I had pretty much forgotten about my original note—I mean, I’d not forgotten that I’d written to her; I just figured that she was a lot busier than I and had better things to do than to reply to a random email from a retired eighth-grade English teacher in Aurora, Ohio. She was Betty T. Bennett, after all … and I …?
But her note was kind. She apologized for taking so long (though she offered no excuse) and said it is always special to hear from someone who found her work useful.
And then she made a mistake: She asked me a couple of questions: How is your project going …? And: By the way, where are you located? Ask me questions, and you get replies.
I replied the same day—only about an hour later, in fact. I sent her a massive note, one in which I trotted out some Big Guns (my two brothers). I told her that my younger brother, Dave, had published books with the Harvard Business School Press; I told her that my older brother, Richard, was the music critic for the Boston Globe. I told her, again, about my Jack London books; I outlined for her my self-imposed deadlines—finishing the research, traveling to Europe to see the important places in Mary’s story, starting to write the text.
I wrote a thick paragraph, as well, about Joyce and her scholarly and writing interests. And in a final paragraph (a small one with a presumptuous message) I asked her something that I had no business asking—not someone of her stature, not so early in our correspondence. May I send you my bibliography, I asked, & ask if you see any glaring omissions? Anything I simply must consult before I proceed?
I think if I had been Betty Bennett, that would have ended all correspondence. And it pretty much did. She did not reply.
On March 17, 1999—three months later—I wrote again to tell her I was heading to Europe to visit Shelley sites. I asked her if she knew of any comprehensive list of the places the Shelleys had lived, places that are still standing. She wrote back the same day—told me she knew of no such list but wished me happy hunting.
I will mention here that in her first note to me she had said that she was at work on her Shelley biography for Harvard University Press. At the time, I read this as kind of a warning (Don’t try to fool me with the “YA” stuff … I’ve already got a contract with a Biggie Press), but as I re-read her note more than fifteen years later, I detect nothing of the sort. But, of course, my attitudes about Betty are now much different. At the time she first wrote to me, we didn’t know each other at all, but as the next few years passed, much would change.