Hardened to stone by the Medusa head of misery

Dear Mary,

Like a daughter who never really got to know her mother, your novella Mathilda was not published during your lifetime. Written between 1819 and 1820, it had its publication denied by your father, William Godwin, because of its scandalous nature. The book only saw the light of day in 1959, after being discovered by Elizabeth Nitchie among your manuscripts.

The novella is written in epistolary form, and narrated in first person by our protagonist, the 20-year-old Mathilda. From her deathbed, she writes her life story in a letter addressed to her only friend (whom we will later find out to be Woodville, a reclusive poet). As it transpires from the letter’s tone, it is meant to be a sort of confession, an answer to a question posed by Woodville: “You have often asked me the cause of my solitary life; my tears; and above all of my impenetrable and unkind silence.” Apparently, our heroine, urged (or freed) by the imminence of her death, is about to expose a dark, dark secret.

She begins by describing the love between her mother and father. They had met and fallen in love when they were still very young. Soon after their marriage, her mother, Diana, dies in childbirth. Mathilda’s father, overwhelmed with grief and unable to face his baby daughter, leaves her in the care of his sister, and travels away.

Mathilda then describes her lonely and affectionless upbringing in the hands of her domineering aunt. An imaginative child, our protagonist spends her days daydreaming about her father and making plans to set out to find him. When she turns sixteen, Mathilda receives an unexpected letter from her estranged father, who informs her that he is finally returning home.

Father and daughter instantaneously bond together, and the first couple of months after his return are the happiest for Mathilda. However, fate is not meaning to go easy on our heroine: shortly after they go to London for the season, Mathilda starts to be courted by a fine suitor, and her relationship with her father turns sour. In a dark mood, he takes her back to the country, barely talking to her.

Tormented by the thought that her father may have been hating her in silence all this time, Mathilda plots a way to make him tell her the reason for his cold hatred.  Even when he refuses to confess, Mathilda insists on pressing him on the subject, believing that he would feel relieved to finally talk about it. Unable to resist any longer, her unnamed father confesses his love for her.

I must admit that, though I knew that the novella dealt with incestuous love, it took me a while to realize what her father meant when he confessed his love: I first missed the point, having glossed over this passage. Her father is talking about plain simple paternal love, right?, I asked myself. Why are those characters reacting in such a bizarre way? And then, faced with the otherwise inexplicable dramatic tension that followed, I had to come back and second-guess that he was actually talking about incest, and desire. Shame on me, I know; but I had expected a blunter way of addressing the elephant in the room, whereas your somewhat restrained way of phrasing it was a bit of a cold shower.

Faced with the dark knowledge of this forbidden love, Mathilda and her father know that they can never see each other again. This can only end in tragedy, and it sure does in your novella. The characters seem to be running not so much away from danger, but toward it. Mathilda never fully recovers from the knowledge of her father’s desire for her – as if she had fallen from grace by the confession she herself, in a moment of hubris, extracted from him.

Mathilda spends the following years of her life alone in an isolated place, where I could behold the whole horizon, and wander far without molestation from the sight of my fellow creatures. I was not misanthropic, but I felt that the gentle current of my feelings depended upon my being alone. I fixed myself on a wide solitude.” Did she feel that the knowledge of her father’s forbidden love (and the tragedy that ensued) had ultimately turned her into a kind of monster? A creature in possession of a dangerous knowledge she could not possibly divulge, lest she be misunderstood? A monster, to be kept away from society, so that they may not pervert one another? So that she may atone for what she knows, and perhaps also for what she feels? Enlighten me, my dear.

In the midst of her loneliness, Mathilda meets another recluse, Woodville, the future recipient of the letter that she is now writing (and that we are now reading). At the time they meet, Woodville is mourning the death of his beloved fiancée, Elinor. Mathilda and Woodville meet in their grief, but, while one of them heals, the other will never be able to find any solace nor relief.

Curiously enough, what made me cringe at this book wasn’t its incestuous subject matter, but its somewhat verbose writing style and its stereotypical characters. Diana and Elinor, in particular, are interchangeable women who have no existence and no complexity beyond the feelings their men feel for them.

I kept having to remind myself that the novella was steeped in Romanticism, and that I should simply go with it, and enter its drama and excesses: here, characters are constantly in turmoil, tortured by unsurmountable feelings; Mathilda and her father are not simply sad, but rather desperate; they do not simply share an affection or fall in love, but become dangerously obsessed.

