Terence Harpold (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8936

SOURCE: “‘Did you get Mathilda from Papa?’: Seduction, Fantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 49-67.

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[In the following essay, Harpold draws parallels between the events in Mary Shelley's life and the action of Mathilda, noting that the book mirrors major events in the author's life.]

In a dream, I saw myself descending toward my father, intending to join him in the library. But along the way, the little skeleton always snatched me from behind with its outstretched hand. And I continued to live with my nightmares, and would never dare, when night had fallen—and now even in the day—to go down alone to the library.

This phobia was a too marvelous compromise between two powerful tendencies in my unconscious: to be my mother, in dying like her, which satisfied the most positive part of my oedipal complex: the love for my father; and to be punished with death by my mother, in reprisal for the death that I had caused her, which satisfied, in the other part of my oedipal complex, the unconscious sentiment of culpability attached to it.

—Marie Bonaparte, “L'identification d'une fille à sa mère morte”1

Mary Shelley's entries to the journal dating from her elopement with Percy in July of 1814 are interrupted in early June of 1819, near the end of the Shelleys' brief stay in Rome. William, the Shelleys' first son, had fallen ill on May 25. His condition wavered uncertainly for much of the following week, and on June 4—when Mary broke off her journal—he seems to have taken a sudden turn for the worse.2 At noon of June 7, William died.3 That William's illness and death is marked by a discontinuity in her journal suggests the singular importance of this, the third such loss for Mary in four years. There are only a few breaks in the journal before June 4, 1819: the death of Mary's unnamed first child (a girl, d. March 6, 1815), and that of her third child, Clara (d. Sept. 24, 1818), are recorded without any corresponding interruptions (Feldman 73, 223; Jones 39, 105).4 On June 27, three weeks after William's death, Mary wrote to Amelia Curran about arrangements for his tomb, “near which I shall lie one day & care not—for my own sake—how soon—I shall never recover [sic] that blow … Everything on earth has lost its interest to me.”5

Mary resumed her journal after the Shelleys moved to Leghorn, on August 4, 1819—Percy's twenty-seventh birthday—where she indicated that she was at work on the novel which in its final version was entitled Mathilda. It appears from her entries that she wrote out a first draft and corrected the fair copy through about September 12, revised it further on November 8, and finally, dated the manuscript on November 9.6 The next day, November 10, there is again a break in her journal. On December 31, she wrote, “I have not kept my journal all this time; but I have little to say, except that on the morning of Friday, November 12, little Percy Florence was born” (Feldman 297; Jones 126).

It is evident from the first draft of Mathilda that the novel is, at least in part, Mary's response to William's death. In that draft, entitled The Fields of Fancy, Mathilda's autobiographical narrative is embedded in the account of an unnamed narrator.7 “It was in Rome,” the narrator begins, “that I suffered a misfortune that reduced me to misery & despair” (90). She is visited by a “lovely spirit” named Fantasia who, though unable to repair her loss (“those you love,” she says, “are gone for ever & great as my power is I cannot recall them to you” [90]), offers to reassure her with a vision of the afterlife. She conveys the narrator to “the Elysian fields” (91), where they attend a circle of recently-departed spirits recounting their earthly lives. Among these is Mathilda, a woman “of about 23 years of age” (94)—Mary was 22 in 1819—whose tale of “dark & phre[n]zied passions” (100) is directed to the narrator. Mathilda's story is strong stuff—a mother's death in childbirth, the father's incestuous love for the daughter, his suicide, her mourning and death—but the relation between the narratives is clearly one of lack and reparation: Mathilda's tragic history is presented to the narrator to fill the gap in her own history.

This narrative frame was discarded in the final version of the novel, in which the text is presented as Mathilda's written memoir, rather than another's record of her oral account. The discarding of the frame conflates the previously discrete levels of the narrative: the act of writing (reporting another's life or remembering one's own) and the experience recorded in writing belong in the final version of the novel to the same person. If, as I will argue, Mathilda is a profoundly autobiographical work, the collapse of the transparently autobiographical frame narrative into Mathilda's narrative is significant because it exemplifies a principle of identification at work across the structure of the novel. The events that frame the period in Mary's life during which she wrote Mathilda—the death of one son and the birth of another—invoke and sustain that principle. By way of Mathilda (by way of Mathilda), Mary reported or remembered a history of forbidden desire and death to repair a loss at the origin of that history. The composition of the novel and the circulation of its manuscript are inextricably bound to that history; they represent Mary's effort to revise, account for and neutralize its dangers.8

The death of Wollstonecraft ten days after her daughter's birth must have forever altered the course of Mary's psychological development. Her representations of her mother could be constituted only after the fact, drawing on the recollections of others—first among these being her father—and subject to the effects, après-coup (nachträglich),9 of her subsequent experience. The well-documented preoccupation of the Godwin circle with the memory of Wollstonecraft would have reminded Mary at every turn that the figure of her mother was joined to that of her father. Moreover, this “memory” of Wollstonecraft—Mary's source of information for a woman that she herself could not have remembered—would have been, given Godwin's romantic proclivities, uniquely subject to reshaping by literary and sentimentalizing interests.10 Mary's capacity for “pre”-oedipal identification with the mother—establishing both the model for subsequent development and the potential for rivalry at a critical stage of that development—would have been sharply restricted, in effect, already oedipalized, irreducibly subject to the imperatives of the father's desire.11

This is what happens in Mathilda. The passage relating the romance of her parents and her mother's death takes up fewer than three pages in the novel (4-6). Throughout this section, the mother, Diana, is portrayed only as the object of the father's passion, with no independent initiative or interest. The only independent sign for the mother appears in the discarded narrative frame of The Fields of Fancy, in the character of Diotima, “a woman about 40 years of age” (Wollstonecraft was thirty-eight at the time of her death), whose “eyes burned with a deep fire and every line of her face expressed enthusiasm & wisdom—Poetry seemed seated on her lips which were beautifully formed & every motion of her limbs although not youthful was inexpressibly graceful” (94). Diotima is clearly an idealized figure of Wollstonecraft, but she is, significantly, relegated to the frame of Mathilda's narrative, where she remains bound by the imperative to tell the story of the father's desire. Insofar as she represents the figure of the mother, it is a mother who acquiesces to that imperative: she is the one who presses Mathilda to tell her tale of “phre[n]zied passions” (100).

The daughter's account of herself is likewise shaped by the father's intervention in mother-daughter identifications. Because Mathilda can only represent the scene of her origin as already subject to her father's desire, her subsequent response to his love is already complicit with it. When she “chances” to mention her liking for Alfieri's “Myrrha,” she is frightened and confused by the violence of his reaction (20), though her interest in a tragedy about a daughter's incestuous passion for her father can hardly seem to be the product of chance, in light of what she knows has happened when she records the event (20).12 His equation of mother and daughter—“Diana dies to give her birth; her mother's spirit was transferred into her frame, and she ought to be as Diana to me” (40)—signifies as well Mathilda's sense of her succession to her mother's place. His despair at having “betrayed” his daughter's “confidence” (37) is also her despair at his having exposed their secret alliance.

The mutually implicating desires of father and daughter refigure Mary's compromised position in the oedipal configuration brought about by Wollstonecraft's death. The relations of Mathilda and Diana to the father represent, in this light, both Mary's chief inheritance from her mother and what she must make of that inheritance in order to find a place for herself in her mother's absence. After he confesses “the hell of passion” (40) that will burn in him until his death, Mathilda's father complains, “How dare I go where I may meet Diana, when I have disobeyed her last request; her last words said in a faint voice when all feeling but love, which survives all things else was already dead, she then bade me make her child happy” (40). His memory of Diana's final request revises Godwin's account of his last conversation with Wollstonecraft:

I … affected to proceed wholly upon the ground of her having been very ill, and that it would be some time before she could expect to be well; wishing her to tell me any thing that she would choose to have done respecting the children [Mary and Fanny], as they would now be principally under my care. After having repeated this idea to her in a great variety of forms, she at length said, with a significant tone of voice, “I know what you are thinking of,” but added, that she had nothing to communicate to me upon the subject.13

In Mathilda, the daughter missing from her mother's last wishes is written in as their principal concern. Moreover, the mother who commands the father to make their daughter “happy” provides in fantasy the maternal approval of oedipal succession that is possible for Mary only by implication in her relations with her father.

In a recent study of Frankenstein, Marc Rubenstein has suggested that the writing of that novel was motivated by Mary's “search” “for the mother of her origins.”14 He conjectures that Mary read the love letters of Godwin and Wollstonecraft from the period during which she was conceived, on a November evening much like the “dreary night of November” when Victor Frankenstein brings the monster to life.15 The creation at the imaginative center of the novel, he concludes, refigures the scene of Mary's origin; the conflicting representations of the mother which spill out from that scene into the rest of the novel represent Mary's effort to rehearse and contain the dangers of motherhood signaled by Wollstonecraft's death.

Rubenstein's reading of Frankenstein suggests an analogous reading of Mathilda. Mary's fiction rehearses the problematic scene of her origin, and Mathilda, like Frankenstein, revises the elementary familial positions that emerge in that scene. It differs from the earlier novel in that the fantasy of origin it represents more actively foregrounds the oedipalization of the primal scene that is the effect of the father's intervention in the mother-daughter relation. The primal scene is refigured in Mathilda as a scene of seduction, between father and daughter, recasting Mary's emergence from her parents' embrace as a substitution of the daughter in the place of the mother, the object of (and responding to) the father's desire. The abstraction of the seduction fantasy over the entire novel signals its function as a primal fantasy: every character in the novel is an accomplice to the seduction, because every position in the fantasy is cathected by the daughter who records it.16 The narrator's story in The Fields of Fancy frame, Mathilda's story, her father's and her mother's stories—the structure of seduction that informs all of these stories—each of these is a version of Mary's story. These versions of Mary's story constitute, moreover, a revision of her family history in keeping with its oedipal interests and conflicts. In the family romance17 as seduction fantasy, the revision of history is to the daughter's benefit: the mother is absent, or only implied, and the daughter's success in defining herself by supplanting the mother is made clear by her father's desire for her in her mother's place.

The mother's apparent absence from the seduction fantasy does not, however, lessen her influence on its structure. She returns from within it, as its limiting term—and with a vengeance. The contradictions of Mathilda's father's confession of his love signals Mary's internalization of the incest taboo and its implicit affirmation of the mother's continuing authority:

“I hate you! You are my bane, my poison, my disgust! Oh! No” And then his manner changed, and fixing his eyes on me with an expression that convulsed every nerve and member of my frame—“you are none of these; you are my light, my only one, my life.—My daughter, I love you!”


Mathilda's response to her father's confession is first pity, and then revulsion, the change so sudden that the repression is unmistakable:

for the first time that phantom seized me; the first and only time for it has never since left me … I felt her fangs on my heart: I tore my hair; I raved aloud; at one moment in pity for his sufferings I would have clasped my father in my arms; and then starting back in horror I spurned him with my foot

(31, emphasis added).

This “phantom” appears nowhere else in the novel, though there can be little doubt as to her identity. Too-close an identification with the mother leads to death, as the daughter must conclude from the evidence of her own birth. The absent, usurped mother may still punish her rival; indeed, the rival will share her mother's fate if she takes her mother's place—she, too, will be subject to the fatal effect of the father's desire.18 The problem that the seduction fantasy written into Mathilda must resolve is, how to enjoy the father's desire without suffering its consequences?19

The resolution described in Mathilda is a passive submission to the dangers of identification with the mother, a transformation of its penalty into a defense. After his confession of incestuous love, Mathilda's father flees from her, leaving behind a letter suggesting that he intends to cast himself into the sea. She sets out immediately in pursuit. As she nears the coast, a storm that began with nightfall grows more violent. The height of the storm coincides with a crisis of recognition:

About two hundred yards distant, alone in a large meadow stood a magnificent oak; the lightnings shewed its myriad boughs torn by the storm. A strange idea seized me; a person must have felt all the agonies of doubt concerning the life and death of one who is the whole world to them before they can enter into my feelings—for in that state, the mind working unrestrained by the will makes strange and fanciful combinations with outward circumstances and weaves the chances and changes of nature into an immediate connection with the event they dread. It was with this feeling that I turned to the old Steward who stood pale and trembling beside me; “Mark, Gaspar, if the next flash of lightning rend not that oak my father will be alive.”

I had scarcely uttered these words than a flash instantly followed by a tremendous peal of thunder descended on it; and when my eyes recovered their sight after the dazzling light, the oak no longer stood in the meadow


The prophecy here is realized on several registers, for Mathilda has already dreamed of her father's flight to the sea and her unsuccessful effort to prevent his suicide, before she receives the letter describing his intentions (36).20 Who is the victim of the blast (and who or what is responsible for it) is, moreover, unclear: the destruction of the oak fulfills Mathilda's earlier demand of her father that he “speak that word” (29) that will explain his suffering—“I demand that dreadful word; though it be as a flash of lightning to destroy me, speak it” (30).

Prophecy, like dreaming, is a form of wish-fulfillment; its utility in the work of fantasy is that it attributes the wished-for event to a necessity independent of the desires of the dreamer or prophet. Mathilda insists from the first paragraphs of the novel that her fate has been “governed by … a hideous necessity” (2). Mary's interest in that necessity is evident. It signals, on one hand, her acknowledgement within Mathilda of the irreversibility of the conditions of her birth and early childhood; on the other hand, it represents her defense against the sentiments of culpability produced by those conditions. The awkward syntax of Mathilda's cry (“if … rend not … will be alive”) suggests that, more than the father's life or death, what is at stake in the passage is a denial of responsibility for the event it predicts. The more straightforward, “if the next flash of lightning rend that oak my father will be dead,” would imply a direct engagement of the speaker in that event. Mary's awareness that the daughter's innocence is compromised by her prediction is clear from Mathilda's explanation of the prediction, a striking formulation of the unconscious motivation of fantasy: “the mind working unrestrained by the will makes strange and fanciful combinations with outward circumstances and weaves the chances and changes of nature into an immediate connection with the event they dread.” For Mary, for whom Mathilda's dream and prophecy are a defense, the consequences of the father's desire are more dreadful than his death. If the father takes his own life, he takes with it the menace of his desire, leaving the daughter free of responsibility for his removal from the scene.

Were Mathilda to end with the father's suicide, that event would signal the priority of the phantom mother's menace over her daughter's need for identification with the mother. His death, however, comes only a little more than halfway through the novel. Mathilda's decision after his suicide to feign her own death, and then retreat into exile and decline, suggests that his removal not only defends her against the penalty of his love, but also prepares for her eventual identification with the mother.

I who had before clothed myself in the bright garb of sincerity must now borrow one of divers colours: it might sit awkwardly at first, but use would enable me to place it in elegant folds, to lie with grace. Aye, I might die my soul with falsehood untill [sic] I had quite hid its native colour … My father, to be happy both now and when again we meet I must fly from all this life which is mockery to one like me. In solitude only shall I be myself; in solitude I shall be thine.

(48-49, emphasis added)

As she wastes away in the last pages of the novel, she muses, “In truth I am in love with death; no maiden ever took more pleasure in the contemplation of her bridal attire than I in fancying my limbs already enwrapt in their shroud: is it not my marriage dress? Alone it will unite me to my father when in an eternal mental union we shall never part” (77-78).

A longing for death can represent a desire to dissolve the self, to return completely to the mother. For Mathilda, death is a doubly effective return: the mother is already dead, and to be like her in that respect is to be more with her than is possible in life. In death, moreover, the desired reunion with the father that compels her to take her mother's place is no longer forbidden. Death brings with it “mental” union—that is, asexual union—which can make a shroud into a wedding dress, and a daughter her father's bride, without fear of the mother's retribution.21 The bride in her shroud is at once the mother, victim of the father's desire—the only mother the daughter has ever known—and the daughter who has taken her place.22 The merging of mother and daughter frees the daughter from the menace of the phantom mother by embracing the menace and erasing the phantom. When Mathilda imagines the afterlife, it is a world in which the mother no longer has a place. She envisions the terrestrial paradise of the Purgatorio: “[I] thought it would be sweet when I wandered on those lovely banks to see the car of light descend with my long lost parent to be restored to me” (74). Only one lost parent is restored to her, and it is for his love that she embraces death.23

On May 2, 1820, Maria Gisborne left Leghorn for England, taking with her a copy of Mathilda, which Mary had asked her to convey to Godwin for his assistance in its publication.24 Mary and Maria had met for the first time in Mary's adult life at La Scala, in May of 1818. Their very first meeting, however, had occurred long before. During the week following Wollstonecraft's death, Maria (then Maria Reveley) cared for the infant Mary while Godwin was occupied with the affairs of his dead wife. Maria's intimacy with Mary's parents dated from well before their marriage, and she appears to have been an early rival of Wollstonecraft for Godwin's affections. The three remained close friends during the marriage. After Wollstonecraft's death, Godwin took a renewed interest in Maria, though the jealousy of her husband, Willey Reveley, forced him to curtail his visits to her. In August of 1799, only one month after Reveley's death, Godwin proposed marriage to Maria. She received his offer coldly, no doubt put off by the impropriety of his advances. Shortly thereafter, she married John Gisborne. Godwin's letters to Maria during the courtship make it clear that Godwin intended (unconsciously?) for her to take Wollstonecraft's place in more ways than as simply his wife. “You have it in your power,” he writes, “to give me new life, a new interest in existence, to raise me from the grave in which my heart lies buried.”25

Mary was aware of her father's feelings for Maria—most of what is known, in fact, of her father's relations with Maria comes from Mary's unfinished biography of Godwin.26 In Italy, Maria became Mary's closest female friend and confidant, a stepmother of sufficient grace and intellect to approximate the idealized figure of the mother she had never known, and to surpass the much inferior substitute—Mary Jane Clairmont—chosen by her father.27

During her visit to England, Maria and Godwin discussed Mathilda.28 She writes in her journal,

The subject he says is disgusting and detestable, and there ought to be, at least if [it] is ever published, a preface to prepare the minds of the readers, and to prevent them from being tormented by the apprehension from moment to moment of the fall of the heroine; it is true (he says) that this difficulty is in some measure obviated, by Mathildas [sic] protestation at the beginning of the book, that she has not to reproach herself with any guilt; but yet, in proceeding one is apt to lose sight of that protestation; besides (he added with animation) one cannot exactly trust to what an author of the modern school may deem guilt.29

Godwin's misgivings about the compromised innocence of the novel's heroine screen his concern for the innocence or guilt of its author, and show his active engagement in his daughter's seduction fantasy. Whether or not he recognized himself in that fantasy, he could not have resisted the implication of his desire in not only its plot and Mary's writing of it, but also—perhaps most of all—in her having sent him the manuscript.

There is no evidence that Godwin made any effort to see that the novel was published. When it became clear that Godwin was not going to act on its publication, Mary undertook to recover the manuscript. Beginning in January, 1822, her letters to Maria repeat earnest requests that she retrieve the manuscript from Godwin and have it copied, but he appears to have resisted or ignored Maria's efforts to do so. Following a break between the Godwins and the Gisbornes in February, recovery of the manuscript became increasingly unlikely. Mary suggested Maria write for Mathilda, and herself wrote to Godwin at least once, but without result.30 By late April, Maria had decided that the manuscript would never be recovered,31 but Mary continued to hope otherwise. On June 2, she wrote to ask—and her question is informed by every identification that has shaped the novel and these letters—“Did you get Mathilda from Papa?”32

Godwin's refusal to return the manuscript breaks a sequence of identifications and defenses that can be traced back at least as far as William Shelley's death. These identifications and defenses inform the composition of the manuscript and its circulation between Mary, Maria and Godwin. They are multiform and autobiographical: the life they trace, the tale they write out, is Mary's. These are its major moments:

1) Mathilda represents a fantasy of seduction, Mary's refiguring of the scene of her origin, subject to the effects of the father's intervention in mother-daughter identifications. The fantasy responds to Mary's need for identification with her dead mother, to her feelings of culpability for her mother's death, to her guilt for the oedipal succession that is facilitated by it, and to the fantasy mother's punitive power over the daughter who succeeds to her mother's place.

2) The submission of the novel to Godwin signals Mary's effort to engage him in the seduction fantasy, but to acknowledge the authority of his desire in the primal scene which determines her understanding of herself and her relations with each of her parents. The daughter's need to acknowledge the father's authority is brought to crisis by the loss of the son whose name had previously signified that authority. The manuscript of the novel takes the place (for both daughter and father) of prior signs of submission to the father's desire. It is a substitute for at least two lost sons, the “William Godwin” that Mary could not be,33 and the “William Shelley” who might have partially repaired that lack, had he survived.34

3) Mary submits the manuscript through Maria, who, acting in the place of the idealized mother (for both the daughter and the father), figures the fantasy mother's acquiescence to the daughter's succession to the mother's place.

4) The loss of William requires a substitute sign of submission to the father's desire—the manuscript of Mathilda; Percy Florence's birth changes the daughter's relation to the father, and overdetermines the function of the manuscript. Just as the name of her first son, “William,” was a signal of the authority of the first father, so the name of her second son, “Percy,” signifies the intervening authority of a second father. The seduction fantasy can serve not only to represent the daughter's submission to the father's desire, but also to restrict its authority to the fantasmatic scene of seduction. The writing of Mathilda and the naming of Mary's second son signal not only an effort to satisfy Godwin's desire and neutralize its dangers, but also to reshape the oedipal configuration that threatens the daughter with death. By satisfying the desire of one father—and restricting that satisfaction to its representation in fantasy—Mary is free to submit herself to the authority of another father's desire, and thereby assume the mother's place under conditions where she is less subject to the menace of that identification.35 In Mathilda, the power of the family romance to remark the parents according to the daughter's desire remakes as well the daughter's sense of herself as parent, as mother and as wife.

5) Godwin, however, refuses to recognize Mary's revision of the family history. The seduction fantasy written into Mathilda would satisfy his unconscious need for the daughter's acknowledgement of his desire, but the submission of the manuscript, while on the one hand establishing his authority, would on the other hand signal Mary's effort to contain it. Godwin's refusal to aid in the publication of the manuscript, or even to return it to Mary, defends against the daughter's effort to alter the oedipal structure that defines her place as daughter, mother and wife, relative to the father.36 To sanction her substitution of another father would have called into question his own position, complicit with the seduction; it would have hit too close to home.

Soon, however, another accident of history would render Mary's effort and Godwin's refusal of little consequence. Mary's hope of a father's love without mortal penalty would be ended by Percy's death in July of 1822. After that event, the overdetermination of the names in Mary's life increases: what remained after Percy's death of the revised oedipal configuration was the son, proof of a father's love, who could love a daughter and a mother in the father's name. She writes in her journal on October 2, 1822—her first entry after Percy's death, “Father, Mother, friend, husband, children—all made as it were the team that inspiration was sufficient to quell my wretchedness temporarily—but now I have no

That origin, in fantasy and in reality, would shape Mary's sense of her destiny. She mentions Mathilda for the last time in a letter to Maria, May 3-6, 1823: “It seems to me that in what I have hitherto written I have done nothing but prophecy what has arrived to. Mathilda fortells [sic] even many small circumstances most truly—& the whole of it is a monument of what now is.”37


  1. Revue française de Psychanalyse 2.3 (1928): 541-65. Bonaparte's memoir of her childhood neurosis is worthy of more attention than it appears to have received. It is, as nearly as I have been able to determine, the only first-hand account in psychoanalytic literature of the oedipal conflicts of a daughter whose mother has died giving birth to her. It is one of the most important sources for my reading of the place and significance of Mathilda in Mary Shelley's life. Translations of passages from Bonaparte's memoir are my own.

  2. The Journals of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Annotated Edition, ed. Paula Renée Feldman, diss., Northwestern University, 1974 (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1975. 7507910) 260. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1947) 122. The heading “Friday 4th” is not followed by an entry, and there are no further daily entries in Book ii of the journal (the remaining pages in Book ii include transcriptions of poetry, fragments by Mary and Percy, lists of reading, clothing, etc., dating from a later period). Until recently, the only edition of Mary's Journal was that edited by Jones in 1947. The Jones text is marred by numerous omissions, and sometimes incorrect dates and annotations. Feldman corrects errors in the Jones text and restores omitted passages. In this essay, I follow Feldman's version of text and punctuation, but cite both editions, noting their differences when significant. Passages or words that are cancelled in the manuscript of the Journal are enclosed in angle brackets, thus: <=.

  3. Claire [Clara Mary Jane] Clairmont, The Journals of Claire Clairmont, ed. Marion Kingston Stocking (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968) 113.

  4. Only the entry for July 8, 1822, the day of Percy's death, is followed by a discontinuity comparable in length to that following William's death (Feldman 392; Jones 180). That entry, like that of June 4, 1819, is followed by no text, and is Mary's last entry in that journal book (Book iii). The only other sizable gap in the published journal prior to Percy's death is attributed by Feldman and Jones to the loss of the journal book for May 14, 1815-July 20, 1816, which included the date of William Shelley's birth (January 24, 1816) (Feldman ix; Jones 5on1). Following Percy's death, Mary's entries to the journal were more irregular.

  5. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 vols, ed. Betty T. Bennett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980-88) 1: 100.

  6. Elizabeth Nitchie, “Mary Shelley's Mathilda: An Unpublished Story and Its Biographical Significance,” Studies in Philology 40 (1943): 448-49. Mary's work on the novel took altogether a little more than three months. In the final version of Mathilda, Mathilda's literary effort also takes three months. Nitchie concludes that Mary finished copying the manuscript on September 12 on the basis of the entry, “Finish copying my tale,” which follows the heading “Sunday 12” in the journal. Under the same heading, however, Mary also writes, “on friday [that is, September 10]—S.[helley] sends his tragedy [The Cenci] to Peacock” (Feldman 292; Jones 124). Jones notes in his preface that, “after neglecting her journal for a few days, Mary's practice was to summarize the missing days, but she used only the one specific date for the entry, usually (but not always) the date on which she wrote the summarizing entry” (xiii). The next previous date heading in the journal is “Sunday 5th,” followed by no entry. The entry for “September 12” then, clearly records some events which occurred two days prior, and possibly others of several days before that. Though the evidence is admittedly ambiguous, it is not improbable that Mary finished copying the text of Mathilda—her “tale”—on September 10, 1819, the twenty-second anniversary of her mother's death. This would not have been the first time that a landmark in Mary's writing coincided with the anniversary of Wollstonecraft's death. Five years before, on September 10, 1814, she began her first attempt at a novel, now lost, entitled Hate (Feldman 26; Jones 14).

  7. Mathilda, ed. Elizabeth Nitchie, Studies in Philology, extra ser., 3 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1959) 90-104. All subsequent references to Mathilda are to this edition.

  8. The only substantive analysis of the work's biographical significance is Elizabeth Nitchie's 1943 study of the then unpublished manuscript. (Her conclusions are repeated in an abbreviated form, with some minor emendations, in her preface to the 1959 edition [Mathilda, vii-xv], and in Appendix iii of her biography, Mary Shelley, Author of “Frankenstein” (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1953; Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1970). While she concluded that the novel is largely an autobiographical document, Nitchie seems reluctant to speculate on the origin and significance of its central theme of father-daughter incest. She attributes the incest there to Percy's interest in that subject and—improbably, I think—to Mary's “horror” of her “unnatural and dreadful attitude” towards Percy after the death of Clara. “Mary may also,” Nitchie continues, “have been recording, in Mathilda's sorrow over her alienation from her father and her loss of him by death, her grief at a spiritual separation from her own father” (457)—the estrangement resulting from Godwin's demands for money and attacks on Percy. “Like Mathilda, she had truly lost a beloved but cruel father, a loss all the more poignant because of what she later acknowledged to Mrs Gisborne was her ‘excessive and romantic’ attachment to him” (459). That Nitchie does not make more of Mary's “excessive and romantic attachment” to Godwin seems to me a misjudgment.

  9. On Freud's use of nachträglich (Nachträglichkeit; in the Standard Edition, infelicitously translated as “deferred action”), see Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Hogarth, 1973) 111-14.

  10. Mitzi Myers has shown (“Godwin's Memoirs of Wollstonecraft: The Shaping of Self and Subject,” Studies in Romanticism 20.3 [1981]) that Godwin's Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (written in 1798, immediately after Wollstonecraft's death) is deeply informed by such interests. Though Mary must have been familiar with the Memoirs before she wrote Mathilda, the only evidence by her own hand indicating that she read them is a journal entry dated eight months after the completion of the novel. Mary read the Memoirs together with the Posthumous Letters, the Letters from Norway and Mary, A Fiction during the period of June 1-7, 1820 (Feldman 314-15; Jones 133-34)—the first anniversary of William Shelley's illness and death.

  11. Mary Poovey's recent reading of Frankenstein, while it convincingly accounts for Mary's conflicting desires for self-assertion and acceptance, is limited by its privileging of an idealized mother. Poovey writes, “The motherless daughter's relationship with the father carries the burden of needs originally and ideally satisfied by the mother; in a sense, the relationship with each father [Godwin and Percy] is only an imaginative substitute for the absent relationship with the mother” (The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984] 168). The “needs originally and ideally satisfied by the mother” are, however, already subject to oedipal defenses against the mother as the primary rival for the father's desire, because his desire is already a principal element of any representation of the mother. This is true whatever the origin of the material for the representation (whether the daughter is told of her mother by her father or by someone else), as the father is present by implication in every fantasy of the mother.

  12. Alfieri's play could serve as a gloss to Mathilda. The eponymic heroine of “Myrrha” is tortured by her incestuous desire for her father, brought to a crisis by her approaching marriage, and by the impossibility of responding truthfully to the repeated inquiries of her parents, who recognize that she is in love with someone other than her intended husband. At the close of the play, Myrrha reveals by a slip of the tongue made in her father's presence the name of her beloved—his name. She seizes his dagger and kills herself. Percy read the play in translation in 1815 (Feldman 97; Jones 49), as did Claire Clairmont, in 1819 (Journals 502). Percy encouraged Mary to translate the play (The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols., ed. Frederick L. Jones [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1964] 2: 39, where it is misidentified by Jones as “Ariosto's ‘Myrrha’”). Jean de Palacio concludes that the play was as influential as The Cenci on Mary's writing of Mathilda, which he finds to be a “conjugation” of the two plays (Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre: Contributions aux études shelleyennes, [Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1969] 135). William Veeder notes that Thomas Medwin believed that Mary planned to write a father-daughter incest play based on “Myrrha” (“The Negative Oedipus: Father, Frankenstein, and the Shelleys,” Critical Inquiry 12.2 [1986]: 388n17), but the “Tale probably suggested” by the play that Medwin remembers is clearly Mathilda (Thomas Medwin, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, rev. ed. H. Buxton Forman [London: Oxford UP, 1913] 252).

  13. William Godwin, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft [Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman], ed. W. Clark Durant (New York: Gordon, 1972) 122.

  14. “‘My Accursed Origin’: The Search for the Mother in Frankenstein,Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976): 187.

  15. Rubenstein 172.

  16. Cf. Laplanche and Pontalis: “The originary fantasy [fantasme originaire] … is characterized by an absence of subjectivization coincident with the presence of the subject in the scene … “A father seduces a daughter” might perhaps be the summary formulation of the seduction fantasy. The indication here of the primary process is not the absence of organization, as is sometimes suggested, but the peculiar character of the structure, in that it is a scenario with multiple entries, in which nothing shows whether the subject will be immediately located in the term, daughter; it can as well be fixed as father, or even in the term seduces” (“Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality,” The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 49.1 [1968]: 13-14, translation slightly corrected).

  17. My use of “family romance” here and below is specific, and closer to Freud's use of the term than is usually the case when it is invoked. A Familienroman is the narrative motivated by oedipal conflicts, in which the history of the child's family is revised; “romance” refers to the literary genre of the revision, rather than to the bond of affect between the child and one or another of the parents. See Freud, The Origins of Psycho-Analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fleiss, Drafts and Notes: 1887-1902, eds. Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud and Ernst Kris, trans. Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey (New York: Basic, 1954) 205; 256; “Family Romances,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-74) 9: 235-41.

  18. Cf. Bonaparte 547-48: “The place of my mother was empty, and I could perhaps more easily than another little girl dream of occupying it. But the identification with the mother encountered on the other hand a condition which did not exist for the other little girls for whom the mother is the living rival: death … To be dead, for me, was to be identified with the mother, was to be in the place of the wife of my father, was, like my mother, to die—a kind of strange delight—by his agency [par lui mourir].” The last two chapters of Godwin's Memoirs would have provided Mary with ample evidence of the effect of the father's desire. Chapter ix begins, “I am now led, by the progress of the story, to the last branch of her history, the connection between Mary [Wollstonecraft] and myself” (97); chapter x begins, “I am now led, by the course of my narrative, to the last fatal scene of her life” (112).

  19. The structure of the seduction fantasy will be determined by the outcome of a struggle for predominance between idealizing and prohibitive functions of the super-ego. The fantasy objects that have replaced the dead mother can, on the one hand, provoke feelings of inferiority and resentment, as the daughter aspires forever unsuccessfully to match her ego-ideal. On the other hand, the fantasized mother can take on a sadistic, punitive character, strengthening the daughter's feelings of culpability for her mother's death, and enforcing the incest taboo from beyond the grave with the threat of the consequences of its violation. The content of these fantasies of the mother is likely to be in large part determined by the father's attitude towards his lost love object and the daughter that can be identified with that object: her idealization will be encouraged by his idealization, her experience of the prohibition of incest will be encouraged by his repression of the identification. The daughter is trapped by 1) the necessity of idealization in the absence of the mother, as a prerequisite to super-ego development on the basis of introjected imagos of the mother; and 2) the consequent threat of identification with the ideal, which, while it enforces the prohibitive function of the super-ego, does so at the expense of the socializing function of the identification. On the sadistic character of the daughter's fantasies of the dead mother, see Peter B. Neubauer, “The One-Parent Child and His Oedipal Development,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 15 (1960): 286-309; Otto Fenichel, “Specific Forms of the Oedipus Complex,” The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, 2 vols., ed. Hanna Fenichel (New York: W. W. Norton, 1953). On the distinctions between idealizing and prohibitive functions of the super-ego, and the related question as to whether or not these operate independently or within a larger structure, see Laplanche and Pontalis, Language, 144-45; 435-38.

  20. Mathilda's pursuit (or her prophetic dream) is mentioned in Mary's letter (Sept. 2, 1822) to Maria Gisborne describing Percy's death: “It must have been fearful to see us [Mary and Claire]—two poor, wild aghast creatures—driving (like Mathilda) towards the sea to learn if we were to be for ever doomed to misery” (Letters 1: 247). The storm in Mathilda may refigure the terrific storm during the night of the Shelleys' elopement to the Continent (Feldman 3-5; Jones 3-4). The father's letter to Mathilda explaining his departure may then refigure the letter Mary left behind for Godwin, described by Godwin in a letter to John Taylor, August 27, 1814 (The Elopement of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as Narrated by William Godwin, ed. H. Buxton Forman [Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Press, 1969] 11-12).

  21. The repression of the daughter's sexuality is a precondition for her passage into the afterlife and access to the father: the disguise Mathilda adopts in her exile is described variously as a “fanciful nunlike dress” (50), “a whimsical nunlike habit” (60), and “a close nunlike gown of black silk” (85n49).

  22. Cf. Bonaparte 544-45: “My dead mother, I had even seen her. In the great watercolor hung by my grandmother in the salon, where my mother appeared lying on her back on her bed, in a white robe, looking like a bride—and pale, pale.” Mary would have also seen her dead mother—in John Opie's portrait, which hung over the fireplace in her father's library (Glynn R. Grylls, Mary Shelley: A Biography [London: Oxford UP, 1938] 26; Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974] 231). The portrait, executed in April of 1797, shows Wollstonecraft in a loosely-fitting light-colored gown, something like the shroud-wedding dress Mathilda envisages for herself. Mary is present implicitly in the portrait, as Wollstonecraft, in her fifth month of pregnancy, is noticeably plump. Godwin used a retouched engraving of the Opie portrait as the frontispiece of his Memoirs (Tomalin, pls. 19-21). See also Durant's note on the Opie portrait in his Supplement to Godwin's Memoirs, 327-32.

  23. In Purgatorio xxvii, Matelda (clearly Mary's source for her heroine's name) directs the poet-voyager to the waters of forgetting of evil and of remembering of good (Lethe and Eunoë); she sings to him from Psalms 31[32]: 1, “Beati quorum tecta …” “Happy is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin is covered” (Purgatorio xxvii: 6 ff). Only after drinking from these waters is Dante sufficiently purified to be able to enter Paradise. Palacio discusses at length the relation between Mathilda and the Purgatorio, finding (inappropriately, I think) Mathilda at fault for being incapable of a Matelda-like purification of her father's memory, and for that reason at least partially responsible for their separation (Palacio 42-46). He misses entirely the significance for Mary of the transition made possible by the memory-renovating springs tended by Matelda/Mathilda. Mary read the Purgatorio from August 4 to August 20, 1819, while she was writing out the first draft of The Fields of Fancy (Feldman 289-91; Jones 122-23).

  24. Maria's journal entry for May 9, 1820 records that she read the novel with approval: “This most s[ingu]larly interesting novel evinces the highest powers of mi[nd] in the author united to extreme delicacy of sentime[nt]. It is written without artifice and perhaps without [the] technical excellence of a veteran writer—There are [perhaps] some little inaccuracies which, up[on] revisal [sic], might have been corrected: but these are trifling blemishes [and] I am well persuaded that the author will one day be the admiration of the world. I am confident that I [should] have formed this opinion had I not been acquainted [with] her and loved her” (Maria Gisborne & Edward E. Williams, Shelley's Friends: Their Journals and Letters, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1951] 27). Others who were familiar with the novel (besides Maria, Godwin, and, presumably, Percy) were Edward and Jane Williams, to whom Mary read from the copy she had retained in August and September of 1821 (Feldman 363-64; Jones 159-60). Nitchie concludes of Mary's submission of the manuscript to Godwin, “highly personal as the story was, [she] hoped that it would be published, evidently believing that the characters and the situations were sufficiently disguised” (Mathilda vii). Again, I think, Nitchie misses the significance of the “characters” and “situations” of the novel.

