Part of The Art of the Novella

With its shocking theme of father-daughter incest, Mary Shelley’s publisher—her father, known for his own subversive books—not only refused to publish Mathilda, he refused to return her only copy of the manuscript, and the work was never published in her lifetime.

His suppression of this passionate novella is perhaps understandable—unlike her first book, Frankenstein, written a year earlier, Mathilda uses fantasy to study a far more personal reality. It tells the story of a young woman whose mother died in her childbirth—just as Shelly’s own mother died after hers—and whose relationship with her bereaved father becomes sexually charged as he conflates her with his lost wife, while she becomes involved with a handsome poet. Yet, despite characters clearly based on herself, her father, and her husband, the narrator’s emotional and relentlessly self-examining voice lifts the story beyond autobiographical resonance into something more transcendent: a driven tale of a brave woman’s search for love, atonement, and redemption.

It took more than a century before the manuscript Mary Shelley gave her father was rediscovered. It is published here as a stand-alone volume for the first time.

MARY SHELLEY was born in London in 1797 to two of the era’s most radical writers: William Godwin, the anarchist utopian, and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died due to complications at childbirth. After a difficult childhood under a demanding stepmother, she ran off to the Continent at age 17 with her father’s wealthy—and married—benefactor, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two were married only after the suicide of Shelley’s wife two years later. Despite a close intellectual bond between the two the marriage was unhappy, due to Percy Shelley’s regular campaigning for open “utopian” sexual relationships (with Mary’s sister, for one), and the deaths of three out of their four children. In 1817, while visiting Lord Byron at Lake Geneva, the three challenged one another to write a horror story. The result was Mary’s novel Frankenstein,an instant popular (although not critical) success. Four years later her peripatetic husband drowned in a boating accident. Mary Shelley never remarried, but she continued on as a successful writer until her death in London in 1851.