by Jeremy R. Strong
In both Mary Shelley’s Matilda and Lord Byron’s Manfred, the respective main protagonists seem to have their mental health affected by participation in a socially taboo sexual relationship. These two texts deserve more comparative reading, as the literary treatments in addition to the biographical connections share incredible similarities. Though the degree of responsibility that Matilda bears for her participation in the relationship with her father could be interpreted as vastly different from the responsibility Manfred readily accepts for his role in the relationship with his sister, both protagonists suffer under a similar weight of existential angst brought about by incest that force them to reject the material world. In another interesting parallel, neither Matilda nor Manfred clearly commit suicide in the standard understanding of the term as a self-obliterating act. Both characters seem to decide that they should no longer live, but trust to nature to end their lives. The encounters with the natural world in each text reach extremes that perpetually threaten the lives of the two forlorn protagonists. This extreme depiction of interactions with nature is designed to echo, extend and enhance the breaking of the boundaries of human relationships in each text. While the sudden change in the nature of Matilda’s relationship with her father immediately thrusts both of them into mortal danger during the epic pursuit section of the narrative, Manfred’s unspecified transgressions with his sister continually bring him to the brink of the natural world, poised at the precipice of The Alps. Ultimately, both texts depict characters that test the limits of societal and natural boundaries in tandem, making them distinctly radical protagonists. The potentially suicidal endings should then be reconsidered in light of the more distinct suicides that do happen within each text. In other words, if suicide is the natural response of a person that feels they have committed a social transgression, such as Matilda’s father and Manfred’s sister Astarte, and if “no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping” (167) as David Hume argues in his Essay on Suicide, then suicide is not the truly radical act in these texts. The radical act is instead performed by characters who refuse to distinctly and clearly bring and end to their lives despite recognizing their—forever altered—place in the social order. By not committing suicide in distinct acts of self-obliteration, these characters defy the expectations of the human world.
In his book Critical Issues: Mary Shelley, Graham Allen foregrounds his chapter “Matilda” by reminding readers that given the biographical details of Shelley’s life, it would “seem perverse of critics to pursue anything but a psycho-biographical reading” (41-42). Then however, after presenting some of the arguments made in this vein, Allen delivers a skilful critical cathartic turn, aligning himself with a similar argument by Pamela Clemit and explains that the privileging of psycho-biography in critical analysis of the text makes some dangerous assumptions, not the least of which is one that it was “Godwin’s apparent refusal to return the manuscript to his daughter [that] caused the text to remain unpublished” (44). Allen then argues that reading Matilda requires a careful balancing of biographical concerns with literary ones. This essay respects that strategic position and seeks to reveal that Matilda problematizes romantic sensibility surrounding suicide and that this is a major point of intersection this text shares with Byron’s Manfred.
Manfred demands a similar care in critical approach to that brought to bear in the study of Matilda by Allen. In an argument similar to Allen’s, Emily A. Bernhard Jackson resists any temptation to read the text of Manfred as only either “a form of confession” or “playacting” (133), insisting much like Allen does that this text is “both fiction and non-fiction simultaneously” (134). After delineating some compelling connections to the work of David Hume, Jackson also points out that Manfred is really a text about the “ramifications of Immaterialism” (146). Aside from a similar argument having developed about approaches to the two texts, the play and the novella also share the theme of incest. In her article “From the Fields of Fancy to Matilda: Mary Shelley’s Changing Conception of her Novella” Pamela Clemit is careful to remind readers that there were “varied uses of incest” as a theme in “other works of the period” (155), before explaining that Shelley’s work deviates from Byron’s in that the former is driven by “guilt” (156), while the latter is driven by “defiance” (155). I find that agreeing with this assessment hinges to a great extent on the ultimate philosophical positions the protagonists seem to embrace by the end of each of the works. Both ultimately seem to reject material understandings of the world and also to resist the act of suicide as an unfitting punishment given their respective beliefs in the metaphysical. And so ultimately, both characters are defiant in their refusal to commit distinct acts of suicide that would serve as biopolitical punishment on their physical frames but filled with guilt as demonstrated by their desire to die as part of a natural course of progression into some other state of being.
