In 1796, Mary Hays published The Memoirs of Emma Courtney, a transparently autobiographical account of her unconsummated passion for William Frend and her relationship with William Godwin. A couple of decades later, Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley wrote a similarly autobiographical novella called Mathilda which also featured a fictionalized Godwin figure. The appearance of the radical philosopher, hugely important to both these women writers personally and intellectually, is only the first of many similarities between the two works. Both The Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Mathilda feature passionate heroines and are narrated in the first-person by the title characters. Novel and novella alike examine female sexuality, women’s education and the position of women in contemporary society. Both Hays and Shelley offer a radical critique of the limited opportunities for women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Below is a quick introduction to both works.
The Memoirs of Emma Courtney
The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) is an epistolary novel. The novel opens with the heroine addressing a young man named Augustus Harley. We soon discover that he is the son, and namesake, of the man Emma loves. Much of the book consists of passionate, unanswered love letters from Emma to the older Augustus Harley. Harley is, as I mentioned above, based on a Hays’s real life love, William Frend. In addition to the letters to Harley, the novel also contains several epistles from Emma to an older man, Mr. Francis, based on William Godwin. The letters are philosophical contemplations about the role of women in society. A friend of Mary Wollstoncraft, Hays was a radical and outspoken feminist. Contemporary critics were deeply scandalized by the novel’s treatment of female sexual passion and conservative publications, such as The Anti-Jacobin, labeled the novel revolutionary propaganda.
After Emma’s mother dies in childbirth, she is sent to live with a loving aunt and uncle. After neglecting her for most of her childhood, Emma’s father demands she visits him once a week. During these visits, her father tries to control her education and dictate her reading. One week, Emma meets Mr. Francis, who soon becomes her friend and mentor. After her father dies, she is sent to live with his brother’s family who treat her poorly. At her uncle’s house, Emma meets Mr. Montague. Montague is quickly infatuated but Emma is uninterested. Soon she meets a lady he lives close by called Mrs. Harley. She falls in love with her son, Augustus Harley. She writes letters to Augustus describing her love for him. He doesn’t really respond. She writes, and writes again. Eventually, she discovers that Augustus is already married and has children. After learning this, Emma agrees to marry Mr. Montague. She has daughter with him. Near the end of the novel, Harley has an accident and is brought to Emma’s house. She tenderly nurses him. Emma, to the shock of Montague’s close friend, is openly passionate towards Augustus. Montague discovers her inappropriate behavior. Some time later, Emma discovers Montague is having an affair with a maid and has impregnated her. Harley dies. In a fit of despair, Montague kills his illegitimate child and commits suicide. Emma adopts Harley’s son, also named Augustus, and devotes her life to him and her daughter with Montague.
Mathilda (or Matilda)
Mary Shelley wrote Mathilda between 1819 and 1820. Shelley, living in Italy, sent the work to her father in England for publication. However, Godwin, horrified by the incest theme, suppressed the story and refused to return the manuscript. Discovered by Elizabeth Nitchie, Mathilda was first published in 1959.
Mathilda begins with the title character about to die in a lone cottage. She begins to tell the story of her life in a manuscript addressed to a friend called Woodville. After Mathilda’s mother dies in childbirth, her father, destroyed by grief, quits England for continental Europe and leaves Mathilda under his sister’s care in Scotland. On her sixteenth birthday, Mathilda receives a letter from her father, now in London, saying he is on his way to see her. Reunited, Mathilda and her father live a blissful few weeks in each other’s company. When a young, attractive man comes to visit, Mathilda’s father’s behavior changes suddenly. He becomes restless, uneasy and cold. He leaves to Yorkshire and then soon invites Mathilda to join him. They spend several unhappy days together at Yorkshire until Mathilda confronts her father and demands he tells her what is wrong. After refusing at first, he finally relents and admits to loving her more than a father should. Mathilda is horrified. She runs away from him and shuts herself in her room. When she emerges, she finds her father has left and has written her a letter explaining his feelings and his recent behavior. Mathilda tries to catch up to her father. She follows him all the way to sea and then discovers he has committed suicide. Overcome with grief and shock, Mathilda falls ill. When she recovers, she decides to feign her death in order to escape society. Her plan succeeds. She begins life as a hermitess and spends two years in isolation, reading constantly. One day, she meets a poet called Woodville in the woods. He tells her his tragic story: a poor and brilliant poet, he fell in love with rich heiress called Elinor. Just before they were to be married, Elinor fell sick and died. Woodwille and Mathilda become friends. Mathilda never shares her story. Mathilda gets anxious and upset when Woodville doesn’t come to see her regularly. One day, Mathilda prepares laudanum and offers it to Woodville so they can both commit suicide together. Woodville refuses and tells Mathilda she must live. A little while later, Mathilda gets soaked in the rain and falls very ill. The story ends, as it started, with Mathilda on her deathbed composing her memoir.
- Tara K. Menon