[Inner Senshi Book Club] Review: Mary Shelley – Mathilda

The “Inner Senshi Book Club” is an online book club where five book lovers of different backgrounds and tastes across the world take turns at selecting and hosting a book each month. Individually, we are (in alphabetical order): Aimee, Angel, Meghan, Samantha Lin, and Samantha R. Together, we present you a whole range of books, complete with our responses to a rotating list of set questions.

A new book is selected on the 15th of each month, and our thoughts are posted roughly four to five weeks later. We hope you can join us in our reading shenanigans! (The book club derives its name from the five soldiers of love and justice from the Japanese manga and anime series, Sailormoon. We are just as kickass, and if all goes to plan, twice as well-read.)

Mathilda by Mary Shelley

Between 1819 and 1820, Mary Shelley wrote Mathilda, her second novel following the classic Frankenstein. The story is reminiscent of Shelley’s own life, if not outright autobiographical, with characters resembling herself, her husband Percy Shelley, and her father William Godwin. Matilda is an often overlooked literary gem written in the classic Romantic style with Matilda on her deathbed telling her tale full of loss, incest, and suicide.


The only work of Mary Shelley’s that I’m familiar with is Frankenstein, and even then, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on had it not been a requirement for my “Conversations of the West” class in university. While Frankenstein was a surprisingly enjoyable read, I’m not sure exactly how to feel about Mathilda. On one hand, I want to sympathize with the character and her story of loneliness and despair, but on another… this book just made me uncomfortable.

Shelley’s novel focuses primarily on Mathilda and her father, beginning with her parents’ love story. As brief as the description was, I was charmed by the way she spoke of her parents, the way she delineated how they fell in love, despite their stations and despite the opinions of his friends and family. I probably should have expected it, given the summary, but I didn’t realize that so quickly her mother would be dead, her father would be too grief-stricken to raise her, and she’d be on her own with an affectionless aunt.

Her childhood and the way her father dealt with his wife’s death are the things I mostly sympathize with, but so many other things made Mathilda (and her father) unrelatable. My main issue with this book is the way it portrays love. I don’t mean the incestuous relationship between father and daughter exactly, but the fact that both father and daughter fall in love too strongly, to the extent that that entire person becomes their life and literally, without his or her existence, they fall quickly to despair until… they die. Even ignoring the nature of their relationship, I’d find that kind of love unhealthy. So while I want to say I tried to understand the character (and for parts of the book, I felt like I did), I felt uncomfortable reading about the way her father loved her mother before she died, the way she cared for her father, the way her father was beginning to (sort of) replace her mother’s memory with her. The only relationship that didn’t make me feel uncomfortable is Woodville’s and Elinor’s, primarily because… yeah, he loved her and she died, but he understands that this isn’t a reason for him to stop living his own life, even if it’s difficult at first. His attitude, and even his attempts to change Mathilda’s attitude, were a welcoming contrast to Mathilda’s depressing narrative.

Mathilda is one of those books that are both intriguing and kind of… sickening. I can’t say I truly enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t dislike it either. If you’re a fan of Shelley’s other works, you might want to give this one a try. (Especially if you’re interested in psychology or history, since this novel is semi-autobiographical.)

Discussion Questions:

Samantha L wants you to consider:

How relevant do you think this text will be in a century? Which aspects do you think will be valued most?

The prevailing aspects of this novel are the issues of incest, grief, depression, and suicide, but I don’t think it will be hailed for only these reasons in the future. If people are still reading and studying Mathilda in a century, I think they will probably care more about how much the narrative reveals about Mary Shelley’s own life, and her relationship with her father and her husband. Her thoughts alone would be interesting to read for anyone studying depression, or even psychology in general.

Samantha R is interested in knowing:

Did you have a favourite character in the book? If so, what was it about this character that drew you to them? Or in reverse, were there any characters that you particularly disliked, and why?

I didn’t feel attached to any of the characters. Though I hated some of the decisions they made (for example, I thought it was selfish that her father couldn’t live for his daughter after his wife died, and then later, I wish he had just… sought help of some sort instead of offing himself when he realized what his feelings for Mathilda were), I didn’t feel strong enough to dislike any of them. If I were to pick a favorite character, however, I’d probably choose Diana, Elinor, or Woodville because I enjoyed their presence on the page most.

Meghan is wondering:

If you had to date one of the characters, which would you pick and why?

