Analysis of the Historical Context of The Last Man

Of Mary Shelley’s literary works, The Last Man can be seen as the not only the most autobiographical, but also as a literary tribute and memorial to her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley , and Lord Byron amongst other members of her coterie. The Last Man is largely shaped by the events of Mary Shelley’s life, and, to a lesser extent, by some of the historical events of Europe during the 1810’s and early 1820’s.

In several ways, the death of Percy Shelley in July of 1822 can be seen as the catalyst for the composition of The Last Man. As the first major literary publication after Percy’s death, The Last Man was almost a publication of necessity from a financial standpoint given that Shelly had returned to England with the reluctant intention of supporting herself and her only living child, Percy Florence Shelley, through her literary endeavors.[1] The Last Man was also the result of Shelley’s cathartic ‘literary labors’ that were designed to alleviate the grief of the loss her husband, close friend in Lord Byron, and three of her children[2].  According to Pamela Bickley, Shelley “had already begun to think about the subject matter of The Last Man and the way in which her own intense feelings of bereavement could be fused in fictional form with the apocalyptic vision of plague”.[3]

Even though the apocalyptic was a very popular religious and didactic topos during the 1820’s,[4] the inclusion of an apocalyptic world brought about by a plague can be attributed to the role that sickness played in leaving Shelley bereft of those she loved. Ten days after her birth, Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, succumbed to a fever[5]. The death of Shelley’s three-year-old son William was brought about by a “traumatic illness”[6] as was Lord Byron’s death in 1824[7]. The inclusion of a plague as the source of the destruction of humanity was also a symbolic choice in The Last Man since “the fear of plague as the invisible, all-powerful enemy is a refutation of religious optimism and it is also an attack on the politics of the Enlightenment”[8].  This plague is also an ignoble force that defeats the developing belief in republicanism only to give rise to an anarchist state[9]. 

Several of the main characters of The Last Man were inspired by and based on members of Shelley’s inner circle. Bickley has noted that Adrian is “an idealized portrait of Percy Shelley” while Raymond is “a thinly disguised Byron”[10]. One of the factors that contributed to the inclusion of an idealized representative of Shelley’s husband was to circumvent the prohibition placed on publishing a biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Mary Shelley’s father-in-law.[11] Percy Bysshe Shelley as Adrian allowed Mary Shelley to describe Percy Bysshe Shelley to those within their circle as she saw him which granted Mary Shelley an opportunity to create a literary tribute to her recently deceased husband.

With the lightly disguised Byronic character of Raymond Shelley blends contemporary historical events with a memorial to Lord Byron whose death in Constantinople in 1824[12] clearly influenced the composition of The Last Man which can be seen with the central digression depicting Raymond’s involvement and subsequent death in Greek military campaigns.[13] Raymond’s involvement with the Grecco-Turkish war is based on the Greek War of Liberation from the Ottoman Empire which started in 1821[14]. Even though the English monarchy is abolished in favor of a republic in The Last Man, the notion of a republican “Lord Protector” has a historical president in the English Commonwealth established by Oliver Cromwell during the interregnum. However, the idea of another ruling in lieu of an actual monarch might have been influenced by the Regency of Prince of Wales who would eventually become King George IV that lasted from 1811-1820.[15]   

Despite the pseudo-biographical content of Shelley’s Elite within The Last Man, a significant contribution to the conception and overall development of the text can be attributed to Shelley’s personal life which can be seen in the inclusion of an autobiographical identification with Lionel Verney, Idris and ultimately the novel’s eponymous narrator[16]. Even though the first two decades of the 1800’s witnessed a sudden proliferation of ‘last men’ Shelley’s association with the subject can be linked to the isolation and alienation Shelley experienced throughout her life. 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”[17]. 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.[18]

