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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: The best of all possible computers

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To mark the launch of our new Philosophy digital catalogue, Tomas Elliott looks into the early history of computing through the work of philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

In 1948, the American mathematician Norbert Wiener identified an unlikely source for the computerized codebreaking that had hastened the end of World War II: the 17th-century German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. “The history of the modern computing machine,” Wiener claimed, “goes back to Leibniz and Pascal. Indeed, the general idea of a computing machine is nothing but a mechanization of Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator.”

According to Wiener, Leibniz was “the patron saint of cybernetics,” Wiener’s theory of information being named after the Ancient Greek term “kubernetes” (meaning the captain or helmsman of a ship) Cybernetics attempted to account for how various systems of organization and governance—from the tiniest chemical reactions in cells to the processes in modern computing—could be understood in terms of the encoding, transmission, and decoding of information. It was, in other words, the first ever theory of cyber culture in the rapidly developing age of the machine. For Wiener, that age did not begin with the Turing machine, invented in 1936, nor even with the difference engine, developed by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the early 19th century. It began, instead, with the “calculating machine” of Gottfried Leibniz.

LEIBNIZ, Gottfried Wilhelm von. Lehr-Sätze über die Monadologie. Aus dem Frantzösischen übersetzt von Heinrich Köhler; [bound with two other works on Leibniz.] 1720. £95,000.00.

Leibniz anticipated modern computing in two significant ways. The first of these was intellectual. Leibniz’s philosophical system took as one of its foundational premises the idea that the world and all its interlocking systems can be understood rationally through an appeal to universal logic and mathematical notation. In the same way that our modern computers approach the most complex tasks by reducing them to a logical code of ones and zeroes, so too did Leibniz believe that all the infinitesimal beauty of the world could be explained through a symbolic logic and, ultimately, a binary system of computation that he himself helped to develop.

In Leibniz’s thought, this idea of a universe underwritten by logic is crystallized in his “principle of sufficient reason,” which formed one of the “two great principles” of the Monadology, the crowning achievement of his later philosophy. This principle stated that “nothing happens without a reason” (or that “every effect has a cause”). If this is the case, then every effect can ultimately be described by a logical system (or, in Leibniz’s terms, “a universal language”), an idea central to modern computing, where lines of code translate (and are translated into) complex qualitative phenomena.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by Christoph Bernhard Francke (c. 1695). Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum.

This brings us to the second way in which Leibniz anticipated computing. He believed that anything that can be computed by machines should be. Leibniz was well aware that, given the endless complexity of the universe, “most of the time, reasons cannot be known to us.” But he felt that, if machines could take on some of the labour of thought, then humans would be freer to tackle the world’s more complex problems. That idea still underlies computer-based research today.

Accordingly, Leibniz set out to develop the first machine that could perform all four operations of arithmetic: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In its finished design, his “calculating machine” could process sums with figures of up to sixteen digits. While it had some flaws (and its computational power was nothing compared to today’s digital calculators), it represented a revolution in the arithmetic of the day; it was a truly modern piece of computational hardware.

Leibniz presented the first prototype of the machine to the Royal Society in London in February 1673. This was a fateful meeting, and Leibniz’s relationship with the Society would go on to colour much of his later work. Most notably, in 1699, Leibniz was accused by members of the Society of having plagiarized his calculus from Isaac Newton, a claim that also threw doubt on the originality of his technological inventions. Nowadays, most historians agree that both Leibniz and Newton developed their calculus independently, but the affair is remembered for the intellectual exchange that arose from it: a correspondence between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, which lasted from 1715 until Leibniz’s death the following year. That exchange saw Leibniz defend his views against the Newtonian Clarke, who later published their correspondence in English in 1717.

Much of the debate contained within their letters seems technical and obscure to us today. It focused primarily on the difference between Newton’s absolutist conception of space and Leibniz’s relativistic model. There was a lot at stake in that distinction, however, including not just physics but the makeup of the human soul and the nature of God Himself.

