[ISBC] May 2012: Mathilda, Mary Shelley

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 L, 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.)

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This tale of a father’s incestuous love for his daughter, his suicide, and the daughter’s reaction isn’t strictly autobiographical — but elements of it come from Mary Shelley’s life. The three main characters are clearly Mary Shelley herself, Godwin, and Percy Bysshe Shelley — and their relations can easily be reassorted to correspond with their lives.

So I struggled a bit with this book, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. It wasn’t because of the writing style or language (I’ve read far too much 19th century literature to have issues with those) and it wasn’t because of the characters themselves or the plot. And I think I’ve worked it out. It was the sadness that ran throughout the story. Underneath every word there was a sense of melancholy and there is little reprieve from it, which is why I believe it took me so long to get through despite it being only sixty pages long (in my copy). Yet despite the struggle that I had getting through it, I’m glad I’ve read it because I found Matilda to be such an interesting character. Well, perhaps not interesting, that’s probably the wrong word. But I did find her, and the decisions that she made, intriguing. Plus, I really loved the beauty and rhythm of the language that Shelley uses.

As much as I, overall, enjoyed Matilda though, it wouldn’t be a book that I reccommend as an introduction to nineteenth century fiction. Shelley deals with big and serious issues in this novella – incest, depression and suicide – all of these are still taboo subjects (to different extents) now, never mind when Shelley wrote it in the early 1800s. However, I think anyone well-versed in nineteenth century literature, and with an interest to read more of the controversial texts which were suppressed at the time, would be interested in reading Shelley’s least well-known work.

Onto the discussion questions! (There will probably be spoilers ahead, so be warned.)

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?
I do think Matilda will still be relevant years from now. Probably not in the mainstream; I don’t see it really becoming any more popular or well-known. But I do think among the academia it will continue to be read and critiqued and studied for many years to come, for multiple reasons: scholars of Mary Shelley will be interested in the autobigoraphical touches, and no doubt other nineteenth century academics will be interested to study Shelley’s treatment of the subject matter.

I was 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?
Matilda was my favourite character. Not so much because I liked her or connected with her, but because as I said above, I was intrigued by her. Granted, she annoyed me to begin with, especially when she became so wrapped up in her father when he finally entered her life, but the decisions she makes after his suicide were incredible. I liked that despite her grief and guilt Matilda wasn’t going to let anyone tell her what she should, or how she should live her life, or how she should feel. It was her choice to fake her death. It was her choice to establish herself, alone, elsewhere. All of these things drew me to Matilda, and made her my favourite character, even if I couldn’t actually like or connect with her.

Meghan is wondering:
If you had to date one of the characters, which would you pick and why?
As there’s only two male characters that are really mentioned there’s not much choice. But of the two I would definitely pick Woodville since he seemed to be nice and sweet.

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 think Shelley did really well with the epistolary form in this story. Matilda isn’t your regular epistolary novel which tend to be characterised by an exchange of letters between various characters (Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is a perfect example of this), and as a result the reader learns bits and pieces of the story as the different characters do in the letters they received. Instead in Matilda we have the title character on her death bed writing a letter to Woodville, telling him the story of her life. And yet, while she sometimes makes comments directed particularly to Woodville, there are many other times (especially after she describes how Woodville came into her life) that wouldn’t make sense in a letter intended solely for Woodville’s perusal. After all, she doesn’t need to tell Woodville about his own life before he met her. Which makes me question who Matilda’s intended audience of her life story actually is? Just something that occurred to me after I finished and was then flicking back through it.

Aimee’s question for you is:
What was your favorite or most memorable passage (if any) in the book? Why did it leave such an impression?

…they tried to bind me with fetters that they thought silken, yet which weighed on me like iron, although I broke them more easily than a girth formed of a single straw and fled to freedom.

Lines like this one always really connect with me because it’s about breaking free from what others want for you or try to impose on you. It’s about choosing your own path to follow. It’s about being free to be who you are and not who someone else wants you to be. That idea always has and always will resonate with me.

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?
I began to touch on this a little bit earlier when I was talking about why Matilda was my favourite character. Matilda makes some pretty radical choices (for the time) about what she is going to do with her life, and she doesn’t let anyone dictate what she does or feels. Woodville tries to get her to give up her grief, and resume a normal life, and while she occassionally humours him and lets him cheer her, most of the time she just refuses to. But while Matilda’s decision to choose for herself what she wanted (or didn’t want) for her life is admirable, the treatment of other female characters leave a lot to be desired. Matilda’s mother and Woodville’s fiancee are both utterly perfect, demure, traditional women that die while still young and beautiful. And Matilda’s aunt who then raises her is cold and unfeeling. However, despite these problems with the secondary female characters, it is important to remember the historical context of this story. Women had no agency at all really in 1820, and so it is easy to see that with the character of Matilda Shelley was trying to move past the stereotypes for women (even though she couldn’t manage it with the secondary characters). She was trying to lay the groundwork for what came later in her small way. (Though this is just judging by Matilda, I haven’t read any of Shelley’s other works.)

Don’t forget to check out what everyone else thought of Matilda
Sammy/Sailor Moon: here
Meghan/Sailor Mercury: here
Angel/Sailor Venus: here
Aimee/Sailor Jupiter: here

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Unfortunately, as you can tell by how late this post is, I had some issues getting this up. I had originally had it scheduled to go up on time (right before I went away on holidays) but apparently it didn’t. And I didn’t have a computer to fix it until I got home again. Sorry! However, it is up now, so YAY! Anyway, make sure to check back next week when we’ll all be posting about Looking for Alibrandi.

Aimee @ Penmanship Smitten || Angel @ Mermaid Vision Books || Meghan @ Coffee and Wizards || Samantha L @ All Things Literary

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3 Comments

  1. Better late than never 🙂 ❤

    Reply
  2. Loved your response, and I’m glad you enjoyed Shelley’s writing!

    Which makes me question who Matilda’s intended audience of her life story actually is? Just something that occurred to me after I finished and was then flicking back through it.
    A very good point! Also introduces the idea of Mathilda as an unreliable narrator, which then makes things a whole lot more interesting… 😀

    Reply

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