The act of writing this short novel distracted Mary Shelley from her grief after the deaths of her one-year-old daughter Clara at Venice in September 1818 and her three-year-old son William in June 1819 in Rome. These losses plunged Mary Shelley into a depression that distanced her emotionally and sexually from Percy Shelley and left her, as he put it, "on the hearth of pale despair".
Narrating from her deathbed, Matilda tells the story of her unnamed father's confession of incestuous love for her, followed by his suicide by drowning; her relationship with a gifted young poet called Woodville fails to reverse Matilda's emotional withdrawal or prevent her lonely death.
Commentators have often read the text as autobiographical, the three central characters standing for William Godwin, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley. There is no firm evidence, however, that the storyline itself is autobiographical. Analysis of Matilda's first draft, titled "The Fields of Fancy", reveals that Mary Shelley took as her starting point Mary Wollstonecraft's unfinished "The Cave of Fancy", in which a small girl's mother dies in a shipwreck. Like Mary Shelley herself, Matilda idealises her lost mother. According to editor Janet Todd, the absence of the mother from the last pages of the novel suggests that Matilda's death renders her one with her mother, enabling a union with the dead father. Critic Pamela Clemit resists a purely autobiographical reading and argues that Mathilda is an artfully crafted novel, deploying confessional and unreliable narrations in the style of her father, as well as the device of the pursuit used by Godwin in his Caleb Williams and by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. The novel's 1959 editor, Elizabeth Nitchie, noted the novel's faults of "verbosity, loose plotting, somewhat stereotyped and extravagant characterization" but praised a "feeling for character and situation and phrasing that is often vigorous and precise".
The story may be seen as a metaphor for what happens when a woman, ignorant of all consequences, follows her own heart while dependent on her male benefactor.
Mary Shelley sent the finished Mathilda to her father in England, to submit for publication. However, though Godwin admired aspects of the novel, he found the incest theme "disgusting and detestable" and failed to return the manuscript despite his daughter's repeated requests. In the light of Percy Shelley's later death by drowning, Mary Shelley came to regard the novel as ominous; she wrote of herself and Jane Williams "driving (like Matilda) towards the sea to learn if we were to be for ever doomed to misery". The novel was published for the first time in 1959, edited by Elizabeth Nitchie from dispersed papers. It has become possibly Mary Shelley's best-known work after Frankenstein.
- Clemit, "Legacies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft", 37. Mary Shelley spelled the novel's title "Matilda" and the heroine's name "Mathilda". The book has been published under each title.
- Todd, Introduction to Matilda, xxii; Bennett, An Introduction, 47. During this period, Percy Shelley dramatised an incestuous tale of his own, The Cenci.
- "When I wrote Matilda, miserable as I was, the inspiration was sufficient to quell my wretchedness temporarily." Journal entry, 27 October 1822, quoted in Bennett, An Introduction, 53; see also, The Journals of Mary Shelley, 442.
- "Thou art fled, gone down the dreary road," he wrote, "that leads to Sorrow's most obscure abode". From "To Mary Shelley", published in Mary Shelley's edition of Percy Shelley's poetical works, 1839. Quoted in Todd, Introduction to Matilda, xvi; see also Mellor, Mary Shelley, 142.
- The novel's 1959 editor, Elizabeth Nitchie, for example, states: "The three main characters are clearly Mary herself, Godwin, and Shelley, and their relations can easily be reassorted to correspond with reality". Introduction to Mathilda; see also, Mellor, Mary Shelley, 143.
- Nitchie, Introduction to Mathilda.
- Todd, Introduction to Matilda, xviii.
- Todd, Introduction to Mathilda, xix.
- Todd, Introduction to Mathilda, xx–xxi.
- Clemit, "From The Fields of Fancy to Matilda ", 64–75.
- Nitchie, Introduction to Mathilda.
- Garrets, Margaret Davenport (1996). "Writing and Re-writing Incest in Mary Shelley's Mathilda". Keats-Shelley Journal 45.
- Todd, Introduction to Mathilda, xvii.
- Letter to Maria Gisborne, 15 August 1822. Todd, Introduction to Mathilda, xvii.
- Nitchie, Introduction to Mathilda.
- Clemit, "From The Fields of Fancy to Matilda ", 64.
