I began and finished reading Matilda on March 19, 1997, in the volume The Mary Shelley Reader, edited by Betty Bennett (whom I’d not yet met) and Charles Robinson (whom I’ve never met but with whom I have corresponded). It’s a novella, as I said, and consumes pp. 175–246 in the edition I read. As I look at that volume now, I see I underlined heavily, made my little customary marks: * and ! and a squiggly line alongside paragraphs/passages I think are important, a few little notes (power of the word, p. 200; redemptive value of study, p. 222, Bard (the narrator says if the world is a stage on p. 245); and so on.
The narrator is Matilda herself, a young woman who is dying and is writing the story of her life for her friend Woodville. In the first chapter she tells how her mother died a few days after my birth—a death which, of course, parallels the death of Mary’s own mother in 1797, just after delivering Mary. But unlike Godwin, who remarried and raised Mary, Matilda’s father, distraught, runs off and resolves not to see his daughter, whom he leaves in the care of his sister, a cold woman who takes her off to cold Scotland.
You can see already why Godwin would find the story disturbing. His own losses are there, right from the opening pages, and (as we saw earlier) his reputation had suffered grievously when he had published his memoir about his late wife in 1798, barely a year after she’d died. He had been frank in that volume, too frank for the puritanical reading public of his day.
And now here was his daughter—a daughter who had already humiliated him by running away with a married man—offering a story about a man who would immediately remind readers of Godwin himself. That could not have pleased him.
But wait—there is more, much more, that would distress him.