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.

William Bligh’s “Narrative of the Mutiny”

Sometimes I think we hardly need fiction. It’s not just that truth is stranger—it’s also just as dramatic and just as fascinating. I’m very fond in general of reading fiction presented in the form of some other document—diary entries, letters, statements, legal records of all sorts, fiction within fiction, etc.—and when I read nonfiction put together in the same way I’m always surprised at how it seems just as ingeniously constructed as the novels.

The Bounty MutinyThe story of the Essex was exciting with its somewhat conflicting journal entries and long lost manuscripts, not to mention the high drama of the events themselves. But in terms of historical documents, The Bounty Mutiny‘s were more numerous, more varied, and more nasty.

The first document, though, is mostly remarkable for its similarity to Owen Chase’s account of the wreck of the Essex. Or rather the other way around, since the Bounty mutiny took place in 1789.

Captain Bligh begins his story with the mutiny itself. Since we have no knowledge of what preceded it, it is as inexplicable as the actions of the whale that destroys the Essex. Bligh professes complete surprise at his treatment and very quickly we are all in the launch with him and his few remaining comrades. The narrative of the journey in the launch is very like Chase’s: in the form of a ship’s log, without much going on except weather, rationing, and the setting in of weakness and possibly death.

Bligh’s men don’t seem nearly as hardy as Chase’s, though. The crew of the Essex are out and about for 90 days; Bligh makes it to Timor in something like half that time, and his men are significantly luckier in terms of both food and water supplies. Of course, it is still a harrowing trip, in the open ocean just a few inches above the water in a launch, and Bligh’s men faced other challenges. The seas were much less charted at that point, and the islands they encountered were all inhabited by unfriendly natives.

Bligh is just as obsessed by rationing as Owen Chase; it’s amazing the way these men do take responsibility for the lives of their fellows. Bligh is a little more melodramatic, though. He has some wine, to be used for medicinal purposes, and when he doles some out explains that he had saved it “expecting such a melancholy occasion.” No more than one page later is he giving the next dose of wine, which he “had saved for this dreadful stage.” At least when the boatswain tells Bligh he looks worse than anyone else in the launch “the simplicity with which he uttered such an opinion diverted me, and I had good humour enough to return him a better compliment.”

Even in such dire straits Bligh sits around charting the coast of Australia and noting the locations where a ship might pass through the Great Barrier Reef. The Bounty had been on a scientific mission, to pick up breadfruit from Tahiti* and transport it to the West Indies, and though he continually despairs at the failure of his mission the captain makes every effort to use his desperate trip to Timor as a voyage of exploration. Flora and fauna are noted, of course, and the presence and appearance of the natives (“naked, and apparently black, and their hair or wool bushy and short”). And the way they play the child’s game “Who Shall Have This?” to divide up all their caught food is darkly comic.

I’d rather be in Bligh’s boat than Chase’s. He does lose a man to some un-Friendly Islanders, but no one gets eaten, and they make it to Timor pretty much intact to enjoy the hospitality of the Dutch. Little did the mutineers expect the troupe to make it home. They only appear in Bligh’s account for a few pages, but after his tale ends they are found and brought to justice. Which is where the nastiness will begin…

*The appendix to this Penguin edition includes several descriptions of breadfruit, which have no bearing whatever on the story of the Bounty but which I’m quite glad to have read. Did you know that “it is as big as a penny-loaf when wheat is at five shillings the bushel”?

Why is all in Frankenstein amiss?

One thing I noted throughout my reading of Frankenstein was the difficulty of assigning blame. Yes, Victor created the monster, and then abandoned him, but the monster is not exactly an angel. We have the monster’s account of why he went bad: because he was isolated and alone, and had been rejected by humanity even when he only wished to do good. But this is only the monster’s account, and besides, even if he is isolated, he not only strangled a little boy but then purposely framed a young woman for the murder. The monster’s framing of Justine, in fact, was very troubling for me. At that point I was feeling very sympathetic with him and was ready to condemn Victor outright. But to slip the picture into Justine’s pocket? That was malicious, and almost seemed out of character for the monster—according to his own account of himself, that is.

How guilty is Victor? He does blame himself, at least on some level, and condemns ambition.

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no allow can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.

