Despite being this month’s host of the Inner Senshi Book Club, I am tardy in my response (but fortunately, am second only to Meg)! This is primarily due to my week-long choir tour in Rome (!!), from which I’ve just returned (after eating a copious amount of pizza, pasta, and gelato). And now, without further ado…
Mathilda, written in 1819-1820, is Mary Shelley’s second novel and was penned after her more popular Frankenstein. The novel is very much influenced by a range of people and events in Shelley’s life, but it is also a rejection of the philosophies held by her father and husband: through Mathilda, Mary Shelley rejects both the ‘rational utopianism’ of her father and the ‘utopianism of [Percy] Shelleyan love’ (Janet Todd, 1991). In other words, although Mathilda can be considered to be largely autobiographical, the novel is also Shelley’s careful assertion of her own views, which stand directly opposite to that of the two domineering men in her life.
Being quite a fan of the period, I very much enjoyed reading Mathilda and seeing all the real-life references, such as the death of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother) shortly after Shelley’s birth, Shelley’s half-sister (Fanny Imlay)’s death by laudanum, and Shelley’s complex relationship with her father, William Godwin. I was particularly drawn by the similarities between Mathilda and Byron’s Manfred (1817), where both characters are similarly guilt-driven and ultimately take control of their own fates. (Also, having primarily written about Percy Bysshe Shelley in the last year, it is rather disconcerting referring to Mary Shelley solely by her surname and then attaching a female pronoun…)
And now for discussion questions (with spoilers ahoy)!
I want myself to consider:
How relevant do you think this text will be in a century? Which aspects do you think will be valued most?
It’s a little sad that the novel is still relatively unknown, around sixty years after its initial publication (though it was completed in 1820, it wasn’t published till way later). I think this is primarily because the issues of incest, suicide, and despair have been dealt with in more controversial and flamboyant ways than in Mathilda. However, I do think the novel will endure within the academic world, particularly as there are just so many wonderful contextual references that can be found and drawn—that, and there’s still a lot of scope for further scholarship on Mary Shelley, which will hopefully come to pass!
Samantha R is interested in knowing:
Did you have a favourite character in the book? If so, what was it about this character that drew you to them? Or in reverse, were there any characters that you particularly disliked, and why?
I tend to have a thing for the slightly mental and extremely volatile characters who are riddled with issues of all varieties, which in this case happens to be Mathilda’s father. A part of me can see how his idealised love for Diana (Mathilda’s mother) was transposed onto and misplaced in Mathilda, and I’m fascinated by it though it gives me the chills (or perhaps because it gives me the chills?). I wouldn’t say he’s my ‘favourite’ character, but he’s definitely the one I find most intriguing.
Meghan is wondering:
If you had to date one of the characters, which would you pick and why?
I’m very tempted to say Woodville, not because of the lack of date-able characters, but because he’s a strange amalgamation of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. And I have quite a thing for the Second-Generation Romantics.
Angel would like you to think about:
How well does the writing style serve the story? How does it fail to uphold the narrative?
I think Shelley did quite well in telling the story in the epistolary form, particularly with the letter-within-a-letter that forms Mathilda’s father’s parting words. I do think the narrative style is not very accessible to a modern audience who’s used to something more action- and dialogue-driven, but goodness me, there are some exquisite descriptions of the external environment reflecting the internal landscape (formally known as “pathetic fallacy”, for those interested)!
Aimee’s question for you is:
What was your favorite or most memorable passage (if any) in the book? Why did it leave such an impression?
I think the opening paragraph is stunning, and will quote it all now because I can!
It is only four o’clock; but it is winter and the sun has already set: there are no clouds in the clear, frosty sky to reflect its slant beams, but the air itself is tinged with a slight roseate colour which is again reflected on the snow that covers the ground. I live in a lone cottage on a solitary, wide heath: no voice of life reaches me. I see the desolate plain covered with white, save a few black patches that the noonday sun has made at the top of those sharp pointed hillocks from which the snow, sliding as it fell, lay thinner than on the plain ground: a few birds are pecking at the hard ice that covers the pools—for the frost has been of long continuance.
The extensive imagery simply feels like death drawn out.
This month’s host, myself, has a bonus question:
Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, considered to be one of the first modern feminists. In Mathilda, how effectively do you think Shelley deals with the issues of women, femininity, and feminism?
I think a lot of the novel’s context needs to be understood in order to fully answer this (argh, what a stupid question—which idiot set it?!). But in lieu of a long and possibly embarrassingly incorrect diatribe, I shall reassert what I said earlier about Mathilda being Shelley’s own way of rejecting the constraints that have been placed upon her. She took her father and husband, shoved them into the characters of Mathilda’s father and Woodville, and did with them what she willed. More importantly, poor Mary was super depressed when she wrote this (having just lost her daughter and son) and her husband Percy was more or less ordering her to snap out of it—Mathilda is Mary Shelley’s way of saying, ‘Sod off; I’mma die if I want to.’ And she does it with beautiful literary style, too.
Check out the Inner Senshi’s thoughts on their individual posts:
Meg/Sailor Mercury thinks it’s “worse than Richardson’s Clarissa!” (This quote is taken out of context, so you should check out Meg’s review!)
Samantha R/Sailor Mars “really loved the beauty and rhythm of the language that Shelley uses“.
Aimee/Sailor Jupiter was “not sure exactly how to feel about Mathilda“.
Angel/Sailor Venus thinks “Mathilda’s story is one that hundreds, if not thousands, of kids can relate to“.
Have your own thoughts about Mathilda, Shelley, or the thrilling lives of the Romantics in general? Feel free to leave a comment or share a link to your own post!