I was shocked when I read Lolita. It was the first time I encountered a relationship between father and daughter which was anything but parental. Mary Shelley’s Mathilda explores the subject in another way; while Mathilda’s father admits his love for her, it is never consummated. Instead, it lies an emotional abyss which neither can cross until the day each dies.
Mathilda’s father wrote these words in a letter to her before he fled their home, “With every effort to cast it off, this love clings closer, this guilty love more unnatural than hate, that withers your hopes and destroys me forever…My child, if after this life I am permitted to see you again, if pain can purify the heart, mine will be pure: if remorse may expiate guilt, I shall be guiltless.”
What an awful position for Mathilda to endure. Her mother died in childbirth. She is raised in the loveless home of her aunt, while her father travels. When he returns, their happiness together is brief. After he admits his love for her, he leaves her once again.
Mathilda’s life is not one which knows love. Her only friend, Woodville, has suffered similarly in that he’s lost his love, Elinor. Mathilda proposes suicide to him, suggesting that death may be preferable to suffering. His answer is the most redeeming passage in this book of tragedy and loss.
“We know not what all this wide world means; its strange mixture of good and evil. But we have been placed here and bid live and hope. I know not what we are to hope; but there is some good beyond us that we must seek; and that is our earthly task. If misfortune come against us we must fight with her; we must cast her aside, and still go on to find out that which it is our nature to desire. Whether this prospect of future good be the preparation for another existence I know not; or whether that it is merely that we, as workmen in God’s vineyard, must lend a hand to smooth the way for posterity. If it indeed be that; if the efforts of the virtuous now, are to make the future inhabitants of this fair world more happy; if the labours of those who cast aside selfishness, and try to know the truth of things, are to free the men of ages, now far distant but which will one day come, from the burden under which those who now live groan, and like you weep bitterly; if they free them but from one of what are now the necessary evils of life, truly I will not fail but will with my whole soul aid the work. From my youth I have said, I will be virtuous; I will dedicate my life for the good of others; I will do my best to extirpate evil and if the spirit who protects ill should so influence circumstances that I should suffer through my endeavour, yet while there is hope and hope there ever must be, of success, cheerfully do I gird myself to my task.”
What wonderful words of hope! They encourage me in the purpose of man, perhaps as Shelley meant to do when she wrote of the monster-ish side of humanity both in Frankenstein and Mathilda.
Find Eva’s thoughts on this novella, which we both read for Frances’ Art of The Novella Challenge, at A Striped Armchair.