  25. William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries, 2 vols., ed. C. Kegan Paul (New York: AMS Press, 1970) 1: 335.

  26. William Godwin: His Friends and Contemporaries 1: 83, 162, 332-33.

  27. Entering Mary's life relatively late, after four years of an exclusive if distant relationship with Godwin, the second Mrs. Godwin must have appeared to the young Mary as proof of the mother's power to deprive the daughter of the father's love, and proof as well that the real stepmother could not equal the fantasy mother—encouraging in both Mary and Mrs. Godwin conflicting feelings of inferiority and superiority, and heightening their rivalry for the father's attentions. (See, for example, Mary's letter to Percy, September 27, 1817: “as to Mrs G. something [sic] very analogous to disgust arises whenever I mention her” [Letters 1: 43].) That Mrs. Godwin was Mary's rival in every sense to the privileged position occupied by the fantasy mother would have been made very clear by her name, Mary Jane; Mary always calls her “Mrs. Godwin.” There were other women in the Godwin household whom Mary may have associated with the fantasy mother. Chief among these was Louisa Gray Jones, the servant assigned the task of caring for Mary and Fanny, who left the house when Mrs. Godwin arrived (Jane Dunn, Moon in Edipse: A Life of Mary Shelley [New York: St. Martin's, 1978] 16-20). Grylls suggests (12) that Jones expected to marry Godwin.

  28. The Gisborne's visits to the Godwins were marked by confusion and increasing tensions (Maria Gisborne Journals 35-48). The strain was due in part, no doubt, to Godwin's discomfort with the memory of his unsuccessful courtship, but it was attributed by him to Mrs. Godwin's reaction to Maria's intimacy with Mary, whom she considered “the greatest enemy she has in the world.” Mrs. Godwin was, Maria reports, so shocked at her first expressions of admiration for Mary that she thereafter refused to receive her (Gisborne Journals 39-40).

  29. Gisborne Journals 44. Mary may never have known the details of Godwin's estimation of the novel; there is no evidence that she ever read Maria's journal (Gisborne Journals 8n).

  30. Letters 1: 224. Her letter and Godwin's reply, if any was made, are lost. She mentions the request to Godwin in a letter to Maria, April 6-10, 1822 (Letters 1: 229).

  31. Gisborne Journals 82.

  32. Letters 1: 237.

  33. Wollstonecraft and Godwin expected their first child to be a boy, whom they would name after his father (Godwin & Mary: Letters of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, 2 vols., ed. Ralph M. Wardle [Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1966] 80, 82, 88, 92, 102; U. C. Knoepflmacher, “Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters,” The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel, eds. G. Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher [Berkeley: U of California P, 1979] 92-93). When Godwin's first child with the second Mrs. Godwin, a boy (b. 1802), was given his father's name, Mary must have perceived him as a rival, not only in the way that any new child born into a family threatens the position of the older children, but also in a very particular way signified by his name: William Godwin the Younger enjoyed a privileged relation with his father that Mary (who could never be a “William”) could not enjoy. Cf. Mathilda's childhood fantasy of reunion with her father, in which the roles of daughter and son are conflated: “disguised like a boy I would seek my father through the world. My imagination hung upon the scene of recognition; his miniature, which I should continually wear exposed on my breast, would be the means and I imaged the moment to my mind a thousand and a thousand times, perpetually varying the circumstances. Sometimes it would be in a desart [sic]; in a populous city; at a ball; we should perhaps meet in a vessel; and his first words constantly were, ‘My daughter, I love thee!’” (11, emphasis added).

  34. On the page preceding Mary's first journal entry following William's death, she has written a fragment, evidently addressed to him:

              That time is Gone for ever—child—
              Those hours are frozen forever
    We look on the past, & stare aghast
              On the ghosts with aspects strange & wild
              Of the hopes whom thou & I beguiled
                        To death in life's dark river.
              The waves we gazed on then rolled by
              Their stream is unreturning
    We two stand, in a lonely land,
              Like tombs <m= to mark the memory
              Of joys & griefs that fade & flee
                        In the light of lifes [sic] dim morning

    (Feldman 289; omitted from Jones)

    The “ghosts with aspects strange & wild” must include the phantom of the fantasy mother; the hopes that Mary and William might have beguiled would include the resolution of the conflicts associated with the fantasy mother.

  35. Mathilda addresses her memoirs to a character named Woodville, the one person who befriends her during her exile. Woodville is clearly an idealized Percy (Mathilda xiii; Nitchie, “Mary Shelley's Mathilda” 459), but his authority within the novel is extremely limited: his effort to dissuade Mathilda from her suicidal melancholy is ineffective, and he disappears completely from the novel in its last pages. The primary function he fulfills in the novel is, I suspect, to mark the transfer between oedipal configurations that the novel undertakes. Mathilda is, in this respect, addressed to both men: to Godwin (Mathilda's father), as the father in the originary configuration, for whom the narrative should represent a reassurance of his continuing authority; to Percy (Woodville), as the father in the substitute configuration, for whom the narrative should represent a reassurance that the first father's authority is limited to the realm of fantasy.

  36. The manuscript held by Godwin was never returned to Mary, and is, presumably, lost. The copy that Mary retained remained unpublished among the Shelley papers (Nitchie, Mathilda vii-viii; Mary Shelley 207). This manuscript is divided between two notebooks containing the finished draft of Mathilda and parts of The Fields of Fancy, in Lord Abinger's collection, the remainder of the rough draft in the Bodleian Library, and some fragments among the Shelley-Rolls papers in the Bodleian (Nitchie, Mathilda vii-viii; Mary Shelley 207). Among the Shelley-Rolls fragments is the conclusion to the Fields of Fancy narrative frame, which ends with Mathilda saying to Diotima, “I am here, not with my father, but listening to lessons of wisdom, which will one day bring me to him when we shall never part” (Mathilda 89n83).

  37. Letters 1: 336.

I am grateful to Stuart Curran for his critical acumen and patience during the several revisions of this essay.

Tilottama Rajan (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12798

SOURCE: “Mary Shelley's Mathilda: Melancholy and the Political Economy of Romanticism,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 26, No. 2, Summer 1994, pp. 43-68.

[In the following essay, Rajan describes Mathilda as a narrative of trauma that lends itself more easily to a psychoanalytic interpretation rather than a formalist reading.]

Although Mary Shelley was better known in her lifetime than her husband, her writings other than Frankenstein have been largely forgotten until recently. It is, moreover, a curious fact that the reassessment of her place in the canon (and of the canon in relation to that “place”) is being mobilized by the reissuing of two of her most depressing texts: The Last Man and Mathilda.1 Part of the fascination of the latter seems to be that it was never published. “Censored” by Godwin, who was asked to secure a publisher for it but found its focus on father-daughter incest “disgusting,”2 and then left behind by Mary Shelley herself as she turned from the political to the domestic novel in Lodore, it was first brought out by Elizabeth Nitchie in 1959, when it must have seemed no more than a psychobiographical curiosity.3 That it lends itself more to psychoanalytic than to formalist interpretation, and that it is unlikely to impress those committed to an ideology of the aesthetic, are, by contrast, reasons for its borderline attraction within a very different political economy of reception.

Mathilda is a short, bare narrative of trauma: a lyric novella in which the feeling gives importance to the situation and not the reverse. Beginning with its narrator's idealization of a father who returns after an absence of sixteen years, it deals with his (ambiguously reciprocated) incestuous desire for her, her horror at his confession, his flight and suicide, and her subsequent incurable dejection. The narrative is addressed at the point of death to Woodville, a Shelleyan visionary who has also suffered an overwhelming loss and has tried unsuccessfully to draw Mathilda back into the world of the living. The situation of Mathilda encrypts that of Mary Shelley herself as she experienced the deaths of her children while she tried to deal with Shelley's intellectual abstractedness and Godwin's massive indifference to anything but his own financial troubles. Even as she repudiates him, Mathilda is haunted by the figure of her father, whom she cannot mourn but whose loss leaves her in a state of incurable melancholy, and whose image she introjects rather than incorporates, maintaining him “intact as the living dead … a foreign crypt that inhabits the Ego,” instead of transforming him into a “representational idealization.”4 The site of this introjection is her refusal to communicate her grief to Woodville because, unlike his own more conventional mourning for his fiancée, it is “polluted” (p. 238), yet by the same token somehow “sacred” and “mystic” (pp. 175-76): abjected but protected, invested with the powers of horror.

Revising Freud, for whom melancholy is a failure to mourn successfully and thus to incorporate the dead person into one's life, Julia Kristeva sees such melancholy as en-gendered by a resistance to “normality” that is both dysfunctional and profoundly legitimate. Melancholy is the refusal to accept the loss of what has been effaced by the structures of familial and linguistic interpellation constructed by the Symbolic order as characterized by Lacan.5 The melancholic, according to Kristeva, remains “glued” to the “Thing” she has lost as a fantasy “ingested, buried” inside her body: she “cannot endure Eros” but prefers “to be with the Thing up to the limit of negative narcissism leading … to Thanatos.”6 Whereas mourning economizes loss by making it a ground for revaluing and reengaging (but thus complying) with things as they are, melancholy contests the Symbolic order with an unusable negativity. In the normatively social form of narrative, this refusal to put negativity to work makes itself felt in two areas: in the narrator's relation to language and in her relation to the economy of reading. Like Kristeva's melancholic, Mathilda maintains a relation to language as the fragile border between affect and socialization. But she uses signs in a “monotonous way.”7 Likewise she transmits a tale to a reader, but almost posthumously, as if to extinguish the possibility that its reading will change anything, either for her or in the world.

I suggest here that the current appeal of Mathilda lies in its introjection of the Thing (or in Lacan's term the “Real”) that cannot be incorporated into the Romantic canon. For Lacan we encounter the Real only by missing it: Mathilda's narrativization of this Thing through a story of “incest” that misrecognizes a figure for trauma as its cause is, in this sense, an encounter with a Real that makes itself felt only as a resistance to its textualization. Unable to represent the Real, the text encrypts it, communicating on the level of affect rather than content. Moreover, what is encrypted, transmitted to a reader named in the text yet withdrawn by its actual transmission to Godwin, is on some level the (un)readability of the primal scene of trauma. For if Mathilda addresses her story to Woodville and thus reenters the circuit of communication at the point of death, Mary Shelley at the same time discards her text by sending it to her father, who might be expected to read the text only to bury it once again.

By introjecting rather than incorporating trauma, Mary Shelley produces what I have elsewhere called a “textual abject.”8 Briefly, Kristeva defines the abject as that which does not fit, and associates it with waste material or threshold substances that are neither inside nor outside, with things or states that lack clear conceptual boundaries. As the site of some undefinable horror, the abject must be expelled for the subject to constitute itself as a bounded ego. But the very term “abjection” resists such boundaries, intercontaminating self and other, act and affect. “Abjection” refers to the violent expulsion of what is other, but the “abject” simultaneously refers to the other that is thus cast out, implicating the self in what it rejects. “Abjection” can also refer to a feeling not unlike what Coleridge calls dejection, but it is less clear whose feeling this is: that of the subject who responds to a threat by abjecting it, or that of the other whose abjection prevents it from being a full-fledged subject. This confusion is evident in Mathilda, where the language of abjection and monstrosity is used with reference to both Mathilda and her father (pp. 239, 201), and where it is unclear who occupies the position of abject (and thus what the tale is about). Polluted by what she has suffered, from one point of view it is clearly Mathilda who occupies this position, and who abjects herself from a society in which she cannot participate. In this sense the text seems to narrate the treatment of the feminine within an incestuously patriarchal society. But on another level it is also the father who occupies the position of abject, pathetically echoing the words of the creature in Frankenstein (p. 201). For in accepting her abjection from the Symbolic order, Mathilda constitutes through her melancholy “a primitive self—wounded, incomplete, empty”9—of which her father becomes the unsettling and abjected rem(a)inder. From this point of view the text seems to mourn the loss of a relationship to a “masculine Romanticism”10 figured in the father and Woodville as discarded images of Shelley and Godwin. De-jecting each of these narrativizations, or con-fusing and retaining the trace of each, Mathilda is neither this nor that and is instead a textual abject.

The “textual abject” is by no means coterminous with the larger category of the “abject.” As a concretion of trauma the latter is figured in numerous Romantic texts. Blake's (First) Book of Urizen unfolds from a pre-thetic horror that can only be named in terms of what it is not, while the creature in Frankenstein is associated with monstrosity and filth. In general, Romantic literature re-covers, both in the sense of redeeming and of covering up, the abject by absorbing its affect into narrative and explanatory structures. But whereas the “normal” subject protects herself from dejection by casting out or sublimating the abject, the melancholic is someone who introjects it. The result is the “textual abject,” a form in which the writer submerges in some trauma or affect from which she will not separate by constructing an objective correlative for it in the Symbolic order. As already suggested, it is the unreadability of this trauma that leads the writer to pass on her story while seeming to bypass the reader, thereby simultaneously discarding and protecting that story. Thus Mathilda puts her tale in words only when she is “too weak both in body and mind to resist” telling it (p. 175). Dejected in content, such texts are also “abjected” or otherwise defaced so that they cannot be absorbed into conventional philosophical or aesthetic frames. Though it is about abjection, Frankenstein is therefore not a textual abject. Instead, its multiple narratives frame and reframe its central horror so as to keep open the (im)possibility of explaining and overcoming trauma. Mathilda, however, discloses in its very textual history a resistance to the logic of incorporation inscribed in the gesture of framing. In its first version as The Fields of Fancy, the text is prefaced by an interlude in the Elysian fields where an extradiegetic narrator who has also suffered some misfortune is led to the Prophetess Diotima, among whose disciples is Mathilda, whom Diotima calls upon to narrate “her earthly history.”11 By interpellating Mathilda into a Platonic and Dantesque bildung, and by implying an instructional hierarchy that descends from Diotima through Mathilda to a narrator who represents the reader, the original frame conventionalizes suffering as purgatorial. This apparatus of temporal and narratorial distancing, which mimes what one is supposed to do in shaping “life” into “art,” is entirely dropped in Mathilda. Echoes of Dante remain, but instead of being incorporated into the text's structure, they survive only on the level of affect, where they protect a desire for idealization that the text is unable to use.

Corresponding to the text's de-jection of itself from conventional forms of understanding is the reader's uncertainty as to what she should “do” with the text. For the abject has no clear sense of how it wants to influence a reader, indeed of whether it wants a reader at all. We could say that the abjecting of the reader resentfully resists a reading socialized in conventional ways, and thus operates as a political gesture. But this would be to recuperate the text by using the supplement of reading to engage it in a dialectic of enlightenment. It would be to represent too positively what may well be an unusable negativity. This unusable negativity may in fact be the source of the text's current fascination as a document resistant both to formalist analysis and to the political reading that has now replaced it. Both of these approaches “economize” the text by allowing the reader a return on her investment: through pleasure or katharsis on the one hand, and by making literature a catalyst in social and intellectual reform on the other hand. Since the political novel lies at the origins of the cultural critique that is now our dominant discourse, Mary Shelley's text takes us back to our own critical origins so as to contest not only the laws of genre as she inherited them, but also the frames of our own discipline. For Mathilda, as I shall suggest, operates at an oblique angle to the political novel developed by Godwin, Hays, and Wollstonecraft. These novels, along with the political narratives of Percy Shelley,12 provide an important context for the novella, whose abjected relationship to a family of texts is at least as important as the title character's unresolved relationship to her father. And Mathilda, in turn, is the condition of possibility for Shelley's own dialogical participation in this family, in the three other novels of her early period: Frankenstein, Valperga, and The Last Man.


Mathilda's status as the “abject” of this family can be elaborated on three levels: in terms of its indeterminate generic shape, its con-fused psychic content, and the hermeneutic desire inscribed and de-jected by the ambiguous nature of its non-publication. From the beginning of her career, Mary Shelley marked her difference from her husband generically. Using as the medium for most of her work “the story of particular facts,” she chose a form that disfigured the Shelleyan project of a poetry “which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”13 If there is in this turn to prose a certain bitterness with a Romantic idealism that effaced material detail, evident likewise in the violence and monstrosity that plague her texts up to The Last Man, Shelley also chooses in narrative a form associated with socialization, with putting this negativity to use within the process of social or personal reform. I assume here a distinction between the Novel, a form which Mary Shelley did not use until later, and narrative. By the Victorian period it would seem that the Novel had become a form of surveillance and consolidation, both domestic and national. Narrative, however, is not necessarily part of an ideological state apparatus, and can also be thought of as constituting a subject-in-process who participates in the Symbolic order only as part of a negative dialectic. For if we identify it not with the plot that is its end product but with the narrative process, we can argue that narrative allows authors to tell their histories otherwise by cross-dressing as or impersonating characters with whom they (dis)claim identification, and that it allows readers to work through a dialogue between interpellation and resistant identifications with characters (like Beatrice in Valperga) who challenge the Symbolic order. In other words, because it contains a cast of characters (and thus multiple subject-positions placed in diacritical relationships to one another) narrative allows us a space to think through the gaps around which the social text is constituted.

Mathilda, however, is not a narrative. In its fixation on a single mood, its lack of action, and its virtual exclusion of characters other than the protagonist, it seems closer to lyric. At the same time, it also lacks lyric's ability to idealize mood so as to constitute the subject according to Imaginary rather than Symbolic laws. Mathilda's lyricism, in other words, is less a positive identity than a subtraction from narrative, while its bare realism “obscures and distorts”14 what the traces of Dante and Wordsworth (pp. 183, 208, 241, 243) might have made beautiful. We can refer to the text for convenience's sake as a “novella” or perhaps as an extended short story. But these terms are simply place-holders for something that is neither narrative nor lyric: something that discards by its brevity the participation in kinship structures and the belief in “bildung,” or in time, as cognitive progress implicit in narrative, without projecting instead an instantaneous, non-temporal self affectively defined in relation to itself. If the novel can be seen as the form par excellence of the Symbolic order, and if narrative more generally constitutes a subject-in-process which constructively engages with that order, the novella is rather a form of melancholy. It gestures towards Symbolic structures but refuses to participate in them. It retains elements like plot and character but paralyzes them, deferring their usefulness or perhaps discarding them as unusable.

As uncertain as the text's status between lyric and narrative is its position between autobiography and fiction: modes which it con-fuses rather than using intertextually in the manner of the “autonarrative” fictions of Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays. Mathilda is not, like The Last Man, an essentially fictional work with (auto) biographical traces,” since it can be fully appreciated only with reference to the author's life. The presence of that “life” as an element that is introjected rather than incorporated into the text, unravels the separation of art from life on which reception into the canon is traditionally based. Moreover, the revisions made in reworking The Fields of Fancy as Mathilda collapse that separation by replacing a third- with a first-person narration that brings the text traumatically inside the narrator's psyche. But if Mathilda is not fiction, it is also not autobiography, since its deliberate disfiguration of Mary Shelley's relationship with Godwin achieves its effect by occupying an uncertain space between the literal and the figural. To read incest as simply a figure for the warped structure of the patriarchal economy would be to absolve the latter of the horror it should arouse, by theorizing it and thus disposessing it of its materiality. It is this materiality that Shelley emphasizes in sending her novella to Godwin. But to read the text as the record of a definable event would be to foreclose the possibility of change buried in the fact that this incest (both in the text and in Mary Shelley's “life”) never quite takes place, and is not quite what the narrative is about.15 Neither fictional nor autobiographical, Mathilda makes use of a signifying mode that is somewhere in between, so as to materialize yet screen its trauma by projecting the affect of a primal scene that is on some level fictitious, a narrativization of the Real.

The uncertain position of the text on the border between the fictional and the Real is repeated in the peculiar circumstances of its (non)transmission. When Shelley wrote the novella, her relationship with Godwin was at a crisis. She had lost both of her surviving children, but Godwin seemed less concerned with her grief than with extracting money from the Shelleys to pay his debts, to the point that Percy for fear of upsetting her had to withhold from her any correspondence from her father. She nevertheless sent the manuscript to Godwin, ostensibly so that he could publish it and pay his debts. Not surprisingly, though he was impressed with parts of Mathilda, he did nothing with the book. Shelley tried for two years to retrieve the manuscript, after which she dropped the matter.

Those who have discussed the peculiar fate of the manuscript have assumed that Mary's “gift” was further evidence of her generosity rather than a bitter mimicry of it, that she wanted to publish Mathilda and that Godwin frustrated her plans. It is true that Mary Shelley was not an established author, that she did not have immediate access to English publishers in Italy, and that Godwin was later to function as a literary agent for Valperga, also donated to him as a way of paying his debts. But it is surely preposterous to assume that even Godwin would publish a text which, however disguised its biographical origins might have seemed to its author, was clearly a daughter's accusation against her father. For him to profit from Mathilda would have been to publish in his very actions the scandalously patriarchal relationship of father to daughter represented in the text. Nor is it clear that the manuscript sent to Godwin was Mary's only copy of the novel, and that in confiscating it, he precluded further attempts to get it published. Mary read some version of Mathilda to Edward Williams on August 6th and to Jane Williams on September 4th, 1821.16 The transmission of the manuscript to Godwin is, rather, a part of a highly overdetermined psychic text. On one level, it is an act of textual violence that continues the abjection of Symbolic structures also evident in Mary Shelley's withdrawal from the decorums of genre. In sending the manuscript to Godwin, she does not so much seek the normal participation in the literary community signified by publication, as introject the need for community by locking her text within an incestuous mode of transmission. On another level, desperate and bitter as this gesture is about the (im)possibility of publication, it is also (self)protective. Mary protects her story from the publication she also wants by sending it to Godwin; like Mathilda, she accuses and thus abjects her father, but also protects him and rejects her own work by sending him the manuscript and thus deferring its publication.

At the heart of this ambivalence is the nature of the primal scene whose trauma is conveyed by the text. For at the same time as Mary Shelley uses the figure of incest to affect us with a sense of horror, it is also far from clear whose incestuous desire the text is about and also whether it protects or abjects that desire. The narrative is ostensibly about the father's passion for Mathilda and yet, just as powerfully about her desire for him. In one of the few sustained discussions of Mathilda, Terence Harpold, in effect, reads through this contradiction so as to reduce the text's profound ambivalence. He argues that the novella (including its transmission to Godwin) acts out a seduction fantasy which testifies to the way Mathilda/Mary, who knows her mother only through the mediation of her father, is caught in a desire that is always already constructed within the patriarchal order.17 In its Romantic context, however, incest was a motif appropriated by both radicals and conservatives in contradictory ways: a figure for a warped patriarchy in The Cenci, and yet also the site of an (il)legitimately subversive desire in Laon and Cythna and Manfred. Incest operates not just as part of a Symbolic economy, but also on the border between the Symbolic and the semiotic (Kristeva's term for the realm of drives that precedes and is excluded from the paternal order of language). A metonym for patriarchy's abuse of women, it is also the social abject created by the confusion of masculine power with radical desire in the socioliterary text of “Romanticism.” Moreover, we cannot read incest in purely biographical terms, and what is at issue here is not so much Mary's desire for Godwin enacted in the substitutive medium of fiction, as a form of desire whose textual transmission (both in Mary's and in Godwin's fiction) recognizes its figural structure. Mary's desire, moreover, is specifically a literary desire, a desire for Godwin as he might have been: as the imaginary and imaginative father of the radical feminist novel.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the family romance of this text is the reversal by which it attributes to the fictional father what seems to have been Shelley's own “excessive & romantic” attachment to Godwin.18 This reversal is on one level accusatory. Paula Cohen has discussed the use of the daughter in the nineteenth-century family as a means of resolving the tensions inherent in the dyadic formation of the couple. Persistently “triangulated,” the daughter was required to mediate between her parents and to take her mother's place. She was, moreover, required to continue the father's desires into the next generation, which meant that he controlled her even in marriage: in effect, that he married her.19 Shelley's position was exacerbated by the fact that she had no mother. This situation was sufficiently common to have become a part of the nineteenth-century psychosocial fabric: large numbers of women died in childbirth and daughters were therefore brought up by fathers much more often than sons by mothers. Conditioned to transpose her feelings for the mother onto the father as her means of access to society and language, the daughter was constructed to desire the father and to express his “incestuous” desire as hers. Troping her desire for Godwin, or for what he represented, as the father's incestuous love for Mathilda, Shelley expresses her anger at a patriarchal economy that uses female desire as Symbolic capital, thus economizing and containing what in her case was not just a desire for the mother, but for a mother associated with political radicalism. “Incest” registers the horrifying effects of this economy, sexualizing a rape that is, in fact, far more subtle.

But incest in Mathilda also is more subtle than in The Cenci, the narrative that Mary translated from Italian and that Percy wanted her to write as a play. For by making the father a subject of desire, Shelley marks him as incomplete, inscribing not patriarchy but masculine Romanticism as haunted by a lack that is disfigured or negatively troped in the (ab)use of women as figures in a cultural Imaginary. In general, her fascination with monstrosity from Frankenstein to The Last Man is part of an abjected hermeneutic which tries both to read and to resist this disfigurement by in turn, dis-figuring it. Her treatment of Godwin in Mathilda is part of this same hermeneutic. Thus, if the accusation of incest is an act of textual violence towards him, the association of the father with unsatisfied desire is an attempt at understanding. It is for this latter reason that Mary Shelley keeps the father's desire innocent and makes him a figure of pathos. Unlike Count Cenci's, his desire is never enacted and his declaration “I love you!” is not only sexually unspecific (following as it does the words “I hate you!” [p. 201]), but also curiously echoes words that the young Mathilda has dreamed of hearing from her father (p. 185). The father's desire remains in excess of its misrepresentation as incest, and what is disclosed when he finally verbalizes this desire is not so much “the truth” as a secret encrypted within his melodramatic uneasiness with language. Significantly, he himself points to the illegibility of his desire when he warns Mathilda that if she wrests his “secrets” from him “I shall utter strange words, and you will believe them, and we shall be both lost for ever” (p. 200). When he does utter these words, he is profoundly remorseful, and removes himself forever from his daughter's company.

The father's desire, moreover, is ambiguously legitimized by the fact that Mathilda returns it. After his death, she speaks of him as having “for ever deserted” her (p. 229) and longs for “our union” (p. 241), for a shroud that is to be her “marriage dress” (p. 244). Mathilda's desire for her father, a desire for “eternal mental union” (p. 244) that is nevertheless powerfully eroticized to mark the ways it exceeds this description, is a complex phenomenon: a desire for his desire, for his incompleteness. It is clear that the father's desire is, to some extent, a transference onto the daughter of his desire for her mother Diana (pp. 194-95, 208), and that in reciprocating it, Mathilda transfers onto her father her own desire for the parent she has lost. But it is also clear that this initial desire was always already in excess of its gendered object: we are never told that the father loved Diana, but simply that “He loved” (p. 178). For both Mathilda and her father, then, desire remains unspecific: a desire for everything that has been effaced from the culture in which they have been brought up.

We can approach Mathilda's desire through Kristeva's notion of the imaginary father, for what Mathilda longs for is not her father but something more “archaic” which she has never known. The imaginary father (as distinct from the Law of the Father) is Kristeva's metaphor for a pre-Symbolic and androgynous affective space that semiotically prefigures the linking of affect and language necessary for the child's emergence as a speaking subject. A trans-position of the mother, “he” is also a “third term” (between mother and child) that libidinally directs affect into signification and without whom the child remains stuck in abjection.20 Incest thus functions within two very different signifying paths whose inevitable confusion in Mathilda results in its abjection. On the one hand, it is the desire for the imaginary father: a desire that is radical and forbidden because it involves, for him as well as for her, what cannot be accommodated within the Symbolic order. On the other hand, incest is also the form taken by a Symbolic economy that allows this desire to emerge only in warped ways.21 Confronted not with the imaginary but with the Symbolic father, Mary Shelley must “kill” him, putting him in the position of the “mother” as that which precedes and is abjected from language, so as to return him to his semiotic potential.

As crucial to understanding Mathilda's desire is the text's functioning as an abjected psychoanalysis of Godwin's fiction, considered as a body of (self)writing split between its phenotext and its genotext. For this desire is a literary desire which cathects onto Mathilda's father the affect associated with the Godwinian hero: an outcast or a kind of sublime abject haunted by some dark secret which is both horrifying and subversive. Of particular importance (because she would have read it before writing Mathilda) is Godwin's penetrating (self)exposure of patriarchy in his confessional novel Fleetwood (1805). The novel deals with a brooding and Byronic protagonist who, at the age of forty-five, marries a young orphan called Mary, and whose misanthropy and jealousy traumatically end their relationship. Fleetwood cannot be exactly identified with Godwin, who did not marry a much younger wife and does not seem to have resented her having an independent social and literary life. Yet the age at which the character marries inscribes the traces of Godwin's complicity in a patriarchal script that played itself out in the life of his daughter if not his wife. For if descriptions of “Mary” resemble anyone, it is not Mary Wollstonecraft but her daughter, who in Mathilda serves the protagonist's father as a figure for his lost wife. In a way that seems almost to prophesy Mary Shelley's life, Mary Macneil loses her parents and sisters all at once in their disastrous voyage to Italy and is propelled into a sudden dependence on the man whom her father has left her behind to marry. Like Godwin (who was unable to comprehend his daughter's response to the deaths of her children), Fleetwood never fully understands the effects of this trauma on his wife who obsessively dreams of drowning herself so as to be reunited with her family. Referring back to an incestuous pre-text elaborated in Godwin's fiction rather than his life, Mary Shelley transposes the woman's dream of drowning onto the man, who lives it out as reality.

Mathilda is, on one level, Mary Shelley's revenge, a rewriting of Godwin's novel in which an incestuous patriarchy pays through death instead of being allowed the luxury of a Rousseauvian and self-vindicating confession. Yet in alluding to Fleetwood, Mary Shelley also evokes a “Godwin” who criticized what is here urged against him. For Godwin does not simply use his “metaphysical dissecting knife”22 on Fleetwood; he also raises questions about the seemingly unselfish Macneil, whose family embodies the ideal of rational domesticity offered as a cure for Fleetwood's restless “ennui.” It is, after all, Macneil who inexplicably and suddenly emigrates to Italy, taking his entire family but leaving his youngest daughter behind for Fleetwood to court. More important than his misgivings about the match, it would seem, is his desire to prove his theory: that domesticity is the cure for his protégé's misanthropic egotism. While Fleetwood can be criticized for treating his wife as a kind of toy,23 Macneil is scarcely different in bringing up his daughters to follow decorative pursuits such as painting, piano-playing, and gardening.24 At once a corrected Rousseau and an example of Burke's benevolent patriarch, Macneil is Godwin's confession that on the feminist issue there is not much to choose between opposed political positions, philanthrope and misanthrope, perhaps even author and character.

As important, the novel ends with neither the death of the woman nor her reabsorption into the domestic ideology. There is no reconciliation of mutilated survivors as in Jane Eyre, and Fleetwood's confession (unlike Caleb Williams') does little to justify him. Rather, the novel is an unusually candid portrayal of a “Romanticism” that both attracted and disturbed Mary Shelley in ways that are reflected in her ambivalent admiration for Byron. For Fleetwood is driven by a perpetual discontent with things as they are. He seems discontent not only with the world of Restoration sex in which he makes his adult début, but also with its “cure” in the enlightened Macneil family whose abrupt departure and death are the symptoms of its ineffectual and merely theoretical quality. Finding no more than a conventionalized satisfaction in the family, Fleetwood loves Mary most when she has lost everything and is driven to a melancholy that constitutes their deepest bond. It is as though he seeks in her an image of his own radical alienation from the Symbolic order: an alienation caused by a loss which, in his case, has no specific referent.

Driven by a dissatisfaction variously theorized in Germany as “sentimentality,” “irony,” and indeed “Romanticism” (as distinct from Classicism), Fleetwood can neither put this discontent to any use, nor understand the melancholic ground of his attraction to Mary, whose affinities with him he tries to displace by writing her into a position of gendered inequality. Instead, and because of his status as a male member of the leisured class, his restlessness is dissipated in ennui and spleen. What would otherwise be Godwin's critique of a social type is, however, complicated by the inability of the text to make ideological and narratological authority coincide. For while Fleetwood is scathingly anatomized, the fact that the narrative is told in the first person also leads us to feel that there must be something in him, recuperating not Fleetwood himself, but that unfocused dissatisfaction with which he infects the novel. Fleetwood's discontent with things as they are inscribes in the text the trace of a negativity that is never politicized, never used productively. One has, at the end, a sense of disappointment which comes from the fact that the novel is without issue; its characters do not seem to go onto anything. But the effects of this unused negativity within the dialectic of enlightenment that is the conventional model for the reading process are already deeply contradictory. On the one hand, Fleetwood's self-knowledge does not result in anything and is not structurally confirmed and rewarded by a reconciliation with his wife: given the repetitive pattern of his previous behavior, we must wonder if he has changed, and if enlightenment makes any difference. On the other hand, Mary clearly has changed: in leaving her husband, she has been radicalized, perhaps even more so than Maria at the end of Wollstonecraft's Wrongs of Woman. Yet the plot has no means of registering this change, of making it matter, because the novel is the story of Fleetwood and not of Mary, who at the end simply goes away. Finally, therefore, the sense of waste also implicates Godwin himself in the novel's confession, as well as transmitting to the reader a dissatisfaction that is the other side of desire. For just as Fleetwood cannot understand what draws him to his wife, so Godwin cannot write a feminist novel, curtailing the radicalism of his insight within the egotism of the masculine confessional mode.

But this waste, this unused negativity generated by unfulfilled expectations, can also be seen as the ground of something yet to be. For our depression at the end of the novel has two sources. On one level, the example of Fleetwood suggests that while intellectual change is possible, its effects are dissipated in the repetitive nature of emotional behavior. On another level, the example of Mary suggests that change does not occur because there is no way of recording it in the Symbolic order: no tradition of what Mary Shelley will attempt in Valperga, namely a “history” trans-scribed by women. At the same time, however, the condition of possibility for this new history is the restless Romanticism of Fleetwood rather than the contented Enlightenment rationality of Macneil: the Romanticism that Mary Shelley critiques but never entirely rejects in the Byronic figure of Castruccio in Valperga.

In alluding to Fleetwood Mary Shelley therefore summons up a complex past: one that connects her to her mother through the (dis)continuous mediation of her father. Her profound ambivalence towards this past is evident in her need to kill the father fictionally, so that she can bring him back as a ghostly archetype haunting Mathilda's thoughts, a form without a content. But this ambivalence does not function in the manner characteristic of Godwin's novels: novels which stimulated her desire in a way that Shelley's poetry could not, because of their fascination with a “deeply-trenched wound,” a “wound” that could only be “skinned over” and which is recognized in Deloraine as the wound of gender.25 For Godwin's novels use trauma as part of a negative dialectic. It is important to emphasize that they differ from Holcroft's novels in being dialectical rather than rhetorical and didactic: they do not simply show us what is wrong, they ask us to think through political justice for ourselves. Their significance consists not in what they say but in what Godwin terms their “effect.”26 At the same time, Godwin's centrality to Romantic (as distinct from Enlightenment) political narrative also stems from a feature recently noted by Gary Handwerk: namely his interest in traumas that suspend the diagnostic and curative project of cultural critique. This interest in trauma marks Godwin's divergence from the simpler Jacobin tradition of Holcroft and Bage, as well as from the meliorism (perhaps simplistically) attributed to Political Justice.27 For we tend to associate Godwin's critique of institutions with the utopian assumption that to know the good is to desire the good. But in his novels, he increasingly explores the functioning of (social) trauma as a cause or as a perpetuating effect of political injustice, a gap in the social text that aborts dialectic in repetition. The novels, then, are traversed by a psychic violence that suspends dialectic: a negativity which we also find in Blake's Visions and Europe, in Shelley's Zastrozzi, and in the intertextual complicities between Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. Despite the role of trauma in his writing, however, it is still arguable that Godwin's fiction prior to Mandeville is constructed around an aporia between trauma and critique. We can characterize this aporia in two ways. Because we are never certain whether the origins of trauma are personal or social, we cannot assume that these texts are accessible only to psychoanalysis, resistant to cultural critique and the social change for which it is a disciplinary trope. Secondly, because we cannot gauge the effects of trauma (in the present and in the future, on the protagonists and on a reader detached from the situation), we also cannot say whether it blocks or mobilizes social change. This aporia generates what is best described as a negative dialectic felt in our uncertainty as to whether the “effect” of reading is revolution or further trauma. Godwin's novels, ending (in the case of Caleb Williams, Fleetwood, and Deloraine) in the wreck or death of their protagonists, shock us with the urgency of thinking beyond things as they are. To think, however, is not to change, since we must also rethink these texts through the blindnesses in their own (self)analysis, as well as through the space between textual and actual progress inscribed by Godwin's “auto-graphing” of the texts with traces from his own life.

In making Godwin a character within her text but also its first reader, Mary Shelley alludes to that space and evokes the negative dialectic of the political novel as a context for Mathilda. But the novella itself does not function dialectically. For the abject introjects dialectic as paralysis, rather than incorporating ambivalence into dialectic. Or to put it differently, “effect” in Mathilda is encrypted within affect, with the result that melancholy does not become a source of a productive negativity. In this respect Mathilda draws on a pessimistic countercurrent in the Romantic political novel exemplified by Eliza Fenwick's Secresy (1795), Mary Hays' Victim of Prejudice (1797), and Mary Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman (1798). Trauma is central to these novels, interrupting or negating the project of critique initially implied by their emphasis on sociohistorical detail. Hays' novel, which focuses on its protagonist's victimization by the criminal (hi)story of her mother, is the most definite in de-jecting the tradition of Jacobin meliorism by narrating the repetitive return of social trauma in the lives of two very different women. This repetition finally results in a return to the mother, in which Mary resists the patriarchal system by compulsively reenacting her mother's abjection from the social order: albeit antithetically, through an uncompromising adherence to truth and chastity. But Fenwick's novel, though more accommodating in its attitude to this system, is no less depressing. Secresy is the closest of these novels to the Enlightenment model, focalized as it is through the character of Caroline Ashburn who tries to arrange the lives of her friends so as to bring about a balance between sense and sensibility. But Caroline's plans fail, decentered by the novel's form as a series of interesecting epistolary narratives rather than the single omniscient narrative we might expect. Her critique of “error” and her attribution of a secondary responsibility to Murden and Sibella for the code of secrecy in which society inscribes them, come to sound more and more ineffectual as a way of economizing the waste of their deaths, so that the novel is by the end an uncertain autocritique of the failures of sensitivity built into its own mode.

