[ISBC] Mathilda by 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): AimeeAngel, myself (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. You can find more information on the ISBC at this post.

Samantha L (who I will from this point on refer to as Sammy) hosted this month’s book: Mathilda by Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley’s classic novella follows the life of the young and unfortunate Mathilda, writing a letter while on her deathbed to her only friend.

MathildaI would consider myself a fan of Mary Shelley. Two years ago I read Frankenstein for a class on Romanticism and really enjoyed it. Just this past year I read The Mortal Immortal for my Women and Literature class, and enjoyed it as well, though not as much as Frankenstein. In my opinion, there is a reason that Frankenstein is so popular and Mathilda is not, and I am thankful it is such a short story.

I’m used to the flowery speech of 19thC literature. It’s not my favourite, but I’ve read enough of it to even enjoy it sometimes, but for me the turns of phrase in Mathilda fell flat. The same themes of death and life that are found in Frankenstein and The Mortal Immortal don’t have the same affect in Mathilda. The story was too short for the intricacies of these characters minds to be fully revealed, and because of this the plot “twists” felt overly contrived and fake.

It’s not a book I would read again, nor would I recommend it except to those who are the greatest of Mary Shelley or 19thC literature fans.

Discussion Questions (spoilers follow)

(also under the cut: links to the other girl’s posts, and next month’s book choice and 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?

Well, Sammy, I think the fact that it hasn’t really survived to this century shows that it’s unlikely to be much more popular or relevant in another century. Personally, I found it difficult to relate to any of the characters, and I saw few aspects of my own life within it. I felt very ungrounded while reading even though I have a fairly solid knowledge base on this time period and literature from this time period.

If any aspect will be valued, it is likely to be the difficulty of dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts, though I wouldn’t say that this is exactly a book I would recommend to those dealing with either considering one character does (pretty sure) kill himself and another makes herself so ill that she (probably) dies and is cheerful about that fact. It’s worse than Richardson’s Clarissa!

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?

Oh gosh, Sam, there were very few characters I had any sort of feelings towards as they all seemed so strange to me I felt I could not make any connection with them. Woodville seemed like an alright guy, I guess. I did feel bad for him, and it was sweet of him to befriend Mathilda, I suppose.

If there was anyone I disliked it would probably be Mathilda’s Aunt. She was such a cold woman and I’m sure it was her fault that Mathilda’s nurse maid left. I wasn’t all that upset when she died.

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

Well, self, I guess I wouldn’t mind going out with Woodville seeing as he’s supposed to be gorgeous and he seems like a nice sort of guy, but I’m certain he’d tell me about his lost love and then I would just feel…sad. And like I could never measure up because this girl is supposed to be practically perfect in every way. I doubt there’d be a second date.

Angel would like you to think about:
How well does the writing style serve the story? How does it fail to uphold the narrative?

The epistolary form seems to be a favourite of Shelley. Like The Mortal Immortal, Mathilda reads a bit like a suicide letter. An overly long one. This isn’t a Victorian era story is it? Because if it is, then that suddenly makes sense…

Anyway, if I had been able to connect to the characters, this form would have provided a more intimate view. It probably would have helped me to connect more with the characters which would be good as I’d say that this is a character driven narrative (and maybe my inability to connect with the characters is why I didn’t enjoy this book so much). Furthermore, it allowed for the story to flow fairly quickly from moment to moment (like the Doctor taking the short path in Reinette’s life–sorry, had to throw in a fandom reference somewhere) and allowed for some nice foreshadowing.

However, the style fell apart for me when I noticed that our narrator, Mathilda, was saying things she shouldn’t know about. For example, she described how her father acted when he wasn’t around her. I wouldn’t have minded except it was so specifically stated that he only acted this way when she was not around him, so how did she know? And later she gave information on Woodville that made me feel the same way. One of the great things about the epistolary format is the bias and lack of an omnipresent narrator. While the bias part was still present, I felt Mathilda played at being omnipresent at times, and it broke the illusion for me.

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?

I tried really hard to keep a look out for memorable passages for you Aimee, and I really had to struggle for this one, so I hope you appreciate it:

“Death is so dreadful to the living: the chains of habit are so strong even when affection does not link them that the heart must be agonized when they break.”

I felt like this was such a harsh but honest comment on death because it is true that not all those we know who die are loved by us, but it still hurts when someone we know passes away because we are so used to them being around. I think there are more reasons beyond this, but this passage stuck out to me when I read it because of its frankness.

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?

At first, I felt she didn’t deal with it at all.

1. There are basically no healthy female relationships in the story: Mathilda’s mother dies not long after her birth and her Aunt sees her as a burden. There is Mathilda’s nurse maid, but she is barely mentioned, and if Mathilda cared about her as much as she professed wouldn’t she have remembered what happened to her? Even Mathilda’s chosen “friends” are female characters created by men, so are they real women?

2. Female characters are put on pedestals as kind of Angels, praised for their beauty, kindness, etc. We see this happen with Diana, Elinor, and even Mathilda. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these women die young.

3. Mathilda doesn’t “begin to live” until she meets her father.

4. Mathilda blames herself for her father’s perversion, which reminded me quite a bit of a female rape victim blaming herself for being attacked.

