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Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1,556 words.)