Introduction to Transcription of Mathilda for the Shelley-Godwin Archive

By Michelle Faubert

In January of 1818, at the age of 19, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Her first published novel, it would prove to be one of the most iconic ever written, a classic of the Romantic period and Gothic form. Given the immediate and enduring popularity of her first novel, one might expect her subsequent completed novel—Mathilda, composed in the latter half of 1819—to be welcomed enthusiastically by readers. After all, the two texts share many characteristics besides authorship and contemporaneity: both the Monster and Mathilda have been abandoned at birth and are (to put it mildly) overly concerned with their fathers, metaphorical and literal; both novels contribute to the Gothic form through themes of incest, insanity, suicidality, monstrosity, and isolation; and both tales are epistolary. However, the reception of Mathilda was abortive from the first. It was not published until 1959, 140 years after Shelley wrote it.

The troubled publication and critical history of Mathilda began with Shelley’s own father, William Godwin, a celebrated novelist and philosopher. Having started the tale while she was living with Percy Bysshe Shelley at the Villa Valsovano near Leghorn, Shelley sent the finished manuscript to Godwin, but, as editor Elizabeth Nitchie states in the Introduction to the first publication of Mathilda, the “manuscript apparently stayed in Godwin’s hands” (x, xi). He was outraged at the novel’s overt subject matter, one of several Frankenstein choes: that of incestuous passion, which Godwin called “‘disgusting and detestable’” (Nitchie, Introduction xi). While Shelley’s delineation of the theme of incest is indirect and subtle in Frankenstein, being limited mostly to Victor Frankenstein’s romance with his sisterly-cousin Elizabeth Lavenza—who, creepily, turns into the corpse of Victor’s mother as he begins to kiss her in a dream—Shelley is considerably more direct about the topic of incest in Mathilda. In the latter novel, Mathilda’s nameless father confesses his irrepressible desire for her, and she is emotionally destroyed by his words. While incestuous feelings are confessed directly by Mathilda’s father, they are only hinted at by Mathilda, but all of it was too much for Godwin, and he suppressed the manuscript: Janet Todd notes that he “did not return the manuscript to his daughter despite repeated requests” (xvii). Godwin’s withholding of Shelley’s text was probably motivated by his fear that readers would interpret it autobiographically, casting him as the incestuously desiring father. After all, the circumstances of Mathilda’s birth echo Shelley’s closely since both author and character are left motherless in infancy. Godwin’s actions contributed to the novel’s burial for almost a century and a half.

Mathilda’s publication history—or lack thereof—from the time that Shelley completed the fair-copy of the manuscript in 1820 to its publication in 1959 is itself an extraordinary tale. Given the great fame of its author, one might expect a single, standard edition of Mathilda, but this is not the case because Shelley herself did not see her second completed novella into publication. As such, Shelley never had the opportunity to work with a publisher or editor on clearing up the numerous issues that the manuscript raises, many of which subsequent editions silently elide in favour of a clean and readable text. Important editorial decisions about the manuscript have been left to us, the three latter-day transcribers and editors of Shelley’s fair-copy manuscript of Mathilda in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, catalogued as MS Abinger d. 33. Dept d. 374/1: Elizabeth Nitchie, who first transcribed the text for publication by consulting Duke University’s microfilm of the manuscript; Pamela Clemit, who transcribed it from the manuscript in the Bodleian for a 1996 Pickering & Chatto set of Shelley’s works; and me in my work on the same physical manuscript for the 2017 Broadview Press edition of Mathilda. (The other widely available editions of Mathilda, such as the Penguin and Oxford editions, were created from Nitchie’s transcription.) Without the benefit of the author’s input, we transcribers were forced to make our own editorial decisions about questionable areas of the manuscript. Problematically, such decisions risk glossing over the multiple meanings of a passage or, at least, flattening the wonderfully suggestive oddities of the manuscript. For instance, Shelley sometimes misspells words consistently—such as “colledge” for “college”—suggesting the possibility of a hitherto unfamiliar archaic spelling of the word; (in this case, and a few others, someone has marked through the offending “d” with a pencil, which I replicate with a grey line in the present transcription). At other points, Shelley makes apparent slips that the reader would surely find fascinating, such as several times penning “daughter” for “father” while describing this too-intimate father-daughter love relationship. Other ambiguities include: marks that appear to be commas (those seem to be mere slips of the pen I do not replicate); apparent capitalization where it is grammatically incorrect to have it; and numerous complete phrases without end-stops. This latter oddity raises the question of which type of punctuation mark Shelley might have preferred (period? exclamation mark? semi-colon?), not to mention the confusion that results from the ensuing run-on sentences. Multiple other examples of incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation abound in the manuscript. In an effort to forestall readerly bewilderment from these apparent errors, we editors of the manuscript have been forced to make our own judgment calls regarding authorial intention to present Shelley’s great novella in a readable form.

