Today we are delighted to present a guest post by doctoral student Kathleen Hurlock.
1819 was full of hugely important events for the second-generation of Romantic writers the K-SAA seeks to celebrate. Mary Shelley’s second full-length fictional work, Mathilda (also known as Matilda), is a haunting tale often discarded as thinly-veiled character sketches of Godwin and Percy Bysshe – but it is so much more. Now appearing on the syllabus at several universities and accessible in a paperback critical edition (by Broadview – review here via Romantic Circles), Mary Shelley’s novella is finally beginning to receive the attention it sorely deserves. Hurlock marks 200 years since the story was written and 60 years since its first publication in 1959.
Last year, scholars and literature fans around the world marked the bicentenary of Frankenstein with public readings and other events [including the international series of events Frankenreads – reports of which you can read on the K-SAA Blog right here – ed]. Celebrations of Mary Shelley’s works need not stop this year, though the current anniversaries are a little more complex. 2019 is both the bicentenary of when Shelley began writing her less well-known second piece of fiction, the novella Mathilda, and the sixtieth anniversary of its publication.
What makes the Mathilda publication story so complex and unusual, and the years of its writing and publication so distant? To answer this question, I want to begin with the circumstances surrounding the novel’s composition. Shelley began writing the novella in August 1819. Originally titled The Fields of Fancy, Shelley finished a first draft a little over a month after she started. These months came during a particularly difficult period of her life, as, within the year, she had experienced the deaths of two of her children. In the same journal entry in which she references beginning Mathilda, Shelley wrote that “if all the events of the five years were blotted out I might be happy” (8/14/1819, pp. 293-294). Later, Shelley acknowledged that writing the text had therapeutic impacts for her. After Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death, she wrote that “Before when I wrote Matilda, miserable as I was, the inspiration was sufficient to quell my wretchedness temporarily – but now I have no respite” (10/21/1822, p. 442). Mathilda provided therapeutic inspiration – something that, in the wake of her husband’s death, Shelley could no longer find.
The book’s first reader was most likely Shelley’s friend Maria Gisborne. In her journal, Gisborne described Mathilda as “singularly interesting” and “without artifice” (5/8/20, p. 27). Gisborne had early access to the text because, in 1820, while on a trip from her Livorno home to England, she gave the manuscript to William Godwin for publication at Shelley’s request. Here, the story of Mathilda becomes more complicated and tragic. William Godwin openly expressed distaste for the novel to Gisborne, who captured his reactions in her journal. He found the novel’s themes of incest and suicide “disgusting and detestable” and thought that readers would be “tormented by the apprehension from moment to moment of the fall of the heroine” (8/8/20, p. 44). Godwin was also overly pedantic about small elements of the story, like whether or not Mathilda would be able to order a carriage soon after receiving her father’s suicide note. Ultimately, he opted not to publish the novel.
Sadly, Mathilda was not seen again during Shelley’s lifetime. She desperately and tirelessly worked to get the manuscript back from Godwin (whether this was to publish under other circumstances or simply to reclaim her work is unclear). In January of 1822, when Gisborne was again visiting England, Shelley asked her repeatedly via letter to retrieve the manuscript of Mathilda. Gisborne first responded stating that, because Godwin has ceased communications with her, she thought it would be impossible to get the manuscript (2/9/1822, p. 76). Shelley persisted in asking over the next few months, and Gisborne responded that “The learned are of the opinion that I shall never obtain possession of ‘Mathilda’” (4/28/1822, p. 82). Shelley continued asking Gisborne about the matter through June of 1822. After Percy died that July, though, she seems to have lost interest in the matter, perhaps due to her depression and/or her need to publish new material to support herself and her young son.
Mathilda is never recovered during Godwin or Shelley’s lifetime. Scholars knew little about the text, aside from Shelley and Gisborne’s references in their letters. The manuscript ended up, with many of Shelley’s papers, letters, and journals, in Lord Abinger’s (a distant relative of the Shelley’s) Shelley Collection, currently located in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Elizabeth Nitchie, a twentieth century scholar of British poetry and Romanticism, recovered the manuscript from the papers and published a copy in the journal Studies in Philology. A professor of English at Goucher College through much of the early twentieth century (which, notably, was quite rare for a woman at the time), Nitchie worked on publishing the text for nearly a decade, making her earliest reference to it in her 1953 biography of Shelley.
Nitchie puts great value on potential biographical resonances in the text. In her introduction to the Studies in Philology edition, she writes that:
“In this story, as in all Mary Shelley’s writing, there is much that is autobiographical: it would be hard to find a more self-revealing work”
– (Nitchie, “Mathilda”)
Nitchie goes on to argue that the four central characters in the novel represent Shelley and individuals in her life. Mathilda’s perverse father serves as a stand-in for William Godwin, and her sensitive yet unhelpful poet companion Woodville ostensibly represents Percy. The tragic Mathilda recalls Shelley and her then-extreme despair, and Mathilda’s mother Diana, who dies due to childbirth, stands in for Mary Wollstonecraft. This biographical interpretation continued to influence readings of Mathilda through the twentieth century and beyond. For example, look no further than a 1992 edition from Janet Todd which binds Mathilda with Mary Wollstonecraft’s two novels, Mary: A Fiction and Maria; Or, The Wrongs of Woman within one book, suggesting a serious linkage between the three novels.
I don’t doubt that part of what makes Mathilda and its unusual circumstances so fascinating is the potential glimpses it offers into the at-times dysfunctional Wollstonecraft-Shelley-Godwin family. That said, I think the novella should be reread and celebrated for more than these reasons, particularly in the wake of this year’s dual-anniversary. Mathilda gives a radically honest account of the condition of women, showing the reader the pain of absence after maternal death, capturing the difficulties of unwanted affection from men, and depicting a woman who lives in complete isolation to escape the impacts of patriarchy. And, like so many works from women prior to the twentieth century, it was repressed. Based on her letters, we know that Shelley wanted Mathilda to be published and read in spite of Godwin’s reactions to its more controversial material. For this reason, I think it is crucial to continue reading and researching the novella, lest it once again become a repressed woman’s text.
– Kathleen Hurlock, 2019
Gisborne, Maria, and Edward E. Williams. Maria Gisborne and Edward E Williams, Shelley’s Friends: Their Journals and Letters. Edited by Frederick L. Jones. University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
Nitchie, Elizabeth. Mary Shelley: Author of “Frankenstein.” Rutgers University Press, 1953.
Roth, Andrew. “Lord Abinger.” The Guardian, 1 Nov. 2002. Accessed 31 August 2019.
Shelley, Mary. The Journals of Mary Shelley: 1814-1844. Edited by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Shelley, Mary. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Volume I. Edited by Betty T. Bennett. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.
Shelley, Mary. Mathilda. Edited by Elizabeth Nitchie. The University of North Carolina Press, 1959. Project Gutenberg. Accessed 31 August 2019.
Shelley, Mary. Mathilda. Edited by Michelle Faubert. Broadview Press, 2017.
Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Mary Shelley. Mary, Maria, and Mathilda. Edited by Janet Todd, New York University Press, 1998.
Kathleen Hurlock is a doctoral student in English at the University of Georgia. She studies depictions of trauma and recovery in British women’s fiction from the late eighteenth through early nineteenth century. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read about another of Mary Shelley’s ‘lost’ stories, Maurice or the Fisher’s Cot, on the Blog here.