Where Fenwick's novel is finally overwhelmed by its own secret, by the trauma it has kept from itself, Hays' novel consciously disengages us from the tradition of enlightened critique evoked by the preface. For, in the preface, Hays had spoken of the damage caused by the means used to preserve a reputation for chastity, and had implied that Mary was the victim both of society's prejudice against her and of her own defensive counter-prejudices; but, by the end, this balanced perspective can only seem complicit with what it critiques. However, the most interesting of these texts for Shelley's novella is the one by Wollstonecraft, which is unable to find an adequate discourse either in sentiment, critique, or in the negative dialectic of the revolutionary novel, and which, in the end, simply breaks off. In this respect, it comes closer to Mathilda than Secresy, which narrates the unravelling of a politicized novel of manners to which it remains formally committed, or Victim, which is what Susan Fraiman has called a novel of “unbecoming”28 that takes on the form of a bildungsroman, only to reject an aesthetic economy that makes experience into a source of symbolic capital. Where these texts include trauma in generically conventional forms, trauma enters The Wrongs of Woman structurally in the fact that it is broken off. Trauma thus becomes the signifier as well as a signified of the text. The sudden break followed by various notations for endings abjects what had seemed in the trial scene to be a dialectical hermeneutic in which the wrongs of woman antithetically stimulated an extratextual reader to establish justice in the theatre of the mind. The notes deflect revolutionary anger into despair. They wipe out the intellectual progress made in the previous chapters, but hurriedly, as if unwilling to reengage in dialogue by explaining their sudden doubts. The figure of Darnford swallows up “Godwin” in “Imlay,” in ways suggesting that the difference between repetition and change scarcely matters, or perhaps that the distinction cannot easily be made. But the impatience with which this is done can either seem hysterical, or can imply legitimate fears that there are things elided by the conventions of plot and rational argument, whether conservative or revolutionary. Taking in the radical pessimism of other women novelists who allow effect to be lost in affect, the text's dis-figuration of its project thus also exhibits the obscurity and ambivalence characteristic of the textual abject.

In drawing on her mother's work, Mary Shelley condenses into one text a trajectory of relationships with “the literary tradition” that unfolds over a much longer period in Wollstonecraft's career. The Fields of Fancy invokes the title of Wollstonecraft's Caves of Fancy, probably abandoned because its piously Platonic framing of women's experience no longer rang true. In similarly jettisoning the frame of Mathilda, Shelley follows the turn her mother took towards a more personal realism, in which the author projects a fictionalized version of herself into a text that arises from and is affected by her life. For the greater part of The Wrongs of Woman, this new “realism” takes the form of autonarration: a mode which displaces the mimetic assumptions of autobiography by intertextualizing the author's “life” with her text, so as to bring out the ways in which both life and text are constructed within the Symbolic order. Refusing to posit either as closer to reality than the other, autonarration asks the reader to focus on the differences between them, so as to recover the “Real” which is the absent cause of autonarrative desire.29 It thus generates a negative dialectic in which the reader must work through these differences as spaces ambiguously connected to change and/or loss.30 Crucial to its “effect” is the way it uses a rhetoric of the personal to implicate the reader in the continuation of this project. Gesturing towards autonarration by transposing her own experience into her novella, Mary Shelley turns away from its negative dialectic. Instead, she returns to the reluctant de-jection of the political novel by its feminist sub-version, as inscribed in the very form in which Wollstonecraft's text, like her life, is cut off from productive reading. For the fragmentary continuations of Wrongs, con-fused as they are within a despair that traverses both the hopeful and the pessimistic versions, raise the question of whether the negativity and anger of the narrative can be put to use, and of whether the text will survive as a revolutionary document or as an abandoned project whose death is figured in the death of the daughter who was to have been its future reader.

The desire that underwrites Mathilda's relationship to its literary family is, however, more ambivalent than this negative trajectory suggests. In one sense, its very writing conceals a return to the mother which would not be evident except for the Fields of Fancy framework. Yet in returning to a mother whom both she and her husband idolized as the first feminist, Mary Shelley returns not to Wollstonecraft's radicalism, but to its dejection from an intellectual economy in whose values Fenwick and Hays were similarly unable to find a place. This dejection, moreover, seems to be what emerges when women write fiction and not political theory, and thus write from experience. It is as though the legacy of Wollstonecraft for Mary Shelley is not the rational feminism of A Vindication, but is rather the abjection of those ideals in a textual moment that becomes a metonymy for Wollstonecraft's entire career. On the other hand, this very metonymy is heavily mediated by Godwin, who edited the Wrongs posthumously and defaced what might otherwise have been a revolutionary fragment by ending it with various “scattered heads for the continuation of the story” whose textual status is unknown.31 Godwin, in other words, chose to publish the text in a form that cuts off its dialectical effect, even as he chose not to publish his own dejection of dialectic in the original ending of Caleb Williams. Writing through Wollstonecraft what was later to become his own anxiety about trauma as irrecuperable, he disables her text from speaking of trauma as socially caused, and makes the rest of the narrative seem almost irrelevant in relation to the return of a pessimism it has vainly sought to defer. Godwin's handling of his wife's novel prefigures his treatment of Mary in Fleetwood: his de-jection of her from a narrative in which the waste of Fleetwood's life is presumed to speak for hers. Thus, despite Godwin's claims that he has “intrud[ed] nothing of himself into the work,” The Wrongs of Woman does not give us “the words, as well as ideas, of the real author.”32 Its editorial situation accidentally repeats the situation of woman in the Symbolic order, including the Symbolic order of radical discourse. This situation opens the possibility that Wrongs is not Wollstonecraft's text, that the “real” author is still illegible, and that woman's writing is merely constructed as abject by things as they are.

By repeating the editorial situation of the Wrongs in making Godwin her own literary agent, Shelley inscribes the reading of her own novella in the ambiguities of that situation. The desire to return to the revolutionary legacy of the mother (gesturally inscribed in allusions to her work rather than explicitly verbalized in the story) must be set against the fact that Shelley can recover her mother only as abject. At the same time, Godwin's intervention in the process of writing “Wollstonecraft” into history is the Symbolic site of a recognition that the abjection of women's writing (Wollstonecraft's excessive pessimism, but also Godwin's abjection of his wife by writing her as he does) is itself part of a social text. But this intervention itself is highly overdetermined, and by no means simply patriarchal. For Godwin's (re)construction of Wollstonecraft's text (indeed of Wollstonecraft as text) is a complex mixture of sympathy and dissociation, rejection and confession. By ending the Wrongs not with a trial scene obviously modelled on the one in Caleb Williams, but with the anticlimactic “scattered heads,” Godwin constructs it in antithesis to his own novel, attributing its failure to sustain the negative dialectic of the Godwinian novel to a private and feminine grief over Imlay. Moreover, he deconstructs the text, as if to dismiss rapidly the troubling (in)compatibilities it foregrounds between masculine political critique and radical feminism. On the other hand, ending it as he does is also a gesture of solidarity: a disfiguration of his own doctrine of perfectibility, not only on a theoretical but also on an intensely personal level. For the endings show masculine behavior repeating itself, and also make public Wollstonecraft's fears that the author of Political Justice might prove a second Imlay. Haunted by the possibility that he might have failed his wife, Godwin in Fleetwood and Deloraine anatomized masculine guilt and strengthened his bond with Wollstonecraft by making “her” pessimism about social change his own. He also compulsively repeated, with reference to his daughter, the blindnesses he had never actually shown towards his wife. As editor and author Godwin confessed, and in that very confession repeated, the wrongs of woman.

The psychotextual triangle within which Mathilda emerges is thus a highly complex one. That complexity is repeated within the text itself in the ambiguous position of the father as the cause and cure of trauma. In psycho-analytic terms, Mathilda's inordinate longing for the father who has wronged her recognizes as suicidal the merging with affect that Kristeva associates with the “maternal position,” and mourns the loss of a “paternal position” necessary for the transposition of affect into language and history. The need for this paternal position is recognized in Mathilda's sense that she should but cannot love Woodville, and in his function as the temporary recipient of her tale. However, this association of the mother with affect and the father with socialization neglects a curious feature of the novella: namely that it is the father who is consistently associated with affect. Not only is it the image of the father that collects the most powerful affective charges in Mathilda's story; while alive he also says very little, and communicates mostly in terms of his moods. In melancholy, according to Kristeva, we introject abjection as dejection in order to avoid killing the mother, by keeping her inside us as corpse or abjected rem(a)inder. But it is the father whom Mathilda “kills” and then melancholically “loves” in order to avoid killing him again. Suffocated inside her, he is, in a sense, denied a voice in her tale and thus disables her from telling her story. The father, in other words, occupies the position held by the mother in the Kristevan dialectic. The figure of Woodville offers Mathilda an opportunity to transpose the semiotic drives that collect around the father into a “normal” relationship with the sociolinguistic order. And indeed Woodville (like Shelley himself) promises to be a symbolic refiguration of the imaginary father: a visionary reformer who is friendly rather than patriarchal, a softer and feminized version of the father. But if Mathilda's relationship to her father is almost purely on the level of affect, her relationship to Woodville is entirely linguistic. Though Mary Shelley even revised the manuscript to make Woodville's arguments more persuasive,33 he remains oddly disappointing:

He was younger, less worn, more passionless than my father and in no degree reminded me of him: he suffered under immediate grief yet its gentle influence instead of calling feelings otherwise dormant into action, seemed only to veil that which otherwise would have been too dazzling for me.

(p. 228; emphasis mine)34

His (dis)appearance as an image the narrative cannot use leaves unsatisfied a desire for the father which is the only reason for the story's transmission.

The curious position of the father can only partly be explained by arguing that he takes the place of Mathilda's lost mother, as Mary Shelley herself transferred to Godwin her emotional and intellectual desire for Mary Wollstonecraft. It must also be explained historically in terms of Shelley's ambivalence towards the “masculine Romanticism” which critics such as Anne Mellor see her as rejecting, but which remained an object of literary desire even when she was profoundly critical of it (as in Valperga). Mathilda's desire for her father is not so much a literally incestuous desire on the part of Mary Shelley for Godwin, as it is a figural desire for the Romanticism (mis)represented by Godwinian characters such as Fleetwood. We can only begin, very inadequately, to decode that desire. Romantic radicalism created a climate in which radical feminism was and remains possible. German distinctions of Romanticism as “striving” and “discontent” from Classicism as Hegel's adequate embodiment of the Idea in things as they are, are the philosophical condition of possibility for political radicalism. As important, it is Romanticism which inaugurated our interest in marginal voices, and which initiated a fascination with the challenge posed to “normal” society by madness and borderline states that continues to resonate in the work of theorists such as Foucault and Kristeva. Mary Shelley's fiction from Frankenstein to The Last Man is on one level a continuous auto-metaphoric record of her relationship to a Romanticism which she displaces between novelistic equivalents of Godwin, Byron, and Shelley (as they figure themselves in both life and text), so as to defer reaching a conclusion about it. In Mathilda, however, that relationship remains profoundly blocked. The symptom of that blockage is the abjection of the father who cannot be understood and exists only at the level of affect, as a buried life entombed in Mathilda's melancholy. The more conventional “Romanticism” of Woodville proves sadly inadequate for transposing the father's desire into language, idealizing trauma as “grief,” and thus veiling the radical consequences of suffering instead of calling “into action” those “dormant” feelings which Kristeva names the semiotic chora.

That desire remains illegible in part because Godwin himself could not read his own texts. In sending him her story, Mary Shelley appeals for such reading, even as she cuts her own text off from a more public reading as part of the literary canon. Instinctively, she seems to replicate what Godwin failed to see in his own texts. She con-fuses life and text by sending Mathilda to the person who is its fictional subject. In so doing, she evokes the interimplication of the aesthetic and the personal which is part of Romanticism's legitimating rhetoric, so as to set up a complex series of transferences, openings and betrayals between life and text. Accusing Godwin fictionally of something he had not actually done, but then sending her fiction to the “real” Godwin, she mimics the transference between life and text which had allowed him, like Dorian Gray, to do in his life what he confessed in his art. As important, she repeats the editorial situation of the Wrongs so as to place the reading of Mathilda within the transference between mother and daughter that operates in and between Godwin's fiction and his life.

We must be clear about what Mary Shelley “does” with her text in sending it to her father. She hopes to “affect” Godwin rather than to “effect” change. The effecting of change is explicitly inscribed in The Wrongs of Woman through the addressing of Maria's memoirs to intradiegetic readers such as Jemima and Darnford. Mathilda, however, does not make its reading part of its diegesis, addressing itself only posthumously to Woodville, to whom the protagonist writes “as if I wrote for strangers” (p. 176). Rather, it confronts the Symbolic order with an unusable negativity, a crucial part of which is its resistance to productive reading.


To read Mathilda intertextually, indeed to read it at all, is to reimplicate the text in the economy it resists. But such an approach is to some extent justified by the fact that it is what Shelley herself eventually does. For the remaining novels of her early period are attempts to reeconomize the dejection of Mathilda, so as to enter once again into dialogue with the Romanticism of Godwin and Percy Shelley. A more detailed tracing of the intertextual relationship between the Shelleys in the period 1817-1823 is the subject of another article. Suffice it to say that this relationship is the scene of a complex dialogue on the subject of what masculine Romanticism leaves out. Working within the same modes as her father and husband, she views mythopoeic idealism and historical narrative from the other side, so as to articulate an inside that does not so much oppose as inhabit the major texts of Godwin and Shelley in ways that the latter comes to recognize in The Triumph of Life. A fuller treatment of the textual interchange between the Shelleys would recognize their relationship as one of difference, of a divergence that is also a deferral, in which Mary's darker vision is the unconscious of Percy's increasingly qualified idealism which, in turn, remains the mobilizing force behind her pessimism. As the con-fused resistance to her abjection by and of Romanticism, Mathilda introjects ambivalence as paralysis rather than using it dialogically. It is nevertheless the condition of possibility for Mary Shelley's reengagement in Valperga with the political economy of Romanticism.

That reengagement aesthetically trans-codes a libidinal movement from “Godwin” to “Shelley,” which allows Mary Shelley to reemerge as a writing subject by transferring her desire for a “Godwin” she could only introject as corpse, to a “Shelley” no longer abjected as the excessively idealistic Woodville but incorporated into the figure of Euthanasia, the heroine of Valperga.35 Written between 1820 and 1822, Valperga was actually conceived in 1817 and researched while Mary Shelley was copying Prometheus Unbound and writing Mathilda. Its relationship to the novella is somewhat like the one Wordsworth describes between “The Old Cumberland Beggar” and the briefer “Old Man Travelling.” Mathilda can be seen as “an overflowing” “split off”36 from Valperga, or perhaps as the abject which the longer novel (like Wordsworth's narrativization of “Incipient Madness” in The Ruined Cottage) attempts to re-cover. Unlike Wordsworth, however, Mary Shelley does not use the gendered syntax of narrative to set aside the trauma localized in the abject. For Valperga narrates through its principal characters (Castruccio, Euthanasia, and Beatrice) the complex interdependence of masculine and feminine, as well as the libidinal bonds that connect both Symbolic positions to the abject as the hiding-place of Romantic power. In the process, its triangle of characters also stages an unconcluded dialogue between the negative dialectic of the political novel, and an unusable negativity dis-figured in Beatrice, a refiguration of Mathilda and the text's most powerful character.

Valperga may well be the first feminist historical novel, and can be contrasted in this respect with Sophia Lee's The Recess: a romance or counterfactual history about the claims of Mary Queen of Scots' daughters to the throne of England. Attempting to write women into history by replacing the masculinized queen “Elizabeth” with “Mary” as a point of origin, and by transposing the heroic romance of Tasso and Spenser into what was then the “feminine” form of the novel, Lee nevertheless cross-dresses female desire as masculine ambition and therefore, in the end, fails to challenge the postulates of the historical novel. Mary Shelley, by contrast, follows Scott in focalizing her history of ambition and conquest through a character displaced from the center of the action and thus displacing this action itself from its centrality. She constructs her account of the Guelph warlord Castruccio from the chronicles of Euthanasia, a character she invented in a deliberate swerve away from the sources on which she based her research. In so doing, she uses a distinction between “public histories” and “private chronicles” (3:263) to question the losses at the heart of (hi)story as a discipline in which the recording of information is predicated on the destruction of other bodies of experience and forms of knowledge.37

Valperga is the history of the fourteenth-century prince Castruccio, a regional overlord who attempted to unify various Italian city-states under his power. It is clearly critical of the nationalist project at the heart of the historical novel as written by Scott. But, it also evokes the deferred utopianism of more “radical” histories by Percy Shelley and Godwin. For Mary Shelley implicates her husband's texts in a conversation with her own by setting her novel in the country he associated with republican liberty, by refiguring Asia as Euthanasia (also an allusion to Godwin's anarchist hope for an “euthanasia of government”) and by returning to the abjected dialogue between Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci in linking her own Beatrice to Beatrice Cenci. She also writes very much in the mode of Godwin's St. Leon, likewise a historical novel that puts perfectibility on trial by (dis)figuring it through the career of a potentially Promethean individual. Unlike Prometheus and Asia, Castruccio and Euthanasia are never united. In refiguring Prometheus as the Byronic Castruccio, Mary Shelley tacitly criticizes her husband for effacing the materiality of gender and power in an imaginary marriage used to sanctify a sublimated (inter)nationalism. Unlike St. Leon, who abuses the unlimited power conferred on him by the philosopher's stone but is ambiguously rehabilitated in the second part of the novel, Castruccio's career of ambition and domination takes him from bad to worse. But more significantly, Valperga inverts the perspective of St. Leon, positioning “history” on the outside of the text, and displacing the hero from its center so as to focalize what is still his story through its impact on the two women in his life.

If Valperga is Castruccio's history, then, it is also the lost story of the two women whose love provides him with narrative legitimacy. Euthanasia, his childhood sweetheart, is Mary's most “Shelleyan” figure: committed to the ideal of freedom embodied in Florence, but as a woman, denied Promethean power. Beatrice, the Ancilla Dei who is briefly elevated by the people's superstitious belief in her prophetic power (the only “power” allowed to a woman), is driven into hysteria and madness when Castruccio abandons her to return unsuccessfully to an Euthanasia whose political ideals he has betrayed. Perhaps the most compelling part of the novel concerns Euthanasia's relationship to Beatrice, whom she gives a home, whose Paterin belief in a darkly demonic God she listens to, and whose deep dejection she can “skin over” but can never finally cure. As a version of Mathilda, Mary's figure for her withdrawal from Percy's idealism, Beatrice also refers to his literary failure to deal through gender with the material realities of history. For Percy had already given voice to the Paterin vision in the form of the Furies. Antithetically casting out this vision by demonizing it in Prometheus Unbound, he suffers its return in The Cenci, which Mary had refused to release him from writing. Arguably, The Cenci is no more sensitive to trauma than Prometheus, finally criticizing Beatrice for not forgiving her father so as to preserve intact the political mythology of masculine Romanticism. In returning to the intertextual scene of this Romanticism, Valperga tries to revision the symbiosis between Promethean desire and the abject. For the relationship of Euthanasia to Beatrice repeats the relationship of Prometheus Unbound to the Furies unleashed in The Cenci. But where Percy deals in a histrionically external way with the horror of Beatrice's rape, Euthanasia's bond with her Beatrice is the affective core of Mary Shelley's novel. Euthanasia, it is arguable, finds her vocation and her own cure in caring for Beatrice. After Beatrice dies, Euthanasia returns to loving the man she can never accept ethically and intellectually. Resisting him politically so as to save the better part of him, she herself becomes sullied by the world of politics, is defeated, exiled by Castruccio, and dies.

Both Mathilda and Beatrice are figures of incurable trauma. Such figures, who use melancholy and hysteria to resist interpellation into the Symbolic order, have recently come to preoccupy feminist criticism. But it is important to emphasize that Mary Shelley's textual counterpart is not just Beatrice but Euthanasia: that Valperga, unlike Mathilda, is not the abjection of masculine Romanticism. Where Mary in The Last Man figures herself as Adrian, in Valperga she figures Percy as herself, as Euthanasia. Dis-figuring Romanticism by representing both Byron and the Godwinian hero as Castruccio, she also recuperates it through Euthanasia, who never ceases to love Castruccio though she can never be united with him.

This recuperation of Shelleyan Romanticism, however, is possible only because of the bond the narrative dramatizes between the Shelleyan Imaginary and the abject, which in turn makes Euthanasia a more credible character than Woodville. It is therefore worth pausing over the psychodynamics of the relationship between Euthanasia and Beatrice. On one level, this bonding between women turns away from participation in the Symbolic order and thus, we could say, from masculine Romanticism. As long as Euthanasia cares for Beatrice, both women are disengaged from Castruccio, desire for whom leads both to their death. But, on another level, it is clear that what Euthanasia loves in Beatrice is Castruccio, for once Beatrice is dead, her unfulfilled desire for him returns. Reversing the “normal” transposition of maternal affect onto a masculine love-object who represents the semiotic within the Symbolic, she loves Beatrice because Castruccio has loved her. In other words, she transposes the paternal and social onto the maternal, embracing at the level of affect that part of Castruccio which he has abjected from the world of realpolitik, as well as that part of herself which cannot be accommodated within a world of masculine politics to which she remains profoundly drawn. This curious inversion of the dialectic of heterosexual love as Kristeva describes it mirrors libidinally what Mary Shelley was trying to do with the masculine mode of the historical novel, by replacing it not with the domestic novel but with a feminist historical narrative that she could articulate only negatively, as an absence. Euthanasia is the symbol of that absence, and it is worth noting that she has no interest in the family, and that unlike Beatrice she places political responsibility above romantic desire. Even her love for Castruccio is in part political: what she loves is not simply the man, but a certain power of action and a desire for political justice that he once represented.

As a figure for a feminist history Euthanasia is, of course, ineffectual. Yet she does not exactly die: she is “never heard of more” (3:261), until Mary Shelley recovers her for the Romantic cultural Imaginary. The description of her disappearance resonates with echoes of the Poet's death in Alastor, and also with anticipations of Byron's last poem The Island (1823), in which the lovers also do not die but “[sleep] in the oozy cavern of the ocean” (3:261). These resonances acknowledge Romanticism as the psycho-intellectual complex that gave Shelley the space to develop her feminism. At the same time Valperga, as a dialectical return to Mathilda, reaches no firm conclusions about the (im)possibility of both Romanticism and feminism. For the narrative, as a psychoanalysis of Romanticism that places it in dialogue with the abject, remains profoundly ambivalent. On the one hand, this psychoanalysis has as its goal to establish on a saner basis the economy of gender that underwrites the economy of history. This project is critical in nature, and clearly had consequences in (literary) history. Godwin returned to the feminist issue in Deloraine (1833), a new version of Fleetwood which he wrote under Mary Shelley's influence, while re-reading Mathilda.38 Percy Shelley, as I hope to argue elsewhere, was powerfully influenced in The Triumph of Life by Valperga: a fact acknowledged in The Last Man. On the other hand, the critical project which allows Shelley to engage in dialogue with her literary family is constantly jeopardized by her own bond with the abject: her dialogue with her own text. For Euthanasia is her own highly Romantic attempt to “skin over” the wound of Mathilda and to economize negativity, and the fate of Beatrice stands as a reminder that that may not be possible.


  1. I refer to the reissuing of Hugh Luke's edition of The Last Man by Anne Mellor (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1993), and to the republication of Mathilda by Betty T. Bennett and Charles E. Robinson in The Mary Shelley Reader (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990). All references to Mathilda are to this edition. References to Valperga are to Valperga; or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio Prince of Lucca, 3 vols. (London: G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823).

  2. F. L. Jones, ed., Maria Gisborne & Edward E. Williams, Shelley's Friends: Their Journals and Letters (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1951), p. 44.

  3. Elizabeth Nitchie, ed., Mathilda, Studies in Philology, Extra Series (Oct. 1959, No. 3).

  4. Eugenio Donato, “Bodies: On the Limits of Representation in Romantic Poetics,” in The Script of Decadence: Essays on the Fictions of Flaubert and the Poetics of Romanticism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993), p. 203. Donato develops his distinction between the concept as incorporation and the image as introjection from the work of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, which is also a major influence on Kristeva's analysis of the introjective structure of melancholy in Black Sun.

  5. For Kristeva the lost object is specifically the “mother,” whom the melancholic keeps inside herself in a suicidal choice of affect over the “paternal” process of language and symbolization. I shall argue, however, that the place occupied in Kristeva's scheme by the mother is occupied in Mathilda by the father, as a socially mediated transposition of the mother who, as such, is both abjected and mourned.

  6. Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 51, 76, 20.

  7. Ibid., p. 47.

  8. Tilottama Rajan, “Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Textual Abject,” The Wordsworth Circle, 24:2 (1993): 61-68. In defining this (non)genre I depart somewhat from Kristeva, by merging her discussion of abjection in Powers of Horror with her discussion of melancholy in Black Sun.

  9. Kristeva, Black Sun, p. 12.

  10. I borrow the term “masculine Romanticism” from Anne Mellor's Romanticism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 1993), but my reading of Mary Shelley's relationship to it is very different from Mellor's reading in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Routledge, 1988).

  11. The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, vol. 4, ed. E. B. Murray (New York: Garland, 1988), f. 129v rev.

  12. I refer to Percy's early novels Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, as well as to Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, and The Triumph of Life.

  13. Percy Shelley, The Defence of Poetry, in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 485.

  14. Percy Shelley, Defence, p. 485.

  15. Significantly the word “incest” is not actually used in the text.

  16. Frederick L. Jones, Mary Shelley's Journal (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1947), pp. 159-60.

  17. Terence Harpold, “‘Did you get Mathilda from Papa?’: Seduction Fantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda,Studies in Romanticism, 28 (1989): 53-54. Mathilda has also been discussed by Anne Mellor, who sees it as a critique of the incestuous basis of the family (Mary Shelley, pp. 191-200), and by Susan Sniader Lanser, who reads it as a failure to find a voice that exposes the fundamental incompatability between feminism and masculine Romanticism (Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1992], pp. 168-72).

  18. Betty T. Bennett, ed., The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980-88), 2: 88.

  19. Paula Marantz Cohen, The Daughter's Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1991), pp. 22-34.

  20. Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 34, 40-41.

  21. The incestuous nature of the psychosexual economy is a recurring concern of both Godwin's and Mary Shelley's novels. Fleetwood and Deloraine both marry women young enough to be their daughters. In Mary Shelley's Lodore, Lord Lodore's much younger wife is on the verge of having an affair with her husband's illegitimate son, and Lodore, having angrily insulted his ‘rival’ then flees to America to avoid having to fight a duel with his son, thus precipitating his eventual death.

  22. Godwin, “Preface” to Fleetwood: or, The New Man of Feeling (London: Richard Bentley, 1832), p. xi.

  23. The phrase is actually used in Deloraine, ed. Maurice Hindle (Collected Novels and Memoirs of William Godwin, 8 vols, ed. Mark Philp [London: William Pickering, 1992], 8:103)

  24. Since Godwin was careful not to give his daughter a typically feminine education, we must take this as a criticism of Macneil.

  25. Deloraine, p. 95; Fleetwood, p. 130. For a powerful account of the relationship between the plague and the problems of imperialism and gender in The Last Man, see Steven Goldsmith, Unbuilding Jerusalem: Apocalypse and Romantic Representation (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 261-313.

  26. William Godwin, “A Choice in Reading,” The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: 1797), 1:109.

  27. Gary Handwerk, “Romantic Historicity and the Limits of the Liberal Imagination: William Godwin's Historical Fiction,” Comparative Criticism 16 (forthcoming, 1994). While I am very much indebted to this article, I differ from Handwerk in reading Godwinian trauma as part of a negative dialectic.

  28. Susan Fraiman, Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), pp. 1-31.

  29. For a discussion of autonarration see my “Autonarration and Genotext in Mary Hays' Memoirs of Emma Courtney,Studies in Romanticism (forthcoming, Summer 1993).

  30. Thus Darnford is modelled on Gilbert Imlay, but as Maria's second lover he also plays the role played in Wollstonecraft's life by Godwin. The text does not so much identify the character with a biographical person, as defer its own conclusions by making the identification incomplete. For the space between Darnford and Imlay/Godwin raises two contradictory possibilities: that “Imlay” can change so as to justify the revolutionary desire invested in him, or that “Godwin” may once again be an Imlay unable to represent political justice.

  31. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, ed. James Kinsley and Gary Kelly (Oxford and London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), p. 201. Since there is no surviving manuscript of the text, we do not know whether the endings immediately follow the narrative or even whether they are in the same notebook as the copy Wollstonecraft was said to be revising when she died. We also do not know whether they were part of this version or of an earlier version.

  32. Ibid., p. 72.

  33. In the original version, Lovel's idealism is vague. But in Mathilda Shelley adds several sentences specifically detailing Woodville's ideas on good and evil (Mathilda, p. 229; Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, f. 154v rev.).

  34. In Fields, Mathilda is less critical of Lovel and describes him as “less experienced” than her father, not “more passionless.” The subsequent states of the text are more critical on two other counts as well: in Fields itself, Shelley pencils in the disappointed statement that Lovel in “no degree reminded” Mathilda of her father, and in Mathilda, she also makes the crucial point that his grief is incapable of “calling feelings otherwise dormant into action” (Mathilda, p. 228; Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, f. 155r rev.).

  35. Here I also have in mind Kristeva's argument in Tales of Love that melancholy is the inability to love and is “cured” (although always partially and ambiguously) by the transference of the imaginary father into the Symbolic order through successful hetero-sexual love.

  36. Quoted in Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 294.

  37. See Hans Kellner, Language and Historical Representation: Getting the Story Crooked (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 26-54.

  38. Maurice Hindle makes this claim (presumably on the basis of Godwin's diary) in the “Introductory Note” to Deloraine (p. vi). The protagonist of Deloraine, like the father, tries to replace his dead wife with a second wife young enough to be his daughter.

William D. Brewer (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6988

SOURCE: “Mary Shelley on the Therapeutic Value of Language,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall 1994, pp. 387-407.

[In the following essay, Brewer proposes that Shelley's use of oral and written language as a therapeutic tool is a dominant theme in many of her works, including Mathilda.]

The therapeutic value of oral and written self-expression is a recurrent theme in Mary Shelley's works, particularly in those works, such as Mathilda and Valperga: or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, in which the heroines have been subjected to psychological trauma. For example, the eponymous heroine of Mathilda refuses to tell her friend Woodville of her dead father's incestuous passion for her because she fears words, especially the word “incest,” and, perhaps partially as a result of this self-censorship, she lives out her life in a state of chronic depression. In contrast, Beatrice, the brutalized prophet of Valperga, does relate her tale of suffering to the sympathetic (and aptly named) Euthanasia, but this narration provides only temporary relief. Mary Shelley's often garrulous characters frequently speak or write of their experiences, even when, as in the case of Frankenstein's monster, these narrations seem implausible. As Marc A. Rubenstein notes, “the author permits the monster an improbable series of digressions as he relates how he has passed the months since he wandered away from Frankenstein's laboratory” (168). There is, however, a psychological reason for the narrative, which Rubenstein touches on when he compares the monster to a “patient in psychoanalysis” (168)—the monster feels the need to work through and even validate his experience, and Frankenstein is the only person who will listen to him. In this essay I will argue that while Mary Shelley presents characters who are skeptical about the therapeutic value of verbal self-expression, she acknowledges the human need to put suffering into words, and the short-term relief that words can provide. Moreover, Shelley suggests that in the case of extreme trauma writing is sometimes more viable than speaking as a form of language therapy.

Mary Shelley's somewhat skeptical attitude toward the power of words was probably influenced by Percy Shelley's views on language.1 In “On Life,” Percy writes: “How vain is it to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being” (475); he goes on to argue that “the misuse of words and signs” prevents “the mind” from acting freely (477).2 His frustration with the inadequacy of language is forcibly expressed in his note to “On Love”: “These words are inefficient and metaphorical—Most words so—No help—” (474). Moreover, in A Defense of Poetry, Percy Shelley asserts that over time words decline into “signs for portions or classes of thought [i. e. abstract ideas] instead of pictures of integral thoughts”—if poets do not intervene to revitalize them, the language becomes “dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse” (482). Percy's concern about the inadequacy and abstraction of language is also expressed in his poetry. In Prometheus Unbound Prometheus repudiates his curse on Jupiter, declaring that “words are quick and vain” (IV.i.303), a sentiment echoed by the Maniac in “Julian and Maddalo,” who exclaims “How vain / Are words!” (472-473). These declarations can be compared to many of the pronouncements in Mary Shelley's fiction regarding the effectiveness of language. For example, her meditation on the failure of words to improve the human condition in her historical novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck recalls Percy's views on language's limitations:

Oh, had I, weak and faint of speech, words to teach my fellow-creatures the beauty and capabilities of man's mind; could I, or could one more fortunate, breathe the magic word which would reveal to all the power, which we all possess, to turn evil to good, foul to fair; then vice and pain would desert the new-born world!

It is not thus: the wise have taught, the good suffered for us; we are still the same.

(III: 18)

Moreover, Clifford, the villain of Perkin Warbeck, soothes “his evil passions with words,” thus exemplifying “the misuse of words and signs” that Percy Shelley warns against in “On Life”: “It was some relief to this miserable man to array his thoughts in their darkest garb, soothing his evil passions with words, which acted on them as a nurse's fondling talk to a querulous child” (II: 73-74). As I will demonstrate, many of Mary Shelley's works seem to support her husband's view that words are essentially inadequate, too metaphorical and easily misused to provide a reliable mode of self-expression.

While Mary Shelley's novels and stories often cast doubt on the effectiveness of words, her explorations of the theme of language therapy anticipate the preoccupations of modern psychoanalysis. According to Jacques Lacan, successful psychoanalysis relies exclusively on the spoken word: “Whether it sees itself as an instrument of healing, of training, or of exploration in depth, psychoanalysis has only a single medium: the patient's speech. … And all speech calls for a reply … there is no speech without a reply, even if it is met only with silence, provided that it has an auditor” (40).3 Without speech, or a linguistic relationship to “the other,” the human subject can be reduced to what Lacan calls “the imaginary order,” a self-regarding mental state in which the subject is prone to narcissistic fantasies. As Peter Brooks has noted, Frankenstein's monster learns language in an attempt to enter “the symbolic order,” or “the cultural system into which individual subjects are inserted” (207), and escape his “monsterism”: “only in the symbolic order may he realize his desire for recognition” (208).

While the monster fails in his attempt to be recognized by others, or to achieve membership in the linguistic community, Shelley's Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice (a character in her short story “The Mourner”) choose to withdraw from the symbolic order, isolating themselves and thus refusing what has been called the “talking cure” (Lacan 46). In a number of her works, Mary Shelley suggests this kind of repression can lead to tragic consequences, an insight confirmed by modern psychology:

The ultimate goal [of reconstructing the trauma story] is to put the story, including its imagery, into words. … The therapist should beware of developing a sequestered “back channel” of communication, reminding the patient that their mutual goal is to bring the story into the room, where it can be spoken and heard. Written communications should be read together. The recitation of facts without the accompanying emotions is a sterile exercise, without therapeutic effect. … At each point of the narrative, therefore, the patient must reconstruct not only what happened but also what she felt. The description of emotional states must be as painstakingly detailed as the description of facts.

(Herman 177)

As I will show later in this essay, Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice refuse to talk about their traumatic experiences, and the result of this refusal is, in both cases, depression and premature death. Although these characters leave written records of their sufferings, these are to be read posthumously, and thus have little or no therapeutic effect. Like Lacan and Herman, Mary Shelley recognizes the human need to communicate and is aware of the psychological ramifications of words, whether spoken or unspoken. But, unlike Lacan and Herman, Shelley seems to believe that trauma victims have neither the desire nor the ability to speak to others about their experiences.

Perhaps more than any of Shelley's other characters, Frankenstein's monster realizes the importance of oral communication.4 His hideous and terrifying appearance inspires fear and hatred in others, but when he overhears cottagers conversing with one another, he learns that relationships can have a linguistic basis: “I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experience and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it” (83). He has complete faith in the “godlike” powers of language, which he thinks will create a bond between him and the cottagers: “I formed in my imagination a thousand pictures of presenting myself to them, and their reception of me. I imagined that they would be disgusted, until, by my gentle demeanour and conciliating words, I should first win their favour, and afterwards their love. These thoughts exhilarated me, and led me to apply with fresh ardour to the acquiring the art of language” (85). But language fails to live up to the monster's expectations: although he succeeds in impressing the blind De Lacey, De Lacey's son Felix returns and violently attacks the monster before he can say a word in his own defense. His need to communicate with other intelligent beings remains unsatisfied.

The monster refuses, however, to give up in his quest to form a relationship through language, and asks Frankenstein to create a female monster: “my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being, and become linked to a chain of existence and events, from which I am now excluded” (109). But when Frankenstein destroys the unfinished female, the monster is condemned to perpetual linguistic isolation—he is convinced that he will never experience the consolation of expressing his thoughts and feelings to a sympathetic “equal.” Only in the last scene of the novel, after Frankenstein has died, can the monster express his powerful emotions to an attentive listener, and the extravagance of his language does seem to give him some relief: “‘But soon,’ he cried, with sad and solemn enthusiasm, ‘I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames’” (164). Before Walton, the monster can play his final part “with sad and solemn enthusiasm.” While language cannot in and of itself enable the monster to have the relationships he craves, he can finally experience the satisfaction of confessing his crimes and articulating his miseries before a man who, if not totally sympathetic, is at least torn between “curiosity and compassion” (161). But, despite his last impassioned monologue, the monster is never truly admitted into the symbolic order—from the moment he sees his own hideous visage reflected in “a transparent pool” (84), he is condemned to remain in the mirror-stage, irrevocably cut off from the linguistic community.