5. It is hinted that if Mathilda had been subservient (aka how a woman should be) and not pushed her father to reveal the truth everything would have been fine.

But, there are elements of feminism to be found. For example, the fact that Mathilda escapes from her guardian and goes off to live on her own is a very radical thing for the time. And…that’s all I got. I honestly expected more, though I’m not sure why considering I haven’t been that much of a fan of Shelley’s treatment of woman in Frankenstein or The Mortal Immortal.

Check out the Inner Senshi’s answers on their posts (will be updated as they are posted):

Sammy/Sailor Moon: here

Sam/Sailor Mars: here

Aimee/Sailor Jupiter: here

Angel/Sailor Venus: here

Feel free to answer one or more of the questions in the comments or link me to your own posts!

Next month in the Inner Senshi Book Club…

Hosted by Samantha R (who I shall from this point on refer to as Sam), the Inner Senshi Book Club will be reading Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta. I hope you’ll join us.

Sammy asks: How do the structural features (such as narrative mode and genre) shape the meaning of the text? If ineffective, how do you think this could be improved?

Sam would like to know: Did the book meet your expectations, or were you disappointed? Why or why not?

Aimee is curious about: How well does the setting contribute to the story? (Would a different setting have affected the book significantly?)

Meghan would like you to consider: Do you feel the cover reflected the story well? Why or why not?

Angel wonders: Was there a theme that jumped out strongly in the story? Did it fit the development of the characters?

This month’s host Sam has a bonus question for you: Family, culture and identity all play a large role in Looking for Alibrandi. How do you feel Marchetta dealt with these issues?

I hope you enjoyed last month’s novel, and I hope you’ll join us in reading this month’s choice. Sailor Mercury says read books and have fun!

About megtao

Student. Writer. Nerdfighter. Fights for love, justice, and awesome.
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10 Responses to [ISBC] Mathilda by Mary Shelley

  1. Candice says:

    You know, I really need to read more classic literature. I love all these stories so much, especially those written by women and those that sort of lay foundation for feminism. But yet I keep putting them off! I’d really like to check out Mathilda and then read the questions and responses!

    • megtao says:

      It’s a super short read, so you should check it out if only to read the discussion questions, though I honestly didn’t enjoy the book that much, and if you’re not sure about getting into the classic genre, this isn’t the book I’d go with.

  2. Samantha Lin says:

    Woah, what a different response to mine! I can see how the novel failed to please, particularly as the characters themselves are probably not so interesting if you’re not into the whole Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Godwin playing tug-of-war with Mary Shelley…

    One of the great things about the epistolary format is the bias and lack of an omnipresent narrator. While the bias part was still present, I felt Mathilda played at being omnipresent at times, and it broke the illusion for me. Maybe because Shelley was deliberately making Mathilda an unreliable narrator? Dun dun duuuuuun!

    I’m not entirely sure about your take on the feminism question. I guess that’s mostly because you’re responding from the perspective of a super dooper feminist, and poor Mary Shelley was still struggling to pave the way for all women around the world…

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts for this month!

    • megtao says:

      If she was making Mathilda an unreliable narrator on purpose, then great, but if she wasn’t then that was serious sloppy writing.

      Yeah, I am, but then again I’ve read some of Mary’s mum’s stuff and and she was like basically at a modern feminist level (or at least well on the way to be), so I guess I expected more from her daughter.

  3. Pingback: [Inner Senshi Book Club] Round 1 Review: Mary Shelley – Mathilda | Mermaid Vision Books

  4. Pingback: [Inner Senshi Book Club] Review: Mary Shelley – Mathilda « penmanshipsmitten

  5. aimee says:

    Everything you said about the flat flowery speech is exactly what I was trying to say about the narrative. I consider myself a fan of 19th century literature, and I don’t mind the style at all, but there was something about it in Mathilda that didn’t quite sit well with me, and flat is definitely one of the reasons. (I don’t know if it ruined any plot twists for me – I never really felt like Mary Shelley was trying to make it shocking, or a “twist” at all. The way she revealed everything was certainly contrived, but I feel like she wanted the reader to know… And if she didn’t, it was thinly veiled. It’s easy to suspect exactly what is going on because Mathilda doesn’t make a secret of it in her narrative, and it’s obvious, from the intense way she describes her interactions and feelings about her father (and his for her) what is going on. Or at least that’s how it felt like for me.

    Your date with Woodville kind of makes me want to hug you both, him for being so sad and you for feeling sad for him and going on that hopeless date in the first place.

    I definitely agree with you about getting more out of the epistolary narrative if the characters had been even the slightest bit relatable. That was my biggest problem with the novel too.

    I really like the quote you chose. It didn’t even occur to me when I was reading the book, but yes, it really is such a frank comment about death.

    Everything you said in answer to the last question had me nodding my head in agreement.

    • megtao says:

      Yeah, it’s definitely not a novel in the way that we expect novels to be now. The entire time Mathilda is basically telling us how it will end. Mathilda isn’t someone I would choose to tell a story at all.

  6. Pingback: [ISBC] May 2012: Mathilda, Mary Shelley « As Read By An Aspiring Receptionist

  7. Pingback: [Inner Senshi Book Club] Round 1 Review: Mary Shelley – Mathilda | Samantha Lin

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