Mathilda by Mary Shelley

Mathilda is quite the little book. Written by Mary Shelley a year after Frankenstein, it was never published in her lifetime. And while the father-daughter incest element isn’t exactly explicit, it’s certainly subversive and pretty wild.

The novella opens similarly to The Lifted Veil: the narrator, assuring us that she is close to death, sets out to write her true life story, declaring it the first time she has told her horrible secret to anyone. In this case, she does have a particular friend she wishes to tell her tale to, but chooses not to address the whole thing directly to him as a letter but rather put it down in the form of a story readable by all.

Her terrible story is, in short, that her father fell in love with her. Mathilda’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, distraught at the loss of his childhood sweetheart, left her in the care of an aunt and disappeared to far-flung lands. He reappeared when Mathilda was a teenager, and they enjoyed a few happy months together—until he began to see her as a sexual being, and as a replacement for her mother. After months of self-torment (which also torment Mathilda, who is very attached to her long-lost father), he declares himself and then leaves. In despair at her father’s suicide on her account, Mathilda shuts herself away from the world and lives alone in a cottage on a heath.

If the story itself wasn’t Romantic enough for you, the full novella surely will be. Shelley almost seems to parody herself, the passion is laid on so thick. And the atmosphere. And the swooning. It’s sort of amazing really. When Mathilda lives with her aunt, for example, they live in Scotland—already a sign—on a loch, no less. And this is how she arrives to her first meeting with her father:

…I found myself close to the lake near a cove where a little skiff was moored—It was not far from our house and I saw my father and aunt walking on the lawn. I jumped into the boat, and well accustomed to such feats, I pushed it from the shore, and exerted all my strength to row swiftly across. As I came, dressed in white, covered only by my tartan rachan, my hair streaming on my shoulders, and shooting across with greater speed than it could be supposed I could give to my boat, my father has often told me that I looked more like a spirit than a human maid.

I have a taste, or at least a very soft spot, for this kind of thing, and I while Mathilda is certainly weaker than Frankenstein (which is weak in many of its own ways), it’s also a very good example from the period and almost a crash-course in Romantic conventions. And I find it impressive, also, for Shelley to have written such a tale, even if the worst thing that does happen is a father saying “I love you” to his daughter.

5 comments to Mathilda by Mary Shelley

  • So it sounds like the purple-ish cover is pretty fitting, then.

    I have a bit of a “hard spot” for high Romanticism, so this is probably not one I’ll be rushing out to buy. Nonetheless, it sounds like kind of a fascinating artifact.

  • Haha, I like your “hard spot,” I may have to steal that. It’s definitely a fascinating artifact, and the cover is the exact right color. Creepily, there was quite a storm here as I was reading it and the sky was the exact same hue for a while.

  • I typically don’t have any patience for swooning dramas, but I really loved Shelley’s writing in Mathilda. It seemed like more character driven than drama driven, which made a huge difference for me. It made me genuinely interested in Frankenstein (for the first time)–I’m not really into horror, but insightful prose can conquer that!

  • Fingers & Prose—Yes, I checked out your post on this one as well, and my guess is that if you liked it this much you will probably like Frankenstein too. It might not be what you expected.

  • Certainly ther’s something Subversive in Mary Shelley, maybe a subtler manifestion of that which was Revolutionary in her husband. See, for example, the preface of the dramatic poem ‘Hellas’.