Mathilda is a sad case. Her mother dies when she is born, and her father, overcome with grief, flees and abandons her to his spinster sister, a woman “totally incapable of any affection.” Her childhood is spent poking around the “desolate country” of her English manor, which, the way she describes it, is not totally unlike living in Indianapolis, Indiana. At sixteen, she finds new hope. Dad returns. Quick to forgive his many years absence, Mathilda, when she first sees him, actually runs and leaps into his arms. Together they while away “delicious hours” sharing anecdotes and gallivanting. Mathilda’s luck appears to have changed. But, ah no, dad suddenly turns moody, withdrawn. As the story goes on it becomes painfully clear that the man has got it bad – for his own daughter. Ashamed of his perverse love, dad scrams.
It is as the wood of the Eumenides none but the dying may enter; and Oedipus is about to die.
It’s hard to imagine, in a novella that is barely one hundred pages, that things could possibly get any worse. But, they do. Mathilda, though scandalized, is also bereft of the only love she has ever experienced. When dad disappears, she must decide whether or not to go after him.
Obviously, Mathilda is not an upper. It is also fairly evident that Mary Shelley was distracted by her own grief – the deaths of her two children – as she wrote it. The writing is rough. In fact, the novella was rejected for publication – though primarily for its themes of incest than for its structural problems. A published version did not appear until 1959, over a hundred years after Shelley died, after scholar Elizabeth Nitchie rescued the manuscript out of its lonely library archive. Still, it’s worth reading – and not just for its lurid subject matter or for the lit cred that it will earn you. (Now you can impress your friends by reciting a work by Shelley other than Frankenstein! Woohoo!) Rather, I think you should read it because it is a story about a woman, by a woman – and there aren’t too many of those in the literary canon. Check it out here.