|Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley|
Not long after I retired from Aurora in January 1997, I began keeping a journal. I’d done this sporadically throughout the years— though never too assiduously (a failure I deeply regret)—and I started slowly, almost hesitantly, on 8 February. At first, I used just the calendar feature of WordPerfect, and every day I would jot in the space allowable some things I’d done that day. No reflection, no elaboration—basically, a list of activities. Soon, though, I’d shifted to a regular document format, a practice I’ve continued.
But then I read about Mary Shelley’s father—William Godwin—who kept a diary throughout his adult life. I read that he always left his diary open, on his desk, adding events as they happened throughout the day. That seemed like a good idea. And I’ve been doing the cyber-equivalent since the late 1990s, keeping my journal file open on my computer, adding to it all day long.
My first Mary Shelley entry is 10 February 1997, less than a month after I retired. That day, I noted, Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality, 1989, the first of the many—okay, all—Shelley biographies I would read. And, because this was the first, every page taught me something I had not known. I underlined her text heavily. I see on that February calendar that I was simultaneously reading other Shelley-related texts, among them the journal of Dr. John Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, who was with the group during the Frankenstein summer in Geneva, 1816. Polidori—only twenty at the time—joined the famous ghost story-writing competition and later, after Byron fired him (thinking young Polidori was too uppity—which he was), he published the first vampire novel in English, The Vampyre (1819—are you grateful, oh you fans of Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, and True Blood?), and another tale of the supernatural, Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus (also 1819). Miserable Polidori, 25, took his own life—by poison—in August 1821—“Poor Polidori is gone!” said Byron when he heard the news.I was reading Emily W. Sunstein’s biography,
After I finished Sunstein’s biography (as well as her A Different Face: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, 1975), I wrote her a fan letter on 14 May 1997. I was ebullient about my new pursuit, and were I not too old to blush, I would do so now as I revisit my opening paragraph in the Sunstein letter:
I have just recently read your biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft and of Mary Shelley and just wish you to know how very much I admire your work. Your research is meticulous, your narration clear, your judgments cool, precise, and verifiable. You have helped readers understand these two remarkable figures by doing your best to display the events of their lives without projecting them through the distorting lenses of personal philosophy or political bias.
I went on, strewing more such flowers on my florid path—then ended with this:
Thank you again for your terrific scholarship; it has cleared the trail for others, and I hope, as I begin down that trail (I just finished Valperga and The Last Man [other novels by Mary Shelley]), that I can bring to the subject some of your skill and devotion to detail.
Two weeks later—on 31 May—a reply from Emily Sunstein. She thanked me for my interest, told me about some recent research she’d been doing, some things she’d found out about Mary, and ended: Thanks again for your particularly gratifying letter, and warm wishes for your continued success. Oh, was I happy! A Shelley scholar had written to me! Had appreciated my words!
Like a schoolboy who’s just learned that—yes!—that little red-haired girl does like him, I swiftly replied, and we exchanged a few more letters before our correspondence dwindled, then died. In my last letter to her (on 25 May 1999) I responded to her comment that she hadn’t been feeling well. She’d said she had a chronic illness and had ended her letter with a word about her current project, a book about siblings: hoping the present remission will continue long enough for me to finish.
Today, 17 August 2011, writing this, curious, I decide to check on her. Google quickly escorts me to the New York Times. To her obituary. Emily W. Sunstein died at age 82, on 27 April 2007, of autoimmune vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessels, says the Times. (Link to her obituary.) There is nothing in the obituary about her siblings book. Nor does Amazon list anything other than her Shelley and Wollstonecraft titles. I look in my journal: On 27 April 2007, the day of that obituary, I was finishing Anna Karenina and—swear to God—that very day had read of Anna’s death.
Once I finished Sunstein’s books—and once I siphoned the fuel from her bibliography—I roared off in my own Shelleymobile down the freeway of my research … which, I soon learned, was no speedway at all, but a maze, a labyrinth featuring many exits, service plazas, rest areas, detours, dead ends, and dangers. And even a few inviting off ramps that led to nowhere. I explored them all.