Waltzing Mary Shelley’s Mathilda

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) is best known for her infamous Gothic novel Frankenstein. She is the daughter of  the philosopher and novelist William Godwin  and Mary Wollstonecraft a feminist philosopher and writer.

Mary was an avid and well-educated scribe of many pieces but finisher of little. She tended to start a piece of writing with exhilarating abandonment and then leave her work incomplete. Her personal life was filled with grief and loss, which is one explanation. However I wonder if the initial spark came of the necessity to unburden herself of a dark weight laying heavily upon her soul and that weight would be lifted during a short while of literary excess only to be cut short again as the weight lumbered slowly back into place.
Mathilda is perhaps the most well-known work by Mary after Frankenstein, despite the fact Mary was such a prolific writer her other pieces don’t get as much attention.

There are two versions of the story, the rough draft ‘The Fields of Fancy’ based on Mary Wollstonecraft’s unfinished work ‘The Cave of Fancy’ and the finished product Mathilda.  Although they are counted as one by scholars I believe FoFancy and Mathilda should be considered as separate pieces. 

The Fields of Fancy is set in a fantasy setting, in the world of fairy Fantasia, so in essence completely unrealistic. I think on her part it would have been the attempt to tell her tale without fear of anyone making any comparisons to her life. Something changed between the rough draft (fantasy) and the final copy because Mathilda is written as a modern tale in Mary’s own era. It is so realistic that it is often an uncomfortable read.
Mathilda is a tale of incestuous love. The love between a daughter and her father.
Scholars argue twofold, first that Mathilda is an autobiographical account by Mary with herself as Mathilda,  William Godwin (her father) as the unnamed father and Percy Shelley (her husband, see pic below) as the friend Woodville. 
The second supposition is that Mathilda is actually Mary’s wish fulfillment in regards to her father and herself.  Mary defied her father by eloping with Shelley and Godwin refused to support her initially.  They reconciled but their spiritual bond and close relationship was broken.  Mathilda is supposedly Mary’s revenge upon Godwin for turning his back on her. 
Sounds a little like victim blaming to me, nothing like a taboo to make educated people look elsewhere for answers.
Let’s see what you think…
In the beginning Mathilda writes as though she is speaking to Woodville in an attempt to explain herself, her emotions and her behaviour.

“I believed myself to be polluted by the unnatural love I had inspired.”

What scribe can utter that sense of uncleanliness felt by the layer of guilt associated with abuse if not felt and experienced?

“The blight of misfortune has passed over me and withered me”

“Perhaps a history such as mine had better die with me, but a feeling I cannot define leads me on.”

Clearly Mathilda is both depressed and suicidal and yet she feels the need to expunge her mind of these thoughts on paper.

“I thought indeed that there was a sacred horror in my story in my take that rendered it unfit for utterance.”

Alluding to the taboo of which society wishes to hear naught. See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

“While I have life I thank you for your sympathy.”

Mathilda (Mary) is expressing in writing the words she never voiced in life to Woodville (Percy). Thanking him for caring for her.  Many scholars believe her cold attitude towards her husband in real life was a result of grief due to the untimely deaths of their children, and the blame she laid at his door for his part in their demise. I think Mary blamed herself and felt she was being punished (let us not partake in the discussion about which higher power she thought was doing the punishing) for being the object of an unnatural desire.

Even after marriage she feels that she will never be strong enough to

“break the thick, adamantine chain that has bound me.”

sever the invisible bond between herself and her father. The chain that weaves and winds  like black fog throughout her mind, its tendrils of pain, guilt and shame waiting to latch onto an unsuspecting moment of pleasure.

“I alone was the cause of his defeat and justly did I pay the fearful penalty.”

She blames herself for seducing him, for being the cause of his defeat and her losses in life are the penalty for that seduction. Of course there is a reason she believes the blame is to be sought in her corner.
Enter Godwin (the father). The two of them are talking about the unspeakable. Mathilda is almost desperate in her attempt to keep him because she fears losing his love. During this conversation her father finally realises that there is only one way he can set her free. The paradox battle of emotions within him becomes apparent in his dialogue.

“Yes, yes. I hate you! You are my bane, my poison, my disgust! Oh! No! “
“You are none of all these, you are my light, my only one, my life.
“Monster as I am.”
“let me lay my head near your heart; let me die in your arms!”

He wants her like a lover, loves her like a daughter, hates the fact he knows he will never stop wanting her and even acknowledges he is a monster. Such a shame that he follows that up with a letter in which he draws Mathilda right back into the web of guilt.

“ And I dare enforce this request by relating how miserably I was betrayed into this net of fiery anguish.”

Hanging the blame firmly at her door whilst hiding that blame encased in the despairing throes of a pseudo apology, but wait it gets even better.

“I deserved only that which I possessed.”

Come again?

There you have it folks, an unfortunate by-product long endured by women in society, being owned by their male relatives.

Father dearest isn’t finished by the way and adds this little treasure to the end of his goodbye/suicide letter.

“If I enjoyed from your looks, and words, and most innocent caresses a rapture usually excluded from the feelings of a parent towards his child, yet no uneasiness, no wish, no casual idea awoke me to a sense of guilt.”

Hmm not really something you want your parent to think, say or write to you eh?
Mary Shelley handed the finished manuscript to friends travelling to England so they could pass it on to Godwin, who in turn was supposed to have it published.  It never saw the light of day again until 1958 long after the deaths of Mary, Percy and Godwin.

Was this novelette an attempt by Mary to reveal the truth about her father and the possible incest she had to endure? Did the blanket of silence become too heavy to bear? Or is this the work of a daughter wanting to plant the seeds of doubt about her parent because he irked her in some way?
Mary wrote Frankenstein before she wrote Mathilda and that piece of literature has also been the topic of the same discussion. The recurring theme of incest features heavily again usually with emphasis on Elisabeth and Victor with the Monster being the objectification of the abuse.

I would like to take that one step further.
What if Mary saw herself as the Monster? The side that disgusted her, the part of her personality she kept locked away because it was the part that was desired by Daddy. The other side of her coin and the side that was capable of producing a work of intrinsic darkness, such as Frankenstein.

Free downloads of the books mentioned above:
Download to read Frankenstein at the Internet Archive.
Download to listen to the audio version of Frankenstein at Librivox.
Download to read The Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft at Feedbooks.
Download to read Caleb Williams by William Godwin at Feedbooks.
Download to read The Necessity of Atheism by Percy Shelley at Feedbooks.
Download to read Valperga by Mary Shelley at Feedbooks.
Download to read Lodore by Mary Shelley at Feedbooks.
Download to read Mathilda at the Internet Archive or at Feedbooks.

7 thoughts on “Waltzing Mary Shelley’s Mathilda

  1. I had never even heard of Mathilda. Just when I begin to think I am reasonably well read, up pops another book I never even knew existed. 😮
    Will it never end?
    Well, actually I hope not. No new books to read would be a fate worse than death. :-d

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