In his Principia Mathematica, Newton had claimed that “absolute space… remains always similar and immovable.” Leibniz stated, however, that if this were the case, there would be no reason “why everything was not placed the quite contrary way, for instance, by changing east into west.” In other words, space itself (and God’s design of it) would be arbitrary. But an arbitrary universe would have violated Leibniz’s principle, mentioned above, that “nothing happens without a reason.” That reason, in fact, was the most famous in Leibniz’s philosophy: God arranged space in the best way possible. In other words, He designed the “best of all possible worlds.”

Nowadays this model of the universe is best remembered for the biting critique that it suffered at the hands of the later French philosopher, Voltaire. In his philosophical novel Candide, Voltaire’s endlessly optimistic philosopher, Pangloss, justifies all of the world’s suffering through the claim that “everything necessarily serves the best end.” Meanwhile, Candide’s experiences of war, famine, disease, and an array of natural disasters cause him to ask: “if this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?”

VOLTAIRE; KENT, Rockwell (illus.) Candide. Illustrated by Rockwell Kent. 1928. £375.00.

It should be noted, however, that Leibniz’s optimism stemmed ultimately from his belief in the rational logic of nature’s laws. He believed in a Godly universe that was maximally efficient and minimally wasteful. He also believed, therefore, that the universe’s problems could be solved, provided we have the means to solve them. That rationalism continues to inform contemporary computing, where the world’s problems hinge on the development of ever more effective algorithms.

Wiener, for his part, was far more sceptical than Leibniz about the inherent goodness of a rational, calculable, and mechanized universe. Of course, the world of 1948 was very different from the world of 1673. Leibniz’s God had long since departed, abandoning humanity to the destruction of the atomic bomb and the guided missile, two other technological “advances” ushered in by the age of information. Fittingly, Wiener noted at this time that the harnessing of computers and machines had “unbounded possibilities for good and evil.” A Leibnizian optimism still lingered, therefore, but one tempered with post-war caution. Now, seventy years after Cybernetics and four centuries after the Monadology, we’re still waiting to see whether the new era of machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence—all of which share in Leibniz’s legacy—will open out onto the best of all possible worlds that the German philosopher once envisioned.

Our new digital list, Philosophy, features some of the most influential and controversial works in the development of human thought, from the ancient to the modern age.

View digital list




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Author: Lauren Hepburn

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

Lauren Hepburn is an experienced freelance writer, editor and journalist.


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Dover Street: A fashionable history

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

By Lauren Hepburn

43 Dover Street, Peter Harrington’s Mayfair shop, has a fashionable history. In the mid-20th Century it was owned by sisters Diana and Betty Pacquin; run as a chic boutique where bespoke outfits were created for genteel ladies. Though little more is known about their business at Dover Street, a Times editorial in 1938 describes a pair of the sisters’ designs, custom-made when they worked at Liberty London and worn to ‘the Second Court of the season’ at Buckingham Palace by a debutante and her mother. The article describes the Pacquins’ handiwork as showcased by its high-society wearers: one Mrs. R. S. Rait Kerr attended the ball in a shining gown of gold lamé, complete with a matching chiffon train; her daughter, Miss Diana Rait Kerr, donned an Empire gown of white matelassé and silver lamé, and a corsage laced with silver. The sisters, who were Jewish and adopted the surname Pacquin as a pseudonym, may have taken inspiration from the globally renowned French couturier, Jeanne Paquin, whose London premises was just down the road at 39 Dover Street.

Diana and Betty were continuing a tradition of high fashion at 43 Dover Street. In the 1920s it housed The Three Studios, a photography studio run by Yvonne Gregory and her husband, together with their friend and colleague Marcus Adams. A portrait and fashion photographer, as well as an artist, Yvonne also shot actresses, dancers and musicians, and produced several books of nude photography with her husband, Bertram Park.

The Three Photographers Studio at 43 Dover Street
Yvonne Gregory with her daughter June
Yvonne’s business card
(Many thanks to Sisters of the Lens, @sistersofthelens, for this information about Gregory and The Three Photographers, and for the use of these images)

In 1970, 43 Dover Street belonged to Hawkes & Curtis, which then owned two different shops for shirt making and tailoring (the other location in Burlington Gardens). On Dover Street, cutter Teddy Watson rivalled nearby Savile Row as he produced bespoke suits for the Prince of Wales. The tailors of Hawes & Curtis also catered to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Lucian Freud and Burt Lancaster in their time.

