Inner Senshi Book Club

[Inner Senshi Book Club] Round 1 Review: Mary Shelley – Mathilda

The “Inner Senshi Book Club” is an online book club where five book lovers of different backgrounds and tastes across the world take turns at selecting and hosting a book each month. Individually, we are (in alphabetical order): Aimee, Angel, Meghan, Samantha L, and Samantha R. Together, we present you a whole range of books, complete with our responses to a rotating list of set questions.

A new book is selected on the 15th of each month, and our thoughts are posted roughly four to five weeks later. We hope you can join us in our reading shenanigans! (The book club derives its name from the five soldiers of love and justice from the Japanese manga and anime series, Sailormoon. We are just as kickass, and if all goes to plan, twice as well-read.)

Publisher: Tark Classic Fiction
Genre: Classical literature
Pages: 120
Format: Paperback
Source: Library

This tale of a father’s incestuous love for his daughter, his suicide, and the daughter’s reaction isn’t strictly autobiographical — but elements of it come from Mary Shelley’s life. The three main characters are clearly Mary Shelley herself, Godwin, and Percy Bysshe Shelley — and their relations can easily be reassorted to correspond with their lives.

SPOILERS AHOY.

Samantha L wants you to consider:
How relevant do you think this text will be in a century? Which aspects do you think will be valued most?

I’m actually quite surprised that Lolita, a novel with similarly depraved subject matter, has become a celebrated work of literature, while Mathilda is relegated to the shadows of critical analysis. I believe it’s more relevant than most people would think, considering how every day, men and women like Mathilda’s father are arrested and denounced. Difficult as the text might be sometimes, Mathilda’s story is one that hundreds, if not thousands, of kids can relate to. The fact that it is informed by Shelley’s own experiences makes it even more important as a text that pinpoints the darker side of human nature.

Samantha R is interested in knowing:
Did you have a favourite character in the book? If so, what was it about this character that drew you to them? Or in reverse, were there any characters that you particularly disliked, and why?

I don’t know that I really connected with any characters in particular. Reading this novel was like being a spectator at a trainwreck: I was both concerned for the characters, but neither did I think I had the right way of approaching them. I suppose I found Mathilda the most interesting, partly because I got the sense that she truly needed to tell her story to understand it, something I do as well.

Meghan is wondering:
If you had to date one of the characters, which would you pick and why?

Oh Meghan, I can say quite firmly that I would not date anyone in this story. Maybe the nice young man who wanted to court Mathilda, but even then, I’d be iffy about it. We don’t know enough about him to really tell if he’s a good choice.

would like myself to think about:
How well does the writing style serve the story? How does it fail to uphold the narrative?

There were moments where I feel like Shelley’s sentences got away from her, times when I had to reread whole paragraphs because I got lost halfway through. The story meanders far too often to make it an easy read, and Shelley’s penchant for metaphors and winding sentences can easily lull one into sleep. But working with the narrative, the writing style does match the subject matter. You get the sense that Mathilda is trying to remember the events of her past, and autobiographical work isn’t always as polished as one might want it to sound. I think the writing style does the best it can to match the narrative’s unreliable nature.

Aimee’ s question for you is:
What was your favorite or most memorable passage (if any) in the book? Why did it leave such an impression?

As creepy as it might be to say this, probably Mathilda’s father’s confession of love. It was powerful in three ways:

1) it confirms the reader’s suspicion that there’s something more to the relationship between them;
2) it had the kind of language and heart anyone would want to hear from someone who loved them and whom they loved; and
3) it was really creepy because it’s coming from her father.

This month’s host, Samantha L, has a bonus question:
Mary Shelley was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, considered to be one of the first modern feminists. In Mathilda, how effectively do you think Shelley deals with the issues of women, femininity, and feminism?

While reading this novel, I was reminded several times of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Like Mathilda, the protagonist of Gilman’s story is under the care of a man who has placed her not on a pedestal, but a box. Slowly, steadily, the box’s walls peel away to reveal the true nature of her life, and the unnamed woman summarily rejects it. Likewise, Mathilda takes a while to carve away the rose tint she’s placed on her life, but once she does, she knows exactly what she must do.

I love both stories because of that discovery of inner strength and reliance on one’s spirit. Being a woman is hard. It seems as time goes on, the challenges of living a well-balanced and peaceful life as a woman multiply exponentially. But feminism–at least to me–symbolizes that same awareness that Mathilda and Gilman’s protagonist develop. I don’t believe that Shelley wrote her story with the same intentions as “Girl Power!” advocates. I think she wrote it because someone had to start chipping away at the wallpaper first. She may not have been able to scratch away all the sorrow, all the pain, all the heartache, but she made a strong effort that needs to be continued.

The Final Say: Mary Shelley’s name is synonymous with the creation of a monster, but to confine her to that is to completely underestimate the sheer power of her words. Mathilda is one of the most difficult novels I’ve ever had to read, and with good reason. The subject matter, the writing style, the narrator–all literary elements combine to create a story where we cannot be sure what is really happening, and if it is truly happening in such a manner. That said, it has never been, nor will it ever be I think, a popular classic. Similar novels–Lady Chatterly’s LoverLolita–are still conservative where Mathilda is liberal and disturbing. But to disregard it as a necessary piece of literature is to consider the tightrope women walk between the Virgin and the Whore dynamic obsolete. Sadly, it is still a discussion that exists in 2012.

Check out the Inner Senshi’s thoughts on their individual posts (to be updated as they are posted):

Meg/Sailor Mercury @ Coffee and Wizards

Samantha L/Sailor Moon @ All Things Literary

Samantha R/Sailor Mars: Coming soon.

Aimee/Sailor Jupiter: Coming soon.


Feel free to leave a comment or share a link to your own post! See you next month when we discuss Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta.

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7 replies »

  1. I LOVED The Yellow Wallpaper.

    I love that you guys all write these very thoughtful, intelligent reviews, and then I’m all like “IT WAS REALLY BORING GUYS” *whine whine whine* XD XD I’m so Sailor Mercury >_>

  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful and detailed review, Angel! It makes me happy to know you’ve given the novel such a level of consideration despite its non-too-popular status. I think you’ve touched a very important point about the power of words and, in particular, the power of story-telling, especially when it comes to the female sphere. There is so much introspection and so many contractions in both the narrative and Mathilda’s inner landscape that I feel the novel itself is quite reflective of the role of women in general.

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