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.

4 thoughts on “20 classics #14: Mathilda by Mary Shelley

  1. I really need to read some more Mary Shelley. I’m a huge Frankenstein fan and everytime I reread it I get new elements out of it. I just love a book that does that.

    Also as a fan of Raymond Chandler I know how hard it is to write about his books, what can you really say? except others should just read it

    • Hey Michael, ditto re Frankenstein. I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of it.

      Re Chandler, I’m glad you understand. Maybe I should just write a blog post that says: ‘he’s cool. He knows how to describe a room. Read it’.

  2. I was SO excited to see your review of this text. You’re right, so many of Shelley’s works are overshadowed by Frankenstein (which I confess I haven’t read!) The Last Man is definitely worth a read too.

    I came across this novella at uni – and I don’t know that I would have discovered it otherwise. I was really interested in the way it describes the struggle for feminine identity. I found a critic (William Davis) who called Mathilda’s father a ‘soul absorber’ which I think is a really clever way of describing his role. Mathilda’s appearance and mannerisms seem blurred by descriptions of her mother, confusing the two, or perhaps confusing mother/daughter/wife/lover?

    I especially love the scene when Mathilda is in the forest (and yes, wringing her hands!) lost and unable to get out. It’s kind of a formative scene but she emerges only to travel across the lake as the object of her father’s gaze. Mathilda is struggling under her mother’s shadow and father’s gaze. What do you think?

    • You haven’t read Frankenstein? I’m almost jealous that you have that ahead of you.

      I really like your interpretation of Mathilda. She definitely is struggling under her mother’s shadow and father’s gaze, and that scene when she emerges on the lake is indeed symbolic of that. Even when she is independent her identity (and her despair) is shaped by this. I wonder if Shelley herself felt shadowed (even if not in the same way) by her parents, who were definitely larger-than-life figures. She also escaped, with her poet. Perhaps this story was a kind of exorcism for her.

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