We drove right over to her place on Massachusetts Avenue, a route I knew a bit because our tour buses always used it on the many annual trips our Aurora eighth graders took to the Nation’s Capital. (Chaperoning those trips, I learned that a mile on a bus loaded with eighth graders is different from a mile with Joyce.)
Betty answered the door, invited us in, and we immediately noticed how dim she kept her lights. It didn’t take long to figure out the reason: Framed on her walls were some priceless objects, including a letter in the hand of—and signed by—Mary W. Shelley. (Bright lights can cause fading.) Trying not to drool, I looked around and expressed my envy and admiration. And realized that what was on her walls probably exceeded in value my entire “estate.”
We sat down, had coffee, and talked about Mary Shelley and what I was up to. Joyce later said that it reminded her of a dance, a dance in which the woman (Betty) was trying steps on the man (Danny) to see how he would respond—to see if he was worthy. Apparently, I must have responded all right because the hour or so ended with great amity, with vows to stay in touch, with promises of various sorts—all of which both of us kept.
Here’s one exchange I remember, but a bit of background first. On February 22, 1815, Mary, 17, delivered a daughter, which means (employing the nine-month rule!) that they had “done it” not long after their initial meetings back in May of 1814—before their dash to Europe in company with her step-sister Claire Clairmont. But the evidence suggests it was a premature birth—perhaps a seven-month child—and she lived only about two weeks.
The first Mary Shelley biography I’d read, back in January 1997 (as I’ve said), was Emily Sunstein’s Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality (1989). Sunstein says that Mary “possibly meant to name her Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin III” (97). Anyway, I had a couple of questions for Betty about this infant.
How did Sunstein know what Mary intended to name the child?
Do we know where is the infant buried?
When I asked these things, Betty’s eyes lit. “I warned Emily about that,” she said. “There’s no evidence about the name.” And then—“No one knows where she lies, though I have some ideas.” I would not learn what those ideas were. Although Betty would prove to be a very generous scholar and friend—answering all kinds of questions, sharing all sorts of information and informed speculation—she was not yet ready for that kind of trust. Can’t say that I blame her.
Scholars can be very careful about what they share—especially before they publish their findings. Earle Labor (the Jack London scholar I mentioned) once trusted me with an amazing and emotional story about a young Stanford student named Anna Strunsky, who had been one of London’s early loves—and had even co-written an epistolary book with him on the subject of love, The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903—the same year as The Call of the Wild).
Anyway, London married someone else (then divorced and married again), but Anna, who married William English Walling, never forgot London. Here’s what Earle wrote in his recent biography: “Though she married William English Walling …, she carried a miniature portrait of Jack in her wallet for the rest of her life” (167). This Earle had learned from her daughter in an interview.
When Earle told me that story, I was working on my YA biography of London. He asked me not to use the information. I didn’t. But oh did I want to!