Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mathilda, 34/100

Finished Mary Shelley's novella Mathilda, #2 for the Art of the Novella Challenge. This may be one of the most Romantic books I've ever read. Romantic with a big R, not a little one. It's so packed full of feelings, melodramatic dialogues, and rainy moors, you'll be convinced Lord Byron is standing directly behind you.

In Mathilda, the title character narrates from her deathbed the tragic story of her life. Having lost her mother at birth, her father leaves her in the care of a cold aunt and disappears for 16 years. He returns, only to eventually confess his incestuous love for her, and ashamedly commit suicide.

Orphans and incest and suicide, oh my!

It's no wonder that Shelley's publisher, her father, refused to publish it and never returned the manuscript. It wasn't found and published until 1959.

I love a good depressing book, but it has to actually BE depressing. If the author is simply trying to convince us to be depressed and it isn't working, that isn't a good sign.
From a review of Mathilda on LibraryThing

The reason I quoted from the above review is that, despite how the plot summary sounds, it's actually a pretty droll story. Not once did I really feel sad for the characters. Possibly because the entire time they were trying to tell me in excruciating detail exactly how sad THEY were.

I did a word count, and here is how often the following words were used in the story:

  • Alas -- 24
  • Agony -- 11
  • Sorrow -- 28
  • Misery -- 26
  • Grief -- 48
  • Bitter -- 30
  • Tears -- 50
  • Despair -- 52

And last but not least, the words death (59), die (64), or dead (23) were used for a combined total of 146 times! The book is only 144 pages long. Alas!

Not to mention some of the most exorbitantly flowery descriptions of depression you'll ever come across. My favorite line: "Medusa head of Misery." That's Misery with a capital M, people.

Perhaps I'm being too insensitive. After all, Mathilda, who is "fed by tears, and nourished under the dew of grief," was supposed to represent Shelley herself. In fact the only thing I really found interesting about the story were its autobiographical elements. No, there wasn't an incestuous relationship between her and her father (that we know of), but some of the details and character elements match her life and her family story. Also, the novella was written almost immediately after the deaths of her two very young children. I'd probably write something pretty emo too.

Even though I didn't care for it much, I'm still glad I read it. I'm interested in all things Shelley. And it was a bit of a change-up to read something with so much description of feeling and emotion, when nowadays all 144 pages would've been reduced to an emoticon in a text message.


You can buy the novella from Melville House, or read it for free at Project Gutenberg.


  1. Wow. I'm reading all the women authors first for the challenge. I'm a little nervous about this one.

  2. Don't be to hard on yourself. I like insensitive people. :) Your word count project is telling! Don't tell me how long it took to do that. Ouch. I know that both Eva and Bellezza are intending to read this one too and am curious now to see what they make of it. Love this post.

  3. @Heidi'sbooks: Hope I didn't scare you away from reading it!

    @Frances: Thanks! For the word count I just went to the html text in Project Gutenberg and used my browser's Find feature. That made it pretty easy!

  4. Ha, your word count is fabulous! I happened to love this one, the writing hit my mood just right, but it was very Bronte-ish and swooningly poetic. Great post. :)

  5. @Melody Thanks! It did feel pretty Bronte-ish, with all the talk of rain-swept moors and dreadful secrets. And Shelley's writing is absolutely gorgeous, no matter how many times she uses the word "despair"!