Mary Shelley is best remembered as the author of Frankenstein. However, her second novel, Mathilda, remained unpublished during her lifetime due to the controversial themes of incest and suicide. The plot tells the story of three characters: Mathilda, her father, and the poet Woodville. Many have seen these characters as fictional stand-ins for the writer, her father William Godwin, and Percy Shelley.
Mathilda’s mother, like Mary Shelley’s dies when the girl is an infant. Mathilda is then abandoned by her father to be raised by a rather austere and emotionally distant aunt. When the father returns sixteen years later, he confesses an incestuous love for the girl, causing her to run away. The father then kills himself by drowning. Mathilda then fakes her own death, runs away to Scotland where she meets the poet Woodville, a meeting that fails to prevent her own, lonely death.
Mary Shelley wrote the novel following the deaths of two of her children, as a way of dealing with the depression and her emotional separation from her husband. She sent the manuscript to her father for publication, but he refused and dispersed the only copy among various other papers. In 1959, the novel was reconstructed by Elizabeth Nitchie and first published, becoming Shelley’s best-known work after Frankenstein and the subject of much critical debate.