Tag Archive | matilda

Not knowing how to read: Shelley’s Matilda

I was reading Mary Shelley’s Matilda today – a novella about a 16- to 20-year old girl, whose mother died at childbirth and whose father ends up developing an incestuous love for her, which leads him to suicide and her to becoming a lonely exile wishing nothing but death. This death quite quickly comes in the classically Romantic way of her getting consumption.

I’m writing of this because I didn’t like the novella particularly much. I usually love melodrama and Gothic elements, but this suffered from an overdose of gloomy vocabulary and didn’t seem well-contained.

The narrator is a 20-year-old girl. Her style is amateurish. Some of her thoughts, her high emotionality and glorification of death would bring to mind any average teenager of a gloomier disposition. Her thinking in extremes certainly reminded me of myself, and her style of my own style (if let loose).

But here’s the problem, and it’s a weird problem to have. I wanted to read a better-written story, while this was all over the place and didn’t seem believable. It was as if Shelley had tried to put a Greek tragedy into a contemporary setting and format, and it turned out…… a little silly? Excessive. Implausible. Maybe it’d have worked as a play. Even the long monologues had something of the style of play to them.

And yet it is not implausible, because this is how a 20-year old can think, particularly when on her deathbed, having little life experience and being an emotional person. So. My problem was that I expected a less emotionally overflowing and more refined writer. When reading a work of fiction, I expect the storyteller to have style. I’m sure that if this had been the diary of a real person, I’d have approached it differently and been touched by it. Because I wouldn’t expect good writing then. Right now, I felt it to be clumsy and couldn’t empathise with the characters. This again is strange because when I’ve read some other 19th century first person narratives, I’ve caught myself thinking the opposite – would a boy as young as this really be able to tell the story so eloquently? Would someone so little educated be such a good writer? I can’t currently bring specific examples, but I’ve felt those thoughts often. It’s not believable that all the narrators featured in these first person narratives of the 19th century had style. Some must have been as bad as Matilda, but well, she was sweet. Her style was sweet. And I wish she had had a less deep nature, so she could have moved on, but deep natures never can, can they?

The plot has potential though. I think I have some weird tendency to like a thing more for its potential sometimes than for what it is. Unrefined gems. Old wooden houses and creaky floorboards and people who sometimes wear ill-fitting clothes. I like the scope for imagination. What it could be. As it is, I didn’t care about this story, but it might make for a good tragic poem or play if one wants to preserve the melodrama.

But here of course the fault is in me and my expectations for literature. If the character never existed, if it’s fiction, I expect style and wisdom such as an average person of this particular type wouldn’t possess. And when I’m given it, a part of me rolls her eyes and feels inferior because when I was THAT age, I would never have been so intelligent and rational, or so good. These narrators of the 19th century seem such ideal people sometimes.

One thing I did like though. There were some flashes of great understanding of how life and people work. This. And I also enjoyed reading about the poet guy’s suggestion of how to move on and what to devote one’s life to if personal happiness is not an option. I’ve been trying to give the same advice to a friend, but no one ever listens to good advice, do they? I liked meeting, albeit in fiction, someone else who shares my views. I hadn’t seen it around before, not in this form that so closely copies my own philosophy.

Overall, it was an okay read. 3 out of 5.