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Customer Review

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A vision of the future?, 14 May 2011
This review is from: The Last Man (Wordsworth Classics) (Paperback)
A post-apocalyptic science-fantasy (written in 1826), "The Last Man" is Shelley's howl of rage at all the deaths she had witnessed; a revenge fantasy on the straight world that she had seen take from her, in the space of 6 or 7 years, almost every single person for whom she cared - her sister, husband, three of their four children; Byron, Claire Claremont's daughter, etc. Even before she came to write this novel, the author was picturing herself in her journals as the last man standing, "last relic of a beloved race". Now in `The Last Man,' she beheads both Enlightenment optimism and traditional Christian promise and hope, in its picture of a devastating plague that can extinguish the entire human race. The narrator, a typically Rousseau-ean hero (was that actually a word?) and Adrian, based on Percy Shelley, seem at first epitomes of Romantic Man, destined to triumph over all. Adrian even addresses a company - in Windsor Castle, of all places! - in stirring Churchillean "fight them on the beaches" terms. But still it is in vain; even England succumbs.

The SF elements - the book is set in the 2080s - seem curiously conservative to a modern reader. This is an entirely pre-Industrial Revolution landscape; a world of servants, carriages and post-chaises. People hop dashingly into a hot-air balloon to travel long-distance, but that still means three days from London to Scotland; six days to cross Europe. Mary Shelley has the wit to imagine an end to monarchy; but unlike France in her own day, in Great Britain it has simply withered away. The aristocratic party remains strong in parliament, and scheme to get `their man' - the last scion of the House of Windsor - elected Lord Protector. And there is an interesting echo of her mother's political sensitivities at times; her obvious distaste for Methodism in Volume III has an air of old-Tory Anglicanism to it. Some might argue this would have been for the benefit of her readership - since Shelley at this point was writing to survive and keep her only remaining child - but I would argue that she was independent-minded enough for me to suspect that this was more her own beliefs coming through. She and her mother were both some little way to the right of where their husbands painted them to be.

The single problem with this book is essentially the three-decker format that popular novels of the day were required to fit. Volume I is thus bloated and in places boring; it is only the reader who perseveres through to Volumes II and III who gets the good stuff. I'll leave the last words to her narrator, Verney (his own name, I think, an echo of Volney, author of `The Ruins'): "...my human mind cannot acknowledge that all that is, is right; yet since what is, must be, I will sit amidst the ruins and smile."
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