Manfred’s desire for his sister seems to go against the design of nature. In the play, she is described as being so alike Manfred that they are almost twins:
She was like me in lineaments—her eyes
Her hair, her features, all, to the very tone
Even of her voice, they said were like to mine;
But soften’d all, and temper’d into beauty;
She had the same lone thoughts and wanderings,
The quest of hidden knowledge, and a mind
To comprehend the universe. (2.2. 199-205)
The physical and mental similarities described in these lines seem to preclude the possibility that Manfred should be attracted to Astarte. There is nearly no trace here of the oppositional quality that typically marks an attractive potential mate in much of the fiction of romantic sensibility—like Lotte’s attractiveness to Werther in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther or Geraldine’s to Desmond in Charlotte Smith’s Desmond—in both of these texts, the temperament and aspect of the women are almost the polar opposite to that of the men. But if indeed Manfred has acted against nature by transgressing with his sister, then his refusal to quit the world when he has the opportunity to do so early in the play might indicate that the only judgement to which he will submit is that of nature. He certainly refuses to be guided to his death by the judgement of the spirits, the common people or the Abbot of St. Maurice. Matilda is similarly unimpressed by the social forces that would ostracize her. When she is at London after her father’s death, she notices that her feelings don’t fit in with the standard human sentiments about her father’s suicide. Her family members think that her father “lost his wits” and that “he was mad and [Matilda] was fortunate” and so Matilda, seething internally at what she considers to be “blasphemy” seeks to disguise her true feelings (186). She does this by characterizing those feelings through zoomorphism: “I with my dove’s look and fox’s heart” (186). Matilda is unable to reveal the true depth of her emotional distress at the death of her father and so she characterizes herself as deceptive (a fox) and therefore becomes a radical in her going underground emotionally, before later abjecting herself physically from society. Her zoomorphism could be interpreted as a direct challenge to material reality, as the physical appearance of the dove is proven to be a flimsy shell in being only a look, while hiding beneath is the abstract concept of heart, the driving concept behind most human agency. In excluding herself from the social world until Woodville’s arrival, Matilda seems to be leaving judgement of her role in her father’s misguided sentiments to nature, not even succumbing to her socialized tendency to self-judgment. She doesn’t rush to commit suicide, an act certainly available to her, if not as blatantly as that available to Manfred when he is in position on the mountain.
Manfred’s teetering on the brink of the mountain and not throwing himself over the edge is in defiance of the act that he should commit as the socially responsible punishment for his actions (1.2.275-80). Similarly, Matilda’s long wait living in exile is her sustained refusal to commit the same act as her father. In that sense, her attempt to have Woodville join her in suicide is one way in which she attempts to socially recuperate her love for her father as legitimate. In her mind, if the honourable Woodville were to join her in death, it would vindicate her desire to reunite with her father as equal in measure to Woodville’s desire to reunite with Elinor. The fact that Matilda is here ready to commit suicide by taking an overdose of Laudanum begs comparison to the way in which she does exit the world. Ingesting Laudanum would poison the body, and perhaps Matilda first decided on this cure as the just punishment for one that already possesses a poisoned mind. Her suicide in this case would be a sensible action done in the service of the state, and therefore not a crime but a boon to the social order. In his essay on suicide from Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, David Hume imagines himself grappling with just the type of quandary that Matilda finds herself in:
But suppose that it is no longer in my power to promote the interest of society, suppose that I am a burden to it, suppose that my life hinders some person from being much more useful to society. In such cases, my resignation of life must not only be innocent, but laudable. (165)