Victor is certainly guilty of violating this precept, but is it one we believe? Even Victor is not convinced, as Lawrence Lipking points out in his essay “Frankenstein, the True Story; or, Rousseau Judges Jean-Jacques,” when he says on his death bed:

Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.

I am not ready to condemn all ambition myself, and while I fault Frankenstein for many things I could not completely exculpate the monster. So I was relieved to find Lipking’s essay, after a sea of feminist and postcolonial criticism, admit that while Frankenstein has been interpreted to mean many, many things (it is a book where “students can be instructed in the infinite varieties of criticism and fledgling critics can cut their teeth on amazing new readings”), these many readings still form a consensus. The real consensus here is not for but against certain readings.

During the past few years, I have heard lectures on Frankenstein by several of the leading Romanticists of our time, whose approaches could hardly have been further apart. Yet when they referred to the novel, what they did and did not talk about proved to be remarkably similar. Here are a few examples, freely adapted from their general drift as well as that of other critics. Item: Frankenstein is the degenerate offspring of a dysfunctional family; Not Worth Mentioning: every character in the book loves and admires him. Item: Walton and Frankenstein are unreliable narrators; Not Worth Mentioning: the Creature is an unreliable narrator [yes!] (his narrative appears only within Walton’s account of Frankenstein’s account). Item: it is impossible to believe Frankenstein’s story of how he discovered the secret; Not Worth Mentioning: it is impossible to believe the Creature’s story of how he acquired language…. Etc., etc.

So while many contemporary readings are possible, a few are disallowed, based on the almost-universal tendency among critics today to view the monster unequivocally as a victim. But Lipking’s students, as well as the students of the other critics (according to the critics themselves), are as torn as I was about assigning blame to one or the other character. Apparently “ordinary readers…accept frustration, or keep on changing their minds.” Which was pretty much my experience. Lipking thinks this wise, as the basic questions raised by the novel “never receive a satisfactory answer or, rather, receive strong answers that directly contradict one another.” He traces this self-contradiction ultimately to Rousseau (well, ultimately to the world, but, you know).

Rousseau may be the expert on “what is Life?” but his final answer usually comes round to a version of “why is all here amiss?” Frankenstein ends on the same hanging note. It shows us that everything has gone wrong, and leaves us to search for reasons.

That is where it left me. That is probably why I enjoyed it so much; it pushes and pulls you and then just leaves you with everything amiss.

Frankenstein—contemporary reception

I’m surprised by the degree to which at least some (but let us hope Norton has chosen representative samples) contemporary critics missed so much of Frankenstein. All admire the descriptions of scenery, of course. Of course. But they are significantly more disturbed by the concept of the monster than I would have guessed, and often blind to any kind of moral. John Croker, for example, wrote in the Quarterly Review in January 1818:

But when we have thus admitted that Frankenstein has passages which appal the mind and make the flesh creep, we have given it all the praise (if praise it can be called) which we dare to bestow. Our taste and our judgment alike revolt at this kind of writing, and the greater the ability with which it may be executed the worse it is—it inculcates no lesson of conduct, manners, or morality; it cannot mend, and will not even amuse its readers, unless their taste have been deplorably vitiated—it fatigues the feelings without interesting the understanding; it gratuitously harasses the heart, and wantonly adds to the store, already too great, of painful sensations. The author has powers, both of conception and language, which employed in a happier direction might, perhaps, (we speak dubiously,) give him a name among those whose writings amuse or amend their fellow-creatures; but we take the liberty of assuring him, and hope that he may be in a temper to listen to us, that the style which he has adopted in the present publication merely tends to defeat his own purpose, if he really had any other object in view than that of leaving the wearied reader, after a struggle between laughter and loathing, in doubt whether the head or the heart of the author be the most diseased.

If I hadn’t just read Croker’s long exposition of the entire plot of the novel, I’d be wondering if we had read the same book. Particularly his statement that “the author, notwithstanding the rationality of his preface, often leaves us in doubt whether he is not as mad as his hero.” Really? An anonymous critic in Edinburgh Magazine is similarly scolding a couple months later:

It is one of those works, however, which, when we have read, we do not well see why it should have been written;—for a jeu d’esprit it is somewhat too long, grave, and laborious,—and some of our highest and most reverential feelings receive a shock from the conception on which it turns, so as to produce a painful and bewildered state of mind while we peruse it. We are accustomed, happily, to look upon the creation of a living and intelligent being as a work that is fitted only to inspire a religious emotion, and there is an impropriety, to say no worse, in placing it in any other light. It might, indeed, be the author’s view to shew that the powers of man have been wisely limited, and that misery would follow their extension,—but still the expression “Creator,” applied to a mere human being, gives us the same sort of shock with the phrase, “the Man Almighty,” and others of the same kind, in Mr Southey’s “Curse of Kehama.”