Throughout her life, Shelley experienced alienation which lead to a sense of isolation that only exacerbated the anguish of losing her husband, other close friends, and all but one of her children and ultimately gave rise to Shelley’s personal feelings of being a ‘last woman’. Shelley has commented on her association with the concept of a ‘last man’ through her admission of feeling as though she was the last of her beloved race with all of those she loved dying before her.[19] However, the true extent of Shelley’s perception her entire alienated existence can only be described in her own words:

Methinks I was born to that end alone, since all events seem to lead me to that one point - & the coursers of destiny having dragged me to that single resting place, have left me. I cannot be destined to live long; A hatred of life must consume the vital principle – perfectly detached as I am from the world, I cannot long be a part of it. I feel that all is to me dead except the necessity of viewing a succession of daily suns illuminate the sepulcher of all I love.[20]


Criticism of The Last Man tends to focus on the (auto)biographical elements of the text and the perceived Anglo-centrism and imperial critiques. However, there have also been contributions that discuss the novel’s historiographical, prophetic, and temporal commentaries.  

Vaulted Over By the Present

This article is predominatley in the imperial and historical vein of criticism. One of the central concepts discussed within this article is the notion of sovereignty both in terms of who is to rule and the manner in which he or she goes about doing so. Elmer notes how Shelley uses the three subsequent Lord Protectors of Raymond, Ryland, and Adrian to provide a commentary on authority and governance. The character of each man is reflected in their style of governance: ‘the power-hungry and aristocratic Raymond becomes the romantic despot through his projective power, quests for control and the desire to impress himself on the world largely through his fatal hubris and lack of self governance. The republican arriviste Ryland instills a rule of every-man-for-himself egalitarianism creates such a governmental disunity that allows the plague to make irreversible inroads into England which ultimately leads to his removal. The saintly Adrian’s relief of Ryland instills an authoritative power to protect and care rather than imposing and change which is brought abut through pastoral retreat and isolation’.[21]

Prophetic History And Textuality In Mary Shelley's The Last Man

This article is in the historiographic vein of criticism and primarily deals with the notion of history as written by The Last Man. One of the centrals issue raised up is the notion of authorship and how that shapes recorded history. The question of authorship and authorial intent is further complicated by the dual frame narrative. The initial story is composed by Lionel Verney who openly acknowledges that his purpose for writing changes throughout the course of his narrative. There are even times when “Verney again feels the need to modify his historical method because of his now altered view of the past.”[22]  The second layer of narrative is imposed by the linguistic limitations of The Author of the “Author Introduction” and her companion in that they only ‘took from the cave those leaves “whose writing one at least of [them] could understand” with the intention of translating them.’[23] The ultimate result of this translation is admittedly corrupt by The Author who “warns that she has transformed the prophecies, arguing that “[s]cattered and unconnected as they were, [she has] been obligated to add links, and model the work into a consistent form.””[24] Aside from the complications associated with writing a history in terms of “presenting historical events with immediacy and meaningful distinctions” the history presented by the entire text additionally convoluted by the fact that “the raw materials of the historian working with the verifiable past here become the supernatural artifacts of the prophetic historian working with one possible, though as yet indefinite future.[25]

Time and the Sibyl in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

Blending historical, imperial, and cultural criticism, this article attempts to illustrate the larger significance of history as it pertains to a liner progression of recorded events and the inclusion of the Cumaean Sibyl in The Last Man. The significance of history, prophetic or otherwise, and time are used to argue that Shelley uses these devices “as a way to spark in her readers the visionary alacrity that revolutionizes the self and so forever transform a part of humankind.[26] Ruppert partially challenges the preexisting scholarship that asserts that The Last Man is a critique of empire by positing that the text creates a “potential for universal solidarity in the face of nightmarish distress” and “for as much as it reflects the sociopolitical and cultural milieu of late Romantic England, The Last Man serve principally to dramatize its authors theory of the human imagination as a legitimate source of both personal and public reformation.”[27]

