With these few lines, Wollstonecraft criticizes the traditional system of education, and the role of women as wives. She claims that if only provided with a restricted domestic education women are detrimental to civilization. She is clear that any sort of ignorance is negative and that reason is integral for all mankind to reach higher virtue. Wollstonecraft seems to believe that women are kept undereducated due to two reasons; either in the name of upholding false virtues, or to keep women subservient to men. This opinion is visible in Wollstonecraft’s vicious attack against John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters where Gregory amongst other things advises his daughters not to flaunt their knowledge, as it hinders their ability to attract a husband. While she recognizes the need for a woman to find a suitable husband, Wollstonecraft also claims that it is woman’s forced weakness due to lack of knowledge and principles that makes her settle into the role of a wife. Wollstonecraft boldly asserts that women can manage very well without male influence or support, and “a well stored mind, would enable a woman to live a single life in dignity”.
The treatise contains the idea that the family unit foster vice in their daughters, believing it to be for their own good. Wollstonecraft explains that the family had, due to the long-standing subjugation of women, become a vicious circle of oppression. Parental affection, which is described as “the blindest . . . perverse self-love” is an attempt to promote welfare but only serve to embitter their children. Her justification for this point of view conforms to her notion that overly exerted passions tend to have negative outcomes. In fact, Wollstonecraft rejects the idea of spouses who love each other passionately, as a neglected wife is usually a better mother. Even though she opposes the traditional idea of a wife, she seems to be reconciled with the duty of motherhood. The chief responsibility of a mother is to give her daughters a good education, but generally, mother’s wish the best for their daughters and therefore encourages them to find a good husband by the methods that are described in Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters. A good mother is defined by raising her children in a moderate and reasonable manner for the good of society in accordance with The Enlightenment’s philosophies. When not allowed to expand their reason, women become creatures of emotion and brutal affection that is dangerous to the point that it “eradicates all humanity” in their children.
Throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft stress that women need to break free from male dominance. This male dominance is seen as socially enforced through education and social mechanisms such as romance. She claims that the “Tyranny of Men is upheld by keeping women in a state of childhood”. She describes the situation that women are dependent on male figures throughout their life, first on their father and later on their husband. She also claims that at the situation in England at that time was so that women could not protest against their role in society as they were “so weak so they must be subject to the superior faculties of men”. This idea of institutional inferiority and total dependence on men is an underlying thought throughout Wollstonecraft’s reasoning.
Passion and romantic thinking is portrayed as a key negative trait in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman. Instead of higher education, women are instructed in the arts of music and drawing, sewing and vanity. John Gregory confirms this in his Legacy where he instructs his daughters to cultivate these talents. I get the impression that Wollstonecraft view these activities to be trivial and offers little challenge for a reasonable and fine lady. She appears to think that these pastimes were dull for women, who are beings of reason no different from men, and that they consequently sought an adventurous social life and light novels to entertain themselves. Those kinds of preferences fosters sensibility in creatures who were emotionally inclined to begin with, and Wollstonecraft draws up a caricature-like “Fine Lady”, whose flimsy demeanour and extreme inclination towards the sentimental stands as a threat against the civilized world.
In sum, a few connected opinions on woman’s inferiority in society and ideas why that is, are present in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman. First, women are not educated well, and that is the major cause for there inferiority. Second, the family is imposing their will on their daughters, making them behave in a manner that fosters depravity and oppress reason. Third, women are mollified by men and social constructs which make them submissive and dependent on male figures. Last, as they are undereducated and inhibited, women seek cheap pleasure and adopt a romantic mindset that results in the corruption of society.
Background Notes on Shelley and Mathilda
Some biographical notes on Shelley are both interesting and helpful when trying to understand the relationship she had with her mother and the historical context of Mathilda. Mary Shelley was born 1797 and died 1851. She was the second daughter to two of the most radical freethinkers of the time, the proto-feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and anarchist philosopher William Godwin. Even though Wollstonecraft died a mere ten days after giving birth to Shelley, the future gothic author was deeply affected by her mother’s dramatic life and has often recited her, amongst other the phrase “A little patience, and all will be over”, the last words of Shelley’s grandmother, Wollstonecraft’s mother, appear the work of both authors, including Mathilda. Keeping this background in mind, it is possible that Shelley adopted the same philosophies as her parents and provides a motive for this investigation. Shelley’s first, and most famous novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is commonly called one of the first gothic novels, and Shelley was productive during the literary Romantic Era. This could be the grounds for conflict between Shelley and Wollstonecraft, as their works reflect their times, being essentially romantic respectively therefore being the main complication for my thesis.