Mary Shelley's speculations about language and therapy may have begun when she was a child and her father allowed her to hear Coleridge recite “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the epigraph to her short story “Transformation,” she quotes from the section of Coleridge's poem in which the Ancient Mariner is compelled to tell his tale, and “Transformation” begins with the protagonist wondering about his motivation for narrating his story:

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrench'd
          With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale,
          And then it set me free.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
          That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told
          This heart within me burns.

(Coleridge's Ancient Mariner)

I have heard it said, that, when any strange, supernatural, and necromantic adventure has occurred to a human being, that being, however desirous he may be to conceal the same, feels at certain periods torn up as it were by an intellectual earthquake, and is forced to bare the inner depths of his spirit to another … in spite of strong resolve—of a pride that too much masters me—of shame, and even of fear, so to render myself odious to my species—I must speak.


This passage describes both the innate human need “to bare the inner depths of [one's] soul” and the sense that the consequences of this self-exposure could well be devastating and could, in fact, make one appear “odious” to one's entire species. These contradictory urges to reveal and conceal are typical of a number of Shelley's traumatized characters and create a dialectic that she explores extensively in the figures of Mathilda and Beatrice, both of whom are modeled on Percy Shelley's tragic protagonist Beatrice Cenci. Like Beatrice Cenci, Mary Shelley's heroines can find no words to heal their psychic wounds. Both Mathilda and Beatrice Cenci are confronted with the horror of father-daughter incest, and Mathilda also resembles Beatrice in her fear of forbidden words, or, more specifically, in her repression of words signifying incest, the “guilt that wants a name” (Mary Shelley Reader 239). Thus a comparison of Mathilda and The Cenci allows us to see how Mary Shelley's treatment of the theme of logophobia builds on her husband's dramatic portrayal of post-traumatic word repression.

In Percy's The Cenci, after Cenci has struck and cursed Beatrice, Lucretia asks her what is wrong, and the stunned Beatrice forces herself to say: “It was one word, Mother, one little word” (II. i. 63). That unspeakable word has, however, put Cenci in the position of power. While before it was Cenci who left Beatrice uttering “inarticulate words” (II. i. 112), after Cenci's threat it is she who is afraid to speak. Moreover, following her father's rape of her, Beatrice is unable to give the act a name. In response to Lucretia's questions she repeatedly equivocates: “What are the words which you would have me speak?” (III. i. 107); “Of all words, / That minister to mortal intercourse, / Which wouldst thou hear?” (III. i. 111-113). All victims of incest, she suggests, are compelled to leave “it … without a name” (III. i. 117). As Anne McWhir notes, Beatrice's repression of the word incest results in the word's revenge: “rejected as a way of dealing with passion, [the word] returns as a means of suggesting perverse, excessively literal action” (148).6 Because she could not give her horror a name, Beatrice feels compelled to have her father murdered.

Like Beatrice, Mathilda struggles with unutterable words, but, unlike Beatrice, Mathilda precipitates her own tragedy by begging her father to speak “that dreadful word” (201). Whereas Beatrice's mistake may be her refusal to give Cenci's crime a name, Mathilda's initial error is to insist that her father tell her his dark secret, and his confession of incestuous passion is what leads to their destruction. Mathilda passionately demands that her father “Speak that word,” and his “strange words” (200) are fatal to him and, eventually, to her. In fact, in the scene in which Mathilda confronts her moody and evasive father, “word” and “words” are repeated with obsessive regularity. She replies to her father's “terrific words”: “the sword in my bosom [is] kept from its mortal wound by a hair—a word!—I demand that dreadful word; though it be as a flash of lightning to destroy me, speak it” (201). Her father resists uttering the “strange words” of his confession, but Mathilda's “words [he] cannot bear” (200), so his secret is extracted: “My daughter, I love you!” (201). In his subsequent ravings he tells her that he foolishly believed that “these words … would blast her to death” (201). Unfortunately, those words, once uttered, can never be taken back, and inevitably lead to the father's death and Mathilda's decline. Thus, after learning the fatal consequences of certain words, Mathilda becomes, like Beatrice Cenci, logophobic: her thoughts become “too harrowing for words” (219), and, although her narrative is ostensibly written for Woodville, she is never able to “give words to [her] dark tale” (239).

In its skepticism about the therapeutic value of spoken words, Mathilda is somewhat different from the section of The Fields of Fancy, an earlier draft of Mathilda, in which Diotima persuades Mathilda to tell her story. In The Fields of Fancy, Mathilda asks: “Are there in the peaceful language used by the inhabitants of these regions [the Elysian Gardens]—words burning enough to paint the tortures of the human heart—Can you understand them? or can you in any way sympathize with them [?]” (Nitchie 100).7 But even in The Fields of Fancy the implication is that a tale like Mathilda's can only be told in some visionary realm; on earth, Mathilda chooses to repress the words that might help her to exorcize her mental demons. Her tale is left as a manuscript to be read posthumously.

In fact in the final chapters of the novella Mathilda makes the mental error that Shelley describes in his notes to Queen Mab: “the vulgar mistake of [confusing] a metaphor for a real being, … a word for a thing” (Ingpen & Peck I: 145; McWhir 148-149). She has an almost superstitious awe of words, which seem to have the power to destroy. While she is searching for her suicidal father, Mathilda gazes at “a magnificent oak” in the midst of a lightning storm and declares to her servant that “if the next flash of lightning rend not that oak my father will be alive.” Her father is dead, and the tree is accordingly obliterated: “I had scarcely uttered these words than a flash instantly followed by a tremendous peal of thunder descended on it [and] the oak no longer stood in the meadow” (213). While the word incest has the power to damn Mathilda to mental hell, her words in this scene appear to have the power to command the forces of heaven. In light of these events, it is not surprising that Mathilda changes from a woman who demands that her father “Speak that word” to a secretive recluse. Mathilda's logophobia is such that she refuses (while alive) to reveal the secret of her despair to Woodville, although he begs her to allow “complaint and sorrow [to] shape themselves into words” (231). She remembers all too clearly her devastation after her father shaped his “complaint and sorrow” into language.

Although Mathilda represses the words which would explain the cause of her sorrows, she nevertheless finds a kind of consolation in complaining to Woodville, in clothing her “woe in words of gall and fire” (231). Moreover, Woodville's soothing conversation shows Mathilda the positive power of words: “Woodville's words had magic in them” (232), she writes, admitting that “His words are sweet” (234). Unfortunately, however, “the influence of Woodville's words [is] very temporary” (240), and in his absence Mathilda again succumbs to despair. As long as she fails to “give words to [her] dark tale” she will not be able to exorcize it, and death comes to her as a relief. Mathilda recognizes the “magic” of language but comes to believe that its consolatory effect is too ephemeral to provide any lasting benefit. Moreover, Mathilda's remorse over her father's death leads her to blame herself for his unnatural passion: “I alone was the cause of his defeat and justly did I pay the fearful penalty” (197). In fact, Mathilda even questions her motivation for writing her story: “Perhaps a history such as mine had better die with me, but a feeling that I cannot define leads me on and I am too weak both in body and mind to resist the slightest impulse” (175). Although her conscious mind seems to favor repression, her unconscious, or that “feeling that [she] cannot define,” moves her to perform at least one act of linguistic therapy. She can accept the fact that incestuous passion can be written about, but refuses to believe that it can be spoken about—thus Mathilda suggests that writing can be used as a therapy in cases in which speaking is not an option.

Ten years after she composed Mathilda, Shelley returned to the themes of father-daughter love and linguistic repression in a short story entitled “The Mourner.” In “The Mourner” a young woman, Clarice Eversham, is obsessively devoted to her father: “He appeared to her like an especial gift of Providence, a guardian angel—but far dearer, as being akin to her own nature” (Robinson 92). When she and her father are caught in a shipwreck, she refuses to leave her father when the women are being put on boats, even though the angry captain expostulates with her: “You will cause your father's death—and be as much a parricide as if you put poison into his cup—you are not the first girl who has murdered her father in her wilful mood” (94). She remains with her father because she has the “fearful presentiment” (93) that if she leaves her father he will die; ironically, however, she does indirectly cause his death when the one boat that returns for them has room for only one person. Her father tosses her aboard it and is drowned (like Mathilda's father)—during the homeward voyage Clarice hears reproaches from her fellow passengers who, rather harshly, conceive “a horror of her, as having caused her father's death” (94). In essence, “The Mourner” is a reworking of Mathilda without the incest theme: like Mathilda, Clarice responds to her father's death by isolating herself and ultimately dying in that isolation. Clarice even goes so far as to change her name to Ellen and pronounce her earlier self (Clarice) dead. She befriends Horace Neville, who, like Woodville, is a Percy Shelley surrogate (the names of both characters end in “ville”), and who, again like Woodville, must persuade her not to commit suicide.

As Ellen, Clarice is characterized by “wordless misery”—instead of telling Neville her story, she generalizes on the subject of sorrow: “She recited no past adventures, alluded to no past intercourse with friend or relative; she spoke of the various woes that wait on humanity” (89). This relatively abstract form of therapy does not alleviate her suffering, and she occasionally begins to tell her story, but then breaks off: “Sometimes she gave words to her despair … and every pulsation of her heart was a throb of pain. She has suddenly broken off in talking of her sorrows, with a cry of agony—bidding me to leave her” (89). This fragmentary type of language therapy does not seem to help in the least, and she soon falls ill, refusing medical help and doing “many things that tended to abridge [her life] and to produce mortal disease” (91). Her ultimate confession, like Mathilda's, is in the form of writing, but even here she fragments the word that describes her “crime.” In her final letter she asks Neville to give the following message to her erstwhile lover, Lewis Elmore: “Tell him … it had been destruction, even could he have meditated such an act, to wed the parrici—. I will not write that word” (98). Like Mathilda, she has made “the vulgar mistake of [confusing] … a word for a thing”—she represses the word parricide just as Mathilda represses the word incest, but neither woman is truly guilty of what she accuses herself. They leave writings that will be read posthumously and seek to escape both life and fearful words in death. And, like Mathilda, Ellen-Clarice prefers written revelations to oral confessions, even though she is unsure of the justification for her final document. As Ellen-Clarice muses, “Perhaps it is a mere prevarication to write,” but write she does, and she seems to gain some measure of consolation from the fact that she has bid those who loved her “a last farewell” (98). Again, while spoken words are rejected as a possible form of communication, written words are at least posthumously acceptable.

Moreover, in both Mathilda and “The Mourner” the psychologically unbalanced female protagonists are provided, in a sense, with amateur psychoanalysts: the Percy Shelley surrogates, Woodville and Neville, are faithful and supportive listeners who intervene successfully when their friends contemplate suicide. The auditors are clearly present; what is wanting is that one indispensable element, speech. The brusque way in which Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice reject the catharsis of oral self-expression—that catharsis that Coleridge's Mariner must repeatedly experience—suggests a somewhat masochistic desire to preserve their lonely sufferings from outside observation and interference. In memory of their dead fathers, they do not want to be relieved of their guilt until they expiate that guilt in death. Tragically, they remain in the “imaginary order.”

While Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice are traumatized by their inability to deal with their dead fathers, the Beatrice of Valperga is emotionally shattered by her lover's rejection and her subsequent abuse by a band of sadists. Her sufferings, like those of Percy's Beatrice Cenci, have a physical as well as emotional component,8 but unlike Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice, she deals with her terrible memories in an outspoken way. An orphan raised by the Bishop of Ferrara in fourteenth-century Italy, Beatrice is considered a prophet, or Ancilla Dei, until she is seduced and then deserted by Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. Broken-hearted, she wanders as a penitential pilgrim, troubled by a recurrent dream which features a flood, “a dreary, large, ruinous house” (Valperga III: 82), and a mysterious and evidently traumatic event: “Then something happened, what I cannot now tell, terrific it most certainly was … there is something in this strange world, that we none of us understand” (III: 83). Her dream becomes reality when she actually catches sight of “an old, large, dilapidated house islanded in the flood” (III: 84), and she faints. When she awakens, she finds herself in the house of a Cenci-like psychopath who is like a “god of evil” (III: 87). As she represses the horrific event of her dream, she refuses to specify all of what happens to her in that house of torture: “It was a carnival of devils, when we miserable victims were dragged out to—Enough! enough!” (III: 86). And although she speaks about her subsequent madness, she feels unable to dwell on it: “But I must speak of that no more; methinks I again feel, what it is madness only to recollect” (III: 88). In telling Euthanasia of her terrible experiences, she proves far more willing than either Mathilda or Ellen-Clarice to speak of what troubles her, but there are obvious limits to what even she is able to articulate: her dream and the accounts of her abuse and later insanity are partially censored.

In Valperga there are, however, indications that Beatrice's words are therapeutic not only to Beatrice but also to her listener, Euthanasia. Both Beatrice and Euthanasia feel a special kinship for one another because they have loved, and had their hearts broken by, the same man, a power-obsessed tyrant named Castruccio. Under Beatrice's influence, Euthanasia is able to break out of her state of emotional paralysis: “Beatrice again awoke [Euthanasia] to words, and these two ladies, bound by the sweet ties of gratitude and pity, found in each other's converse some balm for their misfortunes” (III: 59). And Beatrice, like several of Mary Shelley's other characters, feels the urge to communicate the tragic events of her life, even though Euthanasia advises her to forget the past (III: 68). It is important to note that Beatrice, unlike Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice, tells her story to a sympathetic woman—however supportive Woodville and Neville may appear, their masculinity may well present a barrier to communication, although in the case of Mathilda's logophobia it is unlikely that anyone would be able to penetrate her reserve. Together, however, the two patriarchal influences on Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice—first the excessively loving and guilt-inspiring fathers, second the younger men who seek to “save” them from their suicidal depressions—work effectively to silence these extremely sensitive women. In Valperga, however, Castruccio, the oppressive masculine influence in that novel, allows his female victims to find at least a temporary peace in each other's company.

And, as Mary Shelley asserts, Beatrice's narrative has a positive effect on her: “Euthanasia had feared, that the reviving the memory of past sorrows, might awaken the frenzy from which [Beatrice] before suffered; but it was not so. She had pined for confidence; her heart was too big to close up in secrecy all the mighty store of unhappiness to which it was conscious; but, having now communicated the particulars to another, she felt somewhat relieved” (III: 98). Although this seems like an unambiguous affirmation of the therapeutic value of spoken words, the qualifying “somewhat” indicates that Beatrice's cure is not complete, and it turns out to be temporary indeed. In fact, like the modern analysand who becomes overly dependent on his or her psychoanalyst, Beatrice is lost when Euthanasia and Padre Lanfranco, her spiritual advisor, leave her alone in Lucca: “she was left without a guide to the workings of her own mind” (III: 118). She encounters a corrupt priest named Tripalda, one of her former torturers, and falls senseless; she dares “not speak to any … and the deep anguish she [feels is] no longer mitigated by the converse with her friend” (III: 121).

In this emotionally fragile state, Beatrice falls under the influence of Fior di Mandragola, a self-proclaimed witch, and she describes to Mandragola her recurrent dream of the flood-islanded house, which now includes a confrontation with a doppelgänger: “I was transported into a boat which was to convey me to that mansion … a woman sate near the stern, aghast and wild as I … It was myself; I knew it; it stood before me, melancholy and silent; … I can tell no more” (III: 132). In Lacanian terms, Beatrice is trapped in the mirror-stage, “in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject” (2). Her specular dream epitomizes her alienation from the symbolic order. As in its earlier incarnations, this dream is inconclusive, and word repression is again suggested: “a few moments, and I distinctly remembered the words it spoke; they have now faded” (III: 132). Unfortunately, Mandragola, unlike Euthanasia, uses Beatrice's words to manipulate her, misinterpreting the dream as a divine sign of Beatrice's mystical powers, and promising Beatrice that she will be able use these powers to command Castruccio, whom Beatrice still loves. Thus Shelley shows how exposing one's inner self to the wrong person can be psychologically devastating: the witch raises false hopes in Beatrice, and then makes her swear never to reveal what has transpired.

As in the cases of Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice, Beatrice decides to remain silent because of the man she loves, and this silence proves fatal. When Euthanasia returns, she notices a change in Beatrice: “She was much disappointed … to find her friend far worse both in body and in mind, than when she left her. More than all wildness of words and manner, she feared her silence and reserve, so very unlike her latest disposition” (III: 142). Beatrice approaches Euthanasia for comfort, but cannot speak: “I have sworn, and I will not tell—… I shall sleep now; so not a word more” (III: 146). Later the witch drugs her with henbane and arranges for her to encounter Castruccio on the road; when Castruccio and her former abuser Tripalda approach, Beatrice falls down in convulsions and later dies, insane. She is no longer able to separate nightmare from reality.

Thus Shelley balances her presentation of positive language therapy, Beatrice's narration before the loving and sensitive Euthanasia, with an example of how baring one's psyche before a manipulative and unscrupulous person can lead to madness. Moreover, Beatrice's dependence on Euthanasia, and her rapid decline into insanity after she decides to stop confiding in her friend, suggest that although spoken words can be therapeutic, a traumatized person's prognosis depends on the availability of a sympathetic and supportive listener. And in an oppressively patriarchal world, a psychologically disturbed woman needs another woman to hear her—in Mathilda and “The Mourner” women refuse to tell their emotionally-charged stories to men, no matter how well-intentioned the men may be, but Beatrice gains at least a temporary respite when she relates her tale to Euthanasia. In every case, however, there are some words which must remain unsaid.

Although Shelley does not explicitly deal with the theme of language therapy in two of her later novels, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck and Lodore, she does address the issue of language's power to effect positive change. In Perkin Warbeck, for example, Monina de Faro uses words to entrance one of the novel's villains, the treacherous Robert Clifford: “They spoke of the desolate waste of waters that hems in the stable earth—of the golden isles beyond: to all these subjects Monina brought vivid imagery, and bright painting, creations of her own quick fancy. [Robert] Clifford had never before held such discourse. … The melodious voice of Monina, attuned by the divine impulses of her spirit, as the harp of the winds by celestial breezes, raised a commotion in his mind, such as a prophetess of Delphi felt, when the oracular vapour rose up to fill her with sacred fury.” But Monina only succeeds in enchanting (and, significantly, feminizing) Clifford for a moment: “A word, a single word, was a potent northern blast to dash aside the mist, and to re-apparel the world in its, to him, naked, barren truth” (II: 26). Her praise of Richard of York (Perkin Warbeck) inspires Clifford's jealous hatred, and “a single word” is enough to recall him to his evil nature. While Monina is, like Woodville in Mathilda, a poetic and spellbinding speaker, both characters fail in their efforts to use words to inspire others. Not even the most powerful and imaginative discourse can wean Clifford and Mathilda away from their self-destructive passions. In Perkin Warbeck, Shelley suggests that words cannot convert—they can only reinforce tendencies and beliefs already present. Thus Monina is able to inspire Edmund Plantagenet because he thinks as she does: “her bold, impetuous language had its effect on Edmund: it echoed his own master passion” (III: 67).

Fanny Derham, a minor character in Shelley's Lodore, believes passionately in the power of words to cause change. She declares her convictions to Ethel Villiers, the novel's heroine: “Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world's great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on; I never hesitated to use them, when I fought any battle for the miserable and oppressed. People are so afraid to speak, it would seem as if half our fellow-creatures were born with deficient organs; like parrots they can repeat a lesson, but their voice fails them, when that alone is wanting to make the tyrant quail” (153). Moreover, when Ethel and her husband are in need of help, Fanny's conversation with Ethel's estranged mother, Lady Lodore, saves her friend from much suffering. But Shelley repeatedly undercuts Fanny's idealistic sentiments by presenting her as other-worldly and unrealistic; after the speech quoted above, Fanny asserts that “while [she] converse[s] each day with Plato, and Cicero, and Epictetus, the world … passes from before [her] like a vain shadow” (153). And when Fanny inherits a fortune, she cannot grasp its significance: “Fanny was too young, and too wedded to her platonic notions of the supremacy of mind, to be fully aware of the invaluable advantages of pecuniary independence for a woman. She fancied that she could enter on the career—the only career permitted her sex—of servitude, and yet possess her soul in freedom and power” (206). Thus, although Shelley presents a character in Lodore who steadfastly believes in the power of language, Fanny is too inexperienced and bookish to be taken as a reliable authority on this subject. In fact, Shelley suggests that life will test Fanny's idealism: “One who feels so deeply for others, and yet is so stern a censor over herself—at once so sensitive and so rigidly conscientious—so single-minded and upright, and yet open as day to charity and affection, cannot hope to pass from youth to age unharmed” (228). Even in this late novel, Shelley seems skeptical about the efficacy of words, particularly when they are employed by a naive idealist.

As we have seen, Mary Shelley's fictions return repeatedly to the predicament of a suffering human being torn between the impulse to communicate and the urge to retreat into isolation and death. More often than not, the result is psychic paralysis, the opposite of the meliorism championed by Percy Shelley. But ultimately an ephemeral sort of consolation can be found in the act of writing, as Lionel Verney discovers at the end of Mary Shelley's apocalyptic The Last Man. Since he is the last man on earth, Lionel Verney's compositions seem the most futile of all self-expressions—no one will read them. But in writing his narrative, Verney rejoins, temporarily, all of the people he has loved: “I lingered fondly on my early years, and recorded with sacred zeal the virtues of my companions. They have been with me during the fulfillment of my task. I have brought it to an end—I lift my eyes from my paper—again they are lost to me” (339). Even Mary Shelley's most repressed characters, such as Mathilda and Ellen-Clarice, find themselves compelled to express themselves in writing, just as Shelley herself, mourning the deaths of her husband and two of her children, and facing the prospect of social ostracism and emotional deprivation, was moved to present her state of mind in The Last Man. In a May 14, 1824, journal entry she wrote: “The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions, extinct before me” (II: 476-477).

Moreover, in her October 2, 1822, journal entry, her first journal entry after Percy's death, Mary clearly states her need for the therapy provided by written rather than spoken self-expression: “Now I am alone! … The stars may behold my tears, & the winds drink my sighs—but my thoughts are a sealed treasure which I can confide to none. White paper—wilt thou be my confident [sic]? I will trust thee fully, for none shall see what I write” (II: 429). While in her bereavement Mary Shelley finds social “intercourse with others extremely disagreable [sic],” she feels compelled to record her emotions in her journal: “coming home I write this, so necessary is it for me to express in words the force of my feelings” (II: 440). Although the acts of speaking or writing may not cure psychological problems or bring the dead back to life, these forms of self-expression can provide some comfort, and as Mary Shelley's fiction and life seem to suggest, that momentary comfort often is the only consolation allowed to suffering humanity.9


  1. For a more extensive presentation of Percy Shelley's attitudes toward language, see Keach 1-41.

  2. All references to Percy Shelley's works are from the Reiman and Powers edition.

  3. Freud also stresses the importance of words in psychoanalysis: “Nothing takes place in a psycho-analytic treatment but an interchange of words between the patient and analyst. The patient talks, tells of his past experiences and present impressions, complains, confesses to his wishes and his emotional impulses. … Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. … Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy and we shall be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and the patient” (17).

  4. For an analysis of the monster's acquisition of language, see Brooks 208-213.

  5. In another short story, “The Parvenue,” Mary Shelley has a character begin the tale by asking: “Why do I write my melancholy story?” (Robinson 266).

  6. Worton argues that “Beatrice's inability to speak coherently of her sufferings indicates that language cannot codify extreme emotion” (110).

  7. In The Fields of Fancy draft edited by Murray, Mathilda's faith in the therapeutic value of relating her story is even more evident. Mathilda says: “Never on earth was that fearful tale unfolded—here among the shadows of the dead It may be—And I feel that the bonds that in this existence as well as in that past weigh heavily on me, will be broken” (I: 271).

  8. Mary Shelley's Beatrice is specifically compared to the historical Beatrice Cenci: see Valperga, II: 17-18.

  9. It should be noted that as Mary Shelley's sense of isolation following her husband's death deepened, even writing failed her as a form of therapy: “I can speak to none—writing this is useless—it does not even soothe me—on the contrary it irritates me by shewing the pityful [sic] expedient to which I am reduced” (Journal II: 485).

Works Cited

Brooks, Peter. “‘Godlike Science/Unhallowed Arts’: Language, Nature, and Monstrosity.” In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Ed. George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979. 205-220.

Freud, Sigmund. The Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1966.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic, 1992.

Ingpen, Roger and Walter E. Peck. Eds. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 10 vols. New York: Gordian, 1965.

Keach, William. Shelley's Style. New York: Methuen, 1984.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

McWhir, Anne. “The Light and the Knife: Ab/Using Language in The Cenci.Keats-Shelley Journal 38 (1989): 145-161.

Murray, E. B. Ed. A Facsimile of Bodleian MS. Shelley d. 1. Vol. 4 of The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts in 2 parts. New York: Garland, 1988.

Nitchie, Elizabeth, ed. Mathilda. By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Studies in Philology extra ser. 3. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1959.

Robinson, Charles E., ed. Mary Shelley: Collected Tales and Stories. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Rubenstein, Marc A. “Frankenstein: Search for the Mother.” Studies in Romanticism 15 (1976): 165-194.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, a Romance. 3 vols. London: Henry Colborn and Richard Bentley, 1830.

———. The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

———. The Last Man. Ed. Hugh J. Luke, Jr. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.

———. Lodore. New York: Wallis & Newell, 1835.

———. “Transformation.” The Mary Shelley Reader. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Charles E. Robinson. New York: Oxford UP, 1990, 286-300.

———. Valperga: or, the Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. 3 vols. London: G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: Norton, 1977.

Sunstein, Emily W. Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.

Worton, Michael. “Speech and Silence in The Cenci.” In Essays on Shelley. Ed. Miriam Allott. Totowa: Barnes & Nobles, 1982. 105-124.

Kerry McKeever (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8172

SOURCE: “Naming the Daughter's Suffering: Melancholia in Mary Shelley's Mathilda,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, Fall, 1996, pp. 190-205.

[In the following essay, McKeever contends that Mathilda, in addition to being an intensely personal response to tragedy in Shelley's life, also presents a condemnation of fathers who fail to fulfill their role.]

Mary Shelley's Mathilda recounts the story of a young woman who, in a letter written prior to her death, divulges her life story to her friend Woodville. In this letter, Mathilda relates her parents' history, accentuating their profound love for each other as well as the father's devastation when, shortly after giving birth to Mathilda, his wife Diana dies. Unable to look at his daughter, the father arranges for Mathilda to be cared for by his sister and then disappears for a period of fifteen years. After this period of wandering, the father reappears and enjoys a two-month period during which his relationship with Mathilda flourishes.

However, when a potential suitor makes himself known, the father expels him, realizing subsequently that his feelings for Mathilda exceed the boundaries prescribed for parent and child. In his attempt to control his passion, he withdraws from Mathilda, who desperately endeavors to ascertain why her father seemingly rejects her. Finally, Mathilda forces him to blurt out his dreadful secret. Stunned, Mathilda runs from him. After writing Mathilda a letter in which he begs her forgiveness, the father leaves the family estate. Mathilda, sensing that her father plans to commit suicide, follows him to the sea, only to discover that he is already dead. Devastated, she feigns suicide and withdraws to the desolate plains of northern England, where she mourns the loss of her father and waits for death. For a brief time, she forms a friendship with a poet named Woodville, but his concern does little to relieve her melancholia. Finally, as a consequence of getting lost and being forced to spend the night in the woods, Mathilda develops a rapid consumption which eventually kills her.

In Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fictions, Her Monsters, her provocative examination of Mary Shelley's life and works, Anne Mellor makes clear that “desire for a loving and supportive parent defined [Shelley's] character, shaped her fantasies, and produced her fictional idealizations of the bourgeois family—idealizations whose very fictiveness, as we shall see, is transparent” (1). Mary Poovey, when discussing Frankenstein, concurs with Mellor, indicating more specifically that “The motherless daughter's relationship with the father carries the burden of needs originally and ideally satisfied by the mother; in a sense, the relationship with each father is only an imaginative substitute for the absent relationship with the mother” (168). However, no work to date has sufficiently discussed the pathology of melancholia that is central to Mathilda. In “Did You Get Mathilda from Papa?” Terence Harpold makes a significant leap in this direction; however, he concerns himself more with the autobiographical significance of the novel and dismisses Poovey's position, contending that “‘The needs originally and ideally satisfied by the mother’ are, however, already subject to oedipal defenses against the mother as the primary rival for the father's desire, because his desire is already a principal element of any representation of the mother” (n11.)

In Mathilda, there are mothers everywhere and nowhere at the same time: mothers lose their children, mothers refuse to let go of their children, but, most of all, mothers abandon their children by dying. Before all of the fathers in Shelley's work are mothers; children's primary identification with these mothers will be reduplicated continually in their other relationships. Against the background of these hovering mothers, Shelley portrays Mathilda's intensely personal response to tragedy and her subsequent decline into melancholia. What needs to be accomplished, I believe, is a return to considering the mother-daughter relationship in Mathilda in a manner that defies the all-encompassing oedipalization of the female characters. I will argue that the seduction fantasy is only the father's and that Mathilda's story is a condemnation of fathers who fail to act like fathers. If we read Mathilda believing in Mathilda's initial protestations against her complicity in the seduction fantasy, we can develop an alternative pathology of melancholia. Mathilda's inability to fantasize consistently what Julia Kristeva calls the “imaginary father,” a mother/father conglomerate, leads to the depressive state. In Mathilda, there are two fathers: the imagined ideal father and the biological parent who fails to live up to that ideal.

Julia Kristeva comments that “for those who are racked by melancholia, writing about it would have meaning only if writing sprang out of that very melancholia” (Black Sun 3). This is not to say that the pathology of the characters in Mathilda is Shelley's own. To the contrary, although Shelley's pathology affects the shaping of the novel, her characters have the right to be read on their own terms, and not as indicators of Mary Shelley's personal history. In other words, Mathilda is tantamount to a pre-Freudian era casebook which illustrates the descent of at least two of its characters into melancholia and then records its tragic effects. More than a self-conscious examination of her own pathology, Shelley writes about the pathology of less fortunate individuals, unable to heal themselves through the purgation of writing. For when Mathilda writes her history, she does so only because there is nothing at stake. Kristeva underscores the necessity for understanding and appreciating this difference when she says that

… aesthetic and particularly literary creation … set forth a device whose prosodic economy, interaction of characters, and implicit symbolism constitute a very faithful semiological representation of the subject's [Shelley's] battle with symbolic collapse. Such a literary representation is not an elaboration in the sense of “becoming aware” of the inter- and intrapsychic causes of moral suffering; that is where it diverges from the psychoanalytic course, which aims at dissolving this symptom. Nevertheless, the literary (and religious) representation possesses a real and imaginary effectiveness that comes closer to catharsis than to elaboration; it is a therapeutic device used in all societies throughout the ages. If psychoanalysts think they are more efficacious, notably through strengthening the subject's cognitive possibilities, they also owe it to themselves to enrich their practice by paying greater attention to these sublimatory solutions to our crises, in order to be lucid counterdepressants rather than neutralizing antidepressants.

(Black Sun 24-25)

For Mary Shelley, writing became a counterdepressant and a protection against death. Her melancholy characters, however, are not as fortunate; plagued by their traumatic pasts, both Mathilda and her father exhibit primitive selves that are mutilated, fragmentary, and empty. Their sadness couches an “unsymbolizable, unnameable narcissistic wound” that is entirely non-referential to an outside agent. For Mathilda and her father, sadness becomes the sole object, an object which each cherishes. The father's overt and Mathilda's covert suicides express their merging with sadness and with an impossible, outlaw love (maternal love), which defines their pathologies even as it eludes them.

To expose the operations of the maternal in Mathilda, I will examine what Kristeva calls the “narcissistic structures” of Mathilda and her father (Tales 374). These structures make symbolization possible and are therefore prior to the oedipal ego that begins formulating with the mirror stage (Tales 22, 27, 44, 374). In a refiguring of Freud which seeks to escape the confines of oedipalization, Kristeva indicates that the infant's early identification with the mother's breast is a preobjectal identification in which the infant becomes the mother's breast through its incorporation. The breast is not an object for the infant, Kristeva insists, but a “model” or pattern (25). Identification with the model or pattern is a reduplication of the pattern rather than an imitation of it and becomes the first in a series of reduplications, launching a logic of object identification in the psyche that will govern all object relations (25). Reduplications occur on many levels, but the patterns are recognizable. Kristeva's theory of narcissism provides a structure by which we can understand how we separate from the maternal body to constitute ourselves as subjects and how we strive to communicate with and love each other.

Reduplication implies separating from the maternal body and establishing borders indispensable for discriminating objects or symbols. Kristeva's reworking of Freud ensconces Narcissus as an “infinitely distant boundary marker” (Tales 125), the product of the imagination:

The child, with all due respect to Lacan, not only needs the real and the symbolic. It signifies itself as child, in other words as the subject that it is, and neither as a psychotic nor as an adult, precisely in that zone where emptiness and narcissism, the one upholding the other, constitute the zero degree of imagination.

(Tales 24)

In Kristeva's model, the narcissist cathects a needed, preoedipal preobject (Kristeva's “Thing”) instead of the paternal Phallus. This semiotic need is a pattern that makes desire possible and supports a reduplication, a type of primary transference, that sets up the ego ideal and the metonymy of desire. Privileged by Kristeva, this transference occurs between the mother and what Kristeva calls the “imaginary father.”

Mathilda herself signals the need to go back and examine the structure of primary narcissism in her own narrative. Chapter II begins, “I now come to my own story” (182), as if the material related in Chapter I, her parents' histories, were not a part of her story. The letter enables Mathilda's transference to the place of the Other, in this case “the very space of metaphorical shifting,” the place of writing, protected by the structure of narcissism (Tales 38). Through the letter, Mathilda puts herself in the place of signs, and the transference that once took place with an other now takes place with language itself. As biography, the letter is the synesthetic metaphor, the place of Mathilda's bodily passions. The double beginnings of the letter's structure defy Mathilda's self-conscious construction of the boundaries of her subjectivity.

In the first chapter, Mathilda describes her father as carelessly extravagant, feeling himself

superior in quickness of judgement to those around him: his talents, his rank and wealth made him the chief of his party, and in that station he rested not only contented but glorying, conceiving it to be the only ambition worthy for him to aim at in the world. … He considered queer and out of fashion all opinions that were exploded by his circle of intimates, … and yet fearful of not coinciding with the only sentiments he could consider orthodox.


Mathilda's description of her “first” father, “educated by a weak mother” (176), indicates that his mother's “love” was not love at all, but a narcissism designed to retain the child. The mother's refusal to release the child prevents him from taking his “proper” place within the Symbolic Order, or within language. The father speaks, but not from himself. Identifying herself through the son, the mother cannot let him go. Her death, the consummate and much needed physical separation of the son from the maternal body, furnishes the narcissistic space in which he can define his subjectivity.

Eventually, through Diana's agency, Mathilda's father will fantasize what Kristeva calls the “imaginary father,” thereby experiencing the semblance of maternal love. The narcissistic space established by this othering of desire allows a reunion with the mother based on the child's participating in the love between father and mother that founded its conception. In other words, the child can rejoice in the beginnings of its existence, an existence built on imagined pleasure rather than on lack (the absence of the father). Identification with Kristeva's missing, archaic “Third,” the imaginary father, provides protection against a fantasy that might overwhelm the child: “that of being supernumerary, excluded from the act of pleasure that is the origin of its existence” (“Talking Cure”).

A child desires merging with the nourishing mother and the ideal father, who, together, form a unity; adults venture to reduplicate this desire by coupling. In Diana, the daughter of a neighbor and “a favorite of his mother,” whom he has ardently loved since childhood, Mathilda's father realizes his fantasy of the imaginary father. As soon as his mother dies, he marries Diana, described as having

so pure a heart, and so much real humbleness of soul joined to a firm reliance on her own integrity and a belief in that of others. … He looked up to her as his guide, and such was his adoration that he delighted to augment to his own mind the sense of inferiority with which she sometimes impressed him. … Diana had torn the veil which had before kept him in his boyhood: he was become a man. She was his monitress as he learned what were the true ends of life. It was through her beloved lessons that he cast off his old pursuits and gradually formed himself to become one among his fellow men … he seemed to love her more for what he considered her superior wisdom. They studied, they rode together, they were never seperate [sic] and seldom admitted a third to their society.


Contrary to Harpold's dismissing Diana as only the “object of the father's passion, with no independent initiative or interest” (53), she is central to the story. Diana fulfills the role of the mother/ideal father aggregate by becoming the loving father who facilitates her husband's entrance into language and the Symbolic in addition to being his nourishing partner. As such, Diana acts in the capacity of Kristeva's “father in individual prehistory,” a “father” who actually has no sexual difference even though it does have masculine and feminine characteristics which form a “father-mother conglomerate” (Tales 26, 40). Mathilda's father's identification with Diana as the imaginary father is a metaphoric or imaginary reunion with maternal love that takes the place of the real or physical union or dependence on the maternal body. Diana's ability to satisfy the desires which necessitate the fantasy grants Mathilda's father the experience of wholeness; Diana literally re-makes him into her image. For Kristeva, identification with this conglomerate is originary and positions all subsequent identifications, including the ego's identification with itself (Tales 33). There is no need of a “third” because Diana is the third.

It is hardly surprising, then, that when Diana dies, Mathilda's father plunges into an acute depression. Such depression is expected in both mourning and melancholia. After the loss of a love object, reality demands a shift of cathexis from the lost object to other objects. Even though people do not separate from the lost object willingly because of the pain involved, they will do so because their respect for reality conquers their desire to remain attached to the absent object. The work of mourning is completed when the lost object is replaced. However, Freud indicates that the situation is different in the work of melancholia. The object to which the melancholic is bound is ambiguous; in the case of Mathilda's father, what is lost is not merely Diana, but the fantasy of the imaginary father which she represents. In the days following Diana's death, he refuses to speak and, more important, refuses to see his daughter, although his sister tries on a number of occasions to bring father and daughter together. To see Mathilda would force acknowledgment of his loss, which the father cannot accept.

