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Mathilda Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

The following entry presents criticism of Shelley's novella Mathilda (1959). See also Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus Criticism.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is best remembered for her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, the story of a man who brings a monster to life. Although that work was very popular in her time and continues to be read today, the 1959 publication of Mathilda renewed interest in Shelley's work as a writer who explored themes of incest, familial relationships, and psychological trauma in her fiction. Mathilda was never published in Shelley's lifetime, its publication having been suppressed by Shelley's father and publisher, William Godwin, because of the autobiographical nature of the work. Since its discovery and publication by Elizabeth Nitchie in the mid-twentieth century, the work has mostly been studied as a psychological and autobiographical text, continuing to fuel debate regarding Shelley's relationship with her father as well as her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Biographical Information

Mary Shelley was born in 1797 to two of the foremost intellectuals of the eighteenth century, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. An outspoken advocate of women's rights, Shelley's mother died shortly after Shelley's birth and her father became the primary caretaker for the first few years of young Mary's life. Shelley's attachment to her father was powerful and it was to become a major theme in her work, especially Mathilda. In 1801, however, Godwin married again, this time to a widow named Mary Jane Clairmont. Shelley's relationship with her stepmother was strained from the start, partly because of the young girl's intense feelings for her father. As a result of this, Shelley did not receive any formal education, instead learning to read at home while being given access to her father's extensive library. The young Shelley was also influenced by the political, philosophical, and scientific discussions held in the household by Godwin's various visitors. Writing was her favorite pastime even as a child, and in 1808 she published a very popular version of a 39-quatrain reworking of a song by Charles Dibdin. In 1812, growing tensions between Shelley and her stepmother prompted Godwin to send his daughter to visit an acquaintance, William Baxter, and his family. On her return to London later that year, she met her father's wealthy new disciple, Percy Bysshe Shelley. A believer in Godwin's humanist principles, Percy Shelley was soon supporting the family financially. And although he was already married, he also formed an attachment to Mary. In 1814 they declared their love for each other and eloped to France. Although the couple married (following the suicide of Percy Shelley's first wife, Harriet), their initial relationship and flight caused a long-lasting estrangement between Shelley and her father. The Shelleys spent their entire married life in Europe, living in various cities on the continent. They had four children together, only one of whom survived to adulthood. It was also during these years that Shelley published her first full-length work, titled History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817). This was followed the next year by her most popular work, Frankenstein, often interpreted by critics as a dramatization of Shelley's own ambivalent feelings regarding motherhood. She also wrote the novella Mathilda shortly after finishing work on Frankenstein. Her next novel, Valperga, was issued in 1823 and focused on the theme of ambition and its malevolent nature. In 1822, Percy Shelley died unexpectedly in a drowning accident. While their relationship had been strained for some time following the deaths of their children and Shelley's resulting withdrawal from her husband, his sudden death left Mary Shelley in a state of deep turmoil and...

(This entire section contains 1556 words.)

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extreme guilt. This led her to commit herself to the task of immortalizing her husband by writing his biography and publishing a definitive collection of his poetry. Her final novel,The Last Man (1826), was to reflect an idealized portrait of Percy Shelley. Shelley herself spent the rest of her life being a devoted mother to Percy Florence Shelley and a devoted daughter to her father, whom she supported financially and emotionally until his death in 1836. She also continued to write, publishing three more books—The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837). Her work continued to be infused with autobiographical themes and accounts of father-daughter relationships. She died of complications due to a brain tumor in 1851.

Plot and Major Characters

Like most of Shelley's novels, Mathilda is a semiautobiographical work. The work was never published in her lifetime, and the first available edition was issued only as recently as 1959. A rough draft of the book was originally titled The Fields of Fancy and is based on a similar text by her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The novel tells the story of three main characters—Mathilda, her father, and Woodville, a poet. Critics generally agree that the characters are based on the author, William Godwin, and Percy Shelley. The tale is told in the form of a memoir addressed to Woodville by a woman, Mathilda, who expects to die at the young age of 22. Like Shelley, Mathilda's birth causes the death of her mother, who had been blissfully married to her father. Following the death of his wife, the father abandons Mathilda, who is left to grow up lonely and unloved with a distant and austere aunt. When her father returns 16 years later, Mathilda's happiness is short-lived because he admits his incestuous love for her. Eventually, Mathilda runs away from her father, who kills himself. Following this tragedy, Mathilda stages her own suicide and then goes to Scotland to mourn him. Here she meets a poet, Woodville, to whom she is narrating the events of her life.

Major Themes

There are no records of any attempts to publish this text during Shelley's lifetime, although it is clear that many of her acquaintances read it. The story is widely interpreted as an outlet of her emotions in 1819, a time when Shelley was struggling with depression following the deaths of two of her children and an ongoing estrangement with Percy Shelley and Godwin. The tone of the work is at once angry, self-recriminatory, and elegiac, and Mathilda's relationship with the poet in the novel is considered by many to be extremely revelatory of the writer's own relationship with her husband at the time. Following the deaths of her children, Shelley had become cold and withdrawn, but not insensitive to the pain she was inflicting on her husband. The idealized portrait of Woodville may be seen as her earliest portrait of her husband drawn in a year when she was attempting to return to him after a period of great despair. Similarly, her portrait of Mathilda's father is reflective of Shelley's own relationship with Godwin. Although it is fairly certain that Shelley's representation of the incestuous relationship between Mathilda and her father was wish fulfillment on her part, Godwin, who had forgiven Shelley's elopement after her marriage in 1816, had continued to remain cold and distant. In Mathilda's sorrow over the death of her father, Shelley may be seen as recording her own grief at her spiritual separation from her father. In addition to the autobiographical and psychological elements of the novel, much of the criticism on Mathilda has focused on the theme of incest. There is evidence that both the Shelleys felt an interest in this subject at the time, regarding it as a dramatic and effective theme.

Critical Reception

In her essay discussing Mathilda in the context of the incest theme, Rosaria Champagne contends that the text was unpublished until the late 1950s because of an ongoing attempt by the literary canon-bearers to suppress texts such as this that seek to de-center the power of paternity. Champagne asserts that readers of Mathilda have protected and maintained the novel's obscurity by finding “real” incest in the Godwin household impossible. Instead, the critic notes, critical thinking over the years has sought to undermine and even deny the autobiographical elements of this novel as pertaining to the incest theme. Kerry McKeever's essay on the novel also focuses on the familial relationships explored in Mathilda. McKeever includes an extensive discussion of the mother-daughter relationship as represented in the novella, noting that the seduction fantasy in the work is the father's, and that the story is actually a condemnation of fathers who fail to act like fathers. The critic considers Godwin's refusal to publish this work as an indication of his realization that Shelley was condemning his efforts to deter her from establishing her autonomy, and that Mary Shelley is not Mathilda: unlike the character, Shelley did find the means to overcome the drive to suicide. Continuing the study of Mathilda as a text with psychological undertones, Margaret Davenport Garrett calls the incest tale in the work “a metaphorical representation of a woman's experience when she blindly follows the dictates of her own heart as well as her excessive dependence upon a male protector.” Garrett believes that Mathilda provides Shelley with a means to sharpen her own ideas about a woman's role in relationships and is therefore an explicit critique of women's education and experience. Taking the psychology framework theory even further, William D. Brewer contends that although Shelley creates characters that are skeptical about the value of expression as a therapeutic tool, she acknowledges the human need to articulate suffering because of the short-term relief it can provide. This preoccupation with the theme of language therapy is seen to anticipate a major concern of modern psychoanalysis.


Principal Works