Sunday, May 3, 2009

Another Bad Choice in Publishing from the Shelley Family

Comparatively recently (as in the 1950s), scholars found an unpublished novella by Mary Godwin Shelley, author of the generally grossly misinterpreted novel Frankenstein. This novel was in a similar Gothic vien and is called Mathilda.

It is... strange, to say the least. Like many early novels, Mathilda is semi-autobiographical. Mary Shelley's mother, the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, died shortly after Mary Shelley's birth; Mathilda's mother does as well. Mary Shelley grew up in comparative seculsion in Scotland; so does Mathilda. When Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, fetched her from Scotland to bring her to London, he remarked on the remarkable similiaries in face and form between Mary Shelley and her mother.

However, Mathilda's father returns for his daughter (Mathilda's father, who never gets a name, has been wandering around Europe for no easily discernable reason other than narrative convenience), remarks several times on her similarities to her mother, and sweeps her off to London where he promptly falls in love with her.

... yes, you read that correctly, gentle reader. Mathilda is, in fact, about incest. Incest was a popular subject with the second generation English Romantics. Byron's heroes, when not homoerotically tangled in a "last embrace of foes" that exceeds in passion any between a man and a woman (read The Giacour for more details), tend to be in love with someone morally and ethically unsuitable. This someone often turns out to be the hero's sister.

Mary Shelley sent this manuscript to her father, William Godwin, a successful publisher. The Amateur Historian assumes that Mary Shelley had thought that the novel would sell as well as Frankenstein had, considering that it was both extremely creepy and tragic and concerned a popular trope, i.e. incest. Her father was a well-known publisher; surely he would be able to print it?

Wisely, William Godwin decided not to publish it, lest London society thought him in love with his daughter.


  1. That's rather sordid! I agree that it was a wise decision not to publish it. Mary Shelley had a lot of tragedy in her life. She was certainly a very strange woman, though.

  2. That it is! I feel bad for Mary Shelley. Her life was extremely difficult and she ended up losing a lot of the people she loved, but Mrs. Shelley still wrote some really strange stories. I must confess to a preference to Jane Austen where, even if cosins marry each other, no one tries to raise the dead or seduce their daughter.