Is There Such a Thing as a Romantic Dystopic Novel?


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Well, Mary Shelley proves that there can be one. At least, that is how The Last Man is turning out to be. 

If you are familiar with the dystopian genre, then The Last Man will be shocking. There is no tyrannical society at work, although there are certainly some very tyrannical people. In fact, the novel reads more like an Ann Radcliffe novel like Mysteries of Udolpho than it does either 1984 or Brave New World

I’m not halfway through this book yet, so I can’t speak to everything, but I’ve read enough to give you an overview of what to expect. It’s definitely not your typical 20th-century era dystopia. 

Social mobility in a dystopic novel? What is this?

I’m currently in Chapter 8 of Volume I and the whole thing hitherto has read more like a soap opera than a dystopic novel. There’s more social mobility than one would expect. The two main characters: Lionel Verney and his sister Perdita Verney marry into the highest social circles even though neither of them has any fortune and their father disgraced the family name. 

Yet no one thinks twice about the richest man in England marrying Perdita and Lionel marries a princess. 

The narrator is Lionel Verney. His father was close friends with the King of England at the opening of the novel, but had to leave in disgrace because of his debts. Lionel and Perdita live in Cumberland where Lionel helps tend sheep and tried to raise Perdita as best he can. The entire story revolves around what happens when Adrian, the King’s son, seeks the two out and they become friends. 

By the time Adrian does so, England becomes a Protectorate—not a monarchy and Adrian is perfectly content to live a private life on his estate in Windsor. 

Where’s the restrictive government?

There’s no President Snow, Big Brother, or committee that controls everyone’s life–so far. England is still England and there’s still a Parliament. The only restrictions are the ones within the characters themselves. 

Adrian, for instance, is good and wise, but far too sensitive and nature-loving to rule effectively. He’s content to remain a minor noble in the countryside and not seek anything but the simple pleasures of home and nature. He falls in love disastrously with a woman who doesn’t love him back and it nearly destroys his health. 

In fact, most of the chapters so far have been a whiplash of love affairs which, if you’re not ready for it, can be a little hard to get around. 

So, there’s no arch-villain so far and everyone is pining over everyone else. Mostly, it’s a happy novel, except for the romantic drama. 

A slower read, but not an unpleasant one. So far…

As of right now, if you don’t particularly like the dystopic novel, this may be more palatable for you. Mary Shelley is a highly gifted writer, and the prose is very engaging, if heavy on the narrative. But, she wrote this in 1826, and the writing style back then was more narrative. Today, we write novels with the idea of them being turned into films. 

Mary Shelley didn’t have to worry about that. Although apparently, The Last Man wasn’t well-received upon publication.

When does it become dystopic?

Well, I’ll have to let you know about that one! I have a feeling I know what direction it’s headed and if so, then Mary Shelley really is one of the most underrated writers of all time. 

I will make at least one suggestion before you dive in. First, make sure you go to Sweet Sequals for a hard copy. There is, of course, a digital copy on Project Gutenberg, if you prefer. Second, brush up on your Greek and Roman mythology and writers. You will need it! 

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