Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Reading Group 18 May 2009 - The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Our final session of the 2008-2009 schedule was held at the Thedden Grange, home of Sheila, one of the group members. We thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful lunch prepared for us all and the house was so beautiful some of us wanted to move in! Thedden Grange has Austen/Knight/Lefroy family connections and made a more than appropriate setting for our discussion of this month's book, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, which though set in 2073 is a Romantic novel with an apocalyptic vision strikingly like a John Martin painting.

The future visions of Shelley imagine Britain as a republic with a benign protector voted in for 3 years, and after a brutal war between Greece and the Turkish Empire there is a brief period of peace and progress in a democratic Europe; winged flying machines are also imagined, where hot air balloons have mechanised feathered wings to increase their speed. Notably there is no use of steam power's applications at the time Shelley is writing - her Utopia is one of education; reading, writing, discussion and moral imperatives. The Industrial Revolution' s dirt and danger has no part in Shelley's London with its new museum celebrating the achievements of humankind, or the idyl of Verney's life in Windsor. The world Shelley creates is destroyed by pestilence, an indiscrimate destructive force that sweeps away not only those that Verney loves, but all of humanity leaving him alone, the last man.

What Shelley does supremely well is to display a perceptive understanding of human nature and human relationships. At the age of 26 she creates characters whose lives, experiences, thoughts and actions demonstrate considerable experience and understanding of human desires, and the consequences of peoples' choices. In her letters at the time of writing the novel she expresses her own feelings of desolation at losing nearly everyone she has loved - bereft, alone like Verney. She writes of love and loss, betrayal and forgiveness, of noble ambitions and the waste of war. Humanity can apply itself to overcome the problems it creates for itself but it is defeated by inexplicable events like Shelley's epidemic, or the real events of the volcanic explosions of Krakatoa (1883), or Mount Tambora (1816) which inspired Byron's poem 'Darkness'. In The Last Man some of the characters are defeated, like people in Shelley's own life, by despair and take their own lives. Verney is unable to do this and continues on his own,' A solitary being is by instinct a wanderer', hoping that each new place will ameliorate his condition. Verney, like other survivors in Shelley's writing voyages off in a boat at the end and we have the image of a solitary figure sailing away to an unknown fate.

The Last Man is a novel which has transparently autobiographical influences, in particular Adrian who is clearly a portrait of Percy Pyssche Shelley, and Raymond of Byron. The author creates a sympathetic character in Raymond, good, kind and brave, but human and able to behave badly. He is, however, not morally corrupt and in her grief over Byron's death Shelley creates a friend's portrait of Byron that is very much at odds with his public persona.

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