedies that could have otherwise been avoided, this being his fate and the fate of Perdita.

Clara was Perdita and Raymond’s daughter, the only child of the group to make it to her teen years. Because she’s the eldest of the children, she was not an “ordinary child; her sensibility and intelligence seemed already to have endowed her with the rights of womanhood.” Clara’s mind was tainted by the traumas instilled by life as the pandemic came to pass, mainly in the loss of her parents, but she is referenced as being a source of hope every time she’s noticed or observed by the group, even as the plague continues to shut down life as it’s known all around.

Alfred was the eldest child to Idris and Lionel. Before he is actually named in the narrative, the children are viewed as “little darlings” that bring joy and happiness to their lives. At age nine, Alfred is an “upright, manly little fellow, with radiant brow, soft eyes, and gentle, though independent disposition.” He owns a pet eagle and is close with Clara, next to whom he spends the final moments of his life.

Evelyn, a “laughing cherub, a gamesome infant, without idea of pain or sorrow, would, shaking back his light curls from his eyes, make the halls re-echo with his merriment, and in a thousand artless ways attract our attention to his play.” He was the third youngest child to Idris and Lionel; as others within the group proceed to die, Evelyn keeps Clara busy because of his extreme youth, such that she begins to feel towards him like a mother.

Ryland appears as a political figure. He was the “leader of the popular party, a hard-headed man, and in his way eloquent.” His politics were anti-monarchist but his personality contained traits of instability under pressure: his end comes with evidence of selfish hoarding.

Merrival was a “little old astronomer” who was often found participating in conversations in and around the political scene at London and Windsor Castle. Like Ryland, the effects of the plague drew forth emotions of weakness, such that he forgoes his own family in a case of plague-induced madness.

Lucy Martin was originally from a lower-middle-class family, but was forced to marry to solve problems of “disastrous poverty.” She endured the pain of domestic violence until the man died; after her mother’s passing, and before her own, she had “devoted herself throughout to the nursing of the sick, and attending the friendless.”

Juliet was the daughter of the Duke of L——. Her family wiped out by plague, she falls in with the Prophet-Impostor when the survival-emigrant group splits into factions. Even though Lionel tried to help her out of her predicament, she suffers personally nevertheless by the actions of this false-messiah.

The Prophet-Impostor came into being when the division of emigrants took place in Paris. His angle was the use of religion; as a cult leader he came to elicit unnecessary tension for the sake of basking in the power of controlling others. “It is likely that he was fully aware of the lie which murderous nature might give to his assertions, and believed it to be the cast of a die, whether he should in future ages be reverenced as an inspired delegate from heaven, or be recognized as an impostor by the present dying generation.”

Disease in Literature: Reminders from the Past

The current crisis unfolding across the world is one of those things, it seems, we humans are plainly not going to avoid. As we stack ourselves upon the technologies that make us feel kingly, Mother Nature always steps in to show us who’s boss. Have we learned from the mistakes of our past when it comes to disease and viral outbreaks? (a.k.a. contagion, pestilence) Or are the qualities of these malicious entities simply and purely inextinguishable, no matter the defense we enlist against them? Whichever way the wind may blow, the literary arts have taken note.

Mayhem in Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death (1562).

Thucydides wrote about the “Pestilence at Athens” (430 B.C.E) in his History of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E.). “‘The account of the plague of Athens written by Thucydides is one of the most vivid and terrible pieces of writing in all literature.’ Many years later Lucretius (c.98-55 B.C.) converted the record of Thucydides into Latin hexameter verse in his great poem, ‘On the Nature of Things.’ And it is safe to say that all later accounts of the plague of Athens are built around the story of Thucydides” (Source).

In Dante’s Inferno (1320), Canto 29 brings us to the Eighth Circle of Hell (Malebolge — “evil ditches”), where Bolgia 10 contains various fraudulent types who are suffering from terrible, plague-type disease. Here the notion not only foreshadows events to come, but seems to ask the question: Does the human race need to be visited by plague?

Virgil and Dante at Bolgia 10, by Gustave Doré.

