Mary Shelley is one of the most famous female authors of all time, despite having only written one novel: Frankenstein. Right? Right? Of course not. In truth Shelley wrote a bunch of stuff, very little of which has managed to receive a fraction of the fame and attention that her most famous novel got. One of these obscure works is Mathilda, a novella that Shelley completed in 1820 but which did not see print until 1959.
Why the 139 year wait between completion and publication? It is a book about, among other things, incest and suicide. Shelley submitted the manuscript to her father and publisher William Godwin, and he was so scandalised by its contents that not only did he refuse to publish it, he also refused to return the manuscript to Mary. We can all be thankful he wasn’t scandalised enough to throw the manuscript into a fire.
Godwin’s reaction is not too surprising. Mathilda tells the story of a young woman who seems to be quite a lot like Mary Shelley, whose dead mother seems quite a lot like Mary Shelley’s dead mother, and whose father – who seems quite a lot like William Godwin – admits to a passionate romantic and sexual longing for his own daughter. The book is, in essence, either a masterstroke of progressive fiction or the world’s all-time creepiest real-life slash fiction story.
I lean towards the former. I often find it difficult to pin down the appeal Mary Shelley has for me as an author. On a line by line basis she’s quite an awkward and clumsy writer. She lacks – for me, at any rate – the flow and style of her contemporaries. That said, there is something about her narratives and her characters that really appeals to me. Shelley’s fiction seems to exist within an excessively emotional world, where people aren’t simply sad but rather tortured, and they don’t simply love but rather become romantically obsessed. I also find the nested first-person narratives of Frankenstein to be the work of a quite astounding storytelling talent. Mathilda doesn’t have anywhere near the narrative complexity of Frankenstein, but on the other hand it is a much shorter work.
It’s a fast read, and a memorable one. I didn’t find it quite matched the quality of her other works such as Frankenstein or The Last Man, but it does provide a fresh insight into one of England’s most famous yet least read authors. Mary Shelley wasn’t just talented: I think she was brave, progressive and critically underrated. Melville House has published a very nice paperback edition of Mathilda as part of its novella range, but the book is also available for free from Project Gutenberg.