It seems apt, therefore, to have continued our Dover Street shop’s sartorial legacy with a dedicated catalogue of rare and unique fashion-related items. Below, we explore some of the highlights.

Queen Elizabeth II, Norman Hartnell

HARTNELL, Norman. Bespoke souvenir album containing Hartnell sketches for the Queen’s wardrobe for her State Visit to Paris, 1957. £4,000.00.

The late British fashion designer Norman Hartnell’s first royal commission was for the wedding gown of Princess Alice for her marriage to the Duke of Gloucester in 1935. But it was three years later that he established himself as one of the most revered couturiers of the day when, at the request of the King, he masterminded the outfits of the Queen’s state visit to France. His resulting designs received worldwide admiration and, soon after in 1940, Hartnell received his first royal warrant of appointment to the Queen (he would also be Dressmaker by Appointment to her daughter, Elizabeth II). His relationship with the royal family endured for over 40 years, conceiving some of the most famous gowns for royal women, including for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation and her wedding day, and Princess Margaret’s bridal dress in 1960. In 1977, he became a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, in recognition of his distinguished personal service to the monarch. Prudence Glenn, the then fashion editor of The Times, proclaimed Hartnell ‘The First Fashion Knight’.

Hartnell’s skill, which knew no bounds, is captured in this likely unique souvenir of Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to Paris in 1957. The work contains striking illustrations of Her Majesty’s fashion ensembles during the event, painstakingly rendered in ink and bold paints and accompanied by swatches of original fabrics and oval composites of the diverse accessories she wore.

Silver & Gold, Norman Hartnell

HARTNELL, Norman. Silver and Gold. 1955.

Norman Hartnell has received renewed global recognition for the Peau De Soie taffeta and diamanté-embellished dress worn by Princess Beatrice for her marriage to Edoardo Mopelli Mozzi this year. On loan from her grandmother, it was originally worn by Queen Elizabeth II for the film premiere of Lawrence in Arabia in London. Princess Eugenie, taking a modern and environmentally conscious approach, chose to contemporise Hartnell’s design for her wedding, adding organza puff sleeves and adjusting the hemline. The gown’s customisation was completed by two of Hartnell’s successors, designers Angela Kelly and Stewart Parvin. It is testament to his prowess that Hartnell’s work required such little adaptation – the piece has an exceptionally timeless aesthetic.

In this presentation copy of Silver & Gold, titled after his 1953 collection of over 100 gowns for guests at Elizabeth II’s coronation, Hartnell has inscribed a gift message to its recipient, Princess Mary: “To Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal. With respect, gratitude and humble best wishes at Christmastime. Norman Hartnell, Christmas 1955.” The first-edition book details the designer’s rise to the role of Dressmaker by Appointment to both Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother, and offers intimate backgrounds to the fashion choices of a number of key royal appearances.

The Hat Shop, Constance Dorothy Evelyn Peel OBE

PEEL, Constance Dorothy Evelyn. The Hat Shop. 1914. £650.00.

According to a Times editorial, Constance Dorothy Peel OBE in “her industry was astonishing, for she went down coalmines, inspected prisons, reformatories and factories, examined schools and studied diet for the young, in addition to regular journalism and four novels … In [her autobiography] Life’s Enchanted Cup … she made it clear that she worked out of necessity as well as pleasure: to provide for her two children, to support an aunt, and to save for her old age.” Peel, successful milliner, novelist, non-fiction author, autobiographer and journalist, is a rare example of a woman who was financially independent, enterprising in multiple industries and the sole provider for her family during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The unusual degree of autonomy Peel exercised is demonstrated by her decision to close her fashion business as a result of illness, as well as moral doubts about its value, and later pen her first novel, The Hat Shop, in 1914. She is an impressive historical figure. Despite her lack of childhood education and continuing health issues, she was an acclaimed writer of fiction and domestic guides, and investigative journalist focusing on social issues of the day; she later served on multiple government committees working to improve the lives of women in post-war Britain.

