Of all the novels and stories which Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley left
in manuscript,[i] only one novelette, _Mathilda_, is complete. It
exists in both rough draft and final copy. In this story, as in all
Mary Shelley's writing, there is much that is autobiographical: it
would be hard to find a more self-revealing work. For an understanding
of Mary's character, especially as she saw herself, and of her
attitude toward Shelley and toward Godwin in 1819, this tale is an
important document. Although the main narrative, that of the father's
incestuous love for his daughter, his suicide, and Mathilda's
consequent withdrawal from society to a lonely heath, is not in any
real sense autobiographical, many elements in it are drawn from
reality. The three main characters are clearly Mary herself, Godwin,
and Shelley, and their relations can easily be reassorted to
correspond with actuality.
Highly personal as the story was, Mary Shelley hoped that it would be
published, evidently believing that the characters and the situations
were sufficiently disguised. In May of 1820 she sent it to England by
her friends, the Gisbornes, with a request that her father would
arrange for its publication. But _Mathilda_, together with its rough
draft entitled _The Fields of Fancy_, remained unpublished among the
Shelley papers. Although Mary's references to it in her letters and
journal aroused some curiosity among scholars, it also remained
unexamined until comparatively recently.
This seeming neglect was due partly to the circumstances attending the
distribution of the family papers after the deaths of Sir Percy and
Lady Shelley. One part of them went to the Bodleian Library to become
a reserved collection which, by the terms of Lady Shelley's will, was
opened to scholars only under definite restrictions. Another part went
to Lady Shelley's niece and, in turn, to her heirs, who for a time did
not make the manuscripts available for study. A third part went to Sir
John Shelley-Rolls, the poet's grand-nephew, who released much
important Shelley material, but not all the scattered manuscripts. In
this division, the two notebooks containing the finished draft of
_Mathilda_ and a portion of _The Fields of Fancy_ went to Lord
Abinger, the notebook containing the remainder of the rough draft to
the Bodleian Library, and some loose sheets containing additions and
revisions to Sir John Shelley-Rolls. Happily all the manuscripts are
now accessible to scholars, and it is possible to publish the full
text of _Mathilda_ with such additions from _The Fields of Fancy_ as
The three notebooks are alike in format.[iii] One of Lord Abinger's
notebooks contains the first part of _The Fields of Fancy_, Chapter 1
through the beginning of Chapter 10, 116 pages. The concluding portion
occupies the first fifty-four pages of the Bodleian notebook. There is
then a blank page, followed by three and a half pages, scored out, of
what seems to be a variant of the end of Chapter 1 and the beginning
of Chapter 2. A revised and expanded version of the first part of
Mathilda's narrative follows (Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter
3), with a break between the account of her girlhood in Scotland and
the brief description of her father after his return. Finally there
are four pages of a new opening, which was used in _Mathilda_. This is
an extremely rough draft: punctuation is largely confined to the dash,
and there are many corrections and alterations. The Shelley-Rolls
fragments, twenty-five sheets or slips of paper, usually represent
additions to or revisions of _The Fields of Fancy_: many of them are
numbered, and some are keyed into the manuscript in Lord Abinger's
notebook. Most of the changes were incorporated in _Mathilda_.
The second Abinger notebook contains the complete and final draft of
_Mathilda_, 226 pages. It is for the most part a fair copy. The text
is punctuated and there are relatively few corrections, most of them,
apparently the result of a final rereading, made to avoid the
repetition of words. A few additions are written in the margins. On
several pages slips of paper containing evident revisions (quite
possibly originally among the Shelley-Rolls fragments) have been
pasted over the corresponding lines of the text. An occasional passage
is scored out and some words and phrases are crossed out to make way
for a revision. Following page 216, four sheets containing the
conclusion of the story are cut out of the notebook. They appear, the
pages numbered 217 to 223, among the Shelley-Rolls fragments. A
revised version, pages 217 to 226, follows the cut.[iv]
The mode of telling the story in the final draft differs radically
from that in the rough draft. In _The Fields of Fancy_ Mathilda's
history is set in a fanciful framework. The author is transported by
the fairy Fantasia to the Elysian Fields, where she listens to the
discourse of Diotima and meets Mathilda. Mathilda tells her story,
which closes with her death. In the final draft this unrealistic and
largely irrelevant framework is discarded: Mathilda, whose death is
approaching, writes out for her friend Woodville the full details of
her tragic history which she had never had the courage to tell him in
The title of the rough draft, _The Fields of Fancy_, and the setting
and framework undoubtedly stem from Mary Wollstonecraft's unfinished
tale, _The Cave of Fancy_, in which one of the souls confined in the
center of the earth to purify themselves from the dross of their
earthly existence tells to Sagesta (who may be compared with Diotima)
the story of her ill-fated love for a man whom she hopes to rejoin
after her purgation is completed.[v] Mary was completely familiar with
her mother's works. This title was, of course, abandoned when the
framework was abandoned, and the name of the heroine was substituted.
Though it is worth noticing that Mary chose a name with the same
initial letter as her own, it was probably taken from Dante. There are
several references in the story to the cantos of the _Purgatorio_ in
which Mathilda appears. Mathilda's father is never named, nor is
Mathilda's surname given. The name of the poet went through several
changes: Welford, Lovel, Herbert, and finally Woodville.
The evidence for dating _Mathilda_ in the late summer and autumn of
1819 comes partly from the manuscript, partly from Mary's journal. On
the pages succeeding the portions of _The Fields of Fancy_ in the
Bodleian notebook are some of Shelley's drafts of verse and prose,
including parts of _Prometheus Unbound_ and of _Epipsychidion_, both
in Italian, and of the preface to the latter in English, some prose
fragments, and extended portions of the _Defence of Poetry_. Written
from the other end of the book are the _Ode to Naples_ and _The Witch
of Atlas_. Since these all belong to the years 1819, 1820, and 1821,
it is probable that Mary finished her rough draft some time in 1819,
and that when she had copied her story, Shelley took over the
notebook. Chapter 1 of _Mathilda_ in Lord Abinger's notebook is
headed, "Florence Nov. 9th. 1819." Since the whole of Mathilda's story
takes place in England and Scotland, the date must be that of the
manuscript. Mary was in Florence at that time.
These dates are supported by entries in Mary's journal which indicate
that she began writing _Mathilda_, early in August, while the Shelleys
were living in the Villa Valosano, near Leghorn. On August 4, 1819,
after a gap of two months from the time of her little son's death, she
resumed her diary. Almost every day thereafter for a month she
recorded, "Write," and by September 4, she was saying, "Copy." On
September 12 she wrote, "Finish copying my Tale." The next entry to
indicate literary activity is the one word, "write," on November 8. On
the 12th Percy Florence was born, and Mary did no more writing until
March, when she was working on _Valperga_. It is probable, therefore,
that Mary wrote and copied _Mathilda_ between August 5 and September
12, 1819, that she did some revision on November 8 and finally dated
the manuscript November 9.
The subsequent history of the manuscript is recorded in letters and
journals. When the Gisbornes went to England on May 2, 1820, they took
_Mathilda_ with them; they read it on the journey and recorded their
admiration of it in their journal.[vi] They were to show it to Godwin
and get his advice about publishing it. Although Medwin heard about
the story when he was with the Shelleys in 1820[vii] and Mary read
it--perhaps from the rough draft--to Edward and Jane Williams in the
summer of 1821,[viii] this manuscript apparently stayed in Godwin's
hands. He evidently did not share the Gisbornes' enthusiasm: his
approval was qualified. He thought highly of certain parts of it, less
highly of others; and he regarded the subject as "disgusting and
detestable," saying that the story would need a preface to prevent
readers "from being tormented by the apprehension ... of the fall of
the heroine,"--that is, if it was ever published.[ix] There is,
however, no record of his having made any attempt to get it into
print. From January 18 through June 2, 1822, Mary repeatedly asked
Mrs. Gisborne to retrieve the manuscript and have it copied for her,
and Mrs. Gisborne invariably reported her failure to do so. The last
references to the story are after Shelley's death in an unpublished
journal entry and two of Mary's letters. In her journal for October
27, 1822, she told of the solace for her misery she had once found in
writing _Mathilda_. In one letter to Mrs. Gisborne she compared the
journey of herself and Jane to Pisa and Leghorn to get news of Shelley
and Williams to that of Mathilda in search of her father,
"driving--(like Matilda), towards the _sea_ to learn if we were to be
for ever doomed to misery."[x] And on May 6, 1823, she wrote, "Matilda
foretells even many small circumstances most truly--and the whole of
it is a monument of what now is."[xi]
These facts not only date the manuscript but also show Mary's feeling
of personal involvement in the story. In the events of 1818-1819 it is
possible to find the basis for this morbid tale and consequently to
assess its biographical significance.
On September 24, 1818, the Shelleys' daughter, Clara Everina, barely a
year old, died at Venice. Mary and her children had gone from Bagni di
Lucca to Este to join Shelley at Byron's villa. Clara was not well
when they started, and she grew worse on the journey. From Este
Shelley and Mary took her to Venice to consult a physician, a trip
which was beset with delays and difficulties. She died almost as soon
as they arrived. According to Newman Ivey White,[xii] Mary, in the
unreasoning agony of her grief, blamed Shelley for the child's death
and for a time felt toward him an extreme physical antagonism which
subsided into apathy and spiritual alienation. Mary's black moods made
her difficult to live with, and Shelley himself fell into deep
dejection. He expressed his sense of their estrangement in some of the
lyrics of 1818--"all my saddest poems." In one fragment of verse, for
example, he lamented that Mary had left him "in this dreary world
Thy form is here indeed--a lovely one--
But thou art fled, gone down the dreary road,
That leads to Sorrow's most obscure abode.
Thou sittest on the hearth of pale despair,
For thine own sake I cannot follow thee.
Professor White believed that Shelley recorded this estrangement only
"in veiled terms" in _Julian and Maddalo_ or in poems that he did not
show to Mary, and that Mary acknowledged it only after Shelley's
death, in her poem "The Choice" and in her editorial notes on his
poems of that year. But this unpublished story, written after the
death of their other child William, certainly contains, though also in
veiled terms, Mary's immediate recognition and remorse. Mary well
knew, I believe, what she was doing to Shelley. In an effort to purge
her own emotions and to acknowledge her fault, she poured out on the
pages of _Mathilda_ the suffering and the loneliness, the bitterness
and the self-recrimination of the past months.
The biographical elements are clear: Mathilda is certainly Mary
herself; Mathilda's father is Godwin; Woodville is an idealized
Like Mathilda Mary was a woman of strong passions and affections which
she often hid from the world under a placid appearance. Like
Mathilda's, Mary's mother had died a few days after giving her birth.
Like Mathilda she spent part of her girlhood in Scotland. Like
Mathilda she met and loved a poet of "exceeding beauty," and--also
like Mathilda--in that sad year she had treated him ill, having become
"captious and unreasonable" in her sorrow. Mathilda's loneliness,
grief, and remorse can be paralleled in Mary's later journal and in
"The Choice." This story was the outlet for her emotions in 1819.
Woodville, the poet, is virtually perfect, "glorious from his youth,"
like "an angel with winged feet"--all beauty, all goodness, all
gentleness. He is also successful as a poet, his poem written at the
age of twenty-three having been universally acclaimed. Making
allowance for Mary's exaggeration and wishful thinking, we easily
recognize Shelley: Woodville has his poetic ideals, the charm of his
conversation, his high moral qualities, his sense of dedication and
responsibility to those he loved and to all humanity. He is Mary's
earliest portrait of her husband, drawn in a year when she was slowly
returning to him from "the hearth of pale despair."
The early circumstances and education of Godwin and of Mathilda's
father were different. But they produced similar men, each
extravagant, generous, vain, dogmatic. There is more of Godwin in this
tale than the account of a great man ruined by character and
circumstance. The relationship between father and daughter, before it
was destroyed by the father's unnatural passion, is like that between
Godwin and Mary. She herself called her love for him "excessive and
romantic."[xiii] She may well have been recording, in Mathilda's
sorrow over her alienation from her father and her loss of him by
death, her own grief at a spiritual separation from Godwin through
what could only seem to her his cruel lack of sympathy. He had accused
her of being cowardly and insincere in her grief over Clara's
death[xiv] and later he belittled her loss of William.[xv] He had also
called Shelley "a disgraceful and flagrant person" because of
Shelley's refusal to send him more money.[xvi] No wonder if Mary felt
that, like Mathilda, she had lost a beloved but cruel father.
Thus Mary took all the blame for the rift with Shelley upon herself
and transferred the physical alienation to the break in sympathy with
Godwin. That she turned these facts into a story of incest is
undoubtedly due to the interest which she and Shelley felt in the
subject at this time. They regarded it as a dramatic and effective
theme. In August of 1819 Shelley completed _The Cenci_. During its
progress he had talked over with Mary the arrangement of scenes; he
had even suggested at the outset that she write the tragedy herself.
And about a year earlier he had been urging upon her a translation of
Alfieri's _Myrrha_. Thomas Medwin, indeed, thought that the story
which she was writing in 1819 was specifically based on _Myrrha_. That
she was thinking of that tragedy while writing _Mathilda_ is evident
from her effective use of it at one of the crises in the tale. And
perhaps she was remembering her own handling of the theme when she
wrote the biographical sketch of Alfieri for Lardner's _Cabinet
Cyclopaedia_ nearly twenty years later. She then spoke of the
difficulties inherent in such a subject, "inequality of age adding to
the unnatural incest. To shed any interest over such an attachment,
the dramatist ought to adorn the father with such youthful attributes
as would be by no means contrary to probability."[xvii] This she
endeavored to do in _Mathilda_ (aided indeed by the fact that the
situation was the reverse of that in _Myrrha_). Mathilda's father was
young: he married before he was twenty. When he returned to Mathilda,
he still showed "the ardour and freshness of feeling incident to
youth." He lived in the past and saw his dead wife reincarnated in his
daughter. Thus Mary attempts to validate the situation and make it "by
no means contrary to probability."
_Mathilda_ offers a good example of Mary Shelley's methods of
revision. A study of the manuscript shows that she was a careful
workman, and that in polishing this bizarre story she strove
consistently for greater credibility and realism, more dramatic (if
sometimes melodramatic) presentation of events, better motivation,
conciseness, and exclusion of purple passages. In the revision and
rewriting, many additions were made, so that _Mathilda_ is appreciably
longer than _The Fields of Fancy_. But the additions are usually
improvements: a much fuller account of Mathilda's father and mother
and of their marriage, which makes of them something more than lay
figures and to a great extent explains the tragedy; development of the
character of the Steward, at first merely the servant who accompanies
Mathilda in her search for her father, into the sympathetic confidant
whose responses help to dramatise the situation; an added word or
short phrase that marks Mary Shelley's penetration into the motives
and actions of both Mathilda and her father. Therefore _Mathilda_ does
not impress the reader as being longer than _The Fields of Fancy_
because it better sustains his interest. And with all the additions
there are also effective omissions of the obvious, of the
tautological, of the artificially elaborate.[xviii]
The finished draft, _Mathilda_, still shows Mary Shelley's faults as a
writer: verbosity, loose plotting, somewhat stereotyped and
extravagant characterization. The reader must be tolerant of its
heroine's overwhelming lamentations. But she is, after all, in the
great tradition of romantic heroines: she compares her own weeping to
that of Boccaccio's Ghismonda over the heart of Guiscardo. If the
reader can accept Mathilda on her own terms, he will find not only
biographical interest in her story but also intrinsic merits: a
feeling for character and situation and phrasing that is often
vigorous and precise.
[i] They are listed in Nitchie, _Mary Shelley_, Appendix II, pp.
205-208. To them should be added an unfinished and unpublished novel,
_Cecil_, in Lord Abinger's collection.
[ii] On the basis of the Bodleian notebook and some information about
the complete story kindly furnished me by Miss R. Glynn Grylls, I
wrote an article, "Mary Shelley's _Mathilda_, an Unpublished Story and
Its Biographical Significance," which appeared in _Studies in
Philology_, XL (1943), 447-462. When the other manuscripts became
available, I was able to use them for my book, _Mary Shelley_, and to
draw conclusions more certain and well-founded than the conjectures I
had made ten years earlier.
[iii] A note, probably in Richard Garnett's hand, enclosed in a MS box
with the two notebooks in Lord Abinger's collection describes them as
of Italian make with "slanting head bands, inserted through the
covers." Professor Lewis Patton's list of the contents of the
microfilms in the Duke University Library (_Library Notes_, No. 27,
April, 1953) describes them as vellum bound, the back cover of the
_Mathilda_ notebook being missing. Lord Abinger's notebooks are on
Reel 11. The Bodleian notebook is catalogued as MSS. Shelley d. 1, the
Shelley-Rolls fragments as MSS. Shelley adds c. 5.
[iv] See note 83 to _Mathilda_, page 89.
[v] See _Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights
of Woman_ (4 vols., London, 1798), IV, 97-155.
[vi] See _Maria Gisborne & Edward E. Williams ... Their Journals and
Letters_, ed. by Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma
Press, ), p. 27.
[vii] See Thomas Medwin, _The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley_, revised,
with introduction and notes by H. Buxton Forman (London, 1913), p.
[viii] _Journal_, pp. 159, 160.
[ix] _Maria Gisborne, etc._, pp. 43-44.
[x] _Letters_, I, 182.
[xi] _Ibid._, I, 224.
[xii] See White, _Shelley_, II, 40-56.
[xiii] See _Letters_, II, 88, and note 23 to _Mathilda_.
[xiv] See _Shelley and Mary_ (4 vols. Privately printed [for Sir Percy
and Lady Shelley], 1882), II, 338A.
[xv] See Mrs. Julian Marshall, _The Life and Letters of Mary W.
Shelley_ (2 vols. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1889), I, 255.
[xvi] Julian _Works_, X, 69.
[xvii] _Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of
Italy, Spain, and Portugal_ (3 vols., Nos. 63, 71, and 96 of the Rev.
Dionysius Lardner's _Cabinet Cyclopaedia_, London, 1835-1837), II,
[xviii] The most significant revisions are considered in detail in the
notes. The text of the opening of _The Fields of Fancy_, containing
the fanciful framework of the story, later discarded, is printed after
the text of _Mathilda_.