Two Views on Mathilda
The novella that was eventually titled Mathilda was written by Mary Shelley in 1819 under the working title The Fields of Fancy. Some scholars advocate its validity as a biographical work, such as Rosaria Champagne who claims that the typical motif of incest in Mathilda is portrayed in such an accurate manner that she claims that Shelley did have a physical encounter with Godwin. However, Champagne does not have any scholarly evidence for her auto-biographical thesis. She is not alone in her interpretation, as similar conclusions have been made through a mixture of psychoanalytical reading of the text and biographical assertions by other scholars. If Shelley’s novella would be an auto-biographical work, it would mean that it would not lend itself as well to a comparison to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as the text would be aimed towards the depiction of Shelley’s own experience, rather than a treatment of her articulation and the idea of a woman’s place in society and relationships. Of course, there is room for the two ideas to coexist to some extent. Other critics, such as Margaret Davenport Garrett and Pamela Clemit, notice the many changes made to The Fields of Fancy and Mathilda and claim that its revision shows that Shelley is merely exploring the themes of male-female relationships and womanhood. My own interpretation rejects the auto-biographical theory, and my analysis is made with the focus on the themes as part of a work of fiction.
Short Synopsis of Mathilda
Mathilda is the progeny of a passionate nobleman and his angelical wife, who dies in childbirth. Devastated by the death of his lover and childhood friend he leaves England and puts his new-born daughter in the care of his sister. Mathilda is raised by her aunt in the Scottish highlands with few friends and dreams of the days she will be reunited with her father. Her fantasy comes true on her sixteenth birthday, and father and daughter share a blissful existence together. As they travel around England Mathilda’s father grow more distant and harsh towards her. When she finally confronts him about his feelings he confesses to harbour an incestuous love for her. She rejects him, but is torn by her affection towards him and her horror towards his passion. This dramatic turn of events ends with the suicide of Mathilda’s father. She is deeply depressed, and decides to feign her own death and live a secluded existence in a small cottage on a desolate heath in northern England. She is alone there for two years until she meets Woodville, a man whom has also lost a loved one, and who is in the countryside for similar reasons as Mathilda. He becomes her friend and tries his best to ease her sorrow. Mathilda passes away in sickness at the age of twenty-two at peace with herself due to her reunion with her father in death. Her last act is to write a memoir addressed to Woodville that recounts her tragic story.
Analysis of Mathilda
The examination of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman shows that education determines the character of women, for better or worse. The personal development of the eponymous protagonist in Mary Shelley’s novella Mathilda illustrates the influence of education on personality. However, Mathilda is also a criticism of what Wollstonecraft claims is the ideal educational environment. There are little references to Mathilda’s formal education, but a large amount of description of her upbringing, which should also counts towards forming her disposition. She acquires a basic education, however she seem to lack guidance as no one oversees her development “in a desolate country where there were none to praise and very few to love”. Her upbringing is defined by a lack of direction. Shelley does not portray the lack of guidance as harming Mathilda’s education, but detrimental to her social adequacy. Therefore, Shelley does not seem to place as much importance on education as Wollstonecraft. Shelley’s focus is on another aspect that deviates from her mother’s ideas so much it seems like a form of criticism, namely the role of motherhood.
Shelley rejects the idea that mother’s should be rational and detached, thus challenging Wollstonecraft’s concept of motherhood. Mathilda’s aunt is the sole mother figure that is depicted in Mathilda. She shares some characteristics with Wollstonecraft’s ideal mother, but is portrayed as having a negative effect on her niece. Mathilda herself describes her aunt thusly:
I believe that without the slightest tinge of a bad heart she had the coldest that ever filled a human breast: it was totally incapable of any affection. She took me under her protection because she considered it her duty
This upbringing without any warmth is frighteningly similar to the Wollstonecraftian perfect mother, but taken to an extreme level. The word “duty” is used by both Shelley and Wollstonecraft when describing Mathilda’s aunt and the perfect mother respectively. The main difference is that Wollstonecraft praises the model, but Shelley rejects it. When it comes to the subject of motherhood, the two seems to be in conflict as Wollstonecraft’s idea of that a mother should be sensible and independent of their children is criticised by Shelley in her depiction of that model.