Through the inclusion of the Sibyl, allows Shelley to further complicate the narrative framework by providing an entity that allows The Author “to recover the work of a person either long dead or as yet unborn” which allows Shelley to question “the deterministic, even fatalistic perspective of history as the record of absolute necessity.”[28] Shelley’s use of the Sybil also gives the text an additional layer of perceived authority that also allows Shelley the opportunity to challenge the prophetic tradition and its Romantic male biases.[29] However, the prophetic nature of the text also complicates its historical nature in that the prophecy allows The Author to perceive ‘one possible future that has been interpreted as a general delineation of human truths rather than a precise description of what possibly awaits mankind.’[30] Ultimately, The Last Man ‘renders a prophecy within a prophecy, or rather a vision of history within a vision of history that warns rather than damns, cautions rather than condemns which allows Shelley’s audience to rethink human community against the image of its discontinuation.’[31]

Literary Influences of The History of the Kings of Britain

Mary Shelley’s repeated reference to Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire throughout several texts within her literary corpus suggests that Shelly was not only familiar with history, but also how history was written and adapted by later historians. [32] As the title suggests, Gibbon’s text discusses the fall of the Roman Empire, but he also provides a larger historical context of these events by including a larger commentary on the events of Western Civilization as a whole. This narrative structure can be seen as a template of sorts for Shelley’s The Last Man in that while the text closely follows the events of a particular group of individuals, primarily due to its first person narrative, the text also provides details of the larger events taking place throughout Europe thus providing a larger historical context to situate the aforementioned details. However, the first person narration from Lionel Verney’s perspective that focuses on the events surrounding the lives of a few individuals gives the text a literary style that is akin to that of many historical chronicles. Given the widespread popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronicle, it is likely that Shelley was familiar with this text due to her readily apparent knowledge of historiography. The similarities between certain passages within The History of the Kings of Britain and The Last Man not only showcases the likelihood of Shelley’s familiarity with Geoffrey, but it also demonstrates how Shelley might have used material from her clerical counterpart as inspiration for her own fabricated narrative history.       


The “Author Introduction” within Shelley’s The Last Man and the “Dedicatory Epistle” of Geoffrey’s The History of the Kings of Britain are not true colophons that provide descriptions of the date or place of publication that are common of “Title Pages” of modern novels or manuscripts. Nevertheless, the respective ‘front pieces’ of both text provide a similar framework narrative that reveals the source material that each author is using, how they came into possession of each text and how they proceeded to translate the material into its current form.

Shelley’s anonymous author/adapter/translator of The Last Man states that while visiting Naples, she and a companion stumble across the Sibylline cave and find prophetic leaves within. She then notes that she has been “employed in deciphering these sacred remains.”[33] Due to the incomplete selection of leaves that either she, or her companion could decipher, she has also “been obliged to add links, and model the work into a consistent form. But the main substance rests on the truths contained in these poetic rhapsodies, and the divine intuition which the Cumaean damsel obtained from heaven.”[34] Geoffrey’s work, on the other hand, is the result of fulfilling Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford’s request that Geoffrey translate “a certain very ancient book in the British language.”[35]

The translation done by each author convolutes the respective narratives as a whole in that possible errors in translation that can affect and change the entire meaning of the text are potentially present. Also, the fact that these chronicles are translations also creates the adapters with a means of shifting the blame to the original author should any backlash arise from the subsequent publications. Incidentally, each author acknowledges that the manner in which the texts have been translated has potentially altered the original text. Shelley’s translator admits as much when she remarks that the current form of the leaves “owe their present form to [her], their decipherer” and that “doubtless the leaves of the Cumaean Sibyl have suffered distortion and diminution of interest and excellence in [her] hands.  Geoffrey makes a similar claim when he notes that while he “endeavored to translate into Latin as accurately as [he] possibly could” the original text that is “narrated in the most refined style” has been reproduced in Geoffrey’s “own lowly style” that does seek “to gather gilded expressions from other writers’ gardens” since this would just cause readers to “dwell more on unraveling [his] words than on understanding history itself.”[36]