Only later, I could appreciate the fact that, by describing her parents’ love at the start of her letter, Mathilda was preparing her reader (and you were preparing us) for what was to come – in the hopes to bring not exactly an understanding of her father’s (and perhaps her own) feelings, but at least a plausible explanation for them. Was her father projecting on her daughter his love for his deceased wife? Was Mathilda falling in love for his love? Did she wanted to join him in death, as a daughter or as a lover? Was death her only means of freeing herself from that which she should not know nor feel? Was she paying with her life for her hubris leading up to her father’s confession? Or was death simply her punishment for never being able to forgive him? Yes, I know, maybe I am stretching things way too far here.

For all its shortcomings, I love your novella’s Gothic-ness: the book is drenched in rain, nightmares, loneliness, melancholy, agony, horror, and, of course, death. Incest and suicide make their haunting appearance here, too. My favourite passage is the description of Mathilda’s dream, just after her father’s confession: “There was something unearthly in his mien that awed and chilled me, but I drew near. When at a short distance from him I saw that he was deadly pale, and clothed in flowing garments of white. Suddenly he started up and fled from me; I pursued him: we sped over the fields, and by the skirts of woods, and on the banks of the rivers; he flew fast and I followed.” As the best pieces of Gothic fiction, your novella is this strange place where characters go to die.

We are tempted to read your book under two perspectives that, in the end, prove to be oversimplified and insufficient: a) through the lenses of  Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), as another book about the relationship between creator/ creature, parent/child, and as a condemnation of fathers who reject their offspring; or b) through a biographical reading, as a book about your own grief at your father’s rejection, as well as about your grief over the deaths of two of your children, and the subsequent estrangement from your husband, Percy Shelley. Many elements invite a biographical reading: like you, your protagonist is also motherless; like you, she was rejected by her father; at one point, Mathilda even repeats the same sentence proffered by your grandmother at her deathbed, and later by your mother: “A little patience, and all will be over.”

However, to me you may well have drawn some inspiration from your life, as all artists do at one point or another, but you transformed your material into something completely different and new. Furthermore, I try to avoid the mistaken (& commonly male) assumption that whatever women write must be confessional or closely based on their personal lives. As Betty T. Bennett cleverly reminds us in her book Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: an Introduction (1998): “The assumption that a female writer must personally experience a subject to write about it suggests that Mary Shelley was also a murderer or a warrior or lived in America”.

I also resist the temptation to read Mathilda as the sacrificial lamb. We are not talking about a passive Romantic victim: on the contrary, Mathilda is a woman who seeks confrontation, and who even fakes her own suicide and disappears, so that she can be left by herself to live the life she wants to live. She couldn’t care less for Woodville’s attempt to judge and define her grief: “I am, I thought, a tragedy; a character that he comes to see act: now and then he gives me my cue that I may make a speech more to his purpose: perhaps he is already planning a poem in which I am to figure. I am a farce and play to him, but to me this is all dreary reality: he takes all the profit and I bear all the burthen.

Instead of the tragic victim of her father’s incestuous love, Mathilda is the one who controls the narrative here – and she may even be a very unreliable narrator, feigning passivity in order to gain and assert control over her story; lingering over small details and nature descriptions, while leaving gaps and glossing over important events. How did she actually fake her suicide? She never tells us, but simply jumps ahead and rushes forward. In fact, she is so determined, that not even death will make her shy away from telling her story; on the contrary, death will ultimately set her free.

Throughout the book, you mention or at least make references to other works, drawing from Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Dante, and Greek mythology. It’s no wonder that Mathilda reminds me of Matelda in Dante’s Purgatory: a symbol for the human condition before the original sin. The book has this atmosphere of purgatory: we have sin and confession, but no redemption is to be found here. Mathilda is a captive of what she knows and shouldn’t know; her father never escapes the prison of what he feels and shouldn’t feel. They are locked in their personal purgatories, forever revolving around the moment just before they have both fallen from grace together.

Yours truly,

J.


Simon Vouet, Loth and his daughters, 1633

“My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.” ― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mathilda

The remembrance haunts me like a crime–I know that if I were to endeavour to relate it my tale would at length remain unfinished. I was led to London, and had to endure for some weeks cold looks, cold words and colder consolations: but I escaped; they tried to bind me with fetters that they thought silken, yet which weighed on me like iron, although I broke them more easily than a girth formed of a single straw and fled to freedom. ― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mathilda

I was as a solitary spot among mountains shut in on all sides by steep black precipices; where no ray of heat could penetrate; and from which there was no outlet to sunnier fields. ― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mathilda

I had not been hardened to stone by the Medusa head of Misery. ― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mathilda

To bestow on your fellow men is a Godlike atribute – So indeed it is and as such not one fit for mortality; the giver, like Adam and Prometheus, must pay the penalty of rising above his nature by being the martyr to his own excellence. ― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mathilda


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