Friday, March 20, 2020

Mary Shelley as a Philhellene

By John Sanidopoulos

In the summer of 1816 Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin traveled to Switzerland in order to meet Lord Byron. The meeting had been engineered by Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who had been Byron’s mistress in London and who was pregnant with his child. At this point Byron had lost interest in Claire yet in Percy Shelley he found a great friend. Byron and the (future) Shelleys rented houses in close proximity on the shores of Lake Geneva and spent much time together that very rainy summer, socializing together in the evenings and exploring local sites of interest during the day.

The summer in Geneva also inspired Shelley’s lover, and later wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. One rainy evening as the company was sitting around the fire, reading aloud German ghost stories, Byron challenged each person present to write their own ghostly tale. Shortly afterwards, in a waking dream, Mary conceived the idea for Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who brings life to a likeness of man with disastrous consequences. Completed when she was still only 19 years old, the novel, which was first published anonymously, has never since gone out of print.

The relationship between the Shelleys and Lord Byron gave birth to what would become a mutual love for Greece and a mutual keen interest in Constantinople. As is well known, Lord Byron, long a Philhellene, would end up going to Greece and joining the Greeks in their war effort to gain independence, during which he died a legendary hero from fever at the age of 36 in 1824. Percy Shelley, who died two years earlier by drowning at the age of 30, had mastered the Greek language, and one of his last works was a poetic drama called Hellas. Shelley wrote it while living in Pisa, with a view to raising money for the Greek War of Independence. It was to be Shelley’s last published poem during his lifetime. He dedicated it to the Greek politician and Phanariote Alexandros Mavrokordatos, who met the Shelleys during his stay in Pisa from 1818 to 1821 (he was known to Lord Byron as well while fighting in Greece). The drama focuses on the Sultan, Mahmud, who controls the Turkish attacks on Greece, and as he realizes he is about to lose the war, falls into despair.

Mary Shelley didn't die until 1851 at the age of 53, which allowed her to carry on the passion and legacy of her husband Percy and her good friend Lord Byron. Like them, Mary also wrote about Greece with a passion, and she anxiously followed events in Constantinople and Turkish reprisals against the Greeks. This is evidenced on the day Percy Shelley received a copy of his last published work Hellas, on 10 April 1822, when Mary wrote in a letter to a friend:

The Greek Ali Pashaw is dead, and his head sent to Constantinople; the reception of it was celebrated there by the massacre of four thousand Greeks. The latter, however, get on. The Turkish fleet of 25 sail of the line-of-war vessels, and 40 transports, endeavoured to surprise the Greek fleet in its winter quarters; finding them prepared, they bore away for Lante, and pursued by the Greeks, took refuge in the bay of Naupacto. Here they first blockaded them, and obtained a complete victory. All the soldiers on board the transports, in endeavouring to land, were cut to pieces, and the fleet taken or destroyed. I heard something about Hellenists which greatly pleased me. When any one asks of the peasants of the Morea what news there is, and if they have had any victory, they reply: "I do not know, but for us it is η ταν, η επι τας," being their Doric pronunciation of η ταν, η επι της, the speech of the Spartan mother, on presenting his shield to her son; "With this or on this."

And when the revolution in Greece broke out, and one bright April morning Mavrokordatos rushed in to announce to her the proclamation of Hypsilantes, her elation and joy almost equaled his own. It was during this time that she records in her journal many conversations she had with Mavrokordatos, and almost every journal entry begins "Read Greek", which she began to study again under Percy on November 29, 1821, as she notes in her journal: "Wednesday, November 29.—I mark this day because I begin my Greek again, and that is a study that ever delights me. I do not feel the bore of it, as in learning another language, although it be so difficult, it so richly repays one; yet I read little, for I am not well." And in a letter from the 30th of November 1821, she wrote to a friend: "If Greece be free, Shelley and I have vowed to go, perhaps to settle there, in one of those beautiful islands where earth, ocean, and sky form the paradise." If Percy had not perished soon after she wrote this, she may have indeed settled in Greece for her last remaining years.

Though Mary references Greece and Constantinople here and there in her writings, they are especially featured in her novel The Last Man. The Last Man is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel first published in 1826. It was the first apocalyptic novel written in English (Le Dernier Homme, a French apocalyptic novel of the same title, was published in 1805). The book tells of a future world that has been ravaged by a plague which originates in Constantinople during the attempt of the Greeks trying to recapture the city from the Turks. Mary uses a contemporary war of her time as the setting for a future war, since the novel itself takes place between the years 2073 to 2100. In other words, the apocalypse takes place as Greece recaptures Constantinople.

The novel’s narrator, Lionel Verney, tells the story of his life before and after becoming the Last Man: The only human remaining alive after plague sweeps the world beginning in Constantinople then spreading into Athens. He’s friends with the son of the last King of England, who abdicated less than a generation earlier, and they hang out with a bunch of other aristocratic figures before the plague breaks out in Europe. The heroes eventually make it to England, then travel from place to place trying to find somewhere safe. Verney, who survives the plague through some kind of immunity, describes societal breakdown and destructive doomsday cults.

The Last Man originates in the author’s experience of devastating personal loss. The death of her first child had a significant impact on Shelley to the degree that no one appeared to comprehend her grief over this loss. This grief was revisited with the deaths of two more of her children and after the death of her husband, Shelley mentioned that she felt so alone that her remaining child was no consolation. After Shelley suffered a mental crisis about whether she could live after the loss of almost everyone she loved, she wrote a cosmopolitan answer to this existential question. The unexpectedly hopeful ending of The Last Man suggests that all disasters — however threatening to particular individuals or countries — are ultimately about humanity’s responsibility to the world as a whole. Wise beyond her years, Shelley reminds us through the heroic voice of Verney that we should always act upon hope for retaining what makes us loving, humane and connected to others, even in the face of total catastrophe.

The Last Man can be seen as not only autobiographical, but also as a literary tribute and memorial to her husband Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron amongst other members of her coterie. In the book, Adrian, Earl of Windsor, son of the last King of England, who is motivated by philosophy and philanthropy, rather than ambition, is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley; while Lord Raymond, an ambitious young nobleman, famous for his military efforts on behalf of Greece against the Turks, who dies alone in Constantinople, is based on Lord Byron. For Mary, the end of the world is a world of fellow Philhellenes who fight together for the cause of Greece.