While such editorial decisions are necessary in order to present the text to a broad audience, they inevitably insert more of its editor into it than is desirable. This result is particularly obvious when transcriptions differ. I cannot speak to the variances between Clemit’s and Nitchie’s transcriptions, or Clemit’s and mine, for that matter, but I can attest to some notable differences between my transcription and Nitchie’s. For example, Nitchie often silently corrects what seem to be Shelley’s obvious errors, but I avoided doing so whenever possible. Thus, while Nitchie often inserts words for sense, I instead provided a footnote in the Broadview edition suggesting what Shelley might have intended to write. Sometimes our readings of words differ, too. For instance, on page 61 of the manuscript (numbered by Shelley as 62), Nitchie understands Shelley’s word as “clinched,” whereas I believe it is “clenched.”1 In a similar instance, on page 65 of the manuscript (Shelley’s number 66), Shelley writes, “He was too upright and noble to do aught that his conscience could not approve,” but Nitchie writes “would” in place of “could.” Finally, in the Italian phrase “E quasi mi perdei con gli occhi chini” on page 101 (Shelley’s number 102), Nitchie neglects to include Shelley’s “con.” The latter two instances were simple errors on Nitchie’s part as Shelley’s writing is clear in these instances, but I do not draw attention to them to denigrate Nitchie’s transcription, which is invaluable in drawing the first scholarly attention to the neglected manuscript and providing a basis for other transcriptions. (Indeed, several times Nitchie transcribes a word that I likely would not have guessed correctly.) Rather, I point out the differences between our transcriptions to emphasize that transcribers can change the meaning of the text unintentionally—as well as knowingly, if unwillingly, as when I was required to make some silent corrections to Shelley’s text in my Broadview edition of Mathilda. Left without a published text that was corrected and overseen by the author herself, today’s readers now have three hard-copy, published transcriptions of Mathilda. They are all scholarly, and therefore dependable, but they vary.

To be sure, since my Broadview edition is aimed at a student audience, I was forced to elide several curious features of the manuscript in favour of readability, such as the many deletions, segments of vertical writing along the margins, and even odd or missing punctuation marks. However, I have always wanted to present the manuscript in all its messy glory to a broad audience, as such oddities are intriguing and important: they are suggestive not only of the author’s writing and editing process but also of her state of mind when writing certain, often disturbing, passages. As I noted in a blog posting about my experience working from Shelley’s manuscript in the Bodleian for Broadview Press, doing so

gave me a glimpse into the construction of the novella, almost as though I was witnessing the author writing it in real time. The many amendments, corrections, and insertions seemed to show which passages Shelley struggled over, what she might have felt uncomfortable about, and what she laboured to express. One can only guess at the meaning of these second thoughts and errors, but it is tempting to interpret them as illustrations of the working of the author’s mind—and perhaps even as demonstrations of her psychological struggle. And well might Shelley have felt misgivings about what she was writing. After all, the subject matter of  Mathilda—father-daughter incestuous desire and the suicidality that results from it—is challenging, to say the least. (Broadview blog)

