20 classics #14: Mathilda by Mary Shelley

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

Frankenstein is one of my all-time favourite books, and yet I’ve never read anything else by Mary Shelley. I was also intrigued by the fact that Mathilda wasn’t published in Shelley’s lifetime due to the book’s ‘shocking’ theme. (OK, it’s not really a classic, but I seem to be reading ‘lost’ classics too.)

When was it published?

It was completed in 1820, edited and published by Elizabeth Nitchie in 1959, and published as a stand-alone volume by Melville House in 2008 (the formatting is lovely, you can buy it here).There are also free ebook copies all over the net, including here.

What’s it about?

Mathilda’s mother dies in childbirth and her father is driven into a deep despair. He goes off to the continent leaving Mathilda with her inexpressive aunt, who lives on Loch Lomond (yay, Scotland!). He returns when she is sixteen and after a couple of blissfully happy months he becomes tormented. Mathilda can’t stand that her father is unhappy, and she worries that she may be the cause. When she confronts him about his misery he finally confesses to his unnatural, sinful passions…

Tell us more about the author.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of the feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, and the political philosopher William Godwin. Mary Shelley was known and respected in her time as a writer of novels, short stories, plays, essays, biographies and travelogues. She also edited the works of her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She is most well-known for Frankenstein (first published anonymously), which she famously wrote after a dream prompted by Byron’s challenge around the fire at Lake Geneva in 1816: that each of the guests write their own supernatural tale. Other novels include the historical novels Valperga (1823) and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), and one I’m most intrigued about, the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826). More info on Shelley can be found here.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Shelley’s Frankenstein is so well-known compared to her other works, and yet she was such a hard-working, prolific author. By the sounds of it most of her work carries interesting themes: politics, gender issues, radical ideas, but also explorations of the potential dangers of change and progress. Mathilda is a moody novella, undeniably Gothic: rain, despair, dreams, death, passions, solitude on a barren heath, and, of course the clashing of nature, reason and spirituality. Oh, how they weep and wring their hands, they agonise and are sorrowful! And there is horror, always horror. But there is such beauty in it, if, like me, you revel in the dramatic and the melancholy.

Mathilda slowly reveals the circumstances of her life, in a letter she is addressing to her only friend in her years on the heath. She reveals that she and her father were happy for two months after his return from the continent, until ‘a young man of rank, well-informed, and agreeable in his person’ began paying attention to her. The reader can guess at this point from where her father’s torment might have sprung. (Hint: his penis.)

Incest made an appearance regularly in the Gothic genre, since a struggle with the unnatural was a trope, and since the Gothic, as a genre, was a combination of romance and horror ie. in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, and more. Here’s an interesting essay by Min-tser Lin on this particular trope, which touches on social and psychological theories about why this ‘fear’ was played-out in late 18th and early 19th century literature: ‘Domestic space—and how it is compartmentalized, controlled, and infiltrated—plays an important role in the way incest is imagined as haunting horror or unconscious wish.’

The father’s torments lead to tragedy and Mathilda then somehow (she conveniently doesn’t go into detail) gives the slip to all her relations and her guardian to live in:

A solitary house on a wide plain near no other habitation: where I could behold the whole horizon, and wander far without molestation from the sight of my fellow creatures. I was not misanthropic, but I felt that the gentle current of my feelings depended upon my being alone. I fixed myself on a wide solitude. On a dreary heath bestrewn with stones, among which short grass grew; and here and there a few rushes beside a little pool.

The descriptions of her need for solitude are some of my favourite parts of the book. Mathilda is not entirely alone, she has a servant who is barely mentioned (which is something, as a contemporary reader, you can’t help noticing) and she soon makes a friend, a poet, whose speeches are certainly lyrical.

Another favourite passage is the dream Mathilda has in Yorkshire, just after the dreaded ‘confrontation’ with her father, where he confesses his desire. The dream is vivid and haunting and makes me wonder whether Shelley really had an amazingly vivid dream-life (as Kafka did) and whether many of her stories, besides Frankenstein, were inspired by dreams. In the dream, she sees her father seated under a tree. He beckons her to approach.

[T]here was something unearthly in his mien that awed and chilled me, but I drew near. When at a short distance from him I saw that he was deadly pale, and clothed in flowing garments of white. Suddenly he started up and fled from me; I pursued him: we sped over the fields, and by the skirts of woods, and on the banks of the rivers; he flew fast and I followed.

They come eventually to a cliff and the figure of her father plunges down it to the roaring waters. She only just catches a part of his flowing robe.

I also enjoyed the meta-aspect of Shelley’s writing, the constant references to other works (and I was grateful for the footnotes, though the quotes in Latin remain a mystery). She draws from Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Coleridge, Dante and others. It made me want to go and wrap my head in some Romantic and Classical poetry.

My only issue with this book is that, besides descriptions of nature and weather, there is, at times, a lack of detail: as in, those small details that make the world of the story seem whole and real (such as how she actually got away from London and her guardian). Some parts feel rushed, even though the style, overall, is elaborate. If I were Shelley’s editor I would request that she expand on certain parts, and pare back others. But it wasn’t edited in her lifetime because her father was her publisher and he refused to publish it (despite publishing his own radical works). I suppose he was worried about what people would think. At least, for our sake, it was not lost.