(DACHÉ, Lilly.) La Dépêche Directrice Andrée Vaudecrane; La note de Paris, directrice Gladys Capgras

(FASHION; DACHÉ, Lilly.) La Dépêche. 1949-50. £8,750.00.

Lilly Daché, America’s premier milliner during the 1940s, was a bold, ambitious and talented designer, and a wildly successful businesswoman. Born in Bègles, France, Daché trained as a milliner with her aunt in Bordeaux, as well as a dressmaker, and was eventually given an apprenticeship in Paris with designer Caroline Reboux, before going on to work for prestigious milliners Suzanne Talbot and Georgette. But Daché had set her sights on something bigger and, in 1924, moved to New York, where she was soon employed by a small hat shop, the Bonnet Shop, later purchasing it to start her own business. By the early ‘40s, Daché had an “elegant New York salon in which she employed 150 milliners, shops in Chicago and Miami, wholesale designs sold to more than forty stores across the country, and more than half a million dollars in business each year, selling hats priced from $35 to $500” (ANB). Quite a feat for just 15 years’ work.

Much like entrepreneurial fashion designers today, from Victoria Beckham to Rihanna, Daché recognised shifting markets and spearheaded several new ventures from the 1950s onwards: “she had completely revamped her salon and was designing, in addition to her own line of hats, dresses, accessories, jewellery, lingerie, furs, perfume, and cosmetics, plus men’s shirts and ties” (ibid.). Her commitment to an evolving enterprise is demonstrated by her continued subscription to and occasional highlighting of text in French fashion magazines, La Dépêche and La Note de Paris – collected here. Featuring the likes of Dior, Balenciaga and Balmain, as well as milliners Simone Cange and Madame Paulette, Daché’s faithful attention to these publications reflect her origins and identity as a cutting-edge French designer.

STEVENS, Charles O. & Max Sommers

 STEVENS, Charles O. & Max Sommers. Photographs of Jazz Era Window Displays for Meier & Frank’s Department Store, Portland, OR. c.1925. £200.00.

These photographs are a genuine snapshot of history, transporting you to the time they were taken; seen through the eyes of a photographer who worked nearly 100 years ago. The four well-preserved images of 1925 window displays at the glamorous Meier & Frank’s Department Store in Portland, Oregon, offer a real glimpse of jazz-era fashion as it would have appealed to North American ladies at the time. They were taken just 15 years after the store first opened – the building, designed by prolific American architect A. E. Doyle, still stands today in downtown Portland.

The photographs offer an invaluable historical reference for how flapper fashions were marketed during the Jazz Age. Two of the window displays pictured include distinctive art deco themes with Ikebana-inspired flower arrangements amongst geometric display elements. The styles include typically ‘20s drop-waist hemlines and cocktail dresses with full skirts in chiffon. One image creates a fantastic formalised setting, incorporating a large French Madame Pompadour-style fan in the background with heavy brocade swags, interspersed with large asparagus ferns in jardinières; another, identified as “Spring” on a small placard, includes an Italianate garden terrace setting with amphorae and rose-twined balusters.

This selection of items comes from our recent Fashion e-list. The list consists of a remarkable gathering of books and ephemera which trace the history and development of fashion and design from the early 19th century to the modern day.

Encompassing such topics as high street window displays, haute couture tailoring, handicrafts, the theory of weaving, costume design and wallpaper fashions, it also aims to highlight some of the crucial hidden skills behind the fashion industry, such as tracing the history of pattern-cutting, and key texts for weaving, dying, and boot-making.

This interactive catalogue has been created to be both mobile and desktop friendly, and to bring to life some of the extraordinary items from our shelves. We welcome feedback on your experience.


View Fashion e-list

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Behind the Books: An interview with Peter Harrington Bookseller Luke Basford

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Lauren Hepburn interviews Luke Basford about what the role of a rare bookseller entails.

How did you come to work for Peter Harrington? 

