Mathilda begins as the most typical of nineteenth century sad women - she is born to a mother and father, deeply in love, and her mother dies in childbirth. Of course, this means the father runs away in grief, and Mathilda is raised by an emotionally frigid aunt. But, from there, the typical stops. When Mathilda is grown to young womanhood, her father returns for her, and she joyfully leaves with him - in all the intervening years she's dreamed of his return. Only there is one hitch: her father begins to act odd, climaxing in his admitting to her that he is in love with her. Yes, this is a book about incest (I read it, ironically, shortly before Amanda started Ada). It's an ugly, disturbing subject. This is also one of the most surprisingly beautiful books I've read all year, and one of the gentlest - in many ways it reminded me of the epically beautiful Tender Morsels. The story is told in the first person by Mathilda herself, and we feel all the ache and sorrow of Mathilda's journey from loneliness, to temptation, and back to loneliness again. And expressing loneliness is one of the great strengths of this book. Ms Shelley wrote it, apparently, after the death of her child, and the feeling of aching, painful loss is eminent and sincere throughout the book:
My favourite vision was that when I grew up I would leave my aunt, whose coldness lulled my conscience, and disguised like a boy I would seek my father through the world. My imagination hung upon the scene of recognition; his miniature, which I should continually wear exposed on my breast, would be the means and I imaged the moment to my mind a thousand and a thousand times, perpetually varying the circumstances. Sometimes it would be in a desart; in a populous city; at a ball; we should perhaps meet in a vessel; and his first words constantly were, "My daughter, I love thee"! What extactic moments have I passed in these dreams! How many tears I have shed; how often have I laughed aloud.And then later:
I dared not die, but I might feign death, and thus escape from my comforters: they will believe me united to my father, and so indeed I shall be. For alone, when no voice can disturb my dream, and no cold eye meet mine to check its fire, then I may commune with his spirit; on a lone heath, at noon or at midnight, still I should be near him. His last injunction to me was that I should be happy; perhaps he did not mean the shadowy happiness that I promised myself, yet it was that alone which I could taste.The beautiful thing in this book is that it ISN'T about people who commit incest - the father is not even in the second half, in fact. It's about what it feels like to love the person that you ought to hate, what it feels like to be taught to be something that you don't want, or deserve, to be. Mathilda never stops loving her father, but this isn't the author's way of making excuses for the abuser. It's a portrait of what it feels like to have nothing to love but the devil. In a way, because Shelley never damns the abuser, I learned what the horror of abuse and incest really is.