In addition to the linguistic coincidence of laudanum being potentially laudable as Matilda’s death vehicle, Hume’s argument here points to suicide as a justifiable and even socially responsible act. In keeping with Hume’s exceptionally logical treatise then, Matilda’s suicide would not only be sensible in consideration of her inability to contribute meaningfully to wider society, but would also not at all qualify as a radical action. Therefore, I would like to position Matilda’s refusal to commit suicide as the truly radical action in the text, because she defers to nature over the social order. Her final lines to Woodville are rich with the images of nature that surround her during her final hours. For example, Matilda urges Woodville to “shed a few natural tears due to my memory: and if you ever visit my grave, pluck from thence a flower, and lay it to your heart; for your heart is the only tomb in which my memory will be interred” (209). These lines clearly indicate Matilda’s certainty that she belongs only to nature and not to any socially constructed order if to any higher power. The image of the plucked flower invites the reader to view Matilda in just such a way, a thing of beauty that was brought to its end through the determined course of the natural world. Matilda clearly gives herself up to these natural forces, noting that it was “in May, three years ago that my folly destroyed the only being I was doomed to love. May is returned, and I die” (209). This placing of emphasis on the cycle of the seasons bringing about her end demonstrates that Matilda has made a conscious decision to allow nature alone to judge and punish her. Directly following her assertion that May will bring her to death, she writes: “I caused myself to be led once more to behold the face of nature. I caused myself to be carried to some meadows some miles distant from my cottage” (209). Graham Allen marks wandering figures as a clearly important theme in the text of Matilda and points out that Matilda’s wandering suggests a loss of identity and direction (52-53) This implies that Matilda has rejected her earlier initial response to self-destroy and that such a response would really be a form of acting on behalf of the state; instead, she prostrates herself before the personified “face of nature” as the ultimate monarch over her fate and is “carried”, as though by the decreed force of nature, to “meadows some miles distant”, themselves perhaps alluding to the Elysium fields of Ancient Greek belief as Allen points out (55). Matilda also ends her letter to Woodville with one final reminder that her pain is caused by nature, when she describes through biblical allusion to Isaiah an “anguish that covers [her heart] ‘as the waters cover the sea’” (210).
Manfred is similarly subject to the forces of nature in the play and is constantly rejecting the assistance of any being that attempts to assert power over him, such as the Chamois Hunter, The Witch of the Alps and the Abbot of St. Maurice. In his book, Byron and Place: History, Translation, Nostalgia, author Stephen Cheeke discusses the use of the Alps in Manfred and Byron’s evocation of nature as an abstraction (86). To Cheeke the Alps are “a literary mode, rather than a place” and so “stand for a certain ideal model of the human mind”, and he argues that this “asserts the sovereignty of the mind” (86). I agree with Cheeke’s assessment in this instance, as in composing my final response paper last week, I found much focus on the primacy of mind in the text. The only direct experience in the text that Manfred seems to trust is that of mind, which he seems to read as simply an extension of the natural world. Like in Matilda, Manfred seems only to feel a sense of responsibility towards the natural world, a fact supported by comparing his disdain for societal constructs to his reverence for nature. In his first meeting with the Abbot, Manfred is polite to a point, but when the conversation turns to authority and control over the self, and the Abbot urges Manfred to “reconcile thee / With the true church” (3.1.50-51), Manfred refuses to acknowledge that such a public institution has any power over him, stating clearly that he “shall not choose a mortal / To be my mediator” (3.1.54-55). Like with Matilda’s death then, Manfred’s demise is not clearly suicide for the reason that a distinct act of self-destruction would be motivated and subject to the pressures imposed by the human world. So Manfred’s death is closely aligned with the natural world. Just as Matilda is judged under the “face” of nature, so too is Manfred concerned only with the judgements and movements of natural bodies.
This is made clear in the personification of the sun and Manfred’s attention to its face in Act III, Scene II:
HERMAN. My Lord, you bade me wait on you at sunset:
He sinks beyond the mountain.
MANFRED. Doth he so?