Purely by chance: I left university and, after two brief and depressing spells in the corporate world, saw a notice for Peter Harrington Rare Books on a job board. The idea of working in a bookshop was appealing, but I had no idea at that point that you could have a career in rare books. I applied, got the job and have been here ever since!

What does your typical day at the bookshop look like?

Typically, I’ll be familiarising myself with the collecting interests of a client, sourcing books, addressing customer queries, and working with our cataloguers to determine whether an item might complement a specific person’s collection. Once we know what books you like, we bear your interests in mind and will let you know when something comes in that you might like.

Of course, we also have an open shop so I offer guidance to general browsers, too. Our books make excellent gifts, and I often field requests from customers who are searching for the perfect present for a loved one – Christmas is an especially busy time for me!

And what might an atypical day comprise of? Any unexpected duties, surprising discoveries/interactions or eccentric experiences?

We’re based in London but attend book fairs all over the world. A few years ago, one of my colleagues fell ill just before a flight to an event in Australia and I received a phone call saying that I’d be travelling to Melbourne that day. I rushed home to pack my suit and get to the airport, and just 24 hours later I was on the other side of the world. Very surreal. 

Peter Harrington’s stand at Masterpiece Fair 2019

Has the job changed or shaped your relationship with books and reading? 

I certainly read more broadly than I used to. Our clients have a wide range of interests, which allows me to explore subjects I’ve previously been completely unfamiliar with. Recently I’ve had to sharpen up on polar exploration, printing practices of the Ottoman Empire and Pacific voyaging; biographies and bibliographies also make up a lot of my required reading. It’s exciting when a client wants to start a collection with an unusual theme and one I know nothing about.

If a customer walks in with material for valuation, or to offer for sale, how do you go about doing this for them on the spot?

We don’t offer a formal valuation service, but we’re always happy to take a look and give a rough idea as to whether it’s a treasure of great worth or something best kept for its sentimental value. Generally we speak from experience, but for more complex items we may ask customers to leave it with us for a day or two while we do some research. 

(SHACKLETON, Ernest H.) [RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY.] The Antiquities of Egypt. 1841.

What’s the most exciting or unusual item you’ve bought or sold?

I recently found one of the first books on the study of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The best thing about it? It was Ernest Shackleton’s copy, with his masonic bookplate inside. It’s brilliant when we find a book that brings several different strands together. In this case, a foundational text on the study of ancient Egypt, printed at the apex of 19th century archaeology, from the library of perhaps the greatest polar explorer of the 20th century, and containing a bookplate which reveals a lesser-known aspect of his personality.  

What item would you purchase at Peter Harrington if money was no object? 

The Nuremberg Chronicle. It’s an encyclopaedia of world history covering everything from the Creation through to 1493, when it was printed. It has the most incredible imagery: wonderful woodcuts of angels, saints, kings, popes, and mythical monsters, as well as large-scale illustrations of major cities in world history, such as Troy, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, London and Nuremberg. It’s one of the most important works printed before 1500, and certainly the most complex. Our copy is a first edition and, remarkably, retains its 15th century binding. What’s not to like? 

SCHEDEL, Hartmann. Liber chronicarum (The Nuremberg Chronicle). £87,500.00.

Are there pieces in the collection that you would particularly recommend to budding collectors?

Book collecting should be fun, and part of my job is to help clients build collections that are meaningful to them. For the aspiring collector, the best thing to do is call, email, or visit us at our shop in Mayfair. We’re delighted to discuss ideas and start a collection that is personal to you.

That being said, some titles and authors are particularly popular with collectors. Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels are perfectly set up for collecting and can be as simple or complex as you like. The later editions tend to cost between £200 and £400. 

Winston Churchill is another popular author. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples is one of his most prominent works, and looks great in its book jackets. Start with this and The Second World War and you’ll have built the foundations of your Churchill collection! Both can be found for under £1,000.

