Two years pass …
Mathilda has begun studying again, an activity that has a welcome effect: I became more human, she says simply. This, of course, is exactly how Mary Shelley herself had dealt with the loss of children, of her husband. She’d thrown herself into studying—reading, writing—and she was able, she said, to lose herself, to forget. For a while.
Then Mathilda meets a persistent young man named Woodville, a character who resembles Bysshe Shelley in just about every way. His genius is transcendent; he’s published poems. But he’s suffered tragedy, as well: His fiancée fell ill and died, but devoted Woodville watched beside her for twelve hours, staying with her until the end.
Well, both Woodville and Mathilda are suffering; both desire solitude; they become friends. The two of them consider a joint suicide, but he eventually talks her—and himself—out of it. Nature cooperates, though. She becomes consumptive, fails and falls rapidly. But she tells Woodville at the end of her story that she is not sad; she craves death. In truth I am in love with death, she writes; no maiden ever took more pleasure in the contemplation of her bridal attire than I in fancying my limbs already enwrapt in their shroud: is it not my marriage dress?
Well, when William Godwin received this manuscript from his daughter—with her naïve request to find a publisher—he was alarmed. In her biography Mary Shelley, Miranda Seymour quotes the following passage from the journal of Maria Gisborne, the family friend who had transported the diary from Italy to Godwin’s hand.
According to Gisborne, Godwin found the novella disgusting & detestable; and there ought to be, at least if [it] is ever published, a preface to prepare the minds of readers, & to prevent them from being tormented by the apprehension from moment to moment of the fall of the heroine.
And so—as I said at the outset of this account of Mathilda—Godwin put the manuscript in a drawer, pretty much ignored Mary’s inquiries about it, and it was not published until 1959 by the University of North Carolina Press in their Studies in Philology. Mary had been dead more than a century. I was in high school.