Percy Shelley in many ways was identified in Mary's mind with her father William Godwin. Mathilda demonstrates that Mary Shelley was aware of the psychological danger of just such an association. For in Mathilda, the loving father is not replaced by a younger, socially acceptable father-substitute. Instead the father himself becomes his daughter's lover. Mathilda thus explicitly identifies the relationship of a powerful, loving man with a submissive, adoring younger woman as father-daughter incest.
Mary Shelley wrote this eighty-page novella between August 4 and September 12, 1819, during the severe depression which followed the death of William on June 7. In this story Mary Shelley projects and displaces her deepest and most ambivalent feelings toward her father during the painful summer of 18 19. Godwin had been horrified by Mary's elopement with Percy Shelley, and for two-and-a-half years, he had rigidly refused to see or correspond with her. But Godwin abruptly forgave Mary and Percy after their marriage on December 30, 1816, and even boasted of the excellent match his daughter had made.
Godwin's behavior tormented Mary, who continued to love him despite his manifest cruelty, duplicity, and selfishness. For Godwin continued to threaten to withhold his affection from Mary unless she persuaded Percy to lend him the ever larger sums of money to which his (self-serving) theory of the just distribution of wealth convinced him he was entitled.
The worst instance of Godwin's emotional manipulation of Mary occurred just after William's death. In the summer of 1819. Informed of his grandson's death from malaria and Mary's deep depression Godwin wrote twice. Only the second letter survives, perhaps because Mary or Percy destroyed the first. We do know Percy's reaction to this first letter: he was outraged by Godwin's callousness. On August 15, 1819, he denounced it to Leigh Hunt:
We cannot yet come home. Poor Mary's spirits continue dreadfully depressed. And I cannot expose her to Godwin in this state. I wrote to this hard-hearted person, (the first letter I had written for a year), on account of the terrible state of her mind, and to entreat him to try to soothe her in his next letter. The very next letter, received yesterday, and addressed to her, called her husband (me) "a disgraceful and flagrant person" tried to persuade her that I was under great engagements to give him more money (after having given him 14,700), and urged her if she ever wished a connection to continue between him and her to force me to get money for him.-He cannot persuade her that I am what I am not, nor place a shade of enmity between her and me-but he heaps on her misery, still misery.-I have not yet shewn her the letter-but I must.
In his next letter, written on September 9, 1819, Godwin harshly denounced his daughter: "I cannot but consider it as lowering your character in a memorable degree, and putting you among the commonality and mob of your sex, when I had thought you to be ranked among those noble spirits that do honour to our nature. Oh! what a falling off is here! ... you have lost a child; and all the rest of the world, all that is beautiful, and all that ha s a claim upon your kindness, is nothing, because a child of three years old is dead!"
Throughout this history of emotional rejection and financial exploitation, Mary remained passionately attached to Godwin. In October, 1817, she was reluctant to go to Italy without Godwin's approval, confessing to Percy that "I know not whether it is early habit or affection but the idea of his silent quiet disapprobation makes me weep as it did in the days of my childhood."" And throughout her marriage, she begged Percy to pay Godwin's debts.
In Mathilda, Mary Shelley both articulates her passionate devotion to her father and takes revenge for his cruelty toward her. At a psycho-biographical level, the novella is pure wish-fulfillment. Mary Shelley first portrays a paradise of idyllic father-daughter affection, a mutually fulfilling, intense communion between two companions who take endless pleasure in each other's minds and emotions. Wandering over the heaths of Scotland where Mary Shelley had been so happy with her adolescent friends Christy and Isabel Baxter, Mathilda and her father experience the ideal platonic passion that Mary had long .yearned to share with Godwin, who as her only parent embodied her earliest and most powerful love-object.
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. And it is the daughter, not the father, who rejects the proffered passion. Mary Shelley's anger at Godwin's brutal disregard for her feelings surfaces in the destruction of Mathilda's father. In a passion fraught with psychological complexity, Mathilda-after dreaming, or wishing, her father's death-finds and sinks beside his corpse, as it lies, covered with a sheet, "stiff and straight." The phallic reference is inescapable. Mathilda here embodies Mary Shelley's most powerful, and most powerfully repressed, fantasy: the desire both to sexually possess and to punish her father. In this Freudian dream-work, Mary Shelley both consummates and purges her incestuous fantasies.
Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988. 191-97.