I’m not proud of losing touch with Betty—in fact, it’s one of the great shames and regrets of my life. It bothers me so much that I’m going to delay writing about it for a while. I’ll stick, instead, to the flowering of our correspondence and try to enjoy, once again, what was growing to become one of the most rewarding professional relationships of my life.
In a message on June 10, Betty alluded to a “family crisis”; this would be the first—but not by far the last—time that we would write of personal matters. I replied about an hour later and told her that the seventeen-year locusts had arrived in Aurora. The air hums with them, I said, day and night—at times so intensely that in concert they sound like a squadron of hovering helicopters. I’ve read that the humming is the males, calling to females (like teenage boys in cars with their tape-decks blaring) … “Tape-decks.” Any doubt that we’re in the 1990s?
A day later I wrote to ask a favor—the introduction that William Godwin wrote for Transfusion, the novel of his son, William Godwin, Jr., who had died of cholera on 8 September 1832. Godwin had edited and published that novel in 1835. I had found and read the novel—but the edition I’d read had not included his father’s introduction.
Betty said she’d send it. I just looked in the file for that novel, and there is a handwritten note from Betty on American University letterhead: Dear Dan— As promised— Betty
And here’s some of what Godwin wrote about his late son, who was barely thirty when he died. He mentions that he had been surprised by his son’s desire to write. Up to that time, Godwin says, I had no reason to suspect that he could, with any degree of taste, turn a sentence or construct a paragraph. He worked his way in silence …. He notes that his son, only a couple of years before his death, had established a Shakespeare club he called “The Mulberries.”
Godwin then writes about his son’s fatal illness and quick death. I and his mother were sent for … and we attended him incessantly. He tells about the burial—and then this: He was a being of the warmest affections and the most entire generosity of temper.
Oddly, in that same email requesting the father’s piece about his son, I told Betty that we were involved in the plans for our own son’s wedding on August 14. He was twenty-seven at the time, close to the age when William Godwin, Jr., died. And so I felt a special tremor of dread as I read the elder Godwin’s tribute to his son. I could not imagine such a loss. I wrote to Betty, as well, about how we were tired of all the wedding preparation and detail. In some ways, I wrote, we wish they would just weave wildflowers into their hair and run off to Woodstock.
As I read our messages during these initial months, I notice they always seem to have some frivolous aspect to them, as well—not always did we write about death and marriage and illness and scholarly matters. We joked back and forth about Starbucks, about Austin Powers. And we found another connection: We’d both done considerable work at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (which holds both key Shelley documents and the world’s best collection of Jack London material). And this occasioned one of Betty’s flights into a kind of lyricism. She noted that she stayed with her brother, about fifty miles away, but once she survived the Los Angeles-area commute, I associate the smell of eucalyptus with those days—and many memories of the gardens—particularly the Zen garden that I found respite in … a nice set of thoughts on this clear Washington morning …
Soon enough, we were back to business, corresponding about the London theaters of the day. Mary had attended avidly for a while after she returned from Italy following the drowning of her husband. And it wasn’t too long before love was among her motives.