As a result, Mathilda is left out of the jouissance of her own conception, and her double infantile loss activates a pattern which will be reduplicated throughout her life. In order to avoid the fantasy of being supernumerary to her parents' experiencing of love, Mathilda identifies with an imaginary father, in this case bolstered by the history of her father's transformation by Diana. The imaginary father with its symbolic counterpart, the Father of the Law (who defines socio-moral boundaries and is the stern enforcer of them), formulate a conception of the paternal that leaves out the real father, particularly as we define that real father in terms of the father's physical contribution to the child's conception. As such, Mathilda's conception is translated into an “immaculate conception,” or a conception of the Word, as that word is relayed to her through the agency of the two women who raise her: her aunt and her mother's servant. The aunt is herself the product of abandonment: after her mother dies, her father remarries (Mathilda's grandmother) and sends the daughter to live with maternal relatives. The aunt defies the wishes of Mathilda's father by refusing to raise Mathilda on the paternal estate. Instead, she takes Mathilda to Scotland, to the estate she has inherited through the maternal line. The “estate” figures the relationship that develops between Mathilda and her aunt. Mathilda, placed in a remote part of the house, sees the aunt rarely; Mathilda describes her as “in every way an unsocial being; and to a timid child she was as a plant beneath a thick covering of ice: I should cut my hands in endeavoring to get at it” (183).

After her nurse returns to England when Mathilda is seven, she loses all loving communication and finds solace first in nature, becoming a “complete mountaineer,” and then in “dreaming.” Mathilda says of her own fancies that she “formed affections and intimacies with the aerial creations of my own brain—but still clinging to reality I gave a name to the conceptions and nursed them in the hope of realization” (185). Mathilda's fantasy of the imaginary father will be impressed upon the real father, blinding her to his weakness. “The ideal of [her] unhappy, wandering father was the idol of [her] imagination” (185), and Mathilda fantasizes her first meeting with him:

My favorite vision was that when I grew up I would leave my aunt, whose coldness lulled my conscience, and disguised like a boy I would seek my father through the world. My imagination hung upon the scene of recognition; his miniature, which I should continually wear exposed on my breast, would be the means and I imaged the moment to my mind a thousand and a thousand times, perpetually varying the circumstances. Sometimes it would be in a desert; in a populous city; at a ball; we should perhaps meet in a vessel; and his first words constantly were, “My daughter, I love thee!”


At the same time, Mathilda admits that, although she felt by the age of fourteen that searching for her father “was [her] imperious duty,” she was never able to make the move: “I reproached myself bitterly for what I called a culpable weakness; but this weakness returned upon me whenever the critical moment approached and I never found courage to depart” (185). Mathilda unconsciously resists finding the real father because this real, sexual father (and the father who abandoned her) could compromise the fantasy of the ideal, imaginary father who recognizes her immediately, despite the fact that she appears, not as the mother's daughter, but as a boy. The imaginary father recognizes Mathilda as his own; she bears the sign of his ownership and paternity in the form of the miniature, and his recognition reverses the rejection that occurred at her birth. By admitting to his participation in Mathilda's conception, the imaginary father allows Mathilda to identify with his sexual coupling with the mother and therefore effects the reunion with the mother. Within the imaginary, Mathilda can replace herself within Diana's womb. Mathilda's imaginary identification with Diana's love through the imaginary father provides the support that Mathilda needs to lose the real identification with the mother's body (suggested physically by her uncanny resemblance to the mother) and to move toward identifying with the mother's desire, which is a move into the Symbolic order (Beginning 42).

Mathilda's reluctance to sacrifice the imaginary father to the real is further emphasized by events related to the father's return. In the world of the real father, Mathilda is plagued by her original and then enforced belatedness. Born too late for the father's love, Mathilda reduplicates this infantile belatedness throughout her life by refiguring the facts of her birth, therefore always positioning herself so that she comes to the father rather than he to her. Note, for example, her actions on the day of her father's arrival:

At day break I hastened to the woods; the hours past on while I indulged in wild dreams that gave wings to the slothful steps of time, and beguiled my eager impatience. My father was expected at noon but when I wished to return to meet him I found that I had lost my way: it seemed that in every attempt to find it I only became more involved in the intricacies of the woods, and the trees hid all trace by which I might be guided. I grew impatient, I wept, and wrung my hands but still I could not discover my path.


If the woods constitute the field of the unconscious and the workplace of the imaginary, then Mathilda clearly signals her reluctance to have the veil of her fantasy rent by the real. But the woods also function in the symbolic as the maternal body, as Mathilda reduplicates the birth experience, this time with the father waiting for her:

It was past two o'clock when by a sudden turn I found myself close to the lake near a cove where a little skiff was moored—It was not far from our house and I saw my father and aunt walking on the lawn. I jumped into the boat, and well accustomed to such feats, I pushed it from shore, and exerted all my strength to row swiftly across. … I approached the shore, my father held the boat, I leapt lightly out, and in a moment was in his arms.

And now I began to live.


The journey from the woods/womb across the inlet/birth canal effectively reduplicates Mathilda's birth in a manner that allows Mathilda to participate in the parent's jouissance. Here, the father is waiting with open arms, a midwife of sorts who catches Mathilda in his arms as she exits the womb.

Conversely, from the father's point of view, what is “born” is hardly a human daughter. He indicates that, in this first impression, with “hair streaming on [her] shoulders, and shooting across with greater speed than it could be supposed [she] could give to [her] boat … [she] looked more like a spirit than a human maid” (187). Reinforcing his conception of Mathilda as a “little fairy form” forever flitting before him as he travelled, Mathilda's father engages in a bodiless idealization of his daughter. Her rebirth takes place in a way that permits him at least temporarily to dissociate Mathilda from Diana's death. Moreover, Mathilda's rebirth reduplicates the rebirth of the father through Diana's “midwifery.” The father, recast in Diana's position as “monitress” and “teacher,” makes Mathilda feel “recreated,” “enlarged by his conversation,” with the “freshness and life of a new being” (188-89). The father embodies the imaginary father, the mother/father conglomerate, for Mathilda and, like her parents before her, Mathilda pronounces it a cause for regret “whenever [they] were joined by a third person” (190).

But Mathilda is not the only person to be disturbed by the possibility of a “third.” In the father's unconscious reduplicating of his life with Diana through Mathilda, we can trace the lineaments of their tragedy, and he can maintain the “spiritual” “faery-like” conceptions of her only until a suitor makes himself known.

But when I saw you become the object of another's love; when I imagined that you might be loved otherwise than as a sacred type and image of loveliness and excellence; or that you might love another with a more ardent affection than that which you bore to me, then the fiend awoke within me; I dismissed your lover; and from that moment I have known no peace.


The suitor initiates a collapse of the symbolic into the real, where Mathilda's father can no longer envision her as the “ministering angel of a Paradise to which of all human kind [she] admitted only [him]” (208). When the daughter that seemed “to belong to a higher order of beings” becomes flesh and blood, the father also is reborn, awakening “to a new life as one who dies in hope might wake in Hell” (209). Attempting to effect a “cure,” Mathilda's father returns to his estate, hoping that reviving memories of his love for Diana might extinguish love for Mathilda. The father, of course, does not realize that it is his love for Diana, transferred to Mathilda, that is the difficulty. The father can never conquer his love for Mathilda because his love for her is a displaced passion for Diana:

… in my madness I dared say to myself—Diana died to give her birth; her mother's spirit was transferred into her frame, and she ought to be as Diana to me. With every effort to cast it off, this love clings closer, this guilty love more unnatural than hate …


The father's admission of incestuous desire precipitates a collapse into the real for Mathilda as well. Even though Mathilda has idealized her father, there are signs in the first chapter that Mathilda's father, before Diana transforms him, has character traits that account for his later actions. Mathilda describes her father as someone who, while “earnestly occup[ying] himself about the wants of others his own desires are gratified to their fullest extent” (177). Mathilda also indicates in this retrospective analysis that she is unsure whether her father would be able to rise to the occasion if his own desires had to compete with others' (177). That “he would have displayed undue selfishness,” would have been a possibility if the trial were ever made. If the “trial” is overcoming his incestuous love for his daughter, Mathilda's father fails miserably. And Mathilda, too much like her father in temperament, as an old family servant observes, is incapable of performing as the loving “monitress,” the role filled by Diana.

For both father and daughter, the conflation of the real and imaginary leads to a traumatic engenderment which neither survive. Nowhere is this collapse as marked as when the father admits his incestuous desire for his daughter. Mathilda, always the nature lover who stages scenes in idyllic settings in the belief that doing so will affect the outcome, leads her melancholy father to a wood, which like all other trips into the wood, all births, courts disaster. The scene reduplicates Mathilda's recognition fantasy in which the father identifies with her by means of the miniature. However, the recognition occurs not on the level of the symbolic ideal, but on the level of the real. The father identifies his love for Mathilda, but Mathilda immediately senses that when he says, “… you are my light, my only one, my life.—My daughter, I love you!” his identification with her is incestuous. The textual language affirms this slip: in Mathilda's fantasy identification, the father uses the formal “thee” to declare his love; when he reveals his incestuous love, he uses the less formal “you.” For Mathilda, the use of the familiar pronoun suggests a level of intimacy that doesn't exist in the fantasy of the imaginary father.

Even though her father has no bodily contact with her, Mathilda is violated through the ear; like the Miltonic Lucifer's “toady whisperings,” Mathilda's father inseminates her with the forbidden knowledge of incestuous desire, which formulates the topography of her “fall.” However, inverting the Father/God's insemination of the Virgin Mary through the ear, Mathilda's “immaculate conception” gives birth to despair, described by Mathilda as a female “phantom” whose “Fang” she felt on her heart, and who never left her (202). Terence Harpold chooses to associate this phantom with the mother and asserts that

Too-close an identification with the mother leads to death, as the daughter must conclude from the evidence of her own birth. The absent, usurped mother may still punish her rival; indeed, the rival will share her mother's fate if she takes her mother's place—she, too, will be subject to the fatal effect of the father's desire.


But it is not Diana in her role of imaginary father who is the rival, as it were. Instead, the “rival” is the maternal body which will not die. Mathilda's father wishes his daughter to take the role of the mother, and it is this replacement that she rejects. If the father cannot aid Mathilda in the matricide necessary to establishing autonomy, then he fails to fulfill the role of the father. Kristeva asserts that

For man and for woman the loss of the mother is a biological and psychic necessity, the first step on the way to becoming autonomous: … The lesser or greater violence of matricidal drive, depending on individuals and the milieu's tolerance, entails, when it is hindered, it inversion on the self; the maternal object having been introjected, the depressive or melancholic putting to death of the self is what follows, instead of matricide.

(Black Sun 28)

The father's identification of Mathilda with Diana renders such a matricide impossible for Mathilda. As Harpold asserts, “The primal scene is refigured in Mathilda as a scene of seduction between father and daughter, recasting Mary's emergence from her parents' embrace as a substitution of the daughter in the place of the mother” (56); however, the recasting in Mathilda is effected by the father. Mathilda's story is a condemnation of the father's seduction fantasy and the father's intervention in the normal course of the mother-daughter relation. The collapse of the imaginary mother within the father—enacted by the father's physical association of Mathilda with Diana—forces Mathilda to introject the mother in order not to kill her:

to protect mother I kill myself while knowing … that it comes from her, the death-bearing she-Gehenna … Thus my hatred is safe and my matricidal guilt erased. I make of Her an image of Death so as not to be shattered through the hatred I bear against myself when I identify with Her. …

(Black Sun 28)

The father's intervention thus violates Diana's last wish, which Mathilda's father describes in his letter:

How dare I go where I may meet Diana, when I have disobeyed her last request; her last words said in a faint voice when all feeling but love, which survives all things else was already dead, she then bade me make her child happy.


But Mathilda's father does dare to go where Diana is. Rather than reflecting guilt over his enactment of the seduction fantasy, the father's suicide signifies the despair created when Mathilda will not take the place of the mother. To make his daughter happy, the father would have to allow her to develop as an individual autonomous from the maternal body. And, because the father has regressed into the selfish individual who existed before his partnership with Diana, he fails to pass the test.

When Mathilda's father betrays her, “the erotic man, the imaginary father, the loving, giving, and gratifying one” (Black Sun 79) becomes unbelievable and fails to lead Mathilda from primary to secondary identification. The results are that Mathilda abnegates her sexual identity and takes on the appearance of a virgin, describing her dress in exile as a “fanciful nunlike dress.” Mathilda leaves the overly aroused masculine body of the father to the maternal body of the mother, against whom she cannot compete. By becoming the bride of the father's ideal aspect, Mathilda finds the means to survive for awhile, but her solution to depression is only temporary, since effective mourning remains impossible when it is hindered by masochism.

Mathilda seeks solace and survival in “playing dead,” first by faking suicide and then in a challenge game that she enacts with Woodville. For Mathilda, playing dead becomes “a thought nebula, an amorphous imagination, a muddled representation of some implacable helplessness … a ‘poetics’ of survival” in which she embodies death as if it were real and which is “secretly all powerful” (Black Sun 73). Mathilda takes pleasure in her glide towards death and describes her life as idle and useless: like her father before her, “[she] was gathered up into [herself]—a selfish solitary creature ever pondering on [her] regrets and faded hopes” (220). However, Mathilda does admit that after a period of two years she began to become more “human,” and yearned for a friend to love her:

For the sympathy that I desired must be so pure, so divested of influence from outward circumstances that in the world I could not fail of being balked by the gross materials that perpetually mingle even with its best feelings. … I did not desire sympathy and aid in ambition or wisdom, but sweet and mutual affection; smiles to cheer me and gentle words of comfort. I wished for one heart in which I could pour unrestrained my plaints, and by the heavenly nature of the soil blessed fruit might spring from such fruit.


Mathilda believes that she finds this friend in Woodville, commonly seen by critics as a representation of Percy Shelley. In a decided contrast to her description of her father previous to his marriage to Diana, Mathilda describes Woodville as the consummate imaginary father:

He was glorious from his youth. … He was, as one the peculiar delight of the gods, railed and fenced in by his own divinity, so that nought but love and admiration could approach him. His heart was simple like a child, unstained by arrogance or vanity. He mingled in society unknowing of his superiority over his companions, not because he undervalued himself but because he did not perceive the inferiority of others. He seemed incapable of conceiving of the full extent of the power that selfishness and vice possesses in the world: when I knew him, although he had suffered disappointment in his dearest hopes, he had not experienced any that arose from the meanness and self-love of men: his station was too high to allow of his suffering through their hard-heartedness; and too low for him to have experienced ingratitude and encroaching selfishness …


Moreover, Woodville is “passionless,” and therefore unlike her father to whom, Mathilda insists, he bears no resemblance. Mathilda's first meeting with Woodville (the metaphoric implications of his name are obvious) once again reduplicates and inverts the birth fantasy; when Mathilda endeavors to retreat into the woods/womb to remain undiscovered, Woodville's horse throws him. Mathilda exits the cluster of pines to minister to Woodville, and, eventually, his frequent visits to her cottage allow for a friendship to grow. Despite determining to remain “an inaccessible citizen of the magnificent land of Death” (Black Sun 74), Mathilda begins to succumb to Woodville's insistence that she take the “talking cure.” Woodville diagnoses her melancholia point by point:

You never smile: your voice is low, and you utter your words as if you were afraid of the slight sound they would produce: the expression of awful and intense sorrow never for a moment fades from your countenance … your pulses beat and you breathe, yet you seem already to belong to another world. … You must not shut me from all communion with you: do not tell me why you grieve but only say the words, ‘I am unhappy,’ and you will feel relieved … I entreat you to believe in my most sincere professions and to treat me as an old and tried friend: promise me never to forget me, never causelessly to banish me; but try to love me as one who would devote all his energies to make you happy.


The burden of making Mathilda happy, Diana's commission to the father, thus is shouldered by Woodville, who functions potentially as the means by which the melancholy object (the maternal body) blocking Mathilda's psychic and bodily interior can be dissolved. Woodville is capable of this transformation in Mathilda because he offers her what Diana wanted to give but could not: a new life. Mathilda's self-imposed virginity is the psychic space which functions as a crypt for the dead mother, the death-bearing mother named “Despair.” Woodville's words, like “A refreshing shower on an arid soil,” “revive” Mathilda and enable her to “pour forth [her] bitter complaints and to clothe [her] woe in words of gall and fire,” to somewhat vanquish despair (231).

Unfortunately, the distress and devalorization generated by the father's conflating of Diana and Mathilda surfaces in petty jealousies which hinder the talking cure's progress:

If he did not visit me at the appointed hour I was angry, very angry, and told him that if indeed he did feel interest in me it was cold. … When for a moment I imagined that his manner was cold I would fretfully say to him—“I was at peace before you came; why have you disturbed me? You have given me new wants … I avoided you, you know I did, but you forced yourself upon me and gave me those wants which you see with triumph give you power over me.”


Mathilda's diatribe leads to a significant moment of recognition in the text, when she delineates Woodville's “countenance bent [toward her] with living pity” on her (232). Mathilda describes Woodville by quoting Dante's Paradiso, “Gli occhi drizzo ver me con quel sembiante / Che madre fa sopra figlioul deliro” (qtd. in Mathilda 232). The displacement from English into Italian enables Mathilda to express her desire for the mother in a foreign language, but a language that can be translated: “She turned her eyes on me with the look that a mother casts on her delirious child.” Woodville becomes “not the phallic mother, but a restoration of the mother by means of a phallic violence that destroys the bad but also bestows and honors” (Black Sun 79). Mathilda's relationship with Woodville allows her to view the possibility of a new relationship with the Other not constructed on what Kristeva calls “phallic outbidding” but, rather, where the Other functions to extend the domain of Mathilda's symbolic life (79).

Yet Mathilda's fear of abandonment and her unbounded suspicion, the offspring of confused love and its devalorizing, poisonous bite—as well as the substantial investment she had made in safekeeping and encrypting the maternal body—does not allow Woodville any permanent success. In his absence, Mathilda once again doubts Woodville's loyalty, fearing that he has “got over his grief for Elinor, and the country became dull to him, so he was glad to find even me for amusement” (234). It becomes essential, then, that Woodville continue to cathect Elinor; for Mathilda, Woodville's ability to mourn successfully (to let Elinor go) is tantamount to being unfaithful. In other words, Mathilda desires not only Woodville but also Elinor, who is both a rival for Woodville's affections and the one who keeps Woodville, from Mathilda's perspective, available to her. When Mathilda endeavors to convince Woodville to commit suicide with her, she reveals her investment in Elinor by saying: “… earnestly do I entreat and implore you to die with me. Then we shall find Elinor and what I have lost” (my emphasis, 235). As Mathilda tries to convince Woodville to join her in suicide, her arguments take on a tone both powerful and tragic:

Oh! that I had words to express the luxury of death that I might win you. … I tell you we are no longer miserable mortals; we are about to become gods; spirits free and happy as gods … Do you mark my words; I have learned the language of despair; I have it all by heart, for I am Despair; and a strange being am I, joyous, triumphant Despair. … Look I am a spirit of good, and not a human maid that invites thee, and with winning accents (oh, that they would win thee!) says, Come and drink.


Mathilda's “death play,” modeled on Spenser's Faery Queene 1.9.40, is artifice that exposes Mathilda's feminine jealousy couched in the rhetoric of a Miltonic Satan. Contending that “such depressive hysteria is often expressed by aiming for the mouth,” Kristeva indicates that “many stories involving harems and other feminine jealousies have established the image of the poisoner as a privileged image of feminine Satanism. Poisoning drink or food nevertheless reveals, beyond the raging sorceress, a little girl deprived of the breast” (85). By trying to coerce Woodville into suicide, Mathilda invites him to participate in the “crime” which she said she would never commit. But the test here is not merely of Woodville's reliability as a friend. Mathilda uses Woodville's desire for Elinor in an effort to make him complicit not only in the crime, but also in a common jouissance: “we will find Elinor.”

Despite Mathilda's temptation, Woodville maintains the integrity of the relationship through his reaction to her request. Rather than convince Mathilda to respect the sanctity of her life, he recognizes her depressive state and suggests that she seek a cure through ministering to others. Woodville's own melancholy is assuaged by his responsibilities to others: “Indeed I dare not die. I have a mother whose support and hope I am” (238). Woodville enjoys the love of the mother, and this love provides him with the psychic strength to mourn successfully.

That Mathilda's inability to vanquish her melancholy stems from the lack of maternal love as it is evinced in the imaginary father is revealed in her reflections after Woodville leaves her to care for his sick mother. Indicating that Woodville's words initially gave her a “warm hope,” Mathilda proceeds to describe herself in the most vilifying terms: as a “monster,” whose “unhallowed gaze” is a “blight” (239):

… [I] should have fancied myself a living pestilence: so horrible to my own solitary thoughts did this form, this voice, and all this wretched self appear; for had it not been the source of guilt that wants a name?


Terence Harpold gives a name to this guilt when he suggests Mathilda's complicity in her father's desire through her enacting of a seduction fantasy. But Mathilda immediately admits that she “did not feel thus franticly when first [she] knew that the holy name of father was become a curse to [her]” (239). I suggest here that Mathilda's guilt is a redirection of her anger at her father for destroying her access to the mother/father conglomerate through his seduction fantasy. In effect, she also redirects the father's oedipalization of her. In order to maintain the fantasy of the imaginary father, her only access to maternal love, Mathilda redirects her physical father's failings toward herself.

In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud indicates that “self-reproaches are reproaches against a loved object which have been shifted away from it on to the patient's own ego” (248). He then proposes that the object-cathexis is “a regression from one type of object-choice to original narcissism” (249). Kristeva maintains, in her reworking of Freud, that Freud's primary narcissism is “neither screen nor state, [but] already a structure (Tales 374). For Kristeva, primary narcissism sets up the identification that takes place in the mirror state, which merely reduplicates the pre-objectal pattern established by the infant's incorporation of the mother's breast. The logic of reduplication inaugurated in Mathilda's case is the failure to identify with the breast which results from Diana's death. In her psyche, Mathilda reduplicates the pattern in all of her actions: all births for her must lead to death. Separation from the maternal body must be preceded by identification with that body, but Mathilda's pre-history demands a logic of reduplication in which all identifications with the maternal body are at best substitutions that are doomed. Condemned always to be the narcissistic child, neither “psychotic nor adult,” (Tales 24) Mathilda becomes trapped “in that zone where emptiness and narcissism … constitute the zero degree of imagination” (Tales 24).

Consequently, it is fitting that Mathilda, deep in the reveries of the imagination, becomes lost in the woods directly after Woodville leaves her, in nature's womb, which she calls the “Universal Mother” (243). Wandering in the territory she loves, Mathilda's “happy” sojourns with this mother always end in loss and getting lost, and her identification with nature expresses the logic of reduplication that formulates her life:

… I looked around me and saw no object that told me where I was; the coming darkness made every trace indistinct by which I might be guided. At length all was veiled in the deep obscurity of blackest night. …


Mother Nature gives Mathilda a case of “rapid consumption” which reduplicates her hunger for the mother, at whose breast she never fed. Her desire to consume the mother who cannot feed her consumes her in turn, and Mathilda is granted the death that is, after all, a “hideous necessity” of her fate. She becomes the consummate Narcissus, dreaming of a love even as she consistently recedes from it, starving herself as she feeds on her own lack.

Finally, it is important to note that Mathilda tests Woodville and herself one more time in the form of a death game, and it is a test which both fail. Near death, Mathilda indicates that she wrote to Woodville, still at home caring for his mother, to inform him of her own illness, “but not its mortal tendency, lest he should conceive it to be his duty to come to me …” (245). Mathilda writes to Woodville knowing full well the history of his bride Elinor's death:

He received a letter from her to say that she was slightly ill, but telling him to hasten to her … His heart, he knew not why, prognosticated misfortune; he had not heard from her again; … a sinister voice seemed always to whisper to him, “you will never more behold her as she was.”


Woodville obviously fails to make the connection between Elinor's death and Mathilda's impending death, thus reaffirming Mathilda's belief that she is unfit for love. More significant, perhaps, is the confirmation that mothers always come first for those fortunate to have them and even for those who are not.

If Woodville represents Percy, then Shelley's condemnation of her father through Mathilda's story is extended to Percy. If Godwin is chastised for never allowing Mary the opportunity to be other than the representation of the lost mother, then Percy is guilty because he fails to be the Other who becomes “the link between the mother-child bond and phallic power” (Black Sun 79) through the giving of a child (Percy gives only, at this point in Shelley's life, children that die). Godwin fails to submit Mathilda for publication, claiming, as Maria Gisborne relates, that “The subject is disgusting and detestable,” and that while Mathilda protests her innocence at the book's outset, “yet, in proceeding one is apt to lose sight of that protestation; besides (he added with animation) one cannot exactly trust to what an author of the modern school may deem guilt” (44). Godwin's last comment could be read as his own concern that he might be considered the guilty one in the modern school. It may well be that Godwin recognized Shelley's condemning of the father who consistently intervened in her efforts to establish autonomy. Never one to turn down profits from his daughter's writings, it seems unlikely that he would fail to promote Mathilda unless he believed that it would compromise his own position.

Beyond these associations, however, I assert that Mary Shelley is not Mathilda. Unlike Mathilda, Shelley found the means to overcome the drive toward suicide, the ultimate act of melancholia. Mary finds the means to survive by

Naming suffering, exalting it, dissecting it into its smallest components—that is doubtless a way to curb mourning. To revel in it at times, but also to go beyond it, moving on to another form, not so scorching, more and more perfunctory … Nevertheless, art seems to point to a few devices that bypass complacency and, without simply turning mourning into mania, secure for the artist and the connoisseur a sublimatory hold over the lost Thing … by means of removing the guilt from revenge, or humiliation from narcissistic wound, which underlies depressed people's despair.

(Black Sun 97)

The alchemy of artful writing enacts a sublimation which withstands death, and “Depression recognizes this and agrees to live within and for that object” (Black Sun 100). Shelley, unlike Mathilda, survives because she knows that the “imaginary constitutes a miracle. … It affirms the almightiness of temporary subjectivity—the one that knows enough to speak until death comes” (Black Sun 103), and therefore obtains that which has been so consistently denied.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth P, 1953. 243-58.

Harpold, Terence. “Did you get Mathilda from Papa?: Seduction Phantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda.Studies in Romanticism 28 (1987): 49-67.

Jones, Frederick L. Maria Gisborne & Edward E. Williams, Shelley's Friends: Their Journals and Letters. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1951.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudier. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

———. In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith. Trans. Author Goldhammer. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.

———. Tales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudier. New York: Columbia UP, 1987.

———. “Within the Microcosm of the ‘Talking Cure.’” Psychiatry and the Humanities. Trans. T. Gora and M. Waller. Ed. R. Smith. Vol. 6. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Mellor, Anne. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Methuen, 1988.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Mathilda in The Mary Shelley Reader. Ed. Betty T. Bennett and Charles E. Robinson. New York: Oxford UP, 1990, 175-246.

Margaret Davenport Garrett (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6259

SOURCE: “Writing and Re-writing Incest in Mary Shelley's Mathilda,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XLV, 1996, pp. 44-60.

[In the following essay, Garrett traces the development of Mathilda's text, proposing that Shelley uses this work to critique women's education and experience.]


Mary Shelley's second work of fiction, written in 1819 but not published until 1959, was a “tale” she eventually titled Mathilda. This novella has received relatively little critical attention, and, for the most part, analyses have been directed to the autobiographical or psychological significance of the work. Elizabeth Nitchie, editor of the first published version, read the story of Mathilda, her father, and Woodville the poet as versions of Mary Shelley herself, her father, William Godwin, and Percy Shelley.1 More recent critics have found in the narrative evidence of Mary Shelley's critique of her relationship with both her husband and her father.2 Mary Poovey, in an assessment of Mary Shelley's struggles with cultural and familial incentives to be first a Romantic rebel and then a proper Victorian lady, argues that her first three works of fiction (including Mathilda) are those of the rebel—created out of the self-confidence of being Wollstonecraft's daughter and drawing on Shelley's aesthetics.3

Mathilda, like all fiction, is of course strongly marked by the author's life experiences. Its heroine is a young woman whose mother, like Mary Shelley's, dies shortly after giving birth to her. While the “facts” of their stories diverge from that point on, the heroine's life, like her creator's, is driven by a need to replace this early loss with substitute familial ties. Mathilda is left in the care of an elderly aunt when her father attempts to assuage his grief by fleeing his homeland. When he returns sixteen years later, Mathilda has become a beautiful reminder of his wife. The father and daughter find idyllic happiness in one another's companionship until the father realizes that he regards Mathilda as a lover rather than as a daughter. Mathilda, hoping to remedy a coldness and moroseness in her father that she does not understand, urges him to share his sorrow with her. His confessed desire for her shocks her, and her reaction prompts his final flight and suicide. She then struggles with guilt and sorrow, the result of her misplaced faith in an innocent love for her father, which she believed could help him overcome his mysterious gloom. Her seclusion following his death is only interrupted by an encounter with a young poet named Woodville, but her new friendship cannot compensate for the loss of her father. Eventually she dies of grief.

The story of Mathilda provides Mary Shelley with a framework for exploring the theme of the moral responsibilities one has to one's beloved. As she went through the process of writing and re-writing, she ultimately created a feminine narrator who speaks out of her own experience about the pain and guilt which can develop in a loving relationship, particularly when one person is dependent upon another. The incest tale that Mathilda tells becomes a metaphorical narrative representing any woman's experience when she blindly follows the dictates of her own heart. Through Mathilda's confusion upon discovering her father's desire, Shelley points to analogous feelings of confusion, inequity, and pain that may result from any woman's excessive dependence upon a male protector.

If we trace the history of the development of the text itself, we see the author sharpening her own ideas about the woman's role in a love relationship. Two of Shelley's revisionary strategies examined in this essay are her abandonment of the structure of Wollstonecraft's “Cave of Fancy”—the model for her first draft of the tale—and the very different use she makes of the incest theme from that found in Percy Shelley's The Cenci (which he was composing at about the same time). Her choices in regard to these strategies are indicative of her own individual experience and her gendered cultural situation: through her feminine narrator, Mary Shelley makes an even more explicit critique of women's education and experience than she had in her previous novel, Frankenstein.


From the outset of their lives together, the Shelleys collaborated on some of their written works. Mary Shelley's first publication, History of a Six Weeks' Tour, is based upon a journal that she and Percy kept following their elopement to the Continent. While she moved toward much greater artistic independence in Frankenstein, Percy continued to exercise some control over the text. Evidence of continued collaboration is present in both authors' work in 1819, but this period is of particular interest for my purposes because of the evidence it provides of their contrasting approaches to the topic of incest.

That summer, the Shelleys were experiencing one of the most difficult periods in a marriage always beset with trials. William, the third of their children lost in early childhood, died in June, and Mary Shelley seems to have withdrawn emotionally from her husband and the rest of the world. At Percy's behest, she resumed her journal in August; he believed that writing, both in her journal and on the project that became Mathilda, would help her to cope with the grief into which the deaths of their children had plunged her. Her first journal entry gives evidence of her tenuous emotional state:

I begin my journal on Shelley's birthday—We have now lived five years together & if all the events of the five years were blotted out I might be happy—but to have won & then cruelly have lost the associations of four years is not an accident to which the human mind can bend without much suffering.4

While those “associations” refer most directly to the three children of her union with Percy Shelley, the deaths of her half-sister Fanny Godwin and of Harriet Westbrook, Shelley's first wife, also haunted her.

As the Shelleys began to put their lives back together, they continued to work together. Mary translated from Italian the manuscript upon which Percy's drama was to be based. It was she who had encouraged her husband to undertake a genre new to him and to experiment with writing that was more representational and less philosophic, a depiction of “a sad reality.” The result, in Percy's words, was a work “studiously written in a style very different from any other [of his] compositions.”5 Mary's editorial note to the play explains this difference as his success in using “his powers in framing and supporting the interest of a story.” Both he and Mary had felt he might be “too metaphysical and abstract—too fond of the theoretical and the ideal, to succeed” in this kind of writing.6

The tragedy of Beatrice Cenci—raped by her father so that she would not expose his immoral political schemes, often against members of his own family—was never performed at Covent Garden as Shelley had hoped, but it was the only one of his works to go into an authorized second edition in his lifetime. It was also Mary Shelley's “favorite” of his works. She notes:

This tragedy is the only one of his works that he communicated to me during its progress. We talked over the arrangement of the scenes together. I speedily saw the great mistake we had made [that Percy might be too “metaphorical” and “abstract” in his treatment], and triumphed in the discovery of the new talent brought to light from that mine of wealth.

(Poetical Works, ii, 276n)

As Percy Shelley was completing his play, Mary began her work on Mathilda. Her husband's project must have reawakened her interest in Ovid's incest tale in the Metamorphoses, which they had earlier read together. Although she makes use of the secret distress of Ovid's heroine, Myrrha, she rewrites the tale so that Mathilda's life, like Beatrice Cenci's, is ruined by her father's passion. What is curious about Mary's decision to use the incest theme is that she had apparently rejected Percy's suggestion that she, not he, write the drama based upon the Cenci story. Later, in her role as editor for her husband's works, she explained her reluctance to work with the Cenci tale by saying that she had “a truer estimate” of her powers and that she felt the dramatic tragedy required “a greater scope of experience in, and sympathy with, human passion” than she possessed at that time (Poetical Works, p. 334).

Percy Shelley defines “incest” in a letter to the Shelleys' friend Maria Gisborne written shortly after both manuscripts were completed:

Incest is like many other incorrect things a very poetical circumstance. It may be the excess of love or hate. It may be that defiance of every thing for the sake of another which clothes itself in the glory of the highest heroism, or it may be that cynical rage which confounding the good & bad in existing opinions breaks through them for the purpose of rioting in selfishness & antipathy.

(Letters, ii, 154).

Two contrasting approaches to this “poetical circumstance” are embodied in Mary's and Percy's different works on this subject. In Percy Shelley's play, Count Cenci's violation of his daughter Beatrice demonstrates the “excess of hate” and the “cynical rage which confounding the good & bad in existing opinions breaks through them for the purpose of rioting in selfishness.” In contrast, Mary Shelley's tale depicts the father's “excess of love” and then explores the daughter's “defiance of every thing for the sake of another.”

Yet Percy Shelley's description of the purpose of The Cenci could well serve as an introduction to The Fields of Fancy, his wife's first attempt to write the story that would become Mathilda. In the original version, Mary created a frame for Mathilda's story, making it clear that the heroine must exemplify what Percy described as the purpose of his drama: “teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind.”7 In Mary Shelley's frame tale, the fairy Fantasia leads the narrator away from earthly sorrow to a place where souls contemplate the teachings of their own hearts. The two travel to the “Gardens” in the Elysian Fields where, as Fantasia explains, those souls reside “who as before in your world wished to become wise & virtuous by study & action” but “here endeavor after the same ends by contemplation” (Mathilda, pp. 92-93).

Fantasia sketches a process for the evolution of the human soul which, even though its end is cloaked in mystery, still affords hope. The souls in the Garden

are still unknowing of their final destination but they have a clear knowledge of what on earth is only supposed by some which is that their happiness now & hereafter depends upon their intellectual improvement … at last they retire here to digest their knowledge & to become still wiser by thought and imagination working upon memory.

(Mathilda, p. 93)

Fantasia and the narrator approach a group that includes Mathilda, who is listening to the teachings of Diotima, the prophetess and instructor of Socrates. We detect in Diotima's remarks an echo of Shelley's comments on love in the Preface to The Cenci:

I will become wise! I will study my own heart—and there discovering as I may the spring of the virtues I possess I will teach others how to look for them in their own souls. … If I can teach but one other mind what is the beauty which they ought to love—and what is the sympathy to which they ought to aspire[,] what is the true end of their being—which must be the true end of that of all men then shall I be satisfied & think I have done enough—

(Mathilda, p. 98)

At the beginning of this writing project, then, Mary Shelley echoes Percy Shelley's ideas that the teaching of the human heart can make one wise. She is also once again drawing upon the work of Mary Wollstonecraft. Just as History of A Six Weeks Tour was modeled on her mother's Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, The Fields of Fancy is a re-writing of Mary Wollstonecraft's “Cave of Fancy.” In Wollstonecraft's unfinished myth of the struggle between good and evil, the wise Sagestus brings his ward Sagesta into the Cave of Fancy, where the stories told by souls on a spiritual pilgrimage prepare her for her own journey. The fragment concludes with the testimony of one spirit who tells of earthly woes: she is the child of a hard-working mother and an alcoholic father, in love with one man, but married, for kindness's sake, to another. Like the characters who people the Elysian Gardens of The Fields of Fancy, this spirit describes the results of her own meditations on love:

Worthy as the mortal was I adored, I should not long have loved him with the ardor I did, had fate united us, and broken the delusion the imagination so artfully wove. His virtues, as they now do, would have extorted my esteem; but he who formed the human soul, only can fill it, and the chief happiness of an immortal being must arise from the same source as its existence. Earthly love leads to heavenly, and prepares us for a more exalted state[.]8

Both Wollstonecraft's idea of the soul's pilgrimage and Wollstonecraft's (and later, Percy Shelley's) focus upon the ways in which the soul must contemplate the teachings of its own heart had found their way into Mary Shelley's first narrative sketch.

When Mary Shelley jettisoned this frame, she also eliminated the didactic model borrowed from her mother's story. Now the novella commences with Mathilda's dramatic telling of her own story. The heroine's wisdom, based upon her own experiences, contains a great deal of ambiguity, both about the sense that can be made of heart-breaking experiences in this life and about hope beyond the grave.

We can only speculate about Mary Shelley's reasons for making this new beginning. Perhaps she simply did not want to repeat a form she had used in Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein's story is framed by Walton's letters to his sister—letters which signal the theme of the novel, the negation of good by overreaching ambition. Perhaps she was following her own advice to Percy Shelley at this time, eschewing the more abstract and philosophical discussion that Diotima's disquisition on love represents for the more immediate story line. Clearly, however, her revision indicates a change in her fundamental intentions for the story.

One result is that readers now must take Mathilda at her word. The novella is Mathilda's summing up of her experiences in a final letter to Woodville. There is no corroboration of her tale. Even the father's and Woodville's words are reported by Mathilda. When the narrator blames herself for the father's confession of his love for her, the question of guilt subtly shifts, ironically giving the narrator more credibility because she has admitted her own failings.