The protagonist Mathilda is throughout the novella totally dependent on her male benefactors. The main tragedy of the novella is her incestuous relationship with her father. It is also central when comparing it to Wollstonecraft’s ideas, as the two character’s liaison is an example on women’s detrimental reliance on men. Mathilda is definitely dependent on her father. Even before she has met him, he is the “idol of her imagination”. She is obsessed with her father to the point of saying that not being with her father was death, and only when they were reunited she says that she “began to live”. This wholesale dependency also is the key tragedy of the novella, and the source of all of Mathilda’s unhappiness. Without a male guiding force, Mathilda can not live a proper life, which is shown through her self-imposed exile. It is even driven to such a point that she becomes physically ill whenever she is abandoned by her male patrons. After her father’s suicide she almost dies of fever, and after Woodville’s departure she grows sick and dies from it. She is so obsessed, that even after her father’s death, she vows to be faithful to him and preserve her emotional virginity, saying: “beloved father! Accept the pure heart of your unhappy daughter; permit me to join you unspotted as I was”. The father-daughter relationship clearly brings to mind the perpetual state of childhood that Wollstonecraft mentions, which keeps women in bondage, and is a clear example of the idea that was identified in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman. Mathilda’s relationship with men can therefore be seen as an allegory for the situation of the female gender to the male as subservient and dependent, and their complacency in that position.
Female reliance on men is not limited to Mathilda and her father’s relationship, but is a re-occurring theme in the novella. Mathilda’s relationship to her dear friend Woodville is also centred on her need for him. After the two have become friends, Mathilda quickly becomes dependent on him. Her reactions when Woodville misses any appointments they are very severe, and she describes her own attitude as “jealous . . . captious and unreasonable”. Here dependency on Woodville is even more apparent in a key scene where she wishes to enter a suicide pact with him. He refuses, and stops her from committing suicide. Basically, the only thing that prevents this woman from complete destruction is a man. This man is Mathilda’s substitute father figure, and she compares Woodville to her father, claiming that “[h]e was younger, less worn, more passionless . . . and in no degree reminded me of [her father]”. This sentence is very detached from the rest of the paragraph, and one can not help but thinking that Mathilda is constantly comparing Woodville to her father. Even though she needs him, she is not overly affectionate for Woodville, as her “love never woke again . . . its ghost, ever hovering over [her] father, alone survived”. Her life has centred on a superior male figure, and when it is gone she does not know what to do. As Wollstonecraft believed, a woman’s complacent bondage to superior male figures leads to her ruin, and this is to a high degree present in Mathilda.
Furthermore, there is yet another female in the novella who is dependent on a man, namely Elinor, Woodville’s wife. Similar to Mathilda, she falls ill when her husband is away, and dies as he is not there for her. She requests for his presence and claims that “from his eyes she would receive health and that his company would be her surest medicine”. Elinor’s reliance on a male figure is even clearer, as she herself states that she will be healthy if she is in the company of one. The difference between this case and Mathilda is that Elinor does not suffer from the problems and shortcomings that Mathilda has. Elinor seems to illustrate that not only women with grave problems can succumb in a world where they seek to stand in the shadow of men. As this idea is so pervading throughout Shelley’s work, it can be safe to say that Wollstonecraft’s idea have had an influence. Also, Margaret Davenport Garret writes in her article Writing and Re-writing Incest in Mary Shelley’s Mathilda that Shelley confronts society, and criticize that women have to be “excessively dependent upon her male protector . . . whether father or husband”. Garrett’s clearly identifies what she describes is submissive women towards their male benefactors, and their weakness, which has an origin in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman. In short, the female characters’ relationships with the male characters show that the women are passive, and depend on them too much which makes them weak, just like the social domination which Wollstonecraft describes in her treatise.
Mathilda is heavily influenced by romantic thought, and suffers from it, making Shelley’s statement about it converge with Wollstonecraft’s. Mathilda’s way of thinking could definitely be described as romantic. Her love for nature and bestowment of soul to it is a romantic trait. She “loved all the changes of Nature, and rain, and storm and the beautiful clouds of heaven brought their delights with me”. Her passionate affection for her father is romantic, as well as her tendency to make decisions with her heart, rather than reason. It explains why she takes such extreme and spectacular measures, like feigning her own death to live alone and ponder her unhappiness. She clearly states that her intention is to be unhappy, to “weep, gently weep, and be at peace” and does not shy from doing dramatic acts. Charlene E. Bunnell comments on Mathilda’s use of dramatic devices and how it is dangerous. Her main thesis is that Mathilda “reveals a character who constructs her life as a dramatic text, thereby depicting the dangers of a debilitating confusion of life with art and reality with illusion“. I must agree, as her romantic behaviour leads to her doom, and how it converges with Wollstonecraft’s idea of, and I use the words of Bunnell; “the danger of an inner-directed sensibility”. Garret too has come to the conclusion that the novella is “representing any woman's experience when she blindly follows the dictates of her own heart”. Both critics words echoes those of Wollstonecraft, and with this support of the content of Mathilda, I interpret that Shelley seems to share Wollstonecraft’s sentiment of the negative effects of a romantic disposition. Her sensibility makes her choose a life of exile, instead of adapting and trying to be happy. A detail which strengthens my theory is Mathilda’s reclusive living, as Wollstonecraft often mentions that women need to improve their situation for the better of society. Mathilda’s isolated self-pity does not refine civilization and is due to her own choice, which was made not with reason, but with her heart. Subsequently, Shelley’s idea of the consequences of romantic thought converges with Wollstonecraft’s condemning philosophy towards it.
