Mary Shelley’s Mathilda: A Maiden in Love with Death

28 Aug

Ahh, gothic maidens, incest and death; three things I love in a novel! I am in such a Gothic mood these days and how convenient that Mary Shelley will be celebrating her birthday soon; this Thursday, 30th August, marks the 221st anniversary of her birth. Did you not get the invitation to her graveyard-party in your mailbox? I know I did. Percy wrote it in his gorgeous handwriting. So sweet of him.

Walking dress, Ackermann’s Repository, July 1818; a perfect attire for a Gothic heroine

Mary Shelley’s epistolary novel written in first person is a dark little masterpiece. The story starts with the heroine Mathilda who is in her early twenties lying in bed and awaiting death. What we are reading is a long letter to her friend Woodville in which she reveals to him, and to us, the sad course of her life and dark secrets that she had kept concealed while she was alive: “You have often asked me the cause of my solitary life; my tears; and above all of my impenetrable and unkind silence. In life I dared not; in death I unveil the mystery.” We find out that her mother and father were madly in love with each other, and that her mother Diana died shortly after Mathilda was born. Her father, heartbroken and mad with sadness, set off to travel to distant lands in a self-imposed exile.

Mathilda is brought up by her father’s older sister. Deprived of love and affections, she grows into a dreamy forest-maiden whose friends are birds and flowers, and whose pursuits are long walks over the moors and indulging in reverie. I enjoyed the tempo of her storytelling; little by little she is introducing us to her life and explaining her character and emotions with brilliant vibrancy of expression and elaborate language. Growing up, Mathilda idealises her father and indulges in frequent and long reveries of how her ideal life would be. One day when she is sixteen she receives a letter from her father telling her that he is returning. She is ecstatic beyond belief, and on their first meeting their get along very well and their souls connect. Months of bliss are in front of them.

Photo by Laura Makabresku, “She is dead but lately started to blossom”

“In truth I am in love with death; no maiden ever took more pleasure in the contemplation of her bridal attire than I in fancying my limbs already enwrapt in their shroud: is it not my marriage dress?”

Glencoe, Scotland, photo found here.

The plot is simple and has all the typical components of Gothic literature; an innocent maiden, loneliness and isolated setting of the Scottish castle, darkness looming over the heroine’s life… Still, the ending is very untypical of a Gothic novel of Romanticism; death beats love in this story and there is no knight to save the damsel from death’s sweet embrace. I see it as a rather sophisticated and lyrical exploration of a very dark topic, and one which could easily be tasteless. Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin didn’t enjoy the manuscript which Mary had sent him from Rome, and the novella wasn’t published until 1959.

I particularly loved the way Mary Shelley explored the themes of yearning for love, and self-imposed life in isolation; both are very dear to my heart. Mathilda’s childhood is lonely and instead of receiving love she is compelled to give it: “By degrees I became reconciled to solitude but no one supplied her place in my affections. I lived in a desolate country where there were none to praise and very few to love.“ That doesn’t turn her into a cold distant individual, quite the contrary, she gives love freely to all things of nature around her, and caries a hope in her heart that one day she would be given an opportunity to bestow these affections on her father. Apart from a short-lasting joy when her father returns, Mathilda spends nearly her entire life in isolation, but Shelley makes a distinction here; isolation doesn’t mean loneliness.

I can easily say that “Mathilda” is one of the best books I’ve read this year, a true hidden gem and the beauty lies in many reasons; throughout exploration of complex themes, beautiful elaborate language, the character of Mathilda and the fact that it’s written in the first person which gives it an extra emotional depth and intimacy.

And now plenty of beautiful quotes:

“I know that I am about to die and I feel happy–joyous.”

“I cannot say with what passion I loved every thing even the inanimate objects that surrounded me. I believe that I bore an individual attachment to every tree in our park; every animal that inhabited it knew me and I loved them. Their occasional deaths filled my infant heart with anguish.”

I wandered for ever about these lovely solitudes, gathering flower after flower, singing as I might the wild melodies of the country, or occupied by pleasant day dreams. My greatest pleasure was the enjoyment of a serene sky amidst these verdant woods: yet I loved all the changes of Nature; and rain, and storm, and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with them. When rocked by the waves of the lake my spirits rose in triumph as a horseman feels with pride the motions of his high fed steed. But my pleasures arose from the contemplation of nature alone, I had no companion: my warm affections finding no return from any other human heart were forced to run waste on inanimate objects.”

“I had acquired in my harp a companion in rainy days; a sweet soother of my feelings when any untoward accident ruffled them: I often addressed it as my only friend; I could pour forth to it my hopes and loves, and I fancied that its sweet accents answered me.“

“I was a solitary being, and from my infant years, ever since my dear nurse left me, I had been a dreamer. (…) Then I wandered from the fancies of others and formed affections and intimacies with the aerial creations of my own brain–but still clinging to reality I gave a name to these conceptions and nursed them in the hope of realization. I clung to the memory of my parents; my mother I should never see, she was dead: but the idea of [my] unhappy, wandering father was the idol of my imagination. I bestowed on him all my affections; there was a miniature of him that I gazed on continually; I copied his last letter and read it again and again.“

Scotland Fog, photos by Skyler Brown

“As I came, dressed in white, covered only by my tartan rachan, my hair streaming on my shoulders, and shooting across with greater speed that it could be supposed I could give to my boat, my father has often told me that I looked more like a spirit than a human maid. I approached the shore, my father held the boat, I leapt lightly out, and in a moment was in his arms.”

“Life was then brilliant; I began to learn to hope and what brings a more bitter despair to the heart than hope destroyed?