Moreover, the story now focuses on actions in the world rather than on a cosmic pilgrimage. It concerns itself with dealing with one's guilt in this world rather than with redemption in the next.

As Mary Shelley continues to compose, weaving in the works of other writers into her text, she simultaneously continues the process of revision by re-writing the incorporated narratives to serve her own purposes. First, she turns to the story of Cinyras and Myrrha from book x of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which Percy had read to her in 1815, shortly after the death of their first child. She mentions reading it again in September 1818, around the time of their daughter Clara's death, when she was translating Alfieri's Myrrha (a play that is, significantly, also a re-writing of Ovid). Perhaps it was simply chance that linked the punishment of losing one's children with the crime of incest in Mary Shelley's experience and reading; nevertheless, at the time she is mourning William, she returns to this grim topic.

While Myrrha was Mary Shelley's favorite of Alfieri's works, she offers an interesting critique of his revision of Ovid some time after having written Mathilda:

the passion she [Myrrha] nurtures fails in exciting our sympathy. This is the fault of the subject; inequality in age adding to the unnatural incest. To shed any interest over such an attachment, the dramatist ought to adorn the father with such youthful attributes as would be by no means contrary to probability; but then a worse evil would ensue; and the more possible such criminal passion becomes, the more violently does the mind revolt from dwelling on it.9

In her revision of the tale, she creates a youthful, romantic father, perhaps because her earlier reaction was the same as her more mature thought on the subject. Her new version of the father is such that it is impossible for us simply to read him as Godwin. This father, in fact, appears to be much more like Percy Shelley.

The most significant revision that Mary Shelley makes in both Ovid's and Alfieri's versions of the incest tale, however, is to shift the responsibility for the incestuous love from the daughter to the father. In Ovid's story, the daughter laments the constraints of a culture which frowns upon the union of daughter and father. Myrrha speaks of the prevalence of such a union in nature and of its being condoned in other societies. Alfieri revises this bold position by explaining the daughter's passion for her father as the result of a curse that has been visited upon the girl by Venus, whom her mother had insulted by claiming that Myrrha's beauty exceeded that of the goddess.

In contrast, Mary Shelley presents Mathilda's love as the natural feelings of the child for her father. Mathilda's feelings, however, are intensified by her father's abandonment of her at birth. Her lonely childhood in the care of a responsible yet reserved aunt gives her time to wander in nature, her only real teacher, and to build up an almost godlike image of her absent parent. Following the idyllic reunion of the sixteen-year-old daughter with her still-youthful father, the daughter errs in assuming that her love can overcome her father's suffering. Her fault is an “excessive” faith in her newfound love. Yet the events of Mathilda's life more than account for this error in judgment by the picture they give of a child deprived of proper education and family love. Even though the daughter is clearly the victim of her father's passion in Mathilda, as in Mary Shelley's and Mary Wollstonecraft's earlier texts (and Shelley's The Cenci), this tale focuses on the guilt feelings of the daughter. Mary Shelley extends the narratives in Ovid and Alfieri beyond the climactic discovery of incestuous desire in order to fully describe Mathilda's guilt and isolation after her father's death. This major structural change in the story enables the author to return to the moral issues first raised in The Fields of Fancy. As we shall see, because the context of the story in which those issues are raised has changed in the novella, the meaning of the issues and the reader's reception of them inevitably changes, as well.

Other aspects of Mary Shelley's revision are less radical. The absence of the mother, for example, is important to both her story and Ovid's. While the causes for the mother's absence are different in each tale, the result of this absence is disastrous in both. Mathilda replaces her mother in her father's thoughts in the same way that the nurse in Ovid's tale arranges for Myrrha to replace her mother in her father's bed. Also, in both Alfieri's and Ovid's versions, the suitors are the means by which daughter and father move closer to the moment of revelation. In both cases the daughter finds the suitors unsatisfactory because they are not the father. Cinyras misreads Myrrha's confession that she seeks a suitor “like you” as evidence of her duty: “May you never lose your love / So dutiful!”10 In Alfieri's version, the father realizes the cause of his daughter's distress because she becomes more and more distraught as her wedding day approaches. In Mary Shelley's version, the suitor also precipitates the crisis: the father realizes that his love for his daughter is unnatural when he feels compelled to dismiss a suitor who in fact holds only a passing interest for his daughter. His strange coldness to Mathilda commences at that point. He struggles against his unnatural feelings by leaving his child in London and returning to the place where his wife died, attempting to “awaken again” the grief he had felt at her death and thus by those memories to combat his unnatural love. He fails, saying “I rated my fortitude too high, or my love too low” (Mathilda, p. 209).

All three authors acknowledge the complexity of incest, creating some degree of ambiguity about the guilt of the aggressor. In Ovid, the nurse serves as the cause of the crime. Myrrha has tried to hang herself, realizing that her passion must end in death; the nurse, however, saves Myrrha from suicide, discovers her secret, and later tricks Cinyras into sleeping with his daughter. When Cinyras discovers that his lover is Myrrha, he raises his sword to kill her, but she flees the wrath of her father. Ovid begins his tale by making clear that it primarily describes the daughter's crime: “To hate one's father is a crime; this love / A greater crime than hate” (Metamorphoses, pp. 234-35). Nonetheless, Ovid refers to the nurse as “the old bad-busy nurse” and names the father's “crime” when he describes the moment of Cinyras's recognition of Myrrha:

After so many times, eager to know
Who was the girl who loved him, Cinyras
Brought in a lamp and saw his crime and her,
His daughter. Dumb in agony, he drew
His flashing sword that hung there. Myrrha fled.

(Metamorphoses, p. 240)

In Alfieri's play, by comparison, the daughter's unnatural passion is in part the responsibility of her mother, who, through pride in her daughter, has spurned Venus. Alfieri makes Venus' power evident by showing Myrrha's growing frenzy during chants to the goddess in the aborted wedding ceremony.

Readers of Mary Shelley's tale also encounter a measure of ambiguity about Mathilda's guilt, in this case primarily because their only source of information is Mathilda herself. Readers must search Mathilda's behavior for clues—just as she had searched her father's. Is Mathilda guilty because she has provoked her father into his terrible confession? Does she become contaminated by the passion of this confession? Her account does not provide simple answers:

Yes it was despair I felt; for the first time that phantom seized me; the first and only time for it has never since left me—After the first moments of speechless agony I felt her fangs on my heart: I tore my hair; I raved aloud; at one moment in pity for his sufferings I would have clasped my father in my arms; and then starting back with horror I spurned him with my foot; I felt as if stung by a serpent, as if scourged by a whip of scorpions which drove me—Ah! Whither—Whither?

(Mathilda, p. 202)

During her physical and spiritual exile, she continues to speak of her guilt in ambiguous ways:

I was doomed while in life to grieve, and to the natural sorrow of my father's death and its most terrific cause, imagination added a ten-fold weight of woe. I believed myself to be polluted by the unnatural love I had inspired, and that I was a creature cursed and set apart by nature.

(Mathilda, p. 238)

Even though the father possesses the desire, Mathilda has, like the nurse, extracted the guilty secret. Her pride in the power of her love, her guilt at provoking “the unnatural love” she “had inspired,” and her desire for a reunion with her father after death leaves the issue of blame open to question. Like Cinyras, she has perhaps been unwittingly “polluted.” It can be argued that Mary Shelley has written about incest with psychological accuracy in this case, by pointing to the guilt that the victim of sexual aggression takes upon herself. Mathilda's cry against the scorpion's sting repeats the image of the scorpion ringed with fire, which Percy Shelley uses to capture the hopeless despair of Beatrice in The Cenci.

Mary Shelley's retelling of two further elements of the Ovid story—the flight and the metamorphoses—causes her to alter the structure of the tale, extending it beyond Ovid's moment of revelation and denouement. Of course, the immediate “flight” is the father's. He leaves a letter asking for forgiveness and promising that he will vanish from Mathilda's life. She senses that he is bent upon his own destruction and follows him, but is too late to save him from drowning. For those who are interested in reading Mary Shelley's life through her fiction, Mathilda's hopeless journey will mirror the author's life: she and Percy had made a similarly doomed flight, for example, to seek medical aid for their daughter Clara. And after Percy's death, Mary herself likened Mathilda's journey to the one that she and Jane Williams took to find out whether their husbands had escaped death at sea.11

A second flight takes place in Mathilda when the heroine, recovering from the illness precipitated by her father's death, plans to escape from human society into a remote wilderness like that of her childhood. Mathilda initiates a complicated financial project in which she disperses her father's estate, deceiving those who know her into thinking that she has taken her life. Again we hear echoes of Mary Shelley's own life: conflicts over wills and entitlements about which she and Percy had learned through bitter experience with both of their fathers. In addition, she would know that Mathilda's fate as a “suicide” would mean that, like Fanny Godwin, she would be “sought after … with less care than would otherwise have been the case” (Mathilda, p. 219).

The significance of Mary Shelley's re-writing her sources in order to emphasize that the daughter is the victim is clearest in the final section of her novella. There she tells what happens when the father's revelation causes Mathilda to reframe her own story completely. In this most original segment of her story, however, she also skillfully expands upon images from the earlier tales.

Ovid tells us of Myrrha's flight through Araby and Panchaia for nine months and her metamorphosis into a tree; Mathilda's exile dramatizes Myrrha's plea:

If Powers of heaven are open to
The cries of penitents, I've well deserved—
I'll not refuse—the pain of punishment,
But lest I outrage, if I'm left alive,
The living, or, if I shall die, the dead,
Expel me from both realms; some nature give
That's different; let me neither die nor live!

(Metamorphoses, p. 240)

In Mathilda's final three years, spent in what she speaks of as “death-like solitude,” she, like Myrrha, is neither dead nor alive. Suspended in a time of sorrow, she waits for a reunion which she hopes to have with her father. Like the Mathilda of The Fields of Fancy, the heroine here is in a place apart—but in this place she has no sage or prophetess to guide her.

The metaphysical aspects of the closing section of Mathilda place it in conversation with the moral concerns of The Cenci. Both Shelleys employ the story of the pollution of a daughter by her father as an analogical matrix for exploring the entanglement of good and evil in human affairs. Stuart Curran's study of Shelley's play shows how Beatrice's moral dilemma is framed by the connection between the existence of evil and belief in God:

She can withstand an exterior evil, an exterior assault. But the “clinging, black, contaminating mist” suffuses her, becoming an interior evil that subverts good and subdues the girl to her father's will as long as he exists to exercise it. The incestuous act is both profoundly sexual and profoundly metaphysical: if Beatrice is not to become, like Lucifer, the instrument of evil for a cruel God—and Cenci throughout the fourth act voices this purpose—then she must commit murder. The intense bombardment of the imagery in the third and fourth acts emphasizes the truth of Beatrice's assertion at the trial that she has not committed parricide; her crime is deicide!12

Percy Shelley contends that Beatrice is a tragic heroine because she does not recognize that the evil acts of her father cannot dishonor her, and that her murder of him amounts to her tragic flaw:

Undoubtedly, no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement, are pernicious mistakes. If Beatrice had thought in this manner she would have been wiser and better; but she would never have been a tragic character.13

In Mary Shelley's narrative, the heroine also must withstand both an exterior and an interior, contaminating evil. That the evil is represented in the words of love makes it no less terrible. Mathilda is frozen into “speechless agony” and “despair” upon hearing her father's confession (Mathilda, p. 202). When she recovers from her shock, her response is the one of forbearance and kindness that Percy Shelley calls for, but because her initial response has also shocked her father into facing the reality of his crime, the moment is past when she might prevent him from taking his own life.

In Mary Shelley's re-writing of her own text, she places the notion of redemption through suffering in a much more questionable context for her heroine. The “teachers” in The Fields of Fancy, Fantasia and Diotima, establish at the outset that earthly love becomes transformed through the wisdom gained on the soul's pilgrimage after its earthly existence. When Woodville attempts moral suasion in the final version of the novella, he has no spiritual authority over his pupil and no experience that has been as horrific as hers. Moreover, Mathilda is not in the Elysian Fields but still very much in this world, clinging to the remote possibilities of the reunion her father writes about in his parting letter: if he is permitted to see his child again “after this life” and “if pain can purify the heart,” then he will be “guiltless” (Mathilda, p. 210; my emphasis).

Mathilda's faint hope for this reunion ironically prevents her from rejoining human society, an inability dramatized by her interactions with Woodville. He fails to convince her to seek “the good beyond” ourselves—to make “the inhabitants of this fair world more happy” (Mathilda, p. 237). While Mathilda describes her isolation from society as healing, she knows that she is so absorbed in her own grief that she is unable to sustain a friendship with the poet, who is the representative of innocence in her evil world.

Thus Woodville's appeal to the imagination fails to rescue Mathilda from the reality she has experienced. He says that men have covered

the earth with their creations and [have formed] by the power of their minds another world more lovely than the visible frame of things, even all the world that we find in their writings. A beautiful creation … which may claim this superiority to its model, that good and evil is more easily separated: the good rewarded in the way they themselves desire; the evil punished as all things evil ought to be punished, not by pain which is revolting to all philanthropy to consider but by quiet obscurity, which simply deprives them of their harmful qualities. …

(Mathilda, p. 229)

In the face of the reality that Mathilda has experienced, this appeal to art is inaccessible to her. She says:

my father had for ever deserted me, leaving me only memories which set an eternal barrier between me and my fellow creatures … unlawful and detestable passion had poured its poison into my ears and changed all my blood, so that it was no longer the kindly stream that supports life but a cold fountain of bitterness corrupted in its very source.

(Mathilda, p. 229)

As Mathilda goes to her death, it is clear that Woodville has lost the battle for her spirit. She is “in love with death” and claims that “no maiden ever took more pleasure in the contemplation of her bridal attire” than she in her shroud which she called her “marriage dress” (Mathilda, p. 244). The bridal imagery surrounding the “mental reunion” Mathilda hopes to have with her father marks the entanglement of good and evil within her character.


As in her other works, in Mathilda Mary Shelley probes the dark side of the human psyche, using incest as a metaphorical case-study for any love whose demands simply cannot be met. She creates a heroine who is a full participant in the central conflict, rather than the putative cause for the conflict, as is Elizabeth Lavenza in Frankenstein, for example. Mathilda is one of the first psychological portraits in modern literature of an incest victim and, at the same time, is undeniably a feminine counterpart of the Romantic hero. Like Cain, Manfred, and Victor Frankenstein, Mathilda exiles herself from society in order to conceal her part in an unnameable crime. In her re-writing of the incest myth, Mary Shelley confronts the problem of love between a woman and a man, when it takes place in a cultural environment in which the woman thinks of herself as morally inferior and knows that society expects her to be protected by a male—whether father or husband. The author clearly draws upon her own experiences in just such a culture in order to re-tell this ancient tale.

Just as Percy Shelley used a story of incest to explore larger moral questions in The Cenci, so Mary Shelley saw that a loving father's incestuous demands upon his daughter could stand for the general complex of emotions any woman feels when she is bound by love to a man, husband or father, but is unable either to fathom or alter her beloved's behavior. Percy Shelley's advocacy of free love, or William Godwin's demand for money and loyalty from his daughter at times when she was suffering from the loss of her children, could well have provided her with examples of such inexplicable behavior. Mathilda asks how one who loves can respond to unthinkable demands from the beloved. The novella makes it clear that, no matter what, the innocent victim of such demands cannot emerge unscathed.

That Mary Shelley abandons in this tale the notion of purification of the heart through contemplation (as found in The Fields of Fancy) is highly significant. As Jean de Palacio has observed, the daughter of William Godwin and the wife of Percy Shelley had difficulty positing a transcendental world in which divine wisdom would make sense of earthly suffering.14 Instead, Mary Shelley suggests that Mathilda's death is her only certain release from such suffering.

In representing Mathilda as isolated in her grief, the author gives us a picture of one woman's inability to resolve for herself her own moral and emotional pain. The parallel between Mathilda writing her confession and Mary Shelley writing herself out of her own isolation after the death of William is highly instructive. Striking as well is the parallel between Mathilda's inaccessibility to Woodville and Percy Shelley's depiction of Mary's coldness in poems such as Epipsychidion. Mathilda gives us a complex inside view of a woman in the desolation of withdrawal, understandably inaccessible to invitations of love.


  1. Elizabeth Nitchie, “Introduction to Mathilda,Studies in Philology, Extra Series, 3 (1959); all quotations of Mathilda are from this edition, hereafter cited in the text.

  2. See, for example, Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Routledge, 1988); Ann Marie Frank, “Fractious States: Mary Shelley and the Politics of Early Nineteenth Century Women's Identity and Fiction” (diss. University of Michigan, 1989); Terence Harpold, “‘Did you get Mathilda from Papa?’: Seduction Fantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda,Studies in Romanticism, 28.1 (Spring 1989), 49-67; and Tilottama Rajan, “Mary Shelley's Mathilda: Melancholy and the Political Economy of Romanticism,” Studies in the Novel, 26.2 (Summer 1994), 43-68.

  3. Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and The Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 116.

  4. The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), i, 293.

  5. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), ii, 186; hereafter cited in the text as Letters.

  6. Mary Shelley's note to the Cenci, in Shelley: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, corr. G. M. Matthews (London: Oxford University Press, 1970); hereafter cited in the text.

  7. Percy Shelley, Preface to The Cenci, in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 240.

  8. Mary Wollstonecraft, “Extract of the Cave of Fancy: A Tale,” Posthumous Works, ed. Gina Luria (New York: Garland, 1974), pp. 154-55.

  9. Mary Shelley, “Alfieri,” Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal, ed. Rev. Dionysius Lardner, 3 vols. (London: Longman, 1835), ii, 292.

  10. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. D. Melville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 236; hereafter cited in the text.

  11. Mary Shelley, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), i, 247, 336.

  12. Stuart Curran, Shelley's Cenci: Scorpions Ringed with Fire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 138.

  13. Shelley's Poetry and Prose, p. 240.

  14. Jean de Palacio, Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre (Paris: Klincksieck, 1969), p. 47.

Rosaria Champagne (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13312

SOURCE: “The Law of the (Nameless) Father: Mary Shelley's Mathilda and the Incest Taboo,” in The Politics of Survivorship: Incest, Women's Literature, and Feminist Theory, New York University Press, 1996, pp. 53-89.

[In the following essay, Champagne discusses Mathilda as an example of incest narratives that were consistently suppressed because of their de-centered vision of paternity.]

Society expressly forbids that which society brings about.

—Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship

British romanticism, a literary movement spanning the years from 1790 to 1830, is the only canon to remain almost wholly resistant to feminist challenges. Still represented by six male poets (William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley), romanticism is really the last bastion of male canonicity. Both a celebration of individualism and a place-keeper in intellectual history, marking the historical moment when subjectivity and perception became privileged terms, romanticism contains within its definition a potentially feminist understanding of epistemology. But this potential has not yet been realized. Mary Shelley, the only canonized woman romanticist—marshaled into the canon derivatively, as the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft and the wife of Percy Shelley—is considered only a “minor” romantic, in spite of the fact that Frankenstein (1818) is easily the most popular piece of literature to emerge from this period. And Mary Shelley's minor status invites critics to dismiss Mathilda (1819), her unpublished and suppressed novella about father—daughter incest, for a variety of reasons. The most pernicious is that the incest taboo outlaws certain (feminist) methods of reading. We see this revealed in the suppression of Mathilda, a text whose 140-year burial at the hands of hostile fathers (not only Godwin but also those literary critics who serve as canonical standard-bearers) reeks of the heteropatriarchal privilege to silence incest narratives.1

Mathilda radically decenters the power of paternity and the Law of the Father in at least four ways. First, using trauma theory,2 we see that Mathilda reveals how the Law conceals the ineffectiveness of the incest taboo by preventing a woman from reading the text of her sexual abuse. Second, since silence is the daughter's duty to the father, Mary Shelley's autobiographical heroine kills her father twice: by forcing him to name his incestuous desires and by writing about her body as a text. Third, Mathilda presents contemporary readers with a physical document, suppressed by William Godwin until his death and then dismissed by conservative critical standards until its first publication in 1959; this 140-year suppression demonstrates the physical struggle between this father and daughter, a struggle of great cultural and historical merit that has heretofore been untold. And finally, because Mathilda “chooses”3 neither of the two possible responses to a sexually abusive father—be raped by him or kill him—and because, in trying to publish her novel, Mary Shelley transgressed the Law until stopped by her father, Mathilda reveals that heteropatriarchy can be restructured, although the impact depends largely on a woman's ability to write and (be) read.


Certainly, since 1959, the year Elizabeth Nitchie edited and published Mathilda for the first time, many critical and cultural schools have changed the ways in which we read and teach literature. And yet, with regard to Mathilda, nothing seems to have changed: critics agree that the incest in this text resides in the air, not the body, and that there is no incest “outside” of the text. Either the incest taboo fashions as unthinkable the possibility that Mary Shelley was molested and represented this in Mathilda or heteropatriarchal conventions catalog the act of reading incest from the text to the body as a retrograde accusation against William Godwin, famous liberal philosopher, devoted husband to Western culture's first feminist, and beloved editor of children's books. Using Godwin's reputation as whiteout fails on two counts. First, a person's public character and repute in no way prohibit private crimes, motivated by psychological conflict, not political incorrectness. Second, Godwin is not on trial here. Rather, my interest is to account for the aftereffects of incest that inform Mary Shelley's fiction. Shifting from Godwin's reputation to Mary Shelley's representation of aftereffects offers an important feminist gesture to the task of academic reading, one that breaks with the entitlement that heteropatriarchy wields over writing from the margins. And it is with this shift that I turn to Mathilda.

Mathilda is a novella about a twenty-one-year-old woman dying of consumption, whose “last task” involves breaking the silence of father—daughter incest by writing her history for Woodville, the Shelleyan poet who, had it not been for the sexual stigma of her body, should have been her suitor. After her mother has died giving birth to her, her father departs to wander the world while an elderly maiden aunt raises Mathilda in isolation in Scotland. After sixteen years, Mathilda's nameless father returns. Suddenly the aunt dies, and Mathilda moves with her father to London. The father sexualizes almost every moment between them, until a “young man of rank” visits their abode. This eligible suitor for Mathilda brings the father's sexual desire to a crisis. The father responds by turning the young man away, emotionally battering his daughter, and, finally, physically moving with his daughter back to the house that he shared with his late wife, Diana. Eerily, the house has been preserved as a shrine to Diana; everything is as it had been sixteen years earlier. Once there, the father explains that Mathilda is to act as Diana once had: that is, his daughter is now to live with him as his wife.

The night after he declares his incestuous plan and before he physically acts on this plan, the father again abandons Mathilda, this time leaving behind a suicide note in which he blames Mathilda for his sexual desire. Mathilda reads his note, then follows his track by carriage, only to reclaim his dead body from the sea. After his death, Mathilda runs away from her guardians and lives ascetically in an isolated part of the country. There she meets a poet, Woodville, and rejects him as a suitor because she feels tainted by her father. Wanting a spiritual tie instead, she tries to engage Woodville in a suicide pact (as Percy Shelley had suggested to Mary Godwin before their elopement). With his rejection comes the onset of Mathilda's consumption. Attempting to make sense of her life and explain her strange secrecy to Woodville, Mathilda writes her history of incest.

Mathilda is an incest narrative, one that relies on both the fact of incest and its aftereffects to make narrative sense of the plot, the characters, and the resolution. I am not just a little intrigued that other scholars—both feminist and politically undeclared ones—who have read Mathilda conclude everything except the most obvious observation: that in a suicidal summer, Mary Shelley used Mathilda to concretize the aftereffects of incest that she herself experienced. That no critic has suggested this is no mere oversight: from a radical psychoanalytic-feminist perspective, the incest taboo has enforced critical interpretations of Mathilda that maintain the Father's Law. Predictably, then, the incest taboo functions to dismiss any reading of this text that accepts sexual violations as experiential “truth” as being hopelessly retrograde or a fantasy projections of the reader's own pathology. Indeed, by denying even the possibility of incest in the Godwin household, critics have located the sexual abuse anywhere but in Mary Shelley's body.

Since 1959, readers of Mathilda have protected and maintained, both wittingly and unwittingly, the novel's obscurity by finding “real” incest in the Godwin household impossible. Sylvia Norman's contribution to volume 3 of Shelley and His Circle, entitled “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Life and Works),”4 is so unabashedly hostile to this idea, one wonders why Norman wrote her biographical essay at all. Norman introduces her section on Mathilda with an interesting observation to which she never returns: “There seems little doubt that Mary had a half-obsessive love for Godwin, whose own immediate feeling for [his daughter] bordered on panic.”5 Although never mentioning incest, Norman cites Mary as the one who transgresses proper boundaries of feeling. Norman states that “Mathilda reveals Mary's second-rate sensite mind,” not only because of the composition of this text but also because “she even dared to show it around to friends.”6 Norman clearly believes there are some secrets that must be kept.

According to Norman, Mary Shelley, is a minor writer in part because her inability to keep certain things secret creates disunity in her works: “One important gulf between the major (Percy) and the minor (Mary) writer is the presence or absence of a unifying motive, whether moral, political or aesthetic.”7 But incest narratives—like incest itself—are disruptive, not unifying. Aftereffects of incest and the narratives they produce can never meet the standards of unity that Norman (and other literary critics) demand. To unify an incest narrative is to deny the presence of incest, in literature and in culture. Furthermore, Norman's penchant for unity occludes a penchant for conservatism: indeed, in writing both Mathilda and Frankenstein, Mary Shelley demonstrates “her leading handicap as a novelist” (no doubt as a woman too), which is “her appalling want of humor.”8 By dealing aggressively with issues of pain and passion, Mary challenges repression and denial, the cornerstones of civilization. For her writerly transgressions Norman declares her “unsafe”: “Mary was safest as a writer when the theme constrained her.” Not surprising, the safest of Mary's literary occupations was as her husband's editor: “Mary's finest literary gesture must be seen as the editing of [Percy Shelley's] poetry and prose.”9 Sylvia Norman's outrage at Mary Shelley's writerly transgression is second only, perhaps, to Harold Bloom, who introduces the Chelsea House publication Mary Shelley with this: “Had she written nothing, Mary Shelley would be famous today.”10

Jay MacPherson's essay “Mathilda and Frankenstein” (reprinted from The Spirit of Solitude and selected in Bloom's Mary Shelley) denies Mary Shelley the right to transgress—or anticipate—Freud. In writing about incest in a way that suggests “incest in Mathilda is by no means a mere device of plot,” Mary Shelley contradicts Freud's subsuming of incest within narcissistic love: “Incestuous, homosexual, impossible, and vampiric loves: all are disguises of self-love and … usually there is no cure for them.”11

MacPherson wastes little time dispensing with Mathilda, and she uses a particularly Freudian gesture to do so. Weighing the text against the context is a balancing act at which Freud failed in 1933. In his lecture “Femininity,” Freud had to choose between believing the traumatic experiences with father—daughter incest that his patients revealed to him to be contributing sources of their depressions—a position he himself had advanced in 1896—or using this information to confirm what he already knew about women: that they lie. Freud wrote:

Almost all my women patients told me that they had been seduced by their father. I was driven to recognize in the end that these reports were untrue and so came to understand that hysterical symptoms are derived from fantasies and not from real occurrences. It was only later that I was able to recognize in this fantasy of being seduced by the father the expression of the typical Oedipus complex in women.12

Freud's position here is obviously sexist and appalling; and that MacPherson would tuck the incest in Mathilda into this paradigm is a dangerous move.

Elizabeth Nitchie, the first person to bring Mathilda into print, is neither hostile nor transparently loyal to a critical father. Rather, by declaring Mathilda biographically important (Nitchie says, “It would be harder to find a more self-revealing work”) but never explaining where and how its import functions, her 1959 introduction denies the implications that her observations reveal. Compare Nitchie's observation that “the main narrative, that of the father's incestous love for his daughter, is not in any real sense autobiographical”13 with her position that “the relationship between father and daughter, before it was destroyed by the father's unnatural passion, is like that between Godwin and Mary. She herself called her love for him ‘excessive and romantic.’”14 That Mary Shelley could describe her relationship with Godwin as “excessive and romantic” should have made Nitchie less confident in her position that Mathilda's autobiographical import literally stops at Mary Shelley's skin—especially when Nitchie states that Mary Shelley felt the characters were “sufficiently disguised” to publish the story.15 Why would Mary Shelley have to disguise something that is so obviously (to Nitchie and others) untrue? Or with a different twist: why would Nitchie use a phrase such as “sufficiently disguised” and not address why incest, even as “fiction,” had to be disguised? After all, at the same moment in literary history Percy was writing a play about father—daughter incest, The Cenci; not surprising, no critic has suggested that its publication depended on the author's ability to empty his life experiences from his work.

Anne Mellor's Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters and Emily Sunstein's Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality rely on contemporary feminist theories to make sense of Mary's relationships with her husband and father. But by painting Percy Shelley as the evil patriarch, these critics unwittingly defend Godwin's paternal innocence. U. C. Knoepflmacher, in “Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters,” is the only other critic to acknowledge that while Percy's behavior contributed to Mary's depression, Godwin's was significant—as Mary Shelley's obsession with him suggests. Knoepflmacher sees both men as condensed sites of unnamed aggression: “Mathilda's passive withdrawal clearly stems from parricidal wishes which the narrative conveys and yet never fully dares to acknowledge. … By dispensing with the protective masks of male protagonists, the story places Mary Shelley's marital difficulties at her father's doorstep.”16

In contrast to Knoepflmacher's appreciation of power that inheres in indirect disclosures, Mellor misreads incest as sexual consent: “Mathilda … embodies Mary Shelley's most powerful and most powerfully repressed fantasy: the desire to both sexually possess and to punish her father.”17 Sunstein uses feminist social constructionist theories to arrive at almost the same unquestioned juncture:

Thornton Hunt would later suggest that Mary's “force of natural affection … had somehow been stunted and suppressed in her youth.” In fact, that force was intensified while she had to keep covert what she later knew to be “excessive and romantic” love for her father, along with jealousy and anger, which were suppressed by her inhibitions as a female, an idealist and by her training.18

A daughter's “excessive and romantic” love for her father, suppressed anger and rage informed by that love, and “female inhibitions” are neither innocent facts of nature nor uninterpretable features of Mary Shelley's life. Indeed, it seems hardly an innocent omission that Sunstein and Mellor fail to read how Mary Shelley's heretofore unnarrativized identifications of incest inform her “excessive and romantic” love for Godwin.

Rather than accept this love as innocent, we should ask what it means. For example, trauma theory shows that loving Godwin with fierce devotion provides one way for Mary Shelley to “forget.” As suggested in the previous chapter, incest is often a transgression of love, a love naturalized by normative heterosexuality. Additionally, desire can be a sexual transgression, one not physically forced but still psychologically brutal. Judith Herman raises this point in Father-Daughter Incest:

Because a child is powerless in relation to an adult, she is not free to refuse a sexual advance. Therefore, any sexual relationship between the two must necessarily take on some of the coercive characteristics of a rape, even if, as is usually the case, the adult uses positive enticements rather than force to establish the relationship. This is particularly true of incest between parent and child: it is a rape in the sense that it is a coerced sexual relationship. The question of whether force is involved is largely irrelevant, since force is rarely necessary to obtain compliance. The parent's authority over the child is usually sufficient to compel obedience.19

That Mary Shelley could describe her love for Godwin as “excessive and romantic” yet that incest, whether psychological or physical, could not be considered an important paradigm through which to read her life and works seems unthinkable from a psychoanalytic-feminist perspective. Perhaps the only answer is that the Law of the Father ensures that the emperor always appears clothed. And even if we know the truth, there are dangers involved in exposing his nakedness—dangers to the daughter's sanity, not the society's status quo. As Jane Gallop puts it, “‘It would be good’ to lift ‘the mantle of the law’ so that the father's desire and his penis are exposed. But that does not mean the ‘answer’ is for the father to make love to his daughter.”20


Mary Shelley's normal knack for self-repression was slipping during the writing of Mathilda (between August 4 and September 12, 1819),21 because she was suffering from an acute depression that was complicated by the actions of her husband and father.22 The death of her three-and-a-half-year-old son William, on June 7, 1819, initiated her depression. “I shall never recover [from] that blow,” Mary Shelley wrote to Amelia Curran two weeks after her son's death.23 Percy wrote to Godwin, asking him to comfort his daughter. Godwin responded with a series of letters that served to retraumatize Mary.

In his letters Godwin castigated Mary for not rising above her sex, stating that “it is only persons of very ordinary sort, and of a pusillanimous disposition, that sink long under a calamity of this nature.”24 He then threatened to withhold love: “Remember too, though at first your nearest connections may pity you in this state, yet that when they see you fixed in selfishness and ill humour, … they will finally cease to love you, and scarcely learn to endure you.”25 Finally, Godwin blamed Mary's problems on her unfortunate marriage to a “disgraceful and flagrant person” and at last demanded that she coerce her husband to send more money to Godwin if she wished to have further contact with her father.26 Percy speculated in a letter to Leigh Hunt, written August 15, 1819, that Mary's obsession with winning Godwin's love was fueled by Godwin's cruelty to her. He tried to protect Mary from Godwin: “Poor Mary's spirits continue dreadfully depressed. And I cannot expose her to Godwin in this state.”27

Percy's behavior toward Mary, although not acerbic in tone or selfish in intention, nonetheless lacked direct acknowledgment of her pain. His actions, as indicated through the above-quoted correspondence, involved concealing information from Mary. And as Paula Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert suggests, “This policy of concealing unpleasant facts from Mary, which Shelley was to pursue for the rest of his life, was undoubtedly prompted by the best of motives, but it must inevitably have weakened the relationship of trust between them.”28

Apart from protecting Mary from herself, Percy was characteristically self-absorbed while Mary grieved. But in the summer of 1819, he was grieving too, and their coping mechanisms collided. When depressed, Percy wanted more sex, for “death increased his desire”; Mary, six months pregnant, rejected him, in part because “making love seemed a cruelly ironic, impossible affirmation.”29 Also, superstitious as they were, Mary and Percy felt that their children's deaths (Clara the year before William) were acts of symbolic retribution for Harriet Shelley's suffering and suicide,30 a catastrophe that arose from Percy and Mary's relationship and subsequent marriage.

In her depression Mary turned to her writing. She began a new “journal book” with an entry that was uncharacteristically self-revealing. She also began a new novella, The Fields of Fancy (perhaps a play on Mary Wollstonecraft's unfinished tale “The Cave of Fancy”),31 which she later retitled Mathilda.

Writing during August of 1819 was not an escape from life, it was her life. For the first time in four years, Mary Shelley was not a mother; for the first time in five years, she didn't want to have sex with Percy. In her first journal entry in this state of mind and body, she wrote:

I begin my journal on Shelley's birthday—We have now lived five years together & if all the events of the five years were blotted out I might be happy—but to have won & then cruelly have lost all the associations of four years is not an accident to which the human mind can bend without much suffering.32

Mary Shelley's journal is not the least bit self-disclosing, and often it seems intentionally mysterious. In the place of feelings and emotions, readers will find in the journals from the early years (1817 to 1822) page after page of seemingly innocuous lists. Most entries consist of lists of domestic chores and physical wants, books read and translated, the health of the house's inhabitants, walks taken, food eaten, laxatives needed, Percy's mood and his relationships with others. In spite of these domestic lists and the normalcy they command, we know that during the summer of 1819, Mary Shelley's tight hold on herself was breaking down. Feldman and Scott-Kilvert address this:

Mary does not dwell in the journal on the two major tragedies of the years 1816-22, the deaths of their daughter and son; Clara's death is briefly noted, but William's is marked only by the breaking off of entries at the end of the second notebook, leaving only the prescriptions for purges and diuretics among the endpapers of the volume as a reminder of their useless efforts to save the little boy's life.33

And yet Mary Shelley's entry on August 4, 1819, asking that the last five years be “blotted out,” reveals that her pain was slipping through her tight hold. From August through September 1819, Mary Shelley's rules for writing and for life and not remain in the separate domains she wished them to occupy.

Mary Shelley's desire to publish Mathilda and William Godwin's ability to suppress it are documented in the surviving letters and journals of Mary Shelley and Maria Gisborne, Mary's dear friend. Godwin's responses to the novel, the most notable of which is his refusal to return Mary's only copy after years of badgering and begging by Mary Shelley and Maria Gisborne, have survived only through the writings of other people. As William St. Clair notes, for a family who threw nothing away, it is significant that important documents of the correspondence between father and daughter have not survived. Although St. Clair makes no reference to Mathilda in his “biography of a family” (an important omission in its own right), in its chronological place he observes that Mary's “own letters to her father have, with unimportant exceptions, all been lost, perhaps deliberately destroyed later by members of the family embarrassed by the strength of love they revealed.”34

However, since Godwin apparently wanted to deny and conceal everything that had to do with Mathilda, it seems more likely that Godwin himself destroyed this correspondence.35 To explore my speculation that Godwin destroyed these letters in order to conceal and deny the father—daughter incest that threatened to occur (or occurred? perhaps Godwin was the one “embarrassed by the strength of love” these letters revealed), I will piece together the letters and journals of Mary Shelley and Maria Gisborne and re-create the series of events that resulted in the suppression of Mathilda from May 1819 until Elizabeth Nitchie edited it for the University of North Carolina Press in 1959.

Mary Shelley gave her only fair copy of Mathilda to Maria Gisborne on May 2, 1819, and asked Maria to deliver this text to Godwin.36 This in itself needs to be examined. The Shelleys never sent their only copy of a newly written work to any publisher, least of all someone as notoriously unstable as Godwin. Mary had available to her the means to have Mathilda recopied (or to recopy it herself). That she did not suggests to me that this text functions as a material site for Mary Shelley's self-articulation. Mary Shelley was not careless. That she sent Godwin her own copy—and did not even deliver the text in person—offers one of the many gaps in Mary Shelley's biography that needs to be examined.