Children’s author Roald Dahl has lots of stories that are fun to collect, and copies of Matilda and The BFG retail from around £300 to £500. Similarly, the Winnie the Pooh books are very popular. Begin at the end with The House at Pooh Corner, the final book in the series and the first to feature Tigger, then work backwards from Now We Are Six to Winnie the Pooh

Luke’s recommendations for first-time collectors

#photoblocks-11 {width: 100%;} #photoblocks-11 .pb-block {border-color: #333333;} #photoblocks-11 .pb-title {color: #ffffff;font-size: 20px;} #photoblocks-11 .pb-description {color: rgba(255, 255, 255, 0.76);font-size: 14px;} #photoblocks-11 .pb-block.pb-type-text .pb-overlay {} #photoblocks-11 .pb-block.pb-type-text .pb-title, #photoblocks-11 .pb-block.pb-type-text .pb-description {} #photoblocks-11 .pb-block.pb-type-text .pb-title {} #photoblocks-11 .pb-block.pb-type-text .pb-description {} #photoblocks-11 .pb-overlay { background: transparent; } #photoblocks-11.pb-effect-sticky .pb-block.pb-type-image .pb-overlay .pb-caption-bottom {background: rgba(13, 56, 22, 0.76);} .pb-block.pb-type-image:hover, #photoblocks-11.pb-lift .pb-block.pb-type-image.with-text:hover { box-shadow: rgba(13, 56, 22, 0.76) 0 0 20px; } #photoblocks-11 .pb-block { } #photoblocks-11 .pb-block .pb-social button {color: #ffffff;font-size: 14px;} FLEMING, Ian. Thunderball. 1961. £575.00. CHURCHILL, Winston S. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. 1956-8. £450.00. CHURCHILL, Winston S. The Second World War. 1948-54. £400.00. DAHL, Roald. The BFG. 1982. £375.00. DAHL, Roald. Matilda. 1988. £500.00. MILNE, A. A. The House at Pooh Corner. 1928. £1,750.00. jQuery(function () { var p = new PhotoBlocks({ selector: "#photoblocks-11", columns: 3, padding: 10, resizer: "", image_quality: 80, disable_below: 320, imageFactor: 1.5, on: { before: function () { }, after: function () { }, refresh: function () { } }, mobile_layout: [], lazy: false, debug: false }); jQuery("#photoblocks-11").magnificPopup({ delegate: ".pb-block:not(.pb-filtered) [data-magnific]", type: "image", gallery: { enabled: true, preload: [0,2] }, image: { titleSrc: 'data-caption' }, mainClass: "mfp-11" }); });

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The Last Woman: Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic vision

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By Madeleine Joelson

In May of 1823, Mary Shelley found herself widowed and alone.  She had returned to England from Italy after the deaths of her husband Percy and their three children, as well as the dissipation of the literary coterie that had defined the second generation of Romanticism in Britain.  This period of desolation left Shelley thinking about an apocalyptic concept that had become prevalent and popular at the time: stories about the last man left on earth, his landscape and his experiences.  She wrote in her journal on May 14th: “The last man!  Yes I may well describe that solitary being’s feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me—”.  She was at work on a novel that would seek to combine her personal grief with the larger implications of a growing eschatological genre.  The Last Man (1826) is both extremely personal and ambitiously political: Shelley uses the genre not only to examine her period’s considerable political upheavals, but to reckon with her own circle’s idealism and its consequences.    

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has often overshadowed its author’s life and other works.  Two centuries of films, sequels, and spin-offs have created a vast canon set quite apart from the author’s original 1818 text; the most recognizable effect of this expansion of course is the frequent confusion between Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.  This particular idiosyncrasy of literary legacy, however, is fitting because it mirrors that of the author herself: Mary Shelley has become synonymous with her creation, Dr. Frankenstein, who has in turn become synonymous with his own. 

This is a shame, and 2020 is a fitting year to correct it.  Unfortunately for us, this year has proven Shelley’s work to be (once again) eerily prescient.  While Frankenstein is widely recognized as the first science fiction novel, Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) arguably deserves equal recognition as the first example of dystopian fiction.  Lambasted by early critics as “the product of a diseased imagination and a polluted taste,”  the novel has since been reconsidered and is of particular significance today.  It tells the story of a global society ravaged by plague: an international crisis that reveals and intensifies a set of pre-existing political conflicts. 