Shelley seems to actively rebel against some of the ideas visible in Wollstonecraft’ A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, namely education and the role of motherhood, nevertheless seemingly to be heavily influenced by her mother’s idea of women’s dependency on men, and the negative properties of romantic thinking. Education is not mentioned often in Shelley’s novella, and even though Mathilda’s educational situation is similar to what is written in Wollstonecraft’s treatise, it is tied with other themes which as more focus. As Wollstonecraft main argument is education, it can be said that Shelley does not take after her mother in this respect. Shelley rebels fully against her Wollstonecraft’s idea that a perfect mother and tries to show through her characterization that such parenting only creates distress in daughters. On the other hand, Shelley seems to use Mathilda to depict the helpless situation of women as being wholly dependent on men that Wollstonecraft describes in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman. All female character’s has this relationship with the male characters, and the theme is re-occurring throughout the novella. For that reason, Shelley must have been influenced by her mother when writing Mathilda, as Wollstonecraft’s ideas are present as allegories. The idea that romantic thinking degenerates character is also present in both works. Shelley shows that Mathilda has a romantic temperament and how it affects her life in a negative way.
To my original question “are Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas, as they are presented in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, portrayed by Mary Shelley in her novella Mathilda, and where do they converge or diverge?” I answer that: Yes, ideas about society relative to women are clearly and accurately emulated by Shelley in Mathilda, but ideas about how to properly raise daughters are either criticised or not focused on.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. ‘Mathilda’, The novels and selected works of Mary Shelley. Pamela Clemit, ed. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1996. 5-67.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men ; A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. The works of Mary Wollstonecraft Vol. 5. Janet M. Todd, ed. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997. 81-226.
Bunnell, Charlene E. ‘Mathilda: Mary Shelley's Romantic Tragedy’. Keats-Shelley Journal 46 1997. 75-97.
Champagne, Rosaria. ‘The Law of the (Nameless) Father: Mary Shelley's Mathilda and the Incest Taboo’. Genders 21 ( 1995): 257
Clemit, Pamela. Frankenstein, Matilda, and the legacies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. Esther Schor, ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003. Cambridge Collections Online. Accessed 14 August 2007.
Garrett, Margaret Davenport. ‘Writing and Re-writing Incest in Mary Shelley's Mathilda’. Keats-Shelley Journal 45 1996. 44-60.
Gregory, John. ‘A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters’.
Anna Lætitia Barbauld Project. University of Saskatchewan electronic resource. 1774. Accessed 12 August 2007.
Paula Clemit, Frankenstein, Matilda, and the legacies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, (Cambridge UP, 2003) 26
Mary Wollstonecraft, The works of Mary Wollstonecraft, (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1997) 88
John Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, University of Saskatchewan, 31
Wollstonecraft, The works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 100
Wollstonecraft, The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 94
Gregory, A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters, 48
Wollstonecraft, The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, 136-137
Mary Shelley, Mathilda, The novels and selected works of Mary Shelley Vol 2, (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1996)
Shelley, Mathilda, The novels and selected works of Mary Shelley Vol 2, 14
Shelley, Mathilda, The novels and selected works of Mary Shelley Vol 2, 55
Ibid, pp. 40
Ibid, pp. 49
Margaret Davenport Garrett, Writing and Re-writing Incest in Mary Shelley's Mathilda, (Keats-Shelley Journal 45 1996) 59
Shelley, Mathilda, The novels and selected works of Mary Shelley Vol 2, 132
Charlene E. Bunnell, "Mathilda: Mary Shelley's Romantic Tragedy". Keats-Shelley Journal 46 (1997). 76
Davenport., “Writing and Re-writing Incest in Mary Shelley's Mathilda”. , 45