The claim of finding or otherwise obtaining a particular text that is then translated is a common occurrence in literature to the point where it becomes a recognizable trope in both historical and literary works. Many others implement this literary tactic as a means of being able to discuss political or religious issues that are highly controversial. Shelley is dealing with the political and ideological repercussions of being the progeny of two very radical authors in William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, whereas Geoffrey is skirting around the political unrest caused by the joint claim of succession to the throne of England by Stephan I and his cousin Empress Matilda following the death of Henry I in 1135. Although temporally, spatially and culturally (to a noticeably lesser extent) different, both The Last Man and The history of the Kings of Britain are didactic texts that herald similar warnings of the failings of humanity, the impending doom of the fall of civilization, and the dangers of civil, or revolutionary, wars.  

Belinus and Brennius

One of the perpetual themes of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain that Mary Shelley’s The Last Man picks up on is the constant cycle of harmony—civil war—reconciliation—prosperity—civil war etc… Granted, this theme is common to history in a whole in that this is the basic template that all empires and nation states go through. However, both Geoffrey and Shelly use examples of this cyclical progression to illustrate how this theme can also apply to individual men and not just the nations or empires that they rule.

One of the earlier episodes that Geoffrey describes is the story of Belinus and Brennius who are the sons of king Dunwallo that  “were plagued with the greatest strife, for both of them desired to inherit the realm and they quarreled over which of the should be honored with the crown”.[37] A pact dividing Britain between the two was brokered between the brothers that was eventually broken when Brennius, the younger of the two, acted against the wished of his brother by accepting the ill-advised sycophantic council of his sycophants. After several years of fighting amongst themselves, the brothers were again united. Belinus and Brennius proceeded to launch a joint campaign to subdue Gaul before marching on Rome. After Rome fell, Belinus “returned to Britain and lived out the rest of his days in his homeland in great tranquility” while Brennius remained in Italy and ruled the people there.”[38]

Shelley recreates this narrative in two separate parts between three separate people. Initially the two fraternal figures whose peace is broken by others is most closely seen in Lionel Verney and Adrian whose families were very close until the gambling habits of Lionel’s father lead to his exile. Verney’s wish was for his children to be fostered by Adrian’s family which never came to pass by means of a letter that was never delivered. As a result of this miscommunication and its ensuing impact on Lionel and his sister, Lionel grows up hating Adrian’s family and conflict ensues between the two until Adrian is able to pacify and befriend his counterpart. From here, Shelly continues to use Adrian as a stand in for Belinus but replaces Lionel with Lord Raymond as the representative for Brennius. Raymond becomes Lord Protector of Britain, which for all intents and purposes, is essentially the same as the ‘elected king’ of Britain. Raymond proceeds to rule the British Empire with the aid of Adrian until Raymond decides to abandon his post by retuning to fight for the Greeks in their war of independence from Turkey where he is treated as a king by the Greeks who adore him for his military exploits.

In this set of actions, Shelly mimics Geoffrey’s model to a large extent in that the two brothers are able to rule their own kingdoms independently of one another. However, Shelley divides the ensuing ‘joint’ kingdoms after the period of joint unification by having Raymond abandon his lord protectorship to claim his own domain by means of a conquest conducted independently of his ‘brother’. One of the contributing factors to Shelley’s deviation is to accentuate how the dangers of ambition can destroy an alliance just as quickly as it can forge one, even within one family.   


Shelley and Geoffrey both use the military exploits of arguably the most ambitious men in their respective texts to demonstrate how the ambition of a single man can create and destroy an empire and some men manage to accomplish both within their lifetime. For Geoffrey, a man of this type of constructive and destructive ambition is Maximianus while Lord Raymond provides the counterpart for Shelley’s narrative.