I will look on him. (3.2.172-75)
This similarity in the anthropomorphising of nature in both texts reveals that although both characters refuse to participate longer in the social human world, their minds still seem to desire the creation of a figure of judgement or superiority, something to represent or serve as God. Both characters however, are also careful to distance themselves from a distinctly Christian God, another radical similarity the texts share; references in each story allude to distinctly pre-Christian belief systems in Ancient Greece. When Christian allusions are made, it is often to highlight the undesirable position of each narrator. For example, Manfred alludes to the Nephilim in Act III, Scene II when he also addresses the sun in the place of the Christian God:
Glorious Orb! The idol
Of early nature, and the vigorous race
Of undiseased mankind the giant sons
Of the embrace of angels…(3.2.174-177)
If he is comparing himself with the Nephilim, then Manfred is at once an impure being but also a being supernaturally superior to man through close connection to the angels. There is a similar moment in Matilda when she draws attention to her status as a fallen creature, “cursed and set apart by nature. I thought that like another Cain, I had a mark set on my forehead to show mankind that there was a barrier between me and them” (203). Both narrators abject themselves from the social world by drawing attention to their impure status; just as Cain and the Nephilim had to be destroyed, the implication is that Manfred and Matilda also deserve a similar fate. So the act of suicide would in this sense be a final reiteration of state biopower and the self-denial of true autonomy. This is one way in which the “suicides” of Manfred and Matilda are problematized in the texts in a way that the suicide in The Sorrows of Young Werther is not. Werther’s act of shooting himself in the head should not be read as a rebellious and romantic act, but rather as the only possible result of the social forces that operate against him in the text, such as the social scrutiny he is subject to and even the (all but subtle) connection of Lotte and Albert to the guns that become the implement of state and patriarchal authority. In this sense, the text is very materialistic, and might complicate the tendency to read Goethe as an anti-materialist writer.
Both Matilda and Manfred are ultimately less complicated in terms of their positions regarding materialism however; both works ultimately seem to reject notions of materialism. Stephen Cheeke points this out in relation to Manfred in his discussion of that text as a “metaphysical meditation” that is “engaged in a critique of a certain form of materialism” (88). According to Cheeke, mind in Manfred becomes a place all its own (88). I find the same focus on the separation of mind and body exists in Matilda, particularly in Matilda’s assertion that through suicide her and Woodville could “become Gods” (201). Matilda then goes on to allude to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and compares her offer to help Woodville transition from the physical to the metaphysical plateau to Una’s rescue of Redcrosse Knight from the “dark cavern” of despair (202). Una’s rescue of Redcross Knight could be read as an allegory for mind held over—or separate from—matter, in that mind has the power to alter the destiny of the body. In this, my reading of Matilda’s philosophy of suicide differs from that of Katherine Hill-Miller, who in her book,“My Hideous Progeny”: Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and the Father-Daughter Relationship, sets out the argument that Matilda commits suicide in a bid to destroy her filthy materiality. Though I certainly think that Matilda sees her death as an end to the trappings of her materiality, I disagree that she commits suicide as a form of self-punishment. Matilda does not place primacy on the form of the body and sees her movement from the material world into another realm as her translation to a higher place. It is in this higher realm that she claims she will “be with my father” as death alone will “unite me to my father when in an eternal mental union we shall never part” (208).
Finally, in positioning Matilda and Manfred as radical not for what they do under their disquieting circumstances, but for what they don’t do—namely commit suicide by direct violence—the actions of both Matilda’s father and Astarte should be examined and discussed as clearer suicides that are equally non-radical in nature. There is a potential allusion in Manfred to Astarte’s opening her veins: “I have shed / Blood, but not hers—and yet her blood was shed– / I saw, and could not staunch it” (2.2.214-15). Astarte, now abjected from society, has done the material work of the state; as Hume argues “prudence and courage should engage us to rid ourselves at once of existence, when it becomes a burthen” (167). In Matilda, the father leads Matilda on a wild chase across the country, to the great inconvenience of a large number of guides, servants and his own daughter. He then flings himself from a cliff in a bold statement punctuated by the breaking of his body on the rocks below that is implied by the cottagers that look “aghast” and the fact that his body is “covered by a sheet” (184). It isn’t difficult to read Hume’s philosophy on suicide against the situation of Matilda’s father. The father is no longer “promoting the interest of society” (165) through his impossible attraction to his daughter, a relationship that could produce no socially viable children and will certainly, as Hume suggests, “hinder[s] some person from being much more useful to society” (165). So following logically the philosophy of Hume, a person that serves no social use or has the impression they serve no purpose, is performing a distinct service to society. As Manfred and Matilda both seem to feel quite firmly that they have no useful place in the social order after incest, their refusal to commit suicide as distinct acts of violence represents their refusal to conform to social expectation.
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