July 1, 2016
The Art of the Novella challenge 48: Mathilda
by Jonathan Gibbs
Author: Mary Shelley
First published: 1959 (though written 1818-20)
Page count: 134
First line: It is only four o’clock; but it is winter and the sun has already set: there are no clouds in the clear, frosty sky to reflect its slant beams, but the air itself is tinged with a slight roseate colour which is again reflected on the snow that covers the ground.
I’ve never really been one much for Romanticism, or the Gothic. I will always take the flight into minimalism over the flight into excess, the absurd (there is nothing out there) over the paranoid (there is something there, and it’s coming to get you!), the void over the plenum. The supernatural, and the idea of fate, like all conspiracy theories, are invented by people too much in thrall to rationality. There is no need to invent ghosts if you think the world is already ghostlike. Forgive me, I’m writing this in the wake of the UK’s decision to commit national suicide, and I’m not in the best of moods.
Mary Shelley’s novella of incestuous father-daughter passion is strong on scandalous feeling — strong on feeling, in fact — but not so strong on action. Nothing happens. By which I don’t mean I had a hankering for pornographic detail, but simply for narrative. At first glance this book fits the formula I have been roughly outlining for the novella-as-form: a single action, sufficiently and fully narrated, with the prose held in tension between the terse stylings of the oral tradition and the realist/novelistic desire to situate the story in the world. But only at first glance.
Mathilda is presented a written document, a deathbed confession by the eponymous heroine explaining why she is happy to leave this world. It does so thoroughly, but rarely vividly. In the words of the creative writing classroom, she tells, rather than shows. And she tells at length. When characters do interact (and there are only four characters, and really only two) it is often through long unbroken monologues spoken to each other, rather than anything approaching a scene. As with Frankenstein, I am left more compelled by the concept than by the execution. Shelley’s science fiction fantasy still has the power to make us think about the way we live our lives, and our responsibilities to those around us. Does Mathilda?
The story can be very briefly told: Mathilda’s mother dies in childbirth and her father, devastated, abandons her to a cold, unloving upbringing with her aunt. When he returns from his miserable international wanderings Mathilda is sixteen years old — and the image of his dead wife. The two of them are delighted with each other’s company and spend every waking hour together. It is only when a suitor appears on the scene that the father realises that he is sexually jealous, and so on the verge of a terrible sin. He falls into despair, and the uncomprehending Mathilda forces him to confess his secret — “My daughter, I love you!” — upon which he flees and drowns himself. Mathilda despairs, taking her father’s guilt upon herself, but is unable to stop loving him, and imagines them reunited in the afterlife. There is a diversion of a couple of chapters in which a young poet, Woodville, tries to bring her out of herself, but we know it is doomed. She is doomed. We are all doomed.
Human sexuality is a minefield and a carnival and a feast. Most of us have our dark sides, and by dark I mean not just bad, but obscure. That which might be bad interests us because we don’t see it clearly; we don’t see it clearly in ourselves. Which is why so much literature depends on the exploration of evil — both because it is evil, and because it is unknown. In the words of Adam Bennett and Nicholas Royle, in their Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory, “literature tends towards the demonic: it is about entrancement, possession, being invaded or taken over.”
Think of Nabokov’s Lolita, or the writings of de Sade, or any gothic or serial killer novel. In fact, think of de Sade’s novella Eugenie de Franval — aka Incest. Written only a couple of decades before Mathilda, it is a dark prefiguration of Shelley’s book, in which the father deliberately raises his daughter in an incestuous relationship that she, equally, relishes. It is, you might be happy to hear, free of the explicit pornographic description of the likes of Justine. That’s one of the things about parental incest — there are no positive role models for it. The people who do it are the grimmest of the grim. The only partial counter-examples I can think of are, firstly, Our Endless Numbered Days, the recent novel by Claire Fuller that plays with manifold ambiguities all the way through, and, secondly, the English sculptor and designer Eric Gill, who had incestuous relationships with his daughters, who “all grew up, so far as one can see, to be contented and well-adjusted married women.” Believe me, I’m not about to start Googling to try to find more instances.
We look in literature for darkness, then. We want to get close to the darkness, so we can have the titillation of waking close to the edge of a cliff, but we usually do so safe in the knowledge that the narrative structure will leave us clear and clean of the stench of sin, feeling pure, the evil safely over there, while we’re over here.
The problem with Mathilda is that, for us today, it doesn’t get close enough to the darkness to give us the kick of insight. It’s all talk and passion, and though we live in an age of feelings, it is not an age of passion. We do not express ourselves in the hyperbolic fashion of Mathilda and her father. For example, directly after his confession, at which he faints at her feet:
Yes, it was despair I felt; for the first time that phantom seized me; the first and only time for it has never since left me—After the first moments of speechless agony I felt her fangs on my heart: I tore my hair; I raved aloud; at one moment in pity for his sufferings I would have clasped my father in my arms; and then starting back with horror I spurned him with my foot; I felt as if stung by a serpent, as if scourged by a whip of scorpions which drove me—Ah! Whither—Whither?
And, from her father’s letter to her, before he flees:
And now, Mathilda I must make you my last confession. I have been miserably mistaken in imagining that I could conquer my love for you; I never can. The sight of this house, these fields and woods which my first love inhabited seems to have encreased it: in my madness I dared say to myself—Diana died to give her birth; her mother’s spirit was transferred into her frame, and she ought to be as Diana to me. With every effort to cast it off, this love clings closer, this guilty love more unnatural than hate, that withers your hopes and destroys me for ever.
No doubt this would have been more than enough for early nineteenth-century readerships, but we’ll never know about how the book would have been received, for when Shelley sent it to her father, William Godwin, he not only refused to publish it, calling it “disgusting and detestable,” but refused to return the manuscript to her. By the time it was published in 1959 it would have seemed tame. Part of the problem is the Romantic temperament, which may as well be a euphemism for convulsive. It is as Romantic in its concentration on despair as Goethe’s Young Werther, but we don’t really talk about despair these days; we talk about depression. Depression is despair with the romance leached out.
Obviously incest is interesting, conceptually, as an extreme perversion of the power relations that swirl around in every sexual and emotional relationship, but there is little in Mathilda that can be extrapolated and applied to our world today. After all, the greatness of Lolita lies in the tension between Humbert’s clear ability to see through America’s infantile, youth-obsessed culture and his complete inability to see through his own monstrous behaviour; and that of de Sade, you might say, in his ability to execute a vicious critique of Enlightenment values through sexual activity.
By contrast the father-daughter relationship in Mathilda is explored neither psychologically, nor sociologically, nor philosophically. It merely sees incest as a site of supreme guilt and passion; it impels both father and daughter to reams of self-analysis and self-flagellation. But I learned from them nothing about myself.