Mary Shelley wrote Matilda not long after the phenomenal success of her first novel, Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus (www.createspace.com/3683197). However, that publication did not carry her name until the second printing five years later. She sent the manuscript of Matilda to her father, William Godwin, who refused to return it to her, probably because of the intimation of incestuous feelings by a father to a daughter. Whether this was autobiographically based or not, readers would assume the worst. Over a hundred years would pass before Matilda would reach the public. Her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, were famous radicals. Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, died shortly after giving birth to Mary. Godwin did remarry, but his interests were with his equals rather than his daughter; he often entertained other leading writers and intellectuals, such as Charles Lamb, Coleridge, Hazlitt - and Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she met when she was 14. At 16, the two of them eloped. On a stormy night on Lake Geneva, Dr. Polidori, Byron, and the Shelleys indulged in a contest to see who could come up with the scariest story - this was the era of the Gothic novel, vampires, and ghosts. And Mary Shelley had just lost her second child. Her contribution to the evening's entertainment was soon turned into the novel Frankenstein, which was an immediate sensation. Innovative in its storyline rather than its style, Frankenstein is sometimes touted as the first true science fiction novel. The Shelleys lived together in various places in Europe for eight years, when Shelley died in a boating accident. Mary turned to writing novels to make her way. True to the Romantic tradition, the short novel Matilda explored human emotions in their depths. Family tragedy, loss, incest, total withdrawal-these themes would have been influenced by the her depression following the loss of her children in early childhood. Only one child would reach adulthood. This intimate story, and later novels were not to recapture the popular imagination as Frankenstein had. She would continue writing historical novels, romantic novels, a travel book, until she died at 54. Though her social concerns remained, her issues did not coincide with her father's ideas. He is known as one of the first to articulate the doctrine of utilitarianism, and he wrote several novels, most notably Caleb Williams, which was written as a plea for social justice. She advocated cooperation rather than confrontation, social reform, vegetarianism, and, unlike her father, advocated for marriage-to which Shelley later agreed. How much of Mary Shelley do we see in this short novel? We can only guess. She grew up during the last days of Napoleon, in an era of ferment, radical thinking, new possibilities for women, and a burgeoning literature of gushing emotion we now call the Romantic Era (some traces of it remain in our cultural life). Two other novels of girls winning against odds are: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Benigna Machiavelli (www.createspace.com/4264375), a young precocious girl who manipulates events to vastly improve her family's chances of happiness. And a novel-length poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (www.createspace.com/3812489)-a half-Italian orphan girl resists the temptation of an easy marriage to pursue a career as a writer.
Mary Shelley was the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she met at one of her father's gatherings of British literary intelligentsia. Both of her parents were famous radicals: her father, William Godwin, was perhaps the first to enunciate the doctrine of utilitarianism, as well as an author (Caleb Williams is his best-known work). Her mother was a leading feminist and author as well; she died shortly after Mary's birth. Mary was fourteen when she first met Percy Shelley, they eloped when she was just 16. She bore him three children who died before the age of 3, and one that survived to adulthood -- though this was after Percy Shelley had died in a boating accident. Mary Shelley's premier accomplishment came out of a stormy evening's entertainment on the shore of Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron suggested that they entertain themselves by inventing ghost stories (since the Gothic novels of vampires and ghosts and mutants was rampant at the time). Mary Shelley's contribution turned into the novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, and was an instant sensation. This novel followed the progress of a man who dared test science by creating a living man out of body parts, and then, when he actually succeeded, rejected his invention, and the creature wandered off alone, with no memory of being human, but learning along the way. He didn't start out to be a monster, and in fact demanded of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, that he be provided a mate like himself. The frantic Frankenstein agreed and started to work on a female version -- but then rejected it, and ran away. The creature found him, followed, wreaked revenge on Victor's family, his bride to be, and the two of them ended the novel pursuing each other. It was a moral tale of the consequences of the ambition of science, and is credited with being the first full-blown science fiction novel. The novel Matilda never saw print in Mary Shelley's lifetime; her father refused to return it, probably because readers would assume that he himself was the model for the father with incestuous passion in the story.