“I had no idea that misery could arise from love…”

“I was always happy when near my father. It was a subject of regret to me whenever we were joined by a third person, yet if I turned with a disturbed look towards my father, his eyes fixed on me and beaming with tenderness instantly restored joy to my heart. O, hours of intense delight!“

“Like Psyche I lived for awhile in an enchanted palace, amidst odours, and music, and every luxurious delight; when suddenly I was left on a barren rock; a wide ocean of despair rolled around me: above all was black, and my eyes closed while I still inhabited a universal death.“

“The few weeks that I spent in London were the most miserable of my life: a great city is a frightful habitation to one sorrowing. The sunset and the gentle moon, the blessed motion of the leaves and the murmuring of waters are all sweet physicians to a distempered mind.”

“…when I saw the wild heath around me, and the evening star in the west, then I could weep, gently weep, and be at peace.”

“Love! What had I to love? Oh many things: there was the moonshine, and the bright stars; the breezes and the refreshing rains; there was the whole earth and the sky that covers it: all lovely forms that visited my imagination, all memories of heroism and virtue. Yet this was very unlike my early life although as then I was confined to Nature and books. Then I bounded across the fields; my spirit often seemed to ride upon the winds, and to mingle in joyful sympathy with the ambient air. Then if I wandered slowly I cheered myself with a sweet song or sweeter day dreams. I felt a holy rapture spring from all I saw. I drank in joy with life; my steps were light; my eyes, clear from the love that animated them, sought the heavens, and with my long hair loosened to the winds I gave my body and my mind to sympathy and delight. But now my walk was slow–My eyes were seldom raised and often filled with tears; no song; no smiles; no careless motion that might bespeak a mind intent on what surrounded it–I was gathered up into myself–a selfish solitary creature ever pondering on my regrets and faded hopes.”

“My heart was bleeding from its death’s wound; I could live no otherwise – Often amid apparent calm I was visited by despair and melancholy; gloom that nought could dissipate or overcome; a hatred of life; a carelessness of beauty; all these would by fits hold me nearly annihilated by their powers. Never for one moment when most placid did I cease to pray for death.”

“I had already planned the situation where I would live. It should be a solitary house on a wide plain near no other habitation: where I could behold the whole horizon, and wander far without molestation from the sight of my fellow creatures. I was not mysanthropic, but I felt that the gentle current of my feelings depended upon my being alone. I
fixed myself on a wide solitude.”

“But your sad mien never alters; your pulses beat and you breathe, yet you seem already to belong to another world; and sometimes, pray pardon my wild thoughts, when you touch my hand I am surprised to find your hand warm when all the fire of life seems extinct within you.”

“You turn from me; yet before you deny me reflect, Woodville, how sweet it were to cast off the load of tears and misery under which we now labour: and surely we shall find light after we have passed the dark valley. That drink will plunge us in a sweet slumber, and when we awaken what joy will be ours to find all our sorrows and fears past. A little patience, and all will be over… Behold, my cheek is flushed with pleasure at the imagination of death; all that we love are dead. (…) Cast off this blank look of human melancholy. Oh! that I had words to express the luxury of death that I might win you. I tell you we are no longer miserable mortals; we are about to become Gods; spirits free and happy as gods. What fool on a bleak shore, seeing a flowery isle on the other side with his lost love beckoning to him from it would pause because the wave is dark and turbid?”

“Do you mark my words; I have learned the language of despair: I have it all by heart, for I am Despair; and a strange being am I, joyous, triumphant Despair…. We lie down, and close our eyes with a gentle good night, and when we wake, we are free.”

“In solitude only shall I be myself; in solitude I shall be thine.”

“I now behold the glad sun of May. It was May, four years ago, that I first saw my beloved father; it was in May, three years ago that my folly destroyed the only being I was doomed to love. May is returned, and I die.”

9 Responses to “Mary Shelley’s Mathilda: A Maiden in Love with Death”

  1. Adrienne Morris 28th Aug 2018 at 1:42 pm #

    This sounds really interesting. TBR pile for sure! Exploring the love for one’s father is a topic I’d like to think more about. So many children go without fathers these days. I wonder how it affects them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Adrienne Morris 28th Aug 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained-Author Adrienne Morris and commented:
    How do we deal with absent fathers?

    Like

  3. Lautreamont 29th Aug 2018 at 2:42 pm #

    Great post! Sounds brilliant! Dead mother,clinical depression,incest,suicide,mourning and melancholia. I’ll definitely get this book. Best Gothic novel I ever read was The Monk by Lewis,but this one sounds like it might be better! Thanks for the tip! Happy Trails. A

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 29th Aug 2018 at 9:51 pm #

      So nice to hear you’ll read it, it is amazing and macabre and wow, you won’t regret it.

      Like

  4. Lautreamont 3rd Sep 2018 at 6:38 pm #

    Read it the other day. Found the writing kinda prolix,but I guess that was just the style of the day . I wondered how much of it was initiated by her life circumstances which sound awful. But the storyline is absolutely great. Driven by the fates out of misery into the fools paradise of the relationship with her father and then inexorably on into abject despair and death. Could be Sophocles! Great! Very much enjoyed it. Thanks for the tip. A

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 6th Sep 2018 at 7:01 pm #

      It’s nice to hear you read it! I love that writing style, kind of dramatic, theatrical, over the top, with a self-pitying edge.

      Like

  5. Tânia 8th Apr 2019 at 4:41 pm #

    I also loved this novella, it was a real little jewel. I love Mary Shelley’s writing style – melodramatic, self-pitying, over the top is never too much for me, and I admit that I never really understand why so many people have such an issue with that! I also think the book was incredibly vivid and cinematic, though in reality it would be hard to film.

    Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. My Favourite Books Ever | Byron's muse - 7th May 2019

    […] Mathilda, by Mary […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: