Romancing Experience: The Seduction of Mary Shelley's Matilda

By Gillingham, Lauren | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Romancing Experience: The Seduction of Mary Shelley's Matilda


Gillingham, Lauren, Studies in Romanticism


IN THE DOZEN OR SO YEARS THAT MARY SHELLEY'S MATILDA HAS RECEIVED sustained critical attention, the eponymous character's fictional autobiography has been read persistently through the lens of Shelley's own life. Nothing new, this tendency dates back to one of the first critical accounts of the novel: Elizabeth Nitchie's 1943 introduction to the then unpublished manuscript. "Certainly," Nitchie asserts with confidence, "Mary is Mathilda." (1) More recently, critics have tempered their claims. If few have concluded, with Nitchie, that Shelley and her fictional character are synonymous, however, the biographical collapse of the author into her text remains a critical commonplace. One of the first critics to take seriously Shelley's "other" fiction, Anne K. Mellor reads Matilda as the author's expression in fantasy of her relationship to her father, William Godwin. In Matilda, Mellor suggests, "Mary Shelley both articulates her passionate devotion to her father and takes revenge for his cruelty toward her. At a psychobiographical level, the novella is pure wish-fulfillment.... But in her fantasy, Mary reverses the power dynamic of her relationship with Godwin. Now it is the father, not the daughter, who loves with an overwhelming and self-destructive passion." (2) Terence Harpold adopts a similar hermeneutic when he reads the story and its transmission as revelatory of the author's primal fantasy to replace her lost mother as object of her father's affection. The "submission of the novel to Godwin signals Mary's effort," Harpold maintains, "to engage him in the seduction fantasy" which the novel stages. (3) Even readings of the narrative which pursue a more nuanced understanding of the relation between text and life still presuppose the relative transparency of Shelley's motives in writing and in circulating the story. (4) Tilottama Rajan suggests, for example, that Matilda "can be fully appreciated only with reference to the author's life." (5) Arguing that Godwin is the text's "fictional subject" (60), and that, "however disguised its biographical origins might have seemed to its author, [Matilda] was clearly a daughter's accusation against her father" (49), Rajan reads Shelley's decision to send the manuscript to her father as a self-conscious act of abjection. Invoking the author's biography to broaden the text's historical and political significance, this kind of critical approach to the text simultaneously reinforces an image of Shelley that is, admittedly, appealing: in these readings, Matilda's author is seen to defy both the daunting influence of her family circle, and the reigning principles of Romanticism itself. (6)

If there has been a surfeit of psychobiographical readings of Matilda of late, this is hardly a new development in Shelley criticism. Mitzi Myers has observed, for example, that "Matilda [is] fast becoming the competitor of Frankenstein as overdetermined family romance." (7) The proximity of Shelley's biography to the narrative details of much of her fiction has, of course, readily lent itself to a blurring of the bounds between text and life. This critical tendency is one which Shelley herself could be seen to sanction inasmuch as she draws, in her letters, explicit connections between events in her life and the substance of her writing. Certain kinds of political criticism--feminist criticism not least of all--have raised the solidification of these connections, moreover, to the level of a critical imperative in attempting to oppose the unconditional occlusion of the author's life from consideration of her texts. Yet what are the implications of suggesting, as many readers of Matilda have, that the value of the text can be fully measured only with reference to the author's life? What function of literature do we thus presuppose? And how are we to ascertain what form the relation of text to life might, or ought to, take? More than merely questions that I would bring to my reading of Matilda, these questions are ones that Shelley's text itself forcefully poses and explores.

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