Maria Gisborne was traveling to England, and Mary Shelley told Maria that Godwin would probably read, edit, and publish her novel.37 On the voyage, Maria read Mathilda and was duly impressed. In her journal she wrote:

I have read Mathilda. This most singularly interesting novel evinces the highest powers of mind in the author united to extreme delicacy of sentiment. It is written without artifice and perhaps without the technical excellence of a veteran writer—There are perhaps some little inaccuracies which, upon revision, might have been corrected: but these are trifling blemishes and I am well persuaded that the author will one day be the admiration of the world. I am confident that I should have formed this opinion had I not been acquainted with her and loved her.38

Maria delivered Mathilda to Godwin, and on August 8, 1820, she recorded his response in her journal:

Mr. G. spoke of Mathilda; he thinks highly of some of the parts; he does not approve of the father's letter. … The deception on the part of the father with regard to his real design is too complete; for himself he says he should most certainly not have ordered a carriage to be prepared for the pursuit, after receiving such a letter. … The subject he says is disgusting and detestable; and there ought to be, at least if it is ever published, a preface to prepare the minds of the readers.39

It is most interesting that Godwin declares the subject “disgusting and detestable.” Interesting also is the fact that Godwin calls for a preface—perhaps to deflect the autobiographical readings Mathilda was sure to generate. Godwin also fails to address (or Maria doesn't record) the transparent autobiographical connections: the fictional Mathilda is the author's age (twenty-one) in 1819; Mathilda's mother dies giving birth to her, just as Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to Mary Shelley; and Mathilda's father disowns her when a male suitor arrives on the scene, just as Godwin disowned Mary when she fell in love with Percy. Furthermore, Godwin relegates Mathilda to a category he does not reserve for other incest tales: certainly, he fails to interpret Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796), Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), or Percy Shelley's “Laon and Cynthia” (1817) and The Cenci (1819) as “disgusting and detestable” on the grounds that they deal with incest. Importantly—and I deal with this issue more fully in this chapter when I “read” Mathilda—Mary Shelley's novel does not only thematize incest, as the other romantic texts that address this subject do. Her text teases out the aftereffects of incest—aftereffects that were not in cultural or intellectual currency at the time. By relying on aftereffects and not themes, Mary Shelley anticipates Freud (by about seventy years) and trauma theory's contribution to feminist therapy: the narrative invention of somatic and psychological aftereffects of abuse. One has to ask: How did Mary Shelley know?

After receiving Mary's only fair copy of Mathilda, Godwin turned a deaf ear to her request for the manuscript's return. According to Peter Marshall, Godwin “quietly put the manuscript in the drawer. Three years later Mary was still trying to get it back, and the work was not published in her lifetime.”40 U. C. Knoepflmacher puts it this way: “Godwin made sure that Mathilda would never be published.”41 Meanwhile, on February 9, 1822, while Mary Shelley was recovering from Percy's passionate love for Jane Williams (in January 1821) and Emilia Vivianti (in February 1821),42 she wrote to Maria Gisborne, asking her to steal Mathilda from Godwin's desk drawer: “I should like as I said when you went away—a copy of Mathilda—it might come out with the desk.”43 One month later, on March 7, 1822, Mary wrote again: “Could you not in any way write [to Godwin] for Mathilda?—I want it very much.”44 Maria's response was not encouraging. Godwin, subject to frequent and wild mood swings, was not receiving the Gisbornes. Maria wrote to Mary, “With regard to Mathilda … as your father has put a stop to all intercourse between us, I am at a loss what step to take.”45

Three years later, Mary was still anxious for Mathilda's return and apparently was concerned that Maria Gisborne was not transmitting her desires to Godwin. On April 10, 1822, she wrote an exhaustive letter to Maria that wavered between desperation to get Mathilda back and concern over Shelley's recent arrest. As in all previous correspondence with Maria, this letter constructs Godwin as audience:

I wish, my dear Mrs. Gisborne, that you would send Godwin, at Nash's Esq. Dover Street—I wish him to have an account of the fray [Shelley's arrest for cursing at an Italian officer], and, you will thus save me the trouble of writing it over again, for what with writing and talking about it, I am quite tired—In a late letter of mine to my father, I requested him to send you Mathilda—I hope that he has complied with my desire, and, in that case, that you will get it copied, and send it to me by the first opportunity.46

Significantly, this letter demonstrates, among other things, how Mary weaves Mathilda's absence into the daily fabric of domestic anxiety and life with Percy. In her correspondence she makes similar gestures to her dead children, alluding to them in a way that incorporates them into the present. Mathilda thus functions in Mary Shelley's letters and journals as a relic of herself, as a dead child (like William and Clara) who is allowed to haunt the present. It is only after Percy dies (July 8, 1822) that Mary Shelley begins to construct Mathilda as a story that foreshadowed her husband's death.

In the letter that tells Maria Gisborne that Percy Shelley and Edward Williams drowned at sea when the Don Juan capsized, Mary Shelley also reveals that she displaces her needs so that the comfort she asks for will not really soothe her pain. In this August 15, 1822, letter, Mary begins by restating a dream that Percy had before he took the fateful voyage:

[Percy] dreamt that lying as he did in bed Edward & Jane came into him, they were in the most horrible condition, their bodies lacerated—their bones starting through their skin, the faces pale yet stained with blood, they could hardly walk, but Edward was the weakest & Jane was supporting him—Edward said—“Get up Shelley, the sea is flooding the house & it is all coming down.” S. got up, he thought, & went to the window that looked on the terrace & the sea & thought he saw the sea rushing in. Suddenly his vision changed & he saw the figure of himself strangling me.47

When describing to Maria Gisborne how she and Jane reclaimed their husbands' drowned bodies, Mary relies on Mathilda's experience: “It must have been fearful to see us—two poor, wild, aghast creatures—driving like Mathilda towards the sea to learn if we were forever doomed to misery.”48 Wife murder is to the present as incest is to the past. Percy's dream and Mathilda's fate foretell the future: even though Mary does not die, her role as Percy's wife dies with Percy. Likewise, in Mathilda, the daughter replaces the mother as object of sexual desire. This displacement cancels out Mathilda's childhood and adulthood simultaneously: the father's transgressive sexuality kills the child, while psychologically, the exchange of the live woman for the dead makes Mathilda fear being alive. Mathilda follows her father to the sea, where he has drowned; likewise, Percy follows his July 7 dream to the sea, where he meets the same fate.

By displacing her past and condensing her future, Mathilda becomes the site of Mary Shelley's rereading of her past, especially her adolescence, in an effort to understand how her past has transformed into the present. Its import was not lost on the author herself. One year later, in 1823, she reflected on this: “But it seems to me in what I have hitherto written I have done nothing but prophecy [sic] what has arrived. … Mathilda foretells even many small circumstances most truly.”49 It must have seemed appropriate, given Mary Shelley's obsessions about privacy, concealment and deception, that her most self-revealing text was never published in her lifetime.


Mathilda's concession to write her history for Woodville initiates the plot of Mathilda. Because heteropatriarchy codifies denial by making certain questions and observations “unthinkable” (both consciously, through social pressure, and unconsciously, through denial), Mathilda breaks the silence only when she is free to do so: after her father is dead and she is dying. Momentarily resisting the imposed silence the Law demands, Mathilda can represent the unthinkable. She writes, “While life was strong within me I thought indeed that there was a sacred horror in my tale that rendered it unfit for utterance, and now, about to die, I pollute its mythic terrors.”50 It is important that her “freedom” comes with the price of death; although her father is dead, the Law still reigns. This is made clear by the father's namelessness: his name is “only” father; he therefore is ever present, not simply historically specific. He is the Law, the role, the cultural place-keeper.

The incest taboo, in cultural, psychoanalytic, and political permutations, shows that the father need not seduce his daughter; instead, he imputes his desire onto her. Good daughters obey their fathers; good daughters anticipate and fulfill their father's needs; good daughters seduce their fathers so that their fathers don't have to be the agents of transgression. In this way the Law restructures and reconstitutes the daughter and her desires.51 After sixteen years of parental abandonment, with mother dead from bearing Mathilda and himself absent because Mathilda's presence commands his grief, the father returns. It is he who sexualizes the reunion: “I cannot tell you how ardently I desire to see my Mathilda,” the father writes in a letter to the aunt (186). Mathilda tells us, “As he approached, his desire to see me became more and more ardent” (187). Here we see how Mathilda takes over her father's vocabulary, thereby textually enacting the imputation of desire. He will not (at this point) speak his desire, so she says it for him.

At her father's return, Mathilda is emotionally neglected and sexually naive. Her aunt (who acted as her legal guardian out of duty, not compassion) made herself available only during specific hours, and then only twice a day (182). Her traditional, conservative, and thoroughly “anti-Wollstonecraft” aunt forbids her to befriend girls her own age because she might “catch” their Scottish accent (“great pain was taken that my tongue should not disgrace my English origin” [183]). When her father arrives, the possibility that he may love her makes her feel like a new person: “I felt as if I were recreated and had about me all the freshness and life of a new being: I was, as it were, transported” (188-89). She is not “awakened” sexually, however, and when her desire to be parented comes with the price of unwanted sexuality, she does not know that her father's lust will appropriate her need for care and protection: “I had no idea that misery could arise from love, and this lesson that all at last must learn was taught me in a manner few are obliged to receive it” (198). Here we see that the father's misappropriation of Mathilda's love confuses her sense of boundaries and reality. By calling incest “love,” he teaches her a lesson that not all must learn. E. Sue Blume explains this lesson in detail: “As a distortion of intimacy, incest teaches many contradictions: to be cared about is to be taken from, to need someone puts one at risk of being taken advantage of, and to be given to leads to expected payback. For the incested child, intimacy equals danger and damage.”52

As Jane Gallop and Luce Irigaray note, within the rules of the Law, the father's sexual desire is projected onto the daughter, who does his bidding and takes his fall. As Gallop puts it, “The Oedipus Complex, the incest taboo, the law forbidding intercourse between father and daughter, covers over a seduction, masks it so it goes unrecognized.”53 And Irigaray writes, “The seduction function of the law [works when it] suspends the realization of a seduced desire. … The law organizes and arranges the world of fantasy at least as much as it forbids, interprets and symbolizes it.”54 Mathilda's power is located in her ability to create her own subjectivity—in trauma theory, to differentiate enough from her abuser so that she knows that there exists a difference between wanting to be loved and wanting to be fucked: “I disobeyed no command, I ate no apple, and yet I was ruthlessly driven from [Paradise]. Alas! My companion did, and I was precipitated in his fall” (198).

Writing about the intrusion of her father's sexual desire makes incest real for Mathilda; her naming the event offers a counterdiscourse to the Law. Mathilda takes the risk of writing her own text while reading her father's Law; but because she knows she is dying, she also knows she can afford this risk.

However, if incest is the secret women keep, then Mary Shelley is playing a much pricier game than her heroine. If, as I suspect, Mary Shelley writes her way into understanding her “excessive and romantic” love for Godwin as incestuous, then her reconstructed memories of love/incest deepen any explanation for why the summer of 1819 was so traumatic, for memories of sexual transgression are often accompanied by feelings of the terror she was not allowed to “indulge” as a child.55 Most of what is known about Mary Shelley's depression during this summer comes through reading the absence: no sex with Percy,56 little correspondence,57 a journal filled with obsessive-compulsive lists.58 She made “confessions” only when she thought people were not listening. To Leigh Hunt she wrote, “I ought to have died on the 7th of June last.”59 Mary Shelley “lived” through her writing of Mathilda. In this textual embodiment of incest—for whatever reason—she kept herself sane. The irony, of course, is that those around her thought she was going mad. By writing Mathilda, Mary Shelley was momentarily freed from the seduction of the Law: “The seduction fantasy is really about seducing the daughter to not read her own text, but instead to obey the law of the father.”60

The first time Mathilda falls for the seduction of the Law, she unwittingly echoes her father's words, spoken sixteen years before, regarding the intrusion of third parties. At this point in the text, the father has moved Mathilda from Scotland to London and, seemingly without conscious intent, is grooming Mathilda to become his wife replacement. Just as, sixteen years earlier, the father and Diana “seldom admitted a third to their society” (180), so, too, Mathilda now says, “It was a subject of regret to me whenever we were joined by a third party” (190). In his life with Diana, the father's spoken aversion to the presence of a third party calls forth Mathilda, whose presence kills his wife. And now, Mathilda's internalization of her father's aversion to outsiders seems to make material a “young man of rank,” whose presence galvanizes the father's violent desire.

According to M. M. Bakhtin in “The Problem of the Text,” the third party holds a special dialogic relation to the text: “Each dialogue takes place as if against the background of the responsive understanding of an invisibly present third party who stands above all participants in the dialogue.”61 But in an incestuous household, third parties are not welcome because they threaten to expose how the Law of the Father denies, trivializes, or distorts the daughter's experience; they also threaten to expose the father's desire itself.62

The father's behavior toward Mathilda changes in response to her sexual potential, not to her behavior: “I now remember that my father was restless and uneasy whenever this [third party] visited us, and when we talked together [father] watched us with the greatest apparent anxiety” (91). The father typifies the behavior of seductive fathers, who, as Herman suggests,

reacted to their daughters' emerging sexuality either with an attempt to establish total control or with total rejection. The message they conveyed to their daughters was, in effect, “As long as you remain my little girl, everything will be fine; but if you try to grow up, there will be hell to pay.”63

Mathilda is paralyzed by her father's change in attitude and behavior, especially since she cares very little for this “young man of rank.” This third party becomes significant because of what he does—he brings the father's incestuous desire into crisis—not who he is. Like the father, the third party has an unstable relationship to heteropatriarchy, and his namelessness makes his power to permeate Mathilda's life even greater.

Mathilda blames her self-in-body (the incested daughter knows that her body always already puts her in jeopardy) and her self-in-narrative for her father's shift: “I seem perhaps to have dashed into the description. … In one sentence I have passed from the idea of unspeakable happiness to that of unspeakable grief, but they were this closely linked together” (193). We know her self-blame is repeated in the act of writing, of creating a narrative, because the geography of her terror is the sentence that moves too swiftly. The link that Mathilda knows but cannot define or see shows that the Law must never be made into narrative; in breaking this commandment, Mathilda has exposed an important connection among narrative, representation, and violence.

Mathilda reads the text of her father's behavior while she writes her own text for Woodville; furthermore, she constructs a reading of her father's text that he would not endorse. Her grief is so “unspeakable” because the Father's Law imposes silence. This textual moment exposes a gap, a stopping of patriarchal momentum: Mathilda has not yet realized that once the incest is spoken (that is, represented or made discursively “real”), her “desire” will be overlaid by her father's law. The guilt that she will use to describe herself and her wants is the by-product of desire cut off from its origin.64

Equally important, Mary Shelley is also burdened by this convolution of desire and displacement, which explains why the covert incest described in her own admission (her “excessive and romantic” love, which can also be understood as her inscription and imputation of Godwin's desire according to the Law) can find voice only through the fictional Mathilda's body. Denial is not the simple act of knowing the truth and consciously lying about it to the outside world. Rather, denial is a complicated coping mechanism that relies on and is shaped by the reading and writing of one's own body as text: if I don't name it, it didn't happen; if I don't write about it, I won't make it real; since its reality depends on my reading, I won't read the experiences of my body. Because the Law determines what a woman reads about her body's experiences, it also makes reading and writing unlawful acts for the survivor of sexual abuse: “Laws shape experiences we have before we have them.”65 In the summer of 1819 in the text of Mary Shelley's life, both the “fictional” Mathilda and the “real”66 Mary Shelley are at the precipice of the Father's Law. Although silence no longer seems natural, silence now takes on a greater power. It is both life-saving—for the daughter who can never grow up—and life-threatening—for the woman who can create herself and her own subjectivity only if she reads the text her father forbids and then writes herself out of the role he has constructed for her.

He intended to remove with me to his estate in Yorkshire. … This estate was that which he had inhabited in childhood and near which my mother resided while a girl; this was the scene of their youthful loves and where they had lived after their marriage; in happier days my father had often told me that however he might appear weaned from his widow sorrow, and free from bitter recollections elsewhere, yet he would never dare visit the spot where he had enjoyed her society or trust himself to see the rooms that so many years ago they had inhabited together. … And now while he suffered intense misery he determined to plunge into still more intense, and strove for greater emotion than that which already tore him.


This passage reveals the father advancing the paternal power to plot the sexual control of his daughter. First, by fitting his daughter for the role of his dead wife, he fails to differentiate between mother and daughter. Second, this passage exposes the beginnings of Mathilda's denial: in agreeing to read her father's text and embody her father's reading, Mathilda does not suspect her developing body also functions as a third party (along with Woodville) that galvanizes their household crisis.

While a psychoanalytic framework shows how the Law projects the father's desire onto the daughter, who does his bidding and takes his fall, an anthropological-sociological paradigm further problematizes the possibility of a daughter knowing or acting on her desire by defining her body as a “gift.” By moving Mathilda backward, instead of letting her grow up and out of his house, the father exchanges his daughter for his wife. As I noted in chapter 1, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss in The Elementary Structures of Kinship: “The prohibition of incest is less a rule prohibiting marriage with the mother, sister, or daughter, than a rule obliging the mother, sister, or daughter to be given to others. It is the supreme rule of the gift.”67 The father who refuses to give to other men the gift of his daughter and fails to exchange her as a commodity in the marketplace of heteropatriarchy commits the ultimate act of narcissism by cannibalizing the gift. Just as readers cannot help but appropriate texts that they read (this is the cruder rendition of “the reader constructs the text”), so Mathilda's father uses the act of reading as incest foreplay: “When I was last here, your mother read Dante to me; you shall go on where she left off” (195).

The Law of the Father makes possible the daughter's place as gift. But ironically, by fitting Mathilda for Diana's role, the father makes himself vulnerable to parricide. By moving history backward, he moves himself into the territory of the living dead: “Although more than sixteen years had passed since [Diana's] death, nothing had been changed; her work box, her writing desk were still there and in her room a book lay open on the table as she had left it” (194-95). This open book functions as a symbol of textual necrophilia: if reading is like incest, because both are acts of the cannibal, then the father is eating and reading and fucking the dead.68

Most important, the exchange of women, while central to the proliferation of culture, is so pervasive that both its agency and its effects go unnoticed. According to Gayle Rubin in “The Traffic in Women,” since “women do not have the same rights [as men] either to themselves or to their male kin,”69 women “are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation.”70 Of course Mathilda is burdened by a guilt that cannot be expressed; something as routine as the traffic in women becomes representable only when it exceeds the Law of the Father. Ironically, while incest is representable to the father, it is often unrepresentable to the daughter (“secrecy, a necessary component of control, is imposed on the victim of incest”).71 This business of who gets to represent the victimization of a woman's body is significant because one's subjectivity depends on the act of representation. Thus, Mary Shelley's disrespect for the Law takes shape in the writing of her fiction, where she commits the ultimate act of bad-daughter behavior: she reads and writes the text of her body, a text that Godwin has censored.

W. Arens has suggested that incest has been linked to cannibalism because historically, sexual and nutritional excess signified the savage.72 If “you are what you eat,” we can see that the father's law fashions Mathilda in another way: as murderer. Mathilda unwittingly “kills” her father, because the presence of her body makes his role as father untenable. Because “the body is a model which can stand for any bounded system,”73 we see that the father has cannibalized his way beyond satiation. Laws function not merely to define lawful behavior but also to inscribe “how, when, [and] in what ways to be lawless.”74 Thus, the father who transgresses the incest taboo has committed a representable crime. Unlike the daughter's, his transgression is not unspeakable. Mathilda becomes introduced to the connection between reading and cannibalism when she muses, “I did not yet know of the crime there may be in involuntary feeling” (197). Mathilda does not yet know that all reading is an act of appropriation and ingestion, and that we are what we read and misread. Therefore, she misreads the limitations of her power to “correct” her father's feelings. Before she knows about her father's sexual desire for her, she thinks, “When I know his secret then will I pour a balm into his soul and again I shall enjoy the ravishing delight of beholding his smile” (197). But after she embodies the text of his sexual desire, she becomes irrevocably and indescribably changed; she feels soiled: “I gained his secret and we were both lost forever” (197). The nameless father rapes his daughter with desire, not touch; only through Mathilda's embodiment (in body and text) of his crime can we find his trace.

Although Mathilda is a story of incest that doesn't involve touch, Mathilda becomes touched by her father's sexual desire when she reads the text of that desire. Just as Mary Shelley lived through the act of writing during the summer of 1819, it is through the act of reading that Mathilda is raped. The horror of this father's crime is located in its intangibility; because her rape does not fit the socially inscribed “model” standard (vaginal penetration), only Mathilda's aftereffects are materially evident. Mathilda is raped by words, by gestures, by her father's gaze, and by the textual gaps in all of these. Her father says, “You are the sole, the agonizing cause of all I suffer, of all I must suffer until I die. Now, beware! Be silent! Do not urge me to your destruction. … My daughter, I love you!” (200-201). The trap here is not lost on Mathilda. She wants her father to love her, but not sexually. Although the Law protects the father by always trivializing incest, in this case it recognizes physical rape as more “legitimate” than the psychological rape Mathilda endures; the fact that someone else's victimization is more physical does not lessen Mathilda's suffering.75 There are many ways of minimizing sexual abuse, and one is to change the subject, indicating in this case that the construction of Mathilda's subjectivity is “wrong” because she wasn't physically violated.

Mathilda was betrayed and then abandoned. The source of both violations was her father's desire to possess her sexually; although he did not use his penis to penetrate her, the combination of his power and desire (i.e., the phallus) penetrated her past and present. His power and desire prevented her entry into a future as an adult, since adulthood requires taking stock of one's past whereas being a good daughter involves keeping the (father's) secret of incest, even from oneself.

Mathilda dies a good daughter. And in an uncharacteristic gesture, I imagine that Mary Shelley acted like a bad daughter in the summer of 1819. Mary Shelley took stock of her life that summer: she had been a good girl, yet nevertheless her husband had cheated on her, her children had died, and, once again, Godwin had threatened to abandon her if she didn't “cheer up.” Because the self-image of “mother” died with her children, Mary Shelley was free to explore previously hidden psychological terrain, possibly triggered by this loss. Importantly, she allowed herself this freedom only when she thought people wouldn't take her seriously—or literally. Thus, her identification with incest was filtered into the “lie” of her fiction.

This commingling of truth and lies can also be understood as a function of the Law. Luce Irigaray and Jane Gallop revise Lacan's configuration of the Freudian Father's Law, which simplifies the power of patriarchal authority by separating it from the penis with which it wields its power. According to Lacan, “The phallus is a signifier … intended to designate as a whole the effects of the signified.”76 Although Gallop contends that “it is only the law and not the body—which constitutes [the father] as patriarch,”77 she makes the connection between representation and social control that Lacan bypasses: “As long as the attribute of power is a phallus which refers to and can be confused … with a penis, this confusion will support a structure in which it seems reasonable that men have power and women do not.”78 Mary Shelley adds another dimension to the Law by “lying” about her body, that is, telling the construction of the truth that the father won't hear unless it is contextualized in fiction.

Mathilda carefully weighs the differences between the construction or invention of one's history and the telling of lies. After her father's suicide, her identity as daughter is also killed; thus, Mathilda is not sure what to do with her past, but she knows she must do something with it. Should she consciously lie to herself, and “over the deep grave of my secret … heap an impenetrable heap of false smiles and words” (219)? She says she “dare not,” because to “do nothing” with her past (that is, not to put it in narrative and thus construct/record it) or to bury it with false narratives would allow it to become an unimaginable weight. She considers feigning her own death so that her heirs can claim the inheritance she feels has prostituted her, and she decides against this only because self-support would involve writing, which would necessitate (even veiled) disclosure of her own history. Mathilda feels stuck because all systems for making sense of her past seem a lie. Because her father's crime was a crime of desire, Mathilda must name (invent, construct, make up, represent, write) the crime in order to “escape” it (216).

But herein springs the trap of the phallus/penis symbol/body Law. To name the crime is to give it shape and power; not to name it is to be silenced by it, to be the object of the Law's desire and power once again. Unlike Mary Shelley, who risks the Law by writing Mathilda, Mathilda decides not to decide. And so Mathilda copes by never growing up; she says, “In solitude only shall I be myself” (216). She contrives her own death, which symbolizes her death as daughter; in doing so, she leaves herself no place to live within the symbolic or cultural order:

I escaped. I left my guardian's house and I was never heard of again; it was believed from the letters that I left and other circumstances that I planned that I had destroyed myself. I was sought after therefore with less care than would otherwise have been the case; and soon all trace and memory of me was lost.


To escape to a place where she can write her history, Mathilda must construct the presence of a third party who reads her traces, those implications she drops like bread crumbs and “forgets” so that she may eventually remember.

As the penis/phallus conveniently confuses the agency of patriarchal Law, Mathilda problematizes another element of the Law: the role of the absent mother. In his suicide/abandonment letter the father writes to Mathilda, “In my madness I dared say to myself—Diana died to give [Mathilda] birth; her mother's spirit was transferred into her frame, and she ought to be as Diana to me” (210). As I have argued above, the economy of exchange explains and legitimizes the father's brandishing of power so that the incest taboo organizes this exchange by mediating a relationship between the incestuous father and the mother's absence. Because Diana died in the process of giving birth to Mathilda, the father has the right (within the Law) to exchange/change daughter for wife. Mathilda “kills” her father by resisting the exchange.

However, Mathilda resists in a complicated fashion: she does not say or do anything, but rather, she disobeys by not taking on her role as seductress, by not anticipating what her father wants and thus saving him the trouble of transgression by embodying his sexual desire. Furthermore, when she orders a carriage and follows her father after his departure, she does so because she finds her identity in her role as daughter: if he dies, then she “dies.” She wants to exonerate herself as her father's murderer; by resisting the Law she kills his role, and since “it is only the law—and not the body—which constitutes [the father] as patriarch,”79 she has unwittingly found him out, undressed the father, exposed his phallus as penis. Of her tale Mathilda says, “Oedipus is about to die.” (176). (And it is worth pointing out that Oedipus, at death, is reconciled to his daughter, but his death also forces her into the market of exchange.) It is important that Mathilda is too late to fulfill the script of the Law, and therefore Mary Shelley sees to it that Mathilda successfully resists the Law. Thus, in reclaiming her father's dead body, Mathilda functions as a Bakhtinian third party who serves as the most important reader on the scene.

In constructing herself and inventing her history, Mathilda manifests many symptoms that result from incest: dissociation,80 inability to mourn or name her pain, embodying self-blame and guilt, perceiving herself as soiled, and sensing that she has committed some crime she cannot name. Simply put, Mathilda embodies incest:

My father had for ever deserted me, leaving me only memories which set an eternal barrier between me and my fellow creatures. I was indeed fellow to none. … Unlawful and detestable passion had poured its poison into my ears and changed all my blood, so that it was no longer the kindly stream that supports life but a cold fountain of bitterness corrupted in its very source.


First, patriarchal societies claim that incest is harmless because children forget or lie;81 good for daughters because it makes them more sexually open or simply the victim's deserving fault.82 Next, patriarchal culture makes laws ensuring that legal authorities read the text of a woman's body in these ways.83 Eventually, women write the texts of their bodies in accordance with this prescription. Because we learn to read and write within culture and ideology, what is most devastating about the lessons patriarchal cultures teach about incest is that eventually the survivor herself doesn't know how her body could have “allowed” this to happen. And when one feels betrayed by one's body, one feels responsible for the crimes that have been committed. After the intrusion of incest, Mathilda feels that the blood which pulses inside her isn't really hers anymore. This creates two related incest aftereffects for Mathilda: self-blame and splitting.

The Law constructs the daughter as always already anticipating the father's transgression. Even though Mathilda does not allow the father to project the role of seductress onto her, nevertheless she feels responsible, if not for his sexual desire then for the fact that she did not sacrifice herself, use her body as a wedge to separate the father from his sexual desire by embodying it, by “wanting” it. She says, “I believed myself to be polluted by the unnatural love I had inspired, and that I was a creature cursed and set apart by nature” (238). Because “the remembrance haunts [Mathilda] like a crime” (218), she responds by splitting, by not matching her depression to its source. She has to force herself to feel: “I often said to myself, my father is dead. He loved me with a guilty passion, and stung by remorse and despair he killed himself. Why is it that I feel no horror?” (215). Instead of feeling pain and anguish, she bypasses her body and tells herself what and how to feel.

Mathilda experiences a time warp between feelings and reactions, because splitting reverses the process of reaction. Instead of feeling pain and then thinking about why she feels this pain, Mathilda inverts this: “I do not weep or sigh; but I must reason with myself, and force myself to feel sorrow and despair” (215). As she becomes more practiced at splitting, she reads history not to understand the feelings of others but to know how she should feel: “I began to study more … to lose my individuality among the crowd that had existed before me” (222). (It is important to note that Mathilda is not trying to write her experience into the master narrative of history—she says, “Perhaps a history such as mine had better die with me.” Rather, she tries to efface her history by borrowing the feelings of others [175].) Mathilda becomes so practiced at splitting that she stops living in her body and instead merges with her father; she converts the memory of her father's love into “the life of my life” (223). Eventually, when splitting seems more natural than feeling, Mathilda says, “Even my pleasures were endured, not enjoyed” (223). And finally, splitting from the memory of incest causes Mathilda to “forget,” and therefore she starts to believe she has made it all up (another aftereffect of incest): “There were periods, dreadful ones, during which I despaired—and doubted the existence of all duty and the reality of [the] crime” (221).

Secrecy, an element always present in crimes of incest, either eliminates or displaces the third party who reads and confirms the violation. Woodville exemplifies this displaced third party, whom Mathilda allows to read her story only when she is dying. And because Woodville's power as a third party has been displaced, Mathilda asks, in spite of Woodville's place as reader, “Who can be more solitary even in a crowd than one whose history and the never ending feelings and remembrances arising from it is known to no living soul?” (216). Mathilda can never grow into the role of adult woman—“I must shrink before the eye of man lest he should read my father's guilt in my glazed eyes”—because, unlike Mary Shelley, Mathilda writes her way into death, not life.


As my introduction to this chapter suggests, as a literary movement romanticism demanded (and its canonization still demands) the privileging of the father's word over the daughter's—and, in fact, predetermines her silence. But in the summer of 1819, Mary Shelley broke this silence and used writing to heal her pain, specifically by creating an autobiographical character whose pain served to bear witness to Mary's pain. And whatever the “real” source of Mary Shelley's pain, it is important that she chose the theme of incest to reflect it. If, as Lacanian psychoanalysis declares (and as I believe), writing actually “makes” events narratively real, and therefore representable, by depositing secrets, impressions, dreams, and other events that occupy unnarrativized psychic places into language, it is significant that Mary Shelley chose to write about incest to represent “romantic and excessive” love between a father and daughter. Along with writing, Mary Shelley healed through reading—the other side of the coin. Without reading, even physical trauma is not “real,” because it can never be made real without a Bakhtinian third party who reads its place. (It is important to note that the reader can be an outside “third party,” the writer herself, or both.) When the unnamed topic is incest, one important way to make real the unbelievability of sexual transgression is through writing and then reading. In fact, without the act of narrative, the body of an incest survivor is forever trapped; if the survivor does not construct sexual transgression outside her body, her body will remain only a signifier of despair.

A century after Mary Shelley wrote Mathilda, Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, in analysis with female hysterics, developed the “talking cure,” a method through which subjects construct their demons through—and deposit them in—language. Today, self-help books predominate which recommend that the subject write her way back to psychological health. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis in The Courage to Heal position writing as necessary to healing:

So often, survivors have had their experiences denied, trivialized or distorted. Writing is an important avenue for healing because it gives you the opportunity to define your own reality. … By going back and writing about what happened, you also reexperience feelings and are able to grieve. You excavate the sites in which you've buried memory and pain, dread and fury. You relive your history.84

Unlike Freud, whose hysterics produced “talk” that became the intellectual property of Freud himself, Bass and Davis suggest that feminist self-help theory restores agency to the writing subject.85

There are many ways to minimize or deny the possibility that Mathilda may function as the site of Mary Shelley's reconstruction of her “excessive and romantic love” (love to heteropatriarchy; incest to me) for Godwin. One way is to declare that if she were really molested by Godwin, she would have “said” it somewhere else, somewhere more legitimate than in her fiction. But even if society believed sexual abuse survivors, obligating Mary Shelley to “confess” would naively imply that traumatic memories reside in accessible psychic places. In truth, unless the subject reveals signs of psychosis, experiences with past trauma are “civilized” into silent aftereffects, so that the body “talks” in disguised ways. This results in behaviors, nightmares, addictions, and a multitude of fears, visions, panic attacks, all of which “serve” the trauma survivor by keeping her secret. These aftereffects are evidenced in the “gaps” of Mary Shelley's letters and journals.

Mary Shelley manages—and perhaps even conceals—her identification with incest by letting her fiction become the repository for this “excessive and romantic” father—daughter connection. Any reader of Mary Shelley's life—especially during the writing of Mathilda—who minimizes the place of telling truths (making self-disclosures) within the narrative of “lies” (fiction) reveals how the incest taboo is a taboo against writing and reading, not against the act of sexual abuse. Remember the epigraph to chapter 1 from W. Arens, who writes, “The literature [on incest] suggests quite clearly that as a rule intellectuals have either ignored or unintentionally denied the existence of incest in propounding their theories about the universality of the prohibition.”86 Arens asks academics to interrogate the intellectual coercion—the Law—that denies the fact of incest (and its privileged place in maintaining patriarchal culture) by accepting without question that the taboo successfully outlaws the crime.

Accepting the spirit of this challenge, Diane Price Herndl, in “The Writing Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anna O., and ‘Hysterical’ Writing,” focuses on the subject's power to write her way out of the Law:

As the “writer,” the woman becomes not just a subject, but a subject who produces that which is visible and which will be visible even in her absence. She produces a discourse which will take her place. … Writing can provide an other to “hear” her discourse, even if such another is not present; “she” can be “read.” That is, she can be seen. Writing can become the Other, insofar as she inscribes herself, represents herself in her text. Writing separates her from the unbearable presence of experience by representing it as other, as that which is written, as the not-me. … But writing is a poison as well as a remedy, because to cure the woman, it must kill the hysteric. Writing takes the place of the hysteric.87

This change of focus offers feminist readers an important gesture, one that reclaims bodily experiences through the piecing together of aftereffects. Reading aftereffects as a text appropriates poststructural interrogations of the unified subject on feminist terms.

Mary Shelley's depression lifted temporarily after she finished writing Mathilda. She gave birth to her fifth child, she fought with Godwin over his suppression of Mathilda, and she returned to her correspondence and journal keeping. It was the “writing cure” that killed Mathilda and temporarily soothed Mary Shelley. A letter she wrote to Marianne Hunt, dated August 28, 1819, approximately two weeks after Mary Shelley completed Mathilda, suggests that this “fix” was temporary: “Shelley has written a good deal and I have done very little since I have been in Italy.”88 And so, while Mathilda paves the way for another displacement, for another series of repressions, it identifies the way Mary Shelley embodied herself in the grips of depression. The coping strategy Mary Shelley advanced anticipates both Freud and the feminist recovery movement, not because Mary Shelley was ahistorically clairvoyant but because, in spite of the tiresome academic catechisms of historical materialism, incest and its aftereffects are not contained (or containable) by specific centuries, classes, households, or families.


  1. Let me define “incest.” In accordance with the definition used in contemporary recovery theory, incest does not have to involve touch. The most widely accepted definition of incest is “the imposition of sexually inappropriate acts, or acts with sexual overtones, by … one or more persons who derive authority through ongoing emotional bonding with that child” (E. Sue Blume, Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Effects in Women [New York: Ballantine, 1985], 4. Although touch may be absent, secrecy, ever-present, becomes more and more difficult to endure, especially if the daughter's denial has made her “forget” the experience (1-20). According to Judith Herman, “Most girls dread discovery of the incest secret and do not reveal it to anyone. … They believe that no recourse is available to them and that disclosure of the secret would lead to disaster” (Judith Lewis Herman, Father-Daughter Incest [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981], 129). Also, frequency of attack is often used to dismiss the relevance and import of sexual abuse. But as Bass and Davis suggest, “Betrayal takes only a minute. A father can slip his fingers into his daughter's underpants in thirty seconds. After that the world is not the same” (Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse [1988; 3d ed., New York: HarperCollins, 1994], 26).

  2. Throughout this book I use “trauma theory” to refer to the process of reading aftereffects as texts, as outlined and described in chapter 1.

  3. I put chooses in quotation marks, because although it is clearly the wrong word, it is the one a patriarchal culture deems appropriate. No woman chooses to be raped; selecting among compromises should never be confused with an act of free will.

  4. Sylvia Norman's essay is collected in Kenneth Neill Cameron, ed., Shelley and His Circle: 1773-1822, Documents in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), 3:397-423.

  5. Ibid., 399.

  6. Ibid., 420.

  7. Ibid., 408.

  8. Ibid., 420.

  9. Ibid., 421.

  10. Harold Bloom, ed., Mary Shelley: Modern Critical Views (New York: Chelsea House, 1985), 1.

  11. Ibid., 170.

  12. Sigmund Freud, The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1986), 419.

  13. Elizabeth Nitchie, introduction to Mary Shelley's Mathilda (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), vii.

  14. Ibid., xiii.

  15. Ibid., vii.

  16. U. C. Knoepflmacher, “Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters,” in U. C. Knoepflmacher and George Levine, eds., The Endurance of Frankenstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 115.

  17. Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Routledge, 1988), 195.

  18. Emily W. Sunstein, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1989), 34. For Sunstein's reference and quotation, see Thornton Hunt, “Shelley, By One Who Knew Him,” Atlantic Monthly 11 (February 1863): 184-204.

  19. Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 27.

  20. Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981), 77.

  21. Nitchie, introduction to Mathilda, vii.

  22. Sunstein, Mary Shelley, 171.

  23. Betty T. Bennett, ed., The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 3 vols (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 1983, 1988), 3:100.

  24. Peter H. Marshall, William Godwin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984), 331.

  25. Quoted in Knoepflmacher, “Thoughts,” 113.

  26. Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 2:109.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, eds., The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 1:292.

  29. Sunstein, Mary Shelley, 171.

  30. Ibid. Percy abandoned Harriet Shelley, his first wife, to elope with Mary Godwin in 1814.

  31. See Mary Wollstonecraft, Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 4 vols. (London, 1798), 4:97-155.

  32. Feldman and Scott-Kilvert, eds., Journals, 1:293.

  33. Ibid., xvii-xviii.

  34. William St. Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1989), 467.

  35. My speculation offers an important contrast to the precision with which Godwin preserved, ordered, and published Wollstonecraft's letters, which suggests that Godwin concealed Mathilda and Mary's letters for the purpose of concealing and silencing Mary's understanding of their relationship.

  36. Frederick L. Jones, ed., Maria Gisborne and Edward E. Williams, Shelley's Friends: Their Journals and Letters (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 27.

  37. As Bennett notes in a footnote in Letters (1:68n. 2), Maria Gisborne (1770-1836) was a lifelong friend of both the Shelleys and the Godwins, with the exception of a one-year estrangement from Mary Shelley in 1820-21 (due probably to the fact that Gisborne repeated some gossip from Jane Clairmont). She had cared for Mary when she was a baby and was courted by and refused to marry William Godwin in 1800. Perhaps the most notable element of the relationship between the two women is that Maria Gisborne was the person whom Mary Shelley trusted the most in the early years of her marriage to Percy. In her letters, Mary shares with Maria her bitterness regarding her stepmother, her anxiety about her father's opinion of her, and her anger toward Percy.

  38. Jones, ed., Maria Gisborne, 27.

  39. Ibid., 44.

  40. Marshall, William Godwin, 331.

  41. Knoepflmacher, “Thoughts,” 115.

  42. Mellor, Mary Shelley, xvii; Sunstein, Mary Shelley, 193-96, 213, 224, 233, 374.

  43. Bennett, eds, Letters, 1:218.

  44. Ibid., 1:224.

  45. Jones, ed., Maria Gisborne, 76.

  46. Bennett, ed., Letters, 1:229.

  47. Ibid., 1:245; my emphasis.

  48. Ibid., 1:247.

  49. Ibid., 1:336.

  50. Betty T. Bennett and Charles E. Robinson, eds., The Mary Shelley Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 175-76. All further page references to this work are noted parenthetically in the text.

  51. Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction, 78.

  52. Blume, Secret Survivors, 221.

  53. Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction, 75.

  54. Luce Irigaray, “The Blind Spot of an Old Dream of Symmetry,” in Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 38.

  55. Bass and Davis, Courage to Heal, 77-95.

  56. Sunstein, Mary Shelley, 191.

  57. Bennett, ed., Letters, vol. 1.

  58. Feldman and Scott-Kilvert, eds., Journals.

  59. Bennett, ed., Letters, 1:108; young William died on June 7.

  60. Irigaray, “Blind Spot,” 38.

  61. M. M. Bakhtin, “The Problem of the Text,” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 126.

  62. The living hell created when third parties are absent is not lost on Bakhtin: “The understanding of the Fascist torture chamber or hell … [is] the absolute lack of being heard, as [in] the absolute absence of a third party” (“Problem of the Text,” 126). Bakhtin's configuration helps illuminate Mathilda's isolation; after all, it becomes necessary that she write her history, thereby constructing her subjectivity, only when another displaced third party—Woodville—offers himself as a reader.

  63. Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 117.

  64. Judith Butler suggests desire is never one's own but rather is something one is forced to own when, inevitably, the Law of the Father creates the situation where self-expression is relegated to a series of displacements: “The very entry into the cultural field deflects that desire from its original meaning, with the consequence that desire within culture is, of necessity, a series of displacements” (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity [New York: Routledge, 1990], 65).

  65. Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (New York: Free Press, 1987), 150.

  66. I put both “fictional” and “real” in quotation marks because the separation between the two is both arbitrary and political. Depositing events into narrative makes them fictions; at the same time, narrating a previously unnarrativized experience constructs the event as “real.”

  67. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. James Harle Bell and John Richard von Sturmer (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 481.

  68. Luce Irigaray's “Woman on the Market” offers insight into the father's role: “The society we know, our own culture, is based on the exchange of women. … The passage into the social order, into the symbolic order, into order as such, is assured by the fact that men, or groups of men, circulate women among themselves, according to a rule known as the incest of taboo.” (“Women on the Market,” from This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Caroline Burke [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985], 170).

  69. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 177.

  70. Ibid., 174.

  71. Blume, Secret Survivors, 51.

  72. W. Arens, The Original Sin: Incest and Its Meaning (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), viii.

  73. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Pollution and Taboo (1966; reprint, New York: ARK Paperback, 1989), 115.

  74. Dworkin, Intercourse, 166.

  75. Privileging the body over the mind only to “prove” that bodily damage was minimal offers one of the most harmful effects of patriarchal arrogance to our society. It is important to recognize that someone—either the dominant gaze or the subject in question—always translates the body's pain through categories available to the mind. The separation of mind and body and the convenient focus on the site of a woman's body—whose pain becomes legitimate only when cataloged and understood by others—reveals how Western logic obscures, circumvents, or simply overturns subjective inscriptions of the body in pain.

  76. Jacques Lacan, “The Signification of the Phallus,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), 285.

  77. Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction, 77.

  78. Ibid., 96.

  79. Ibid., 77.

  80. Dissociation is also called “splitting” in recovery literature. Frank W. Putnam, in “Dissociative Disorders in Children: Behavioral Profiles and Problems,” defines dissociation as “a complex psychobiological process that results in a failure to integrate information into the normal stream of consciousness. It produces a range of symptoms and behaviors including: a). amnesias; b). disturbances in sense of self; c). trance-like states; d). rapid shifts in mood and behavior; e). perplexing shifts in access to knowledge, memory and skills; f.) auditory and visual hallucinations; and g). vivid imaginary companionship in children and adolescents” (Child Abuse and Neglect 17 [1993]: 39). In the same article Putnam has “firmly established a connection between childhood trauma and the development of dissociative disorders in adults.”

  81. Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 22-35.

  82. Ibid., 36-49.

  83. According to Lynda E. Boose in “The Father's House and the Daughter in It,” the relative openness with which our society now addresses incest does not portend a liberal future; rather, “the subject has changed venues and now rests in the hands of a new and more powerful set of cultural fathers.” In fact, these new fathers rule with a more ruthless reign than their predecessors: “In 1987, after a six-year study conducted by doctors from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, headed by Harvard psychiatrist Muriel Sugarman, a new phenomenon termed ‘divorce incest’ was identified, in which the children typically were not abused until the divorce or separation took place. Having followed a group of ‘19 children age 6 or younger whom the researchers believed had been sexually abused by their biological father during visits after separation or divorce,’ the study reported that at the court level, in spite of substantial documentation of incest by social-service agencies, ‘allegations were disbelieved in 73.7 percent of the cases,’ and not one of the men accused was prosecuted. In fact, the judicial system seemed so loath to side against the privileges of the father that ‘in nearly 60 percent of the cases, the children were forced to have [continued] visits with their fathers’” (Lynda Boose, “The Father's House and the Daughter in It,” in Daughters and Fathers, ed. Lynda E. Boose and Betty S. Flowers [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989], 71n. 5).

  84. Bass and Davis, Courage to Heal, 31.

  85. This idealism is ultimately intellectually unsupportable, because there is no such thing as healing the self in a sick society.

  86. Arens, The Original Sin, vii.

  87. Diane Price Herndl, “The Writing Cure: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anna O., and ‘Hysterical’ Writing,” National Women's Studies Association Journal 1, 1 (1988): 68.

  88. Bennett, ed., Letters, 1:103.

Audra Dibert Himes (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6222

SOURCE: “‘Knew shame, and knew desire’: Ambivalence as Structure in Mary Shelley's Mathilda,” in Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after Frankenstein, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997, pp. 115-29.

[In the following essay, Himes offers a comparison of the sources Shelley used to compose Mathilda.]

“Such is my name, and such my tale,
          Confessor—to thy secret ear,
          I breathe the sorrows I bewail,
And thank thee for the generous tear
This glazing eye could never shed.”

—Lord Byron, “The Giaour” (1813)

Mathilda is an arresting, riveting work, strange in its representation of incestuous love yet believable in its evocation of forbidden desire. The tightly confined internal and external spaces of and around the title character, who is the scriptor of this confessional work, force the reader to participate with Mathilda in the text. The reader cannot objectively receive the novel but must engage with Mathilda in her psychological landscape, and that is an area fraught with ambivalence created by vacillation between two equally powerful poles: Mathilda's position as both the subject and the object of the verb “to desire.” This ambivalence provides the structural and intellectual underpinning for the story as a whole, both within the text and, by extension, within the consciousness of the responding reader.

Mathilda's father and his desire for her are the figure and force that determine her internal world and her responses to the external one. Of course, incest is one conventional theme in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature; therefore, we should not be titillated to find that Mary Shelley, an informed reader and writer, used it in her own writing as well. Yet in her novel. Mary Shelley considers the theme of incest in a way that is quite different from the portrayals of incestuous pairs that are found in her sources' works, including Ovid and Vittorio Alfieri,1 and her contemporaries' writings. The difference is the way in which the novel treats the issue of Mathilda's desire, an especially transgressive one, and how she attempts at once to confess and cloister herself and her desire, both by choice and imposition.

Before beginning an exploration of the novel's sources, we must demarcate the ground between Mary Shelley and Mathilda. I treat Mary Shelley as an author function in this study; her proper name is that which assures a “classificatory function.”2 Treating Mary Shelley in this way prevents a biographical reading of Mathilda, a reading that has been ventured already by other students of Shelley's work.3 As Roland Barthes asserts about biographical criticism, “Explanation of the work is still sought in the person of its producer, as if, through the more or less transparent allegory of fiction, it was always, ultimately, the voice of one and the same person, the author, which was transmitting [her] ‘confidences.’”4 Treating Mary Shelley as an author function allows us to focus more clearly on Mathilda as the scriptor of Mathilda who “is born at the same time as [her] text.” Mary Shelley “is not the subject of which [her] book would be the predicate”; rather, Mathilda is the book, and the book is Mathilda (52).

Yet examining two works that contain plots based upon father-daughter incest that Mary Shelley, the biographical author, read leads us toward a better understanding of how differently the same subject is treated in Mathilda.5 Shelley's principal sources for her unsettling story are Ovid's Metamorphoses and Vittorio Alfieri's tragedy Myrrha.6Myrrha is a story of incestuous desire and passion felt by the title character/protagonist of the play for her father, Cinyras. Throughout the play, Myrrha suffers from guilt that is provoked by something that remains unnamed until the terminal moments of the action. Every character in the play (which includes only Myrrha, Myrrha's beloved father, and her mother, nurse, and fiancé) and the audience/reader guess at the cause of Myrrha's misery, evidenced by her physical and verbal expressions of despondency and affliction. However, the dramatic structure itself functions as a nondisclosing narrator.

The master stroke of Alfieri's work is the remarkable, forced nondisclosure of Myrrha's desire. The nondisclosure unfolds the narrative slowly and thereby compels the audience/reader to stay with the play in order to partake of the pleasure of discovering what impels the text. Franco Betti notes that we, the audience to Myrrha's suffering, “become so engrossed with [her] behavior that we forget what causes it. … [A]lmost paradoxically, [Alfieri] can create an eventful action where apparently there would be none.”7

Ambivalence underpins the structure of Alfieri's play as it does in Mathilda. Alfieri promotes ambivalence in the reader's response to Myrrha by pairing the implication that the young woman's passion is as unnatural as it is misdirected with the verbal underscoring of Cinyras's paternal love for his child. Over and over again, Myrrha's father asserts his sensitivity and his wish for her happiness. The most pointed of these exclamations of his love occurs in the first act:

Nature made me a father, chance a king.
Those which are deem'd by others of my rank,
Reasons of state, to which they are accustom'd
To make all natural affections yield,
In my paternal bosom would not weigh
Against a solitary sigh of Myrrha's.
I, by her happiness alone, can be
Myself made happy.(8)

In this passage, Cinyras's words stress his concern and love for his daughter. Against that filial responsibility, we compare what we might suspect already to be Myrrha's misplaced and transgressive passion and sexual desire for him.

Alfieri treats Myrrha's ardor more subtly than Ovid treats the same theme in Metamorphoses, Alfieri's acknowledged source.9 In Alfieri's play, Myrrha's yearning drives her mad because she believes that it is immoral and unnatural to feel such an emotion. She commits suicide because she thinks that her desire has contaminated her completely, making her a wholly unnatural creature. She is a human degraded to a beast—an Ovidian transformation that happens because Myrrha fails to recognize and regulate her appetites. Her filial affection transposes into a discordant key, that of physical passion for her father. In Metamorphoses, Ovid's Myrrha is tormented by her desire, but not for the same reason as in Alfieri's Myrrha; in fact, Ovid's Myrrha consents to a sexual quenching of her fires, while Alfieri moralizes the myth.

Alfieri's Myrrha can neither name her desire nor its object for most of the play, and when she finally does, it costs her her life to voice her craving. Myrrha's naming the object of her desire is her final confession. Her confessor is her father/beloved, who forces the confession from her by threatening to withhold from Myrrha his adoration of her. After Myrrha tells Cinyras finally that he is the one she wants and then stabs herself with his dagger, she gasps, “—Thou thy-self, … / By dint of violence, … from my heart … didst wrest … / The horrid secret … But since … with my life … / It parted … from my lips, … I die … less guilty. …”10 Confession equals expiation from her sin of transgressive desire for Myrrha. She has called herself “an impious wretch” before this confession, so Myrrha is very much concerned with the idea that her desire is a sin (Act 4, Scene 7). In Ovid's “The Story of Cinyras and Myrrha,” Myrrha is able to murmur, “O mother, mother, happy in your husband!” which is enough to galvanize her nurse to the action of tricking Cinyras into accepting his daughter into his bed.11 Thus, the main point of Ovid's story is not the struggle within Myrrha, the struggle that silences her and leads to her climactic confession, as it is in the tragedy. Instead, Ovid focuses our attention on Myrrha's emotional state after her sexual union with her father and the consequent conception of her sibling/offspring Adonis.

The narrative voice of Metamorphoses states explicitly that the passion the reader is to witness is morally unnatural, something left implicit in Alfieri's play. The Metamorphoses narrator exclaims:

                                                  The story
Is terrible, I warn you. Fathers, daughters,
Had better skip this part, or, if you like my songs,
Distrust me here, and say it never happened,
Or, if you do believe it, take my word
That it was paid for. Nature, it may be,
Permits such things to happen. I would offer
Our land congratulations, that it lies
So far away from such abominations.


The dichotomy here between what might be considered strictly “natural” and what is actually socially permissible, and even legal, admits that a culture's demands can override the desires of Nature, an idea to which we will return.

Whether or not the Ovidian narrator recognizes that something such as incestuous love might be strictly “natural,” both Myrrhas are devastated and driven to annihilation after they realize their desire to the outer world either by word, as with Alfieri's character, or by deed, as with Ovid's. Nevertheless, neither of these characters is able to express precisely what she feels; indeed, Ovid's Myrrha is unable to name what she has done in having sex with her father. Even after she has conceived her father's child, she is able to pray for her own eradication with only these words:

                                                  O gods,
If any gods will listen, I deserve
Punishment surely. I do not refuse it,
But lest, in living, I offend the living,
Offend the dead in death, drive me away
From either realm, change me somehow, refuse me
Both life and death!


Forbidden desire, alluded to in this prayer, silences both Ovid's and Alfieri's Myrrhas, but the insularity and narcissism of their desires also make each of them mute. However, Mary Shelley's Mathilda does not voice or show her transgressive desire to her father during his life or in his presence, and that is not the only difference between Shelley's conception of incestuous desire and that of her sources.

The first difference between Mathilda and the two Myrrha stories lies in the novel's narrative scheme. Instead of an outside narrator recounting an age-old tale, as in Ovid, or a gradually unfolding structure governed by the main character's actions, as in Alfieri, Mathilda is narrated by the young woman who is at first the object of her father's desire but who then realizes that her desire for him has surrounded his for her, for her desire has preceded his and endures and follows it. No other characters intervene in this transgressive relationship. In fact, there are few characters who act in Mathilda's story; Woodville, her father, and she are the only three who directly affect the unfolding plot (her mother, aunt, childhood nurse, and would-be lover are mentioned). Mary Shelley's limited cast is like that of Alfieri's tragedy, in which five characters make up the dramatis personae. The few actors and the limited timeframe in which the work is written by the dying Mathilda make the book necessarily condensed. Mathilda certainly could not write many volumes in her weak condition during the “three months” left to her before she succumbs, yet the novel has been criticized for following this logic.12 Jane Blumberg states that the book “does not rank as one of Shelley's important novels; it is remarkably slim compared to her customary three-volume works of fiction. … [I]t is undisciplined and uncomfortably personal,”13 and Tilottama Rajan asserts that “Mathilda is a short, bare narrative of trauma.”14 The book is not short or slim because it is “uncomfortably personal” or traumatic; rather, it is uncomfortable for the reader because it is so devoid of any perspective except Mathilda's.15 Consequently, the reader must share Mathilda's vision of the world because it is the only moral, emotional, and intellectual universe offered to her or him. This exceptionally tight focus on Mathilda's inner realm does not mar the work. It is part of the overall design of the novel, a design like the one that Mary Shelley recognized to be at work in Alfieri's tragedies.

In her biocritical essay on Alfieri, Shelley delineates his narrative strategy:

Energy and conciseness are the distinguishing marks of Alfieri's dramas. Wishing to bring the whole action of the piece into one focus, he rejected altogether the confidantes of the French theatre [explained later as “the action being carried on by a perpetual talk abot it”], so that his dramatis personae are limited to the principals themselves. The preservation of the unities of time and place also contributed to curtail all excrescences; so that his tragedies are short, and all bear upon one point only, which he considered the essence of unity of action.16

Mathilda and Myrrha are similar in their limited numbers of principals, and even as, according to Mary Shelley, Alfieri's “tragedies are short, and … bear upon one point only,” so is and does her novel. The unities of time and place are established otherwise in Mathilda, however. In Mary Shelley's work, they are congruent within Mathilda's mind. In her consciousness and memory, everything that has happened to her over the preceding four years and all the locations where she has been are fused, and every event is happening at every place at this moment, the moment of her writing her final confession.

As Michel Foucault writes, “For us, it is in the confession that truth and sex are joined through the obligatory and exhaustive expression of an individual secret.”17Mathilda and its creator/creation, Mathilda, is such an expression. The novel is what Foucault calls a “discourse of truth”:

The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile.


The naturalness versus unnaturalness of incestuous desire is what creates ambivalence in Mathilda. Our own ethical system—the guidelines for social behavior in which we live—defines Mathilda's passion as unnatural. Thus, because she has violated our ethics, Mathilda's culture—again, our own—demands a confession from her about her father's and her transgressive desire so that she may expiate her guilt, just as Alfieri's Myrrha confessed her desire and believed that she died less guilty of it. As Mathilda begins her tale, she writes, “Perhaps a history such as mine had better die with me, but a feeling that I cannot define leads me on.”18 This feeling is the pressure on her of the reader's desire—and the reader is the law's representative as she or he participates in the text—to know about Mathilda's position as the creation and creator of this text of incestuous desire. This relationship based on desire—the reader/advocate of the law's desire to know Mathilda's relation to her and her father's desire—makes the text seem “uncomfortably personal.” The reader gains pleasure initially through the power of being Mathilda's confessor, but the pleasure is mitigated first by the reader's realization that the pleasure can come only through an intimate knowledge of a transgressive, unlawful desire, and second by the reader's realization that Mathilda wants only a listener, not a confessor who might offer her absolution.

Mathilda's work is a testament that constitutes a voicing of her desire and a confession of what she has felt and continues to feel until the conclusion of the tale as she waits to die in her self-made cloister. Mathilda is actively cloistering her emotional and physical desire by turning life into art—into discourse. Foucault explains that during confession “a twofold evolution tend[s] to make the flesh into the root of all evil, shifting the most important moment of transgression from the act itself to the stirrings—so difficult to perceive and formulate—of desire.”19 Within her story, Mathilda divulges to the reader the culmination of her father's confession of his stirred desire for her in the form of the revealing epistle that he addresses to her, a letter that mirrors in a reduced size her own confessional document that inhabits the space around that smaller text. Also, the narrative frame formed by confessional document surrounding confessional document echoes the way in which Mathilda's longing for her father precedes, surrounds, and endures his desire for her. Mathilda replicates her father's confession for her reader; she then reveals how his confession affects her feelings. Although the act of physical incest never takes place between father and daughter—the incest is psychic, and her remorse arises from thought, not deed—Mathilda traces and retraces “the stirrings” of desire that move in both of them.

Her father's letter traces the stirrings of only his desire, but after she has read it, Mathilda's tumultuous phrasing reveals a deep ambivalence as she brushes against the subject of her feelings for her father:

He must know that if I believed that his intention was merely to absent himself from me that instead of opposing him it would be that which I should myself require—or if he thought that any lurking feeling, yet he could not think that, should lead me to him would he endeavor to overthrow the only hope he could have of ever seeing me again.20

Mathilda's father has already made a demand on her by communicating to her, however ambivalently, his desire when he stated, “‘Yes, yes, I hate you! You are my bane, my poison, my disgust! Oh! No! … [Y]ou are none of all these; you are my light, my only one, my life.—My daughter, I love you!’” (201). Jacques Lacan writes, “As an unconditional demand of presence and absence, demand evokes the want-to-be under the three figures of the nothing that constitutes the basis of the demand for love, of the hate that even denies the other's being, and of the unspeakable element in that which is ignored in its request.”21 These three figures conflict in Mathilda to create the ambivalence in the desire of the protagonist (Mathilda) and the antagonist (her father) for each other.

Undoubtedly, Mathilda feels a keen desire for her father. She has practically willed and prayed her father back to life, and in her intense desire to know him, she has developed a deep desire for his presence in her life and for him as a person—his body. He was dead to her; she had never met him. Her father had lived only as a letter, another text within the text of Mathilda, and Mathilda underscores that letter's significance when she confesses, “I bestowed on him all my affections; there was a miniature of him that I gazed on continually; I copied his last letter and read it again and again.”22 She relates that he was “the idol of my imagination,” and her actions toward the relics of him that he has left behind are very much like those of a lover who has lost her beloved. Mathilda desires her father, and his absence allowed her longing for his presence to develop into idealizing him and, finally, idolizing him.

After Mathilda reads her father's confession to her, she realizes that he reciprocates her desire, indeed, her sexual passion. She states that her father is “a lover, there was madness in the thought, yet he was my lover” (211). Malcolm Bowie asserts that any person to whom another person makes an appeal cannot answer it unconditionally, and “he too is divided and haunted, and his yes, however loudly it is proclaimed, can only ever be a maybe, or a to some extent in disguise.”23

When Mathilda states unequivocally that her father is her lover, she accepts her father's demand, although she never proclaims a loud yes. In spite of the fact that her desire has preceded his, Mathilda is especially “divided and haunted”; her feelings about her father's confessed desire for her are conflicting, and her answer to her father is particularly equivocal. All of her ambivalence is caused by the socially defined unnaturalness of the desire that she perceives, a definition with which she agrees, despite her yearning for her father. When Mathilda recognizes her own passion as she reads his letter, a recognition signaled by her understanding that her father is her lover, the novel begins to travel on one path of development—others are closed for the story, Mathilda, and the reader. Thus, the act of reading performs a cardinal function in the narrative. Mathilda's declaration of awareness, instigated by reading—“a lover, there was madness in the thought, yet he was my lover”—is the core of this novel.

When the plot of her life and her text takes this turn, Mathilda turns with it. Instead of willing her now dead father back to life, she wills herself to death. Mathilda states that she looks forward to death because “alone it will unite me to my father when in an eternal mental union we shall never part.”24 Her death is a liebestod, an extension of her sexual desire. Her phrase “an eternal mental union” is her carnal desire disguised and an excellent demonstration of her use of ambivalence as a technique of self-cloistering.

The first step that Mathilda takes to make herself dead to the world, and hence closer to her father, is to cloister herself. This is a state to which she is accustomed. As a child, Mathilda was cloistered in solitude in the cathedral of nature. She had loved with a deep attachment the inanimate nature she had found on her aunt's Loch Lomond estate. When her father came to her finally, Mathilda stayed in the woods the night before his arrival, sequestered by nature for the last time. When she tried to return home the next day, the woods attempted to encompass her and to keep her in their embrace. Shelley's trees might be related to Ovid's Myrrha, who has turned into the myrrh tree after her prayer to the gods to obliterate her as a human. It is tempting in this context to see the Scottish woodlands as attempting to keep Mathilda from experiencing the maddening physical desire that Myrrha felt, as if Ovid's metamorphosed Myrrha were attempting to protect Mathilda from herself.

However, after her father confesses verbally to Mathilda, she turns away from the natural world. Rather than retreating into nature to find solace for her pain, which is what we might expect, Mathilda puts a barrier between herself and it. Indeed, “perfect solitude” from everything well describes the state of existence that Mathilda strives to find. Mathilda emphasizes her solitude when she writes:

Even after this, I thought, I would live in the most dreary seclusion. I would retire to the Continent and become a nun; not for religion's sake, for I was not a Catholic, but that I might be for ever shut out from the world.


Here we find the first explicit evidence that Mathilda wishes to cloister her body, her desire, and her entire self. The only way that she can think of to cope with what she feels is to remove herself in every possible way, but not from desire.

Mathilda considers removing herself from the social world by assuming a facade. She concludes that she “must heap an impenetrable heap of false smiles and words: cunning frauds, treacherous laughter, and a mixture of all light deceits” (216). Her mind continues to wander, creating many different types of mental and emotional cloisters where she might shelter herself. She writes, “I dared not die, but I might feign death” (216).

One of the most effective ways to “feign death” from the world, to annihilate herself from the world of the living while yet retaining life, would seem to be to silence her writer self about her experiences with her father and her desire for him. Mathilda, though, attempts to subdue herself by removing herself from all human company. She leaves London for the wild heath of the north country and describes herself as she appeared on her journey:

A youthful Eremites dedicated to seclusion and whose bosom she must strive to keep free from all tumult and unholy despair—The fanciful nun-like dress that I had adopted; the knowledge that my very existence was a secret known only to myself; the solitude to which I was for ever hereafter destined nursed gentle thoughts in my wounded heart.


Mathilda's story has broached the classic element of the recognition of desire. That recognition leads to a cloistering of the self from the world, which leads to confession in order to explain her reasons for cloistering herself. It is this confessional and seclusive aspect of self that Mathilda creates through her writing and that, in turn, creates her.

Seclusion was supposed to lead a woman into the contemplative life, a life in which she could empty herself of concern for the world.25 The cloister, or anchor hold, was to function as a tomb, making its inhabitant “dead to the world” (3). From there, the anchorite was to live a life of quiet thought, prayer, and meditation, preparing herself for her union with God, a union that was often consummated in a spiritual marriage between the woman and the Holy Spirit or Christ.

Mathilda enters her own self-made cloister on the heath in northern England, and there she arrives through her writing at an intellectually active life rather than a contemplative one. Her verbal self will not be silenced. It feels the demand of the law to know her desire, so it gives a voice through writing to Mathilda's sins of thought. Her writing functions in several ways: it acts as an exercise in remembering and keeping alive her love, and it serves as a confession, ostensibly for Woodville's eyes but in reality for any other reader's.

Another unconventional aspect of Mathilda's self-cloistering is her method of prayer: “And morning and evening my tearful eyes raised to heaven, my hands clasped tight in the energy of prayer, I have repeated with the poet—

Before I see another day
Oh, let this body die away!”(26)

Nowhere does Mathilda mention a complete turning away from the world, toward God. Indeed, in this passage, she bases her appeal on contemporary Romantic poetry, not around traditional invocations, as we would expect from a woman who had cloistered herself in the conventional sense of the term. Myrrha's prayer in Ovid, quoted above, is unconventional, as is her inability to give her act a name and thus confess to the gods what she has done. Throughout most of her confession, Mathilda never states explicitly her desire to satisfy her father's desire. She is part of a culture that deems such desire nefarious; therefore, she is ambivalent about her own feelings. Neither Ovid's Myrrha nor Shelley's Mathilda can articulate why she wants to be removed from humanity or the world. Their transgressive desires, which put them so far outside the standards of their communities, preclude their full confessions because they have no language with which to portray what they feel.

In the very act of confession, however, Mathilda forms another cloister for herself. We can see that she attempts to explain her desire to her reader by confessing it, “by the mere fact of transforming it—fully and deliberately—into discourse.”27 The conversion of desire into discourse, an act that gives the unnamed passion formal bounds, invests in the reader a great deal of power over judgment. The reader becomes Mathilda's confessor through the process of participating in the text, but in the end, Mathilda does not wish for expiation from the reader/confessor for her sin of desire because that would amount to an emptying of desire from herself. Instead, she wishes for an even closer union with her father, the “eternal mental union” from which “we shall never part.”

This is not a comfortable ending for the reader. Because Mathilda's incestuous desire crosses the taboo line, the reader instinctively wishes for a closing that will rectify the character of Mathilda.28 However, the reader's desire for an ending in which Mathilda would renounce her “unnatural” desire clashes with Mathilda's desire to experience the desire of her father more fully. The reader, who presumably believes and obeys the Electra taboo surrounding father-daughter incestuous love, cannot accept Mathilda's desire and absolve her of its societally defined sinfulness. The subject of the story, then, the reader's inability to resolve the tensions between her or his desire for an ending that is empty of desire, and Mathilda's desire to fulfill her desire, prevent any neat closure.

The reader is left, too, with the tension created between the concepts of “natural” and “unnatural.” Another dichotomy of naturalness versus unnaturalness involves the description of the fresh, blooming season of the year and Mathilda's imminent death in that month: “It was May, four years ago, that I first saw my beloved father; it was in May, three years ago that my folly destroyed the only being I was doomed to love. May is returned, and I die.”29 In this, the penultimate paragraph of her confession, Mathilda breaks her silence about her passion for her father and names it “love.” Perhaps this naming of her desire is really the purpose of this confession. She does not seek absolution; she seeks realization for herself of what she feels.

Peter L. Thorslev Jr. states, “Parent-child incest is universally condemned in Romantic literature” and goes on to assert that “when it does appear—notably in England in Walpole's The Mysterious Mother and in [Percy Bysshe] Shelley's The Cenci—it is always the object of horror.”30 Mathilda reveals, though, that she feels the same desire as her father and yearns to join him at some other level of consciousness, a less than horrified reaction to his initially expressed want for her. The Romantic norm might be to seek transcendence from the physical world through a metaphysical affair with nature or art; however, Mary Shelley's revised Romanticism has her Mathilda seeking the metaphysical in the physical, or more exactly, carnal union with the forbidden figure.

In approaching Mary Shelley's work as it resides within the context of persistent Romantic themes, it is not interesting in and of itself that she chose the theme of incest as a subject early in her writing life. Many writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chose it, chief among them her contemporaries, who surrounded her in Leghorn as she wrote the tale that would become Mathilda. But the structure of her story, the sources that she drew on in creating it, and her inversion of certain ethical and traditional aspects of incest, such as the movement toward spiritual unification of the emotionally incestuous pair, make her work intriguing. The highly individualistic creativity apparent in Mary Shelley's Mathilda shows this novel to be a vital work of art worthy of serious and sustained consideration.


  1. Jean de Palacio minimizes Alfieri's influence on most of Mary Shelley's work but admits its effect on Mathilda when he writes, “Quant à Alfieri, son influence se limite pratiquement au seul motif littéraire de l'inceste; aussi trouvera-t-on ce point traité dans le cadre des éléments gothiques” (Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre: Contributions aux études Shelleyennes [Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1969], 23). He also hints at a biographical reading of the novel: “Sans nier ici l'influence de la Myrrha d'Alfieri, on retrouve dans ce livre des résonances profonde qu'une simple rencontre littéraire ne suffirait pas à expliquer. Mathilda n'est pas une oeuvre de circonstance, mais le développement d'un thème qui lui tenait à coeur et dont son propre cas peut fourmir le point de départ” (133).

  2. Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” trans. Josué V. Harari, in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 141-60. Reprinted in Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schliefer, eds., Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 1994), 342-53. Foucault suggests that such a name used as an author function “permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others” (346).

  3. For biographical and psychobiographical readings of Mathilda, see the following writers: Jane Blumberg, Mary Shelley's Early Novels: “This Child of Imagination and Misery” (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993); Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert, eds., The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814-1844, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987); Terence Harpold, “‘Did You Get Mathilda from Papa?’: Seduction Fantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda,Studies in Romanticism 28.1 (1989): 49-67; Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters (New York: Methuen, 1988); Bonnie Rayford Neumann, The Lonely Muse—A Critical Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Salzburg Studies in English Literature 85 (Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1979); Elizabeth Nitchie, “Mary Shelley's Mathilda: An Unpublished Story and Its Biographical Significance,” Studies in Philology 40 (1943): 447-62; Audrey A. Fisch, Anne K. Mellor, and Esther H. Schor, eds., The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Tilottama Rajan, “Mary Shelley's Mathilda: Melancholy and the Political Economy of Romanticism,” Studies in the Novel 26.2 (1994): 43-68; Janet Todd, Mary, Maria and Matilda (New York: New York University Press, 1992); William Walling, Mary Shelley (New York: Twayne, 1972).

  4. Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 50.

  5. From Feldman and Scott-Kilvert, The Journals of Mary Shelley, we find that in October 1814 she read Vita di Vittorio Alfieri … scritta da esso (1804), translated as Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Victor Alfieri … written by himself (1810) (632); in April and May 1815, she read Ovid's Metamorphoses (665); a few months later, between 4 August and 12 September 1815, she wrote The Fields of Fancy, the first version of Mathilda (294, 296); in September and October 1818, she read Alfieri's Work (632); on Monday, 14 September 1818, she had begun to translate Alfieri's Myrrha (226); and on 15 March 1819, she might have been continuing her translation of Alfieri (253). The beginning of Mary Shelley's drafting Mathilda and Percy Bysshe Shelley's ending The Cenci overlap—he ended his work on 8 August 1819, she began Mathilda on 4 August; she ended her work on Mathilda on 12 September 1819 (Mary Shelley, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. ed. Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. [Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980], 104, 105). (Palacio examines the period of Percy's writing of The Cenci and Mary's writing of Mathilda [Mary Shelley dans son oeuvre, 134-35]). Feldman and Scott-Kilvert note that when Mary Shelley recorded “write & correct—” in her journal entry for Friday, 11 February 1820, she meant “probably Mathilda,” and they add that “The fair-copy version … is dated ‘Florence Nov. 9th 1819’” (308).

  6. Mathilda names Vittorio Alfieri in chapter 4 of Mathilda: “I chanced to say that I thought Myrrha the best of Alfieri's tragedies” (Mary Shelley, “Mathilda,” in The Mary Shelley Reader, ed. Betty T. Bennet and Charles E. Robinson [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990], 192).

  7. Franco Betti, Vittorio Alfieri, ed. Anthony Oldcorn (Boston: Twayne, 1984), 83.

  8. Vittorio Alfieri, “Myrrha,” in The Tragedies of Vittorio Alfieri; Translated from the Italian, 3 vols., trans. Charles Lloyd (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815), Act 1, Scene 3. This is the edition that Feldman and Scott-Kilvert believe Mary Shelley read (226 n. 7).

  9. In Mary Shelley's biographical sketch of Alfieri, she quotes his discussion about Ovid's Myrrha from his autobiography: “‘I had never thought,’ he says, ‘either of Myrrha or Biblis as subjects for the drama. But, in reading Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses,’ I hit upon the affecting and divinely eloquent speech of Myrrha to her nurse, which caused me to burst into tears, and, like a flash of lightning, awoke in me the idea of a tragedy. … My idea was, that she should do in my tragedy what Ovid describes her as relating, but do it in silence’” (Mary Shelley, “Alfieri: 1749-1803,” in Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal, 2 vols. [London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green and Longman, 1835], 2:291-92).

  10. Alfieri, “Myrrha,” Act 5, Scene 2.

  11. Ovid, “The Story of Cinyras and Myrrha,” in Metamorphoses, trans. Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955), 10.5.423.

  12. Shelley, “Mathilda,” 245.

  13. Blumberg, Mary Shelley's Early Novels, 225.

  14. Rajan, “Mary Shelley's Mathilda,” 43.

  15. In contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, or even St. Augustine's, are structured to appeal to the reader's power to see, to sympathize, and to forgive. This structure, which includes the reader's perspective and appeals rhetorically to him or her, is more typical of confessional literature than of Mathilda.

  16. Shelley, “Alfieri: 1749-1803,” 282.

  17. Michel Foucault, An Introduction, vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality, 3 vols., trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage/Random House, 1990), 61.

  18. Shelley, “Mathilda,” 175.

  19. Foucault, Sexuality, 1:19-20.

  20. Shelley, “Mathilda,” 211.

  21. Jacques Lacan, “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power,” in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), 265.

  22. Shelley, “Mathilda,” 185.

  23. Malcolm Bowie, Lacan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 136.

  24. Shelley, “Mathilda,” 244.

  25. Linda Georgianna, The Solitary Self: Individuality in the Ancrene Wisse (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 3.

  26. Shelley, “Mathilda,” 221.

  27. Foucault, Sexuality, 1:23.

  28. Certainly, William Godwin wished for a “proper” conclusion. He called the subject of Mathilda “disgusting and detestable” and urged Mary Shelley to amend the story by putting a disclaimer at the beginning of the tale, assuring the reader that Mathilda never committed physical incest (Maria Gisborne and Edward E. Williams, Maria Gisborne and Edward E. Williams, Shelley's Friends: Their Journals and Letters, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951], 44).

  29. Shelley, “Mathilda,” 246.

  30. Peter L. Thorslev Jr., “Incest as a Romantic Symbol,” Comparative Literature Studies 2.1 (1965): 41-58.

I thank Professor Stephen C. Behrendt for his generosity in giving me the opportunity to begin this work. I thank Professor Frederick S. Frank for his astute, critical eye. And, as always, thank you, Glenn T. Dibert-Himes, for the innumerables.

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