According to Geoffrey, Maximianus (a displaced member of the Roman Triumverate composed of himself, and the two brother Emperors Gratianus and Valentinian) comes to power by marrying the daughter of King Octavious. The Britons (with the exception of Conan Meridoc) approved of this match since Maximianus is “a Roman by birth but also descends from the royal line of the Britons.”[39] Conan Meridoc believes that the crown should pass to him since he is Octavious’ newphew and unsuccessfully challenges Maximianus for the crown. Shelley recreates this series of events through the unexpected and successful appearance of the interloping Lord Raymond who not only obtains the Lord Protectorship of Britain, but also marries the daughter of the last British king. It is also to be noted the both Raymond and Maximianus were required to defeat their respective opponents for their titles, but Raymond’s was a political victory whereas Maximianus’ was achieved militarily.

Once their positions of power have been secured, Raymond and Maximanius rule peacefully before growing restless and chose to expand their empires through military conquest. Maximanius takes his army and marches on Rome while subjugating Gaul in the process for the glory of Britain. During the expansion of his domain over continental Europe, Maximanius is assassinated by supporters of Gratianus who had been driven from power. Raymond takes a more selfish approach to his imperial ambitions in that he forgoes his duties as Lord Protector to reassume his former position as a general in the Greek army seeking personal glory which leavs Britain without a clear ruler, or effective government. Maximanius pays for his hubristic ambition by overextending himself and leaving himself vulnerable to forgotten enemies whereas Raymond achieves a hollow victory in capturing Constantinople after it had been ravaged by plague only to die under the wreckage of a burning building.

Despite the slight variation of this narrative between Geoffrey’s and Shelley’s works, the lesson regarding ambition remains the same. While ambition can create empires as seen in Maximanius, or leave them open to destruction as evidenced by Raymond, it should not be pursued at the expense of the safety or security of a country or its subjects. Once each man dies (or is removed from a position where he can rule effectively) Britain falls into chaos as it tries to fill the power vacuum that is left in the aftermath of these vain, ambitious men.    


In both narratives, Britain is plagued by ineffective rulers who come to power after Maximanius is murdered, and Raymond falls in Constantinople. Raymond is succeeded by Ryland who seems to enjoy being Lord Protector for the authority and status that it gives him as opposed to any desire to better his country or provide for his countrymen. Ryland’s passivity regarding rule allows the plague that has been sweeping across Europe to ravage England. Ryland’s sense of self preservation is so great that he renounces his protectorship and its duties when faced with the prospect of dealing with the plague.[40] Although he does not come directly to power after Maximanius dies, Vortigern manages to obtain the British throne by exploiting Manimanius’ young and naive successors. Like Ryland, Vortigern is dealing with a plague that is exacerbated by the power vacuum cause the death of a strong ruler but Vortigern’s plight is that of invading barbarians as opposed to a pandemic pestilence.

Vortigern elects to deal with the invading barbarians by inviting the Saxons under Hengest and Horsa to settle in Britain under the condition that the Saxons fight for the British. Vortigern’s plan initially succeeds until more Saxons arrive wanting land and which causes strife between the native Britons and the already present Saxons. The Saxons state a coup and take control over the island while driving Vortigern out of power. Vortigern is eventually killed by being burned alive in one of his strongholds during a siege and it is to be noted that Ryland suffers a similar ignoble end in that his corpse is discovered “half-devoured by insects, in a house many miles from any other, with piles of food laid up in useless superfluity.”[41]

The ineffectual rule of Vortigern and Ryland are primarily used as a didactic form of juxtaposition that provides a point of comparison that highlights ineffective, rule that is largely egalitarian and not beneficial to the long-term preservation of an empire. The many failures of these men are used to point out the administrative dangers of apathetic passivity. Vortigern and Ryland’s shortcomings are highly emphasized so that the great men who follow them can stand a little bit taller.

Aurelius Ambrosius

The ever self-serving Ryland and Vortigern are succeeded by Adrian and Aurelius Ambrosius respectively. Not only do Adrian and Aurelius rule for their subjects but these men both represent a reestablishment of the British royal family to the throne. Adrian is the only son of England’s last king before the country became a republic while Aurelius is the eldest living son of the last British King who ruled before Vortigern usurped by throne by assassinating Ambrosius’ older brother. By placing men on the throne who not only belong there either by the Devine providence or grace, but rule with every princely virtue and actually care about their subjects, Geoffrey and Shelley are creating a commentary on what it is to be a monarch in terms of how one should act, and how a country can prosper under the right authority.