Are you a fan of Frankenstein? Have you tried Shelley’s other works? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Also, know of a great bio of Mary Shelley? Her life seems fascinating.

What’s next?

I finished The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler and it was great fun, but I’m not sure I feel like writing about it (this project has been like that, I’ve actually read way more than 14 classics). I’m now reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.

20 classics #12: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I’d only read Emma and Pride and Prejudice of Austen’s novels, and when I heard that Northanger Abbey was a sort of satire of the gothic novel, I was intrigued. I also visited Bath last year, where much of the novel is set.

When was it published?

Northanger Abbey was first published in 1818, posthumously, though it was one of the first novels Austen completed. My edition is the 2003 Penguin Classic with an informative introduction by Marilyn Butler. There are many editions available.

What’s it about?

‘Our heroine’ (referred to as such by the author within the novel) is Catherine Morland. She is young, impressionable, and experiencing Bath, and fashionable society, for the first time. There’s a sort of rivalry for her friendship and love between two new sets of acquaintances, the Thorpes and the Tilneys. The novel is also a very early example of metafiction, where the author is present and the characters have conversations about reading, the worth of a novel, fiction versus nonfiction/history, women writers, and more. The plot and events are also (seemingly fondly) parodic of both Gothic novels and ‘novels of sensibility’.

Tell us more about the author.

Jane Austen was born at Steventon on 16 December 1775. Her family moved to Bath when her father retired in 1801. When he died in 1805, she moved around with her mother. I learnt, when I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, that after her father died her family had quite a difficult time, financially. She certainly got to see Bath and its ‘fashionable society’ from different points of view, and she was more productive living quietly at the family home before and after Bath (at Chawton). She received a marriage proposal while there, and accepted (one can assume, thinking of her family) but the next day withdrew her acceptance. She wrote to her niece, Fanny White: ‘Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection’. It is believed much of Austen’s genuine feelings on this subject are due to the true-love relationship of her parents. There is so much more to say about her, but I’ll keep this brief (see this blog for all the info you could ever need on Jane Austen). She is undeniably one of the warmest, cleverest writers who ever lived, and was modest about her own genius. She died at the age of 41 on 18 July 1817.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Northanger Abbey is generally considered to be Austen’s most ‘light-hearted’ novel, and the characters certainly don’t stick in your mind as much as, say, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. However, Catherine Morley’s innocence (and almost transparence) is a deliberate method on the part of the author—Catherine is both a parodic character and a vehicle for the reader. The reader is also stumbling, wide-eyed, into this strange and undeniably shallow world (Mrs Allen, with whom Catherine stays, is obsessed with clothing, fashions and second-hand remarks). But the reader is also allowed distance by the intrusive, authorial voice. In one of my favourite parts, Catherine allows herself to be whipped into a kind of grotesque fancy by Henry Tilney’s comparisons of Northanger Abey to the settings of Gothic novels. She then spends a sleepless night wondering what could possibly be in the locked drawer of the cabinet! The reader (permitted ironic distance) knows it will be something ordinary, but we still can’t help but wonder.

Though it may be more ‘light-hearted’ than other novels by Austen, Northanger Abbey’s intellectual engagements and layers of meaning (and humour) are hugely impressive. I’ve read modern metafictional novels like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winters Night a Traveller and I didn’t realise Austen had beat them by about 150 years, winking to her readers. She even acknowledges (and rallies with) her fellow writers of novels, encouraging them to create heroines who read novels (the layers!):

Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure [turn over a novel’s insipid pages with disgust], and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.

Catherine and Henry Tilney have a sparring relationship throughout the book. They debate the merits of fiction versus nonfiction/history, and have an exchange about women’s writing which cleverly inverts an idea and reveals Austen’s feelings on equality (we know she contradicts this in some ways, in her work, but I see her as being both within and ahead of her time). The exchange is as follows:

Catherine tells Tilney that she does not keep a journal and he thinks she must be lying. He says (among other things): ‘How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal?—My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalising which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female…’ He goes on a little. Catherine baulks. She says: ‘I have sometimes thought… whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen! That is—I should not think the superiority was always on our side’. Very wry. The superiority is no doubt not always on the side of one sex or another in other matters, too.

But it is still this bullying fellow that Catherine begins to fall for. Maybe it shows that her character isn’t really so impressionable, that she enjoys a little intellectual sparring (and will grow to enjoy it more—the reader, as the reader of novels, often would side with her in these debates). Maybe she is more imaginative than impressionable, though the extent of what she imagines possible does result in her putting her foot in her mouth at one point…

Northanger Abbey’s cleverness impressed and delighted me at times, but the overall story is a little disjointed, and I was a bit underwhelmed at the end. I think the romantic hero is much less memorable than, say, Mr Darcy (*cough*). But there aren’t many endings that satisfy (on a specific level) as that of Pride and Prejudice. That said, it’s actually not one of my favourite books. That was another reason for trying Austen again. Emma is the best of hers I’ve read, and though everything about Austen and her work can be appreciated—she was undeniably ahead of her time, intelligent, genuine, clever—on some level my personal tastes swing more towards the (admittedly, often flowery) dramatic and romantic Gothics…

What’s next?

Perhaps, on that note, I should read a Bronte next, or Hardy’s Tess of the D’ubervilles? I’m also slowly making my way through Hemingway’s To Whom the Bell Tolls.