The reader of the following text may expect to find some surprising details in Shelley’s manuscript that have not been presented to the average reader until now. Shelley’s deletions are frequently intriguing because they often suggest other ideas she had about a scene or segment of dialogue, or they simply show her mind at work—and perhaps even her level of irritation or distraction, illness or wellness—in a way that provides a glimpse into the workings of genius. Attending to these changes as they appear in the text is akin to watching Shelley in the process of writing Mathilda, providing the reader a sort of “real-time” experience of the novel’s composition. And, yet, there remain mysteries about this manuscript that not even these high-quality images of it can reveal to the viewer. For example, the page numbered 5 by Shelley is entirely on paper glued onto the existing journal page, which has much indecipherable writing on it; and on page 101 (Shelley’s page number 102), the author again pastes a large piece of paper over her original journal page. Gently lifting the glued-on page reveals that it covers what appears to be basically the same text as what appears on top of it, including the Dante quotation and words such as “grow” “shone” and “well might.” At the top of the covered portion, Shelley crosses through many phrases, and these amendments are the clue to why Shelley wished to write it all out again: she probably wished to cover over the botched mess that she made of the original. Similarly, on page 133 of the manuscript (Shelley’s page number 134) a portion of paper is glued onto the bound page, which seems to have similar text, but with a few deletions. Perhaps Shelley simply wished to rephrase what she first wrote in these instances.2 Intriguingly, too, five bound pages have been cut out close to the journal’s binding after Shelley’s page 216, leaving no text; the next page of text, numbered as 217 by Shelley, appears to be in a different ink, suggesting that it was written some days later. One can’t help but wonder: what had Shelley written on these missing pages? Such mysteries not only deepen our curiosity about Shelley’s writing process, but they also demonstrate the painstaking care she took with her writing. Details such as these are not typically available in finished editions of novels. These images of the Mathilda manuscript and the transcription of it offer a new vista on Shelley’s too-neglected oeuvre. Finally, we can appreciate Shelley’s immense artistry more fully. Such a corrective is particularly owing with respect to Mathilda, for it was ignored for far too long.

With the present publication of the manuscript images of Mathilda on the Shelley-Godwin Archive website, augmented by my transcription—devoid of any silent corrections—the curious reader may now see for herself what Shelley left to posterity. I am delighted to have the opportunity to share this fascinating manuscript with a wide audience through the Shelley-Godwin Archive, an opportunity that has been made possible through funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Through my SSHRC Insight Grant (“Romanticism and Revolutionary Suicide”; 2015-2020), I bought the images of the Mathilda manuscript from the Bodleian Library for the Shelley-Godwin Archive . SSHRC also funded those I hired to help me created this document: Shoshannah Bryn Jones Square, who so carefully copyedited my transcription, and Luca Guariento, who turned the transcription into a TEI-formatted document to be uploaded to the Shelley-Godwin Archive. Thanks to the Government of Canada’s financial support of Canadian scholarship, the world can now experience the magic of reading Mary Shelley’s fair-copy manuscript of Mathilda.3

Works Cited

Faubert, Michelle. “On Editing Mary Shelley’s Mathilda.” Broadview Press website. Blog: New Publications. 30 August 2017, Accessed 31 January 2019.

Nitchie, Elizabeth. Introduction to “Mathilda [and The Fields of Fancy] by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.” Studies in Philology 56 (1959): vi-xv. JSTOR. Web. 29 March 2012.

Todd, Janet. Introduction. Mary and Maria by Mary Wollstonecraft. Mathilda by Mary Shelley. Ed. and Introduction Janet Todd. London: Penguin, 2004. vii-xxviii.


  1. The page numbers in ink appear to be in the same hand as most of the manuscript; therefore, I attribute these numbers to Shelley. In the present transcription, I also include the page numbers that appear in pencil, although these do not appear to be in Shelley’s hand. All of the left-hand margin lines written vertically along most of the pages (except for the first four and last 10 pages of the manuscript, as well as the odd pieces of paper that have been glued onto the existing journal page) are in pencil, too, as are a few editorial corrections. All marks that are in pencil, whether page numbers or otherwise, I replicate in grey to distinguish them from the ink of the main text.
  2. Similar instances appear on the pages numbered by Shelley as 9, 102, 182, and 187.
  3. At points in the transcription here, technical limitations cause some oddities; for example, sometimes these issues prevent the alignment of marginal insertions with the lines they are meant to modify. Despite my best efforts and hours of careful work, too, I may have neglected to transcribe a few items from the manuscript.