Mathilda, Mary Shelley, and Incest

Stick “incest” in the title and it’s bound to be interesting, right? I think that’s what Shelley thought when she wrote this novella, which was confiscated by her father before she could publish it. I don’t necessarily blame him, considering many people think this book, which deals with father-daughter incest, is semi-autobiographical. So yeah, did I get your attention? Let’s talk about Mathilda, by Mary Shelley.

“But my father, my beloved and most wretched father…would he never overcome the fierce passion that now held pitiless dominion over him?” 

mathilda mary shelleyThe story of Mathilda is an edge-of-your-seat one, not because of any action but because of the emotional turmoil of the main characters and the confusion of their relationship. It borders on the disturbing but it plays with your sympathies. Mathilda is the daughter of a man and a woman who had been in love all their lives. Her father, a wealthy man, had all the advantages and comforts appropriate for a man of rank, but he held a secret from everyone in his life: that he loved the eldest daughter of a neighbor, the beautiful Diana. They grew up together and she returned his passion. They married as soon as they could, flouting convention and societal expectations. In childbirth, Diana died. Mathilda’s father, overwhelmed with an unearthly grief, left Mathilda in the care of her aunt and left the country, traveling far and wide.

Mathilda grew up pining for her father, making fantastic plans to set out to find him, and imagining their joyous reunion. Finally, when she is sixteen, he sends a letter telling her he’s going to return. Mathilda and her father quickly form an intense bond; he dotes on her and she does everything in her power to make him happy. He takes her to London for the season, where she is courted by a worthy gentleman. However, after a few weeks, the man stops calling and Mathilda’s father takes her back to the country, his mood very different from the jovial, affectionate man she had known. Mathilda thinks her father hates her, and every day she begs him to let her know what she did to deserve his cold attitude. He refuses to tell her, and he is tormented as if by demons by what he feels. Mathilda presses him more, and finally, wretchedly, he captitulates and tells her.

“But these are precious moments; devil as I am become, yet that is my Mathilda before me whom I love as one was never before loved…Oh! Beloved One, I am borne away; I can no longer sustain myself; surely this is death that is coming. Let me lay my head near your heart; let me die in your arms!”

Mathilda knows now that her father has fallen desperately in love with her, and she knows that she can never see him again. In the middle of that night he slips a letter under her door, telling her that he must leave her and that she must not worry about him, that he will be fine. Mathilda, reading between the lines, knows that her father means to kill himself. In the early hours of the morning, she tracks him down through the country, finally stopping by the sea, only to arrive in time to see her father’s body wash up on a rocky shore.

Mathilda, on her journey to find her father and save his life, calls him her “lover.” Mathilda never fully recovers from the death of her father and the knowledge of his anguish and their tortured relationship. She lives the rest of her life in voluntary isolation, sure that she can divulge her secret to no one, that no one would understand what has happened to her. She misses her father constantly, and is convinced that she must atone, somehow, for the events that ruined her life.

At the end of the book I was left shocked and bereft. I felt like there was no way to understand the characters’ emotional turmoil, dealing as it does with such a taboo topic as incest. Though there is no physical relationship between Mathilda and her father, I was left with such sympathy for Mathilda, for her father, for all the love they could have had if Mathilda’s father hadn’t been such an involuntary creep. So what was Mary Shelley’s deal when she wrote a book like this?

Entwined with the icky subject matter is the theme of loss and redemption. Is it possible to live life after a loss of this magnitude, a grief you can’t understand, a love that is this complicated? Mathilda doesn’t think so. She lets herself waste away and looks forward to joining her father in death. In her isolation, Mathilda meets another recluse, a man mourning the fiancee who passed right before they could marry. The man, Woodville, manages to heal from his grief and looks forward to living life in the name of his deceased beloved, being happy because she would have wanted him to be. Mathilda can find no such relief. In this weird, small book, Shelley explores the nature of grief, the power of love, the destruction that occurs as a result of defying nature, and the perverted power of desire.

It’s really a doozy.

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