Considering there were only two male characters in this novel, and only one of them is alive/not disturbing or mad/actually pleasant, if I had to choose a character to date, I guess I wouldn’t mind going out with Woodville.

Angel would like you to think about:

How well does the writing style serve the story? How does it fail to uphold the narrative?

I’m trying to imagine this story written in another style, perhaps in the third person or maybe not as a letter Mathilda felt she needed to write, but I can’t. Though at times Mathilda seemed to ramble and failed to make her meaning clear, I think the epistolary narrative makes sense for her character, and her purpose in writing this letter.

My question for you is:

What was your favorite or most memorable passage (if any) in the book? Why did it leave such an impression?

The funny thing is I remembered this was my question, and I attempted to find something – anything – that I found truly memorable (which of course, defies the purpose of this question – but it’s okay, I failed). Other than her father’s suicide/love letter to her, the only passage that really stood out to me was:

    “My father had been and his memory was the life of my life. I might feel gratitude to another, but I never more could love or hope as I had done; it was all suffering; even my pleasures were endured, not enjoyed. I was as a solitary spot among mountains shut in on all sides by steep black precipes; where no ray of heat could penetrate; and from which there was no outlet to sunnier fields.”

I think this basically describes the entire book for me. I remember stopping when I read it, and just thinking how… sad her hopelessness was. And how strange the words, “life of my life” are, even though they describe her feelings for her father (and his for her and her mother) perfectly. The quote brought back everything I felt and attempted to feel for Mathilda, leaving me once again sort-of sad for her, but also a little disturbed that she really felt this way.

This month’s host, Samantha L, has a bonus question:

Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, considered to be one of the first modern feminists. In Mathilda, how effectively do you think Shelley deals with the issues of women, femininity, and feminism?

Although the dependency in this novel is alarming, and I disliked nearly all of the relationships in it, I definitely thought it contained some feminist elements. The fact that Mathilda leaves her comfortable life to live by herself, and stages her own suicide along the way (so that she could be left alone) was amazing, especially for the time period. At times (even if they were few), her personal strength managed to shine through, especially when she was making choices for herself, even if these decisions were those I disagreed with.On the other hand, even outside of the unhealthy relationships, I didn’t like the novel’s portrayal of women in general. Diana and Elinor seemed to be basically the same person, both existing (temporarily) for Mathilda’s father and Woodville to love and adore. Woodville, at least, had a healthier outlook on life-after-grief, but I still hated that women in this novel basically existed as entities to be worshipped, and not people with lives outside of the love they shared with thier husband (until they died).

Check out the Inner Senshi’s thoughts on their individual posts:

Sammy/Sailor Moon @ All Things Literary
Meg/Sailor Mercury @ Coffee and Wizards
Samantha R/Sailor Mars @ An Aspiring Receptionist
Angel/Sailor Venus @ Mermaid Vision Books

If you’ve read Mathilda, we’d love to hear your thoughts as well (in the comments or in your own post)!

Sailor Jupiter



8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: [ISBC] Mathilda by Mary Shelley | coffeeandwizards
  2. megtao
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 13:23:51

    I loved your point on the unhealthiness of the relationships of the book (outside of the incestuous thing).


    • aimee
      Jun 23, 2012 @ 23:23:03

      Thanks, Meg! <33 It was probably the first thing I noticed, and you know I have a thing for realistic, healthy relationships. It makes sense, given that time period (even though there are plenty of 19th century lit stories with healthier relationships), but it still bothered me. Especially since we're still experiencing the "Twilight" trend in books right now, and that story of the dependent girl on a pedestal is just prevalent… everywhere.


      • megtao
        Jun 25, 2012 @ 11:20:49

        Kinda makes you wonder if we have come any farther when it comes to in relationships between men and women, whether they be romantic or not.

  3. Trackback: [ISBC] May 2012: Mathilda, Mary Shelley « As Read By An Aspiring Receptionist
  4. Samantha Lin
    Jul 18, 2012 @ 18:21:32

    Wonderful review! I think you’ve expressed your ambivalence towards the novel quite well, particularly as the book is far from straightforward in its portrayal of women, relationships, and life. Mathilda’s dependence on her father says a lot on the role of women two centuries again, and it’s quite a wonder to know we’ve progressed so far since!


  5. Trackback: [Inner Senshi Book Club] Round 1 Review: Mary Shelley – Mathilda | Samantha Lin
  6. Trackback: Introducing the Inner Senshi Book Club « penmanshipsmitten

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