Sunday 23 November 2014

The Last Man on Earth

J. M. W. Turner's 'The Last Man' (1837)
I was recently asked to write a post for the Wordsworth Trust's fantastic new Wordsworth and Romanticism blog on the figure of the Last Man on Earth in Romantic literature. Regular readers of my blog will know that this was the subject of my PhD thesis, which I'm now revising for publication, so of course I jumped at the chance to get people thinking about the significance of Last Man literature! I've re-posted my contribution below, but the original article can be found here. If you haven't taken the opportunity to look at the other posts on the Wordsworth and Romanticism blog yet then I'd really recommend that you do; there have been over 30 short articles published so far on a wide range of Romantic topics.

The Last Man on Earth in Romantic Literature

One glorious summer’s day in 1816, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley stood together on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, quietly contemplating the brilliant expanse of water as the sun glinted off its surface. Suddenly, Shelley turned to Byron and exclaimed, his words sending a shiver of fear down his friend’s spine. ‘What a change it would be’, he cried, ‘if the sun were to be extinguished at this moment; how the race of men would perish until perhaps only one remained – suppose one of us! How terrible would be his fate!’

Circulated by the journalist Cyrus Redding in various publications between 1847 and 1869, this story was based on an anecdote passed onto Redding by an unnamed friend in 1817, and should therefore perhaps not be taken as an entirely accurate description of events. What this episode does reveal, however, is that in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Romantics were genuinely fascinated by the end of the world, and, more specifically, with the idea of just one man being left – utterly alone – on earth.

The ‘Last Man’ is a pretty familiar concept to us today, appearing in novels such as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), and in numerous films, including The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and 28 Days Later (2002). Indeed the figure of the Last Man feels distinctly modern, responding as it does to contemporary anxieties about the rapid development of science, deadly pandemics, and zombie apocalypse.

The origins of this idea, however, can be traced right back to a French novel of 1805 by Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville called Le Dernier Homme, which was translated into English as The Last Man the following year. In this fantastical text, in which spirits frequently interfere in the lives of men, the human race loses the ability to reproduce and gradually dies out, until only one man and one woman, both of whom are fertile, are left alive. At first, the couple plans to procreate, but when the Last Man, Omegarus, has a vision of the degenerative race that he would produce, he realises that God intends for humanity to die out and thus abandons the Last Woman. The novel closes with a violent and dramatic depiction of the end of the world.

The first Last Man text written in English was Byron’s Darkness, a short poem composed in the summer of 1816. This text was perhaps inspired by the conversation about the end of the world that Byron had so recently held with Percy Shelley, but was also surely influenced by the rumours – stemming from the so-called ‘Bologna Prophecy’ – that had been circulating in recent months concerning the supposedly imminent end of the world. Byron’s vision of apocalypse sees the bright sun ‘extinguish’d’, with the earth consequently plunged into a terrifying and enduring darkness. The world’s population attempts to live with no source of light or warmth, but gradually dwindles as a result of widespread war and famine until the dreaming speaker is left alone as the sole consciousness in the universe.

Having received an array of rather baffled reviews in 1816, Darkness was largely forgotten for the following seven years, and it seemed that this poem was to go down in history as something of an anomaly. This all changed, however, with the publication in 1823 of a short poem by Thomas Campbell called The Last Man. In this evangelical text, the Last Man contentedly observes the end of the world, secure in his belief that that he will have a place in heaven following the apocalypse. Ignored by the majority of critics when it was originally published, the poem caught the attention of reviewers when it was reprinted in 1825 and the resemblance that it bore to Byron’s text was pointed out. Accusations of plagiarism followed, and Campbell was forced to defend his work, arguing in the Edinburgh Review that Byron had actually stolen the idea of the Last Man from him following a conversation between the pair some fifteen years earlier.

After this episode, the figure of the Last Man became an object of ridicule in the press, with the London Magazine and Review sarcastically asking ‘how then could [Campbell] bear to see another poet enjoying the priority of Last Man-publication – how could he submit, in short, to produce a last Last Man, when the first conception was his?’, while the Monthly Magazine wryly noted that ‘[t]he word “last” is to be lamented, is not sufficiently final to preclude the emulative subsequency of all we leave behind’, adding that ‘we cannot close the doors of language on the thousand little beginnings that tread on the heels of the safest conclusion’.

John Martin's 'The Last Man' (1849)
Indeed, the Campbell-Byron debate does seem to have prompted a ‘thousand little beginnings’, and 1826 saw a flurry of Last Man texts published, including Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man; the anonymous poems The City of the Dead and The Death of the World; a short Blackwood’s tale, The Last Man; and a satirical poem by Thomas Hood, also called The Last Man. In this year, the composer William H. Callcott set Campbell’s words to music in order to create a popular new opera called The Last Man, and the artist John Martin began making plans for what was to become a series of depictions of the Last Man, the most famous of which was an oil-painting completed in 1849.

Within just eighteen months, then, the figure of the Last Man had captured the public’s imagination and had soared in popularity. However, reviewers and general readers alike soon tired of the theme. Mary Shelley’s novel was particularly ill-received, with the Monthly Review calling this tale of global pestilence the ‘offspring of a diseased imagination’, while Blackwood’s termed it an ‘abortion’ and the Literary Gazette referred to it a ‘sickening repetition of horrors’. The text only gained popularity after scholars rediscovered it in the 1960s, but it is now Mary Shelley’s best-known work after Frankenstein and is certainly the most widely-read Last Man text of the Romantic period.

Set in the twenty-first century, the novel follows the fortunes of Lionel Verney and his group of friends as a deadly plague spreads across the globe. After the pestilence wipes out most of the Britain’s population, a small band of survivors set out to travel across Europe, encountering supernatural phenomena, cults, and scenes of death and decay along their way. Soon, just three people remain, until a tragic accident leaves Lionel as the Last Man on earth.

If you’re new to the Last Man theme, this fascinating novel is a good place to start; you can also read some other contemporary Last Man texts at Romantic Circles. So next time you’re at the cinema watching the latest horror film featuring the Last Man on earth battling zombies or vampires, remember that the Romantics got there first!

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Discovering Literature

The British Library recently launched an excellent new educational website, Discovering Literature, which collects together over 8000 pages of information on a selection of Romantic and Victorian texts. Featuring 25 short documentary films, 165 specially-commissioned articles, and 30 lesson plans, the site draws on the expertise of leading academics to create a compelling and rich resource.

Designed to provide introductions to a variety of writers and their works, the site also offers an extensive range of contextual material such as photographs of artefacts, artworks, letters, manuscripts, and newspapers. Accessible to those completely new to these periods of literature, the articles and short films also have the advantage of being thought-provoking, leaving the site’s users not only with the desire the explore the texts further, but also with ideas about how they might approach these works.

At present, the site has 22 featured authors, spanning some of the big names of the Romantic and Victorian periods: Austen, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Dickens, Tennyson, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Hardy, and Wilde are all represented. I was pleased to see H. G. Wells included in the list, with links to related articles on degeneration, the end of the world, and contemporary imaginings of the future. Marcus Waithe’s article on Victorian utopias was particularly interesting, taking readers beyond Wells into Morris’s News from Nowhere, Butler’s Erewhon, and – a particular favourite of mine – Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race. Rather than separating the Romantic and Victorian periods, these articles consider the Romantic heritage upon which the Victorians drew, referencing Humphry Davy and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man.

Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra
The site is intuitive to use, so it’s easy to locate relevant information, but it really comes into its own as a space to browse and explore at leisure. The biography of Jane Austen, for example, leads onto some fantastic articles on Austen’s juvenilia, courtship, love and marriage in her work, and the impact of the Napoleonic Wars in Britain. The user can then look at a variety of high-quality photographic images of artefacts (including Austen’s needle case), browse the manuscripts of selected letters, and watch the videos ‘Jane Austen: Class and Marriage’ and ‘Jane Austen: Gender and Morality’.

Discovering Literature also includes a collection of carefully-designed teaching resources, including lesson plans on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion; Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’; and Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. While these downloadable PDF packs, aimed at those teaching GCSE and A-level students, are not suitable for undergraduates, academics may well find them useful when planning outreach activities at their institutions.

A lively, engaging, and – crucially – free resource, Discovering Literature will make Romantic and Victorian literature more accessible for non-academic readers. It should also be useful for undergraduates studying these periods in detail for the first time, with an afternoon spent browsing the site introducing students to some key authors, texts, themes, and contexts. The project is earmarked for expansion, with the site promising to incorporate other eras – including the twentieth century – in the future. I'm very impressed with the quality and breadth of the material available so far, and look forward to seeing where the project goes next.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Two New Romanticism Blogs

There are some superb Romanticism blogs available on the web, and I thoroughly enjoy reading the latest news from a range of academics who are passionate about sharing their research. It's great to read posts on authors and topics outside of my own areas of specialism, and to keep up to date with what's going on in the Romantic studies community.

The problem with a lot of academic blogs is that they're often written by a single researcher. This frequently results - and I know I'm guilty of this! - in blogs remaining stagnant for weeks or months at a time while various teaching and research commitments are met; it can also mean that posts are rather narrow in focus.

Two new Romanticism blogs that seek to address these issues have recently launched: The Wordsworth Trust's Wordsworth and Romanticism Blog and the Romantic Textualities Blog. Both hosted by thriving Romanticism sites, these blogs are updated regularly and feature posts from teams of contributors. This results in a range of lively and varied posts on a startlingly wide array of topics; I've really enjoyed reading up on global Romanticism, Harriet Shelley, and the Gothic and travel writing so far, to name but a few.

The Wordsworth and Romanticism Blog

Officially launched on 7 April this year to coincide with Wordsworth's birthday, the Wordsworth and Romanticism blog provides introductions to a range of Romantic figures and topics, some very well known, and others less so. So far, posts have covered P. B. Shelley in revolutionary Ireland, Byron's exiles, Claire Clairmont, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Harriet Shelley, as well as a rather playful post speculating on the positions various male Romantic poets would play on a football team! The beauty of these posts is that they make their content accessible for those with no previous knowledge of the subject, yet also engage those readers who have a more long-standing interest in Romanticism.

Stephen Gill's post on Wordsworth is a particular highlight, capturing the essence of the poet for those new to his work while also reminding those of us who are familiar with his poetry why he is such a fascinating writer and how we can never truly consider our readings of his texts finished. Wordsworth is a poet, Gill argues, who 'offers us continual renewals of pleasure', living many lives and covering numerous themes yet ultimately always displaying a determination 'to try to understand what it means really to live'.

Claire Clairmont, by Amelia Curran
Written by a selection of big-name academics, early career researchers, and non-academic writers, these posts are invariably well-written and engaging. Sinéad Fitzgibbon describes the wonderful moment when P. B. Shelley, with youthful enthusiasm and zeal, threw his 'Address to the Irish People' from a window onto the heads of passers by during a visit to Dublin in 1812, while Andrew McConnell Stott shows us how Byron not only experienced exile himself, but also banished friends and acquaintances from his company. Lesley McDowell's post on Claire Clairmont reconsiders this intriguing figure who was part of the Shelley circle while never quite seeming to belong. Educated and independent without being rich, Clairmont was a woman whom Byron 'hadn't a clue how to handle'.

It's one of the great strengths of this blog that it strives to introduce its readers to a range of lesser-known Romantics, publishing posts on female writers and cultural figures alongside those that consider the male Big Six. This site is definitely one to bookmark.

The Romantic Textualities Blog

Aimed more at a specifically academic audience than the Wordsworth and Romanticism Blog, the Romantic Textualities Blog offers some wonderfully varied posts covering cutting-edge research, pedagogical reflections, conference reports, and introductions to topics. Part of the wider Romantic Texualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780-1840 site, there's always something interesting to be found on this blog: I've recently enjoyed posts on Burke and Hare (Sarah Sharp), Wordsworth's poetic development (Elias Greig), and global Romanticism (Manu Samriti Chander).

The scholars writing for this site often consider a topic or theme across several posts; one particularly successful (and useful) set of posts has been Daniel Cook's 'Teaching Romanticism' series. Beginning with a consideration of how we teach Romanticism in terms of setting period boundaries, Cook reflects upon designing a Romantic and Gothic Literature paper at the University of Dundee. Later posts then turn to examining Romanticism modules, Scottish literature, and Taught Masters programmes.

The Villa Diodati
Another compelling series is written by Maximiliaan van Woudenberg, who introduces us to the Fantasmagoriana: the collection of gothic stories, read by the Shelley circle at the Villa Diodati in 1816, which inspired the famous ghost-story writing contest. I've been meaning to look at these stories for a long time, and after reading van Woudenberg's wonderfully enthusiastic posts I'm now determined to make time to look at them; who could resist the lure of a tale called 'The Spectre-Barber', which tells the story of a ghost who must be shaved bald in order to be set free?(!). As well as providing plot summaries and introductory information, van Woudenberg also considers the influence of each tale on Frankenstein. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the posts in this series, and highly recommend that Mary Shelley fans should keep an eye out for them in the coming months.

Sunday 19 January 2014

New Mary Shelley Letters Discovered

I can't say that I'm a regular reader of the Chelmsford Weekly News, but earlier this month I found my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with links to an article in this publication concerning a very exciting discovery for Mary Shelley fans. While searching the archives at the Essex Records Office for information about an obscure nineteenth-century novelist known as Miss Crumpe, Professor Nora Crook (Anglia Ruskin) serendipitously came across a record for thirteen unpublished letters from Mary Shelley to Horace Smith and his daughter Eliza. Written between 1831 and 1849, the letters promise a fascinating glimpse into this period in Shelley's life.

These documents, Professor Crook explains, offer us an insight into Shelley's friendship with the Smiths, revealing her loyalty to the family alongside personal details about her son and her failing health. Shelley consults with Smith about one of Edward Trelawny's manuscripts, and asks if she can have permission to publish some letters written by her late husband, Percy Shelley, in which he expresses negative views about religion.

The letters will be published in a future edition of the Keats-Shelley Journal.

The original article from the Chelmsford Weekly News can be found here.