First edition of The Last Man by Mary Shelley, 1826.

The novel is narrated by Lionel Verney, the eponymous last man of the title, who transcribes his story after finding himself alone on the European continent.  Verney’s tale is set in England near the end of the 21st century, just after the monarchy has dissolved and England has become a republic.  The novel’s plot is largely engineered by the power vacuum that follows, and is marked by conflicts between the different political ideologies that defined Shelley’s era.  For Shelley, this political criticism is deeply biographically embedded.  Verney’s social circle consists of a series of thinly veiled portraits of Byron, Percy Shelley, and Claire Clairmont: depictions that not only allow Shelley to mourn her friends, but also to think critically about their ideals and the ideals of their cultural moment.  Shelley’s idealism, Wordsworth’s naturalism, Byron’s ego and heroism—even the progressive politics of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin—are each examined and rejected in turn.

What’s left is a novel that, like Frankenstein, fiercely but thoughtfully criticizes the extreme individualism of the Romantic period.  It is crucial to this story that the plague does not in fact kill any of Verney’s immediate circle.  Disease in The Last Man is devastating, but these characters for the most part bring about their own demise: the dissolution of Verney’s social circle stems from the cracks and fissures that already exist at its core.  In fact, the plague’s ability to decimate the human race is directly related to an act of cruelty and hubris: it is not unleashed globally until after the Byronic Lord Raymond decides to attack the city of Constantinople in an attempt to “subdue all Asia.” 

Though Shelley’s narrative does not blame Raymond directly for the epidemic, she is severely critical of his imperialistic impulses.  She also understands both the practical and cultural implications of that imperialism in aiding the spread not only of disease but of ignorance, hatred, and fear of the racial other.  As news of the disease spreads, European populations are beset by terror and disbelief, but also take comfort in the ignorant conviction that Europeans will not be able to contract the plague.  Needless to say, western Europeans are not immune to Shelley’s epidemic.  Like Raymond, they suffer for their hubris and their complacency, and the world is soon engulfed: “On no one spot on…[the whole earth’s] surface could I put my finger and say, here is safety.”

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, Portrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips, Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint, Claire Clairmont by Amelia Curran

Shelley’s novel is striking—and disturbingly prophetic—for its understanding that infectious disease is not only a physical or biological phenomenon, but a sociological one as well.  She is keenly aware of the complex political and cultural systems that affect the human experience of disease, but The Last Man often portrays a natural world that is ultimately indifferent to this humanity.  Where other, similar tales of the period portray the destruction of nature alongside man, Shelley’s landscape thrives as man is destroyed: 

Hear you not the rushing sound of the coming tempest? Do you not behold the clouds open, and destruction lurid and dire pour down on the blasted earth? See you not the thunderbolt fall, and are deafened by the shout of heaven that follows its descent? Feel you not the earth quake and open with agonizing groans, while the air is pregnant with shrieks and wailings, – all announcing the last days of man? No! none of these things accompanied our fall! The balmy air of spring, breathed from nature’s ambrosial home, invested the lovely earth, which wakened as a young mother about to lead forth in pride her beauteous offspring to meet their sire who had been long absent . . . Where was pain and evil? Not in the calm air or weltering ocean; not in the woods or fertile fields . . .

Shelley’s portrait of a world bursting into an abundant spring—a world not designed to nurture man, but indifferent to him—again resonates with the timing of our own pandemic, which sent us indoors just as “the balmy air of spring…invested the lovely earth.”  

Verney answers his question–where was pain and evil?–with a post-humanistic nihilism that has more in common with the dystopian fiction of the 20th century than with the apocalyptic genres of Shelley’s own period: “Look at man! — ha! I see plague!”  Re-reading The Last Man in the light of our own pandemic (and its positive effects on the environment) helps prove the value of dystopian fiction for imagining a different kind of world: in this case, one in which man is not its center.

Madeleine Joelson is a PhD student at Princeton University, studying 19th century literature.

The Last Man is part of our recent catalogue In Other Worlds: Fantasy, science fiction and beyond.

The post The Last Woman: Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic vision appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.