The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio is a frame narrative in which a group of young people seek safety from the Black Death as it ravages the town of Florence, Italy. They tell stories to pass the time and their behavior reflects the modern medical advice to avoid large gatherings.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1400) features “The Pardoner’s Tale.” After a corpse is rolled past a tavern, a boy is asked of whom it was the unlucky person; the boy goes on to describe:

“And he was slain, all suddenly, last night,
When drunk, as he sat on his bench upright;
An unseen thief, called Death, came stalking by,
Who hereabouts makes all the people die,
And with his spear he dove his heart in two
And went his way and made no more ado.
He’s slain a thousand with this pestilence;
And, master, ere you come in his presence,
It seems to me to be right necessary
To be forewarned of such an adversary:
Be ready to meet him for evermore.”

An entry dated June 7, 1666 from The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-1670) reads: “This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw.”

Daniel Defoe wrote the Journal of the Plague Year (1722), in which he describes quack doctors trying to profit (or maybe help) during the London Plague: “It is incredible, and scarce to be imagined, how the posts of houses and corners of streets were plastered over with doctors’ bills and papers of ignorant fellows, quacking and tampering in physic, and inviting the people to come to them for remedies, which was generally set off with such flourishes as these, viz.: ‘Infallible preventive pills against the plague.’ ‘Never-failing preservatives against the infection.’ ‘Sovereign cordials against the corruption of the air.’ ‘Exact regulations for the conduct of the body in case of an infection.’ ‘Anti-pestilential pills.’ ‘Incomparable drink against the plague, never found out before.’ etc.”

A quack doctor is someone who peddles medicine that is not real; but during the olden days, people were far less-informed. Painting by anonymous.

La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas (1886).

The problem of tuberculosis for the longest time was described as people suffering from “consumption.” In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Jane’s childhood friend Helen Burns dies from the disease, thankfully without infecting her best friend; Paul Dombey meets with a similar fate in Dombey and Sons (1848), by Charles Dickens. Bessy Higgins from Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and Fantine from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) succumb in much the same way; and in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), Katerina Ivanovna’s experience is chilling, her nightmarish life unfolding while “coughing and spitting blood too.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842) is superb for the way it shows that not even the well-to-do can escape the clutches of an infectious disease like tuberculosis.

One of Ours (1922) by Willa Cather offers depictions of the Spanish Flu pandemic; it won a Pulitzer Prize. Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) was written by Katherine Anne Porter, who actually endured that flu; she writes, “Pain returned, a terrible compelling pain running through her veins like heavy fire, the stench of corruption filled her nostrils…she opened her eyes and saw pale light through a coarse, white cloth over her face, knew that the smell of death was in her own body, and struggled to lift her hand.” Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (2013), by the Icelandic writer Sjón, is set historically against the backdrop of 1918 Reykjavik, where Spanish Flu wreaks its havoc with abandon.

Spanish Flu Epidemic 1918-19. U.S. school gymnasium converted into a flu ward where patient beds are separated by screens and masked health workers. An estimated 25% of the US population contracted the flu and over 500,000 died. (CP/Courtesy of Everett Collection)

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus considers an outbreak of cholera and The Andromeda Strain (1969) by Michael Crichton portends a viral threat that could come from outer space; Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez revisits the topic of cholera as it affects a city in South America, where the streets had been “decayed” and “rat-infested.”

Matters really get out of control in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks, who apparently wonders if it’s possible that a plague might turn people into rabid, infectious zombies; Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (2010) does much the same thing, the situation in this case being, Mother Nature’s microscopic threat is not the only thing stifling the lives of human beings.

People in Resident Evil (2002) are infected with the T-virus.

A completely empty San Marco Square in Venice on Monday (3/9/2020), after Italy enforced travel restrictions to try to contain the worst outbreak in Europe.

Literary art provides a space for documenting humanity that matter-of-fact documentation cannot; it reveals how the large-scale spread of disease can affect lives at the level of the individual, with personalized introspection. But even as the phenomenon might make for compelling reading, if you happen to be reading during this potentially dangerous time, please remember to wash your hands regularly; read up on what you can do to play a part in protecting the lives of those whom you love as well as the common stranger. Together we can get through this, to show that pandemics don’t have to run the gamut of our lives. Ultimately speaking, please be safe out there, with love and care, yours truly.

A view of the entrance to the Louvre, Paris, France (3/2/2020). Getty Images