When one sees the name Mary Shelley, one is usually reminded of her most famous work, Frankenstein, but I want to introduce you to another of her works, Mathilda. Mathilda is a novella of a different sort, almost a love story, and frequently thought to be somewhat autobiographical (I shudder to think so). Fair warning, lots of spoilers past here, but this book just got my dander up and I have to let it all out.
In this novella, Mathilda is a young woman, having grown up abandoned to her hideous Aunt’s care and she lives a restricted childhood where she is not allowed to socialize with any of the local children for fear she’ll adopt their country accent. Her mother had died in childbirth and her father was so grief stricken that he could not even look upon his daughter without pain, so he went galavanting off to Europe.
Now, this is starting to sound like a fairly typical Victorian romance, but here’s where things get a bit weird. Her father comes back when she is a teenager and immediately dives back into her life. They spend every waking minute together talking and planning their futures together. Mathilda is over the moon about all of this, and then her father becomes moody and quiet. She hates that he has withdrawn from her and in desperation she presses him about his pain until he admits that he has withdrawn because he feels a sexual attraction towards his daughter.
That’s right, he wants to bone his daughter. I guess she grew up looking a little too much like her mother.
Wracked by pain and the guilt that he even told her this, her father commits suicide. Mathilda, wracked by the grief of her father’s death fakes her own suicide and runs away to live in the wilds all by her self. There she meets a poet equally wracked by his grief over the death of his fiance and together they cry and boohoo for the rest of the book until Mathilda gets consumption from being outdoors in all kinds of weather bemoaning her pain and loss and dies.
Frankly, my only thought was good riddance. Before her father’s death, she was constantly talking about how no one’s love for another could be stronger than that she had for her father. After he died, she was insistent, in fact insisted on just about every page, that no one could ever know the depths of her sorrow. In fact, the poor lonely man who comes to visit her constantly who had just lost the LOVE OF HIS LIFE couldn’t come close to the darkest depths of her sorrow.
I just wanted to reach into the book and shake her. Slap her once or twice until she snapped out of her sniveling pity party and woke up to the fact that her father abandoned her, then wanted to sleep with her. That’s not really someone you should be mourning. The only good thing he did was tear himself away from her the second time. But, hey, what do I know, I’m a modern girl who thinks parental responsibility is worthy of love and incest is icky.
All that being said, the novella is beautifully written. And I did read all the way to the end, I couldn’t not. I may have cheered when she finally died, which I don’t think was Ms. Shelley’s goal, but at least I had feelings for the main characters and that’s the goal, right? Even if the feelings were utter repugnance…