I honestly never would have guessed that the “incongruity…with our established and most sacred notions” would have caused such a problem for contemporary readers. The guy…created…a monster…. And it did not turn out well.

In any event, I much prefer the opinions of another anonymous reader, this time a fan, taking a second look at Frankenstein after being sorely disappointed by Valperga, in Knight’s Quarterly in 1824. Even he finds it a little messy—fair enough, I think.

Frankenstein is, I think, the best instance of natural passions applied to supernatural events that I ever met with. Grant that it is possible for one man to create another, and the rest is perfectly natural and in course. I do not allude to the incidents, for they are thrown together with a haste and carelessness so apparent as to be almost confessed; but the sentiments—both of thought and passion—are given with a truth which is equal to their extraordinary vigour.

I believe this is why, as I noted in my comment on the earlier post, the unsatisfying plot points didn’t ruin my suspension of disbelief. Clearly on the plot we have to be willing to go farther than normal, considering it involves animating a monster and all, but I agree with my anonymous friend, the sentiments are right. (Except the wedding night thing. That is still sort of impossibly stupid.)

My friend really likes the monster, too, which seems extremely unusual among his contemporaries.

For my own part, I confess that my interest in the book is entirely on the side of the monster. His eloquence and persuasion, of which Frankenstein complains, are so because they are truth. The justice is indisputably on his side, and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree. Are there any sufferings, indeed, so severe as those which arise from the sensation of dereliction, or, (as in this case) of isolation? Even the slightest tinge of those feelings, arising as they often do from trivial circumstances, as from passing a solitary evening in a lone and distant situation—even these, are bitter to a severe degree. What it must be, then,—what is it to feel oneself alone in the world!

Of course, we are all alone in the world. But I digress! My friend continues to make a statement that I find somewhat theologically interesting: “Frankenstein ought to have reflected on the means of giving happiness to the being of his creation, before he did create him. Instead of that, he heaps on him all sorts of abuse and contumely for his ugliness, which was directly his work, and for his crimes to which his neglect gave rise.” I believe my friend may have been out of touch with his day. He doesn’t even mention the beautiful scenery!

Frankenstein—initial thoughts

I often find myself feeling guilty that so many of the reviews I post in this blog, especially for more contemporary works, are middling-to-negative. But then I read something like Frankenstein and can only say, well, what do you expect?

Mary Shelley has done wonders with framing stories here, so that gets big points from me. Four matryoshka dolls: Walton, telling his story to his sister, meets Frankenstein, who relates his story, in which he learns the fate of the daemon, who passes on the tale of the de Laceys, partly as a proof of his own history—and later this proof from the de Laceys makes one of the core proofs that win over Walton.

I’m also thinking about mutability. Shelley quotes part of her future husband’s poem on the subject toward the beginning of the novel; Frankenstein makes several explicit and implicit references to the mutability of human passions and emotion; and yet when Frankenstein is practically on his death bed he exhorts:

“Oh! be men, or be more than men. Be steady to your purposes, and firm as a rock. This ice is not made of such stuff as your hearts might be; it is mutable, cannot withstand you, if you say that it shall not.”

Of course, the men, won over by this speech at first, quickly change their minds back again.

I went into this my first ever reading of the novel also not having seen any film adaptations. But I had vague ideas of the public consciousness of the story, and the notion that much of that consciousness was mistaken. Still, I was greatly surprised by a few things: the very early point of the novel at which the daemon is created; the speed/ease with which the daemon is created; and the amount of time spent in such extremely picturesque and quite sunny locales. I was also surprised by how explicit is the connection throughout to “Paradise Lost.”

I’ve mentioned I think people find Wuthering Heights not to their liking because they are expecting something very different; I imagine the same happens with Frankenstein. Judging by the negative Amazon reviews I am right. Many are of the “this was not scary” variety, many more indicate the reader just doesn’t care for Romanticism. Of course the most common complaint is of boringness, which seems strange to me considering how short the work is.