- Allen, Graham. "Beyond Biographism: Mary Shelley's Matilda, Intertextuality, and the Wandering Subject". Romanticism 3.2 (1997): 170–84.
- Bennett, Betty T., ed. Mary Shelley in her Times. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8018-7733-4.
- Bennett, Betty T. "Mary Shelley's letters: the public/private self." The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. Ed. Esther Schor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-00770-4.
- Bennett, Betty T. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8018-5976-X.
- Bunnell, Charlene. "Mathilda: Mary Shelley's Romantic Tragedy". Keats-Shelley Journal 46 (1997): 75–96.
- Chatterjee, Ranita. "Filian Ties: Goldwin's Deloraine and Mary Shelley's Writings". European Romantic Review 18.1 (2007): 29–41.
- Chatterjee, Ranita. "Mathilda: Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and the Ideologies of Incest". Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after "Frankenstein": Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley's Birth. Eds. Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.
- Clemit, Pamela. "Frankenstein, Matilda, and the legacies of Godwin and Wollstonecraft." The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley. Ed. Esther Schor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-521-00770-4.
- Clemit, Pamela. "From The Fields of Fancy to Matilda." Mary Shelley in her Times. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University press, 2003. ISBN 0-8018-7733-4.
- Davis, William. "Mathilda and the Ruin of Masculinity". European Romantic Review 13.2 (2002): 175–81
- Edelman-Young, Diana. "'Kingdom of Shadows': Intimations of Desire in Mary Shelley's Mathilda". Keats-Shelley Journal 51 (2002): 116–44.
- Ford, Susan Allen. "'A Name More Dear': Daughters, Fathers, and Desire in A Simple Story, The False Friend, and Mathilda". Re-Visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–1837. Eds. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
- François, Anne-Lise and Daniel Mozes. "'Don't Say 'I Love You': Agency, Gender and Romanticism in Mary Shelley's Matilda". Mary Shelley's Fictions: From Frankenstein to Falkner. Ed. Michael Eberle-Sinatra and Nora Crook. New York: Macmillan; St. Martin's, 2000.
- Garrett, Margaret Davenport. "Writing and Re-Writing Incest in Mary Shelley's Mathilda". Keats-Shelley Journal 45 (1996): 44–60.
- Gillingham, Lauren. "Romancing Experience: The Seduction of Mary Shelley's Matilda". Studies in Romanticism 42.2 (2003): 251–69.
- Harpold, Terence. "'Did You Get Mathilda from Papa?': Seduction Fantasy and the Circulation of Mary Shelley's Mathilda". Studies in Romanticism 29(1989): 49–67.
- Himes, Audra Dibert. "'Knew Shame, and Knew Desire': Ambivalence as Structure in Mary Shelley's Mathilda". Iconoclastic Departures: Mary Shelley after "Frankenstein": Essays in Honor of the Bicentenary of Mary Shelley's Birth. Eds. Syndy M. Conger, Frederick S. Frank, and Gregory O'Dea. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.
- Knoepflmacher, U. C. "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters". The Endurance of "Frankenstein": Essays on Mary Shelley's Novel. Eds. U. C. Knoepflmacher and George Levine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
- Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, her Fiction, Her Monsters. London: Routledge, 1990. ISBN 0-415-90147-2.
- Rajan, Tilottama. "Mary Shelley's Mathilda: Melancholy and the Political Economy of Romanticism". Studies in the Novel 26.2 (1994): 43–68.
- Ready, Robert. "Dominion of Demeter: Mary Shelley's Mathilda". Keats-Shelley Journal 52 (2003): 94–110.
- Shelley, Mary. The Journals of Mary Shelley, 1814–44. Ed. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8018-5088-6.
- Shelley, Mary. The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980–83.
- Shelley, Mary. Mathilda. Ed. Elizabeth Nitchie. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959. OCLC 249434. Gutenberg copy, retrieved 16 February 2008.
- Shelley, Mary. Matilda; with Mary and Maria, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Ed. Janet Todd. London: Penguin, 1992. ISBN 0-14-043371-6.
- Shelley, Mary. Selected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Ed. Betty T. Bennett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8018-4886-5.
- Mathilda from Project Gutenberg, with Mary Shelley's first draft, The Fields of Fancy, and Elizabeth Nitchie's introduction and notes (1959).