Once he comes to the Lord Protectorship and manages to subdue the plague to a small degree, Adrian preserves order which allows each one to continue “to live according to law and custom—human institutions thus surviving as it were divine ones, and while the decree of population was abrogated, property continued sacred.”[42] This style of governorship amongst calamity is also embodied by Aurelius who, while “Bemoaning the fall of [London] Aurelius summoned its scattered citizens and undertook its restoration. At the same time he also he began to set his realm in order, reviving the neglected laws and restoring men to their ancestral possessions.”[43]  

The selflessness of the rule of these men is made acutely prominent in that both men come to untimely ends that are beyond their control. Aurelius is poisoned by a Saxon thus reemphasizing the precarious existence of those in power while Adrian drowns in a shipwreck while trying to cross the Adriatic Sea reroute to Greece in search of a more hospital climate.  


[1] Bickley viii.

[2] Bickley viii.

[3] viii.

[4] Bickley xx.

[5] Bickley ix.

[6] Bickley ix.


[8] Bickley xxi.

[9] Bickley xxi.

[10] vii.

[11] Wolfson xviii.

[12] Wolfson xxx.

[13] Bickley xvii.

[14] Wolfson xxx.

[15] Wolfson xxvi, xxix.

[16] Bickley xii.

[17] Bickley ix.

[18] MWSL I p. 252 qtd in Bickley ix.

[19] MWSJ p 476-7 qtd in Bickley xii.

[20] MWSJ p 432-4 qtd in Bickley xii.

[21] Elmer 357-358.

[22] O’Dea 299.

[23] O’Dea 290.

[24] O’Dea 291.

[25] O’Dea 285, 292

[26] Ruppert 141.

[27] Ruppert 142.

[28] Ruppert 144, 145.

[29] Ruppert 146.

[30] Ruppert 148.

[31] Ruppert 149.

[32] This text is either mentioned by name or alluded to in Frankenstein and "Valerius: The Reanimated Roman" while its basic narrative structure can be seen as a type of blueprint for chronicling the history of The Last Man.

[33] The Last Man, 3.

[34] The Last Man, 4.

[35] History of the Kings of Britain, 41.  

[36] History 271, 41.

[37] History, 71.

[38] History, 76.

[39] History, 107.

[40] The Last Man 193-195.

[41] History, 119-145.; The Last Man 154.

[42] The Last Man 242.

[43] History 149-50.

Selected and Further Readings

Bickley, Pamela. “Introduction”. The Last Man. By Mary Shelley. Ware, Hertfordshire UK:

            Wordsworth Editions, 2004. vii-xxviii. Print.

Elmer, Jonathan. “’Vaulted Over By the Present’: Melancholy and Sovereignty in Mary

Shelley’s The Last Man.” Novel: A Forum On Fiction 42.2 (2009): 355-359. Print.

Faletra, Michael A. “Introduction” to The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of

Monmouth, 8-34. Translated and edited by Michael A. Faletra. Broadview, 2008.

The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-44. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert Bennett

            Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.Print

The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett.Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins

UP, 1988.Print

O'Dea, Gregory. "Prophetic History And Textuality In Mary Shelley's The Last Man."

Papers 'On Language And Literature: A Journal For Scholars And Critics Of Language

And 'Literature 28.3 (1992): 283-304. Print.  

Rupert, Timothy. "Time and the Sibyl in Mary Shelley's The Last Man". Studies in the Novel

            41.2 (2009): 141-156. Print.

Shelley, Mary. The Last Man.Ware, Hertfordshire UK:Wordsworth Editions, 2004. Print.

Wolfson, Susan J.. “Table of Dates”. Frankenstein. By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. New York

NY: Longman, 2007. xxiii-xxxii. Print.

.The Last Man (1826)