Mary was, of course, devastated when her husband drowned in the summer of 1822. Her letters and journal are dark—though pages from the latter are missing—torn away. In October, though, she managed this: For eight years I communicated with unlimited freedom with one whose genius, far transcending mine, awakened & guided my thoughts; I conversed with him; rectified my errors of judgement, obtained new lights from him, & my mind was satisfied. Now I am alone! Oh, how alone! The stars may behold my tears, & the winds drink my sighs—but my thoughts are a sealed treasure which I can confide to none. White paper—wilt thou be my confidant?
Slowly, though, she emerged and convinced herself that study was her best medication. On November 10 she wrote, The stream begins to take to its new channel …. And in March 1823, Study has become more necessary to me than the air I breathe. In the questioning & searching turn it gives to my thoughts, I find some relief to wild reverie ….
By late August 1823 she was back in London, negotiating with the Shelley family for financial support. Shelley’s father—Sir Timothy—was not eager to do so. He blamed Mary (and her father) for ruining his son. But Sir Timothy also knew this: Mary’s son was the next male in the Shelley line. By English law, he would inherit. So the grandfather made (slight) provisions for his support and education.
And soon enough Mary—attractive, brilliant—found herself growing interested again in men—though never really overtly so. But men were getting interested in her—especially one. But I’m going to delay writing about this because this story deserves a chapter of its own.
As the correspondence between Betty and me accelerated in June, I was soon telling her about my father. Betty, at the time, was in Provincetown, enjoying a vacation, and I told her about how my parents, when they first retired, lived in Cannon Beach, Oregon—about how my father had loved the Beaver State. I hadn’t yet told her that my father was failing—rapidly. He’d been moving down the ladder: cane, walker, wheelchair, bed. It was horrible to witness.
A week later I was telling her about the wedding of a former student named John (a young man whom I’d taught the very first year of my career, 1966–1967). I called their wedding service weird and wonderful. One reason: The bride had worn a tuxedo, the groom a kilt.
But soon we were back to scholarly questions—the issue of the castle of Castruccio, a character in Mary Shelley’s 1823 historical novel, Valperga: Or, The Life of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca. I’ll talk more about this novel later, but Betty and I were talking about a sign I’d remembered seeing in Bagni di Lucca when I was traveling in Italy. I thought I remembered seeing a sign pointing toward Castruccio’s castle—but, like a doofus, I’d not taken a picture of the sign. Betty was very curious about this and wanted to know specifics: Can you tell me exactly (town, road) where you were when you took the photo—did you use a guidebook? Which? Can you send the citation. I am trying to match up what I know or think I know with the photo of the Castle [which I’d sent her] ….
In an early July email I mentioned to Betty that Joyce and I are thinking of retracing the Six Weeks’ Tour, perhaps next spring/summer … sound like a good idea? I was alluding to the little book that Mary published late in 1817 (or early 1818—the time is vague—but just about the time that Frankenstein appeared, as well), an account of her elopement with Bysshe Shelley in 1814. Of course, her time was a virulently prudish time, so she does not allude in any way to the unseemliness of their adventure (he, a married man—a father—had run away not just with Mary but with her step-sister Claire Clairmont, age 16).
The little book had a subtitle nearly as long as the book itself—… through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni. Whew! As that subtitle indicates, Mary added information from some letters about that fabled summer of 1816 when she and Bysshe stayed in Geneva near Lord Byron; Claire Clairmont, also along, was pregnant with Byron’s child, though he did not at first know it.
Here’s what Mary wrote about that stormy summer that gave birth to Victor Frankenstein: An almost perpetual rain confines us principally to the house …. The thunder storms that visit us are grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before. We watch them as they approach from the opposite side of the lake, observing the lightning play among the clouds in various parts of the heavens, and dart in jagged figures upon the piny heights of Jura, dark with the shadow of the overhanging cloud … One night we enjoyed a finer storm than I had ever before beheld. The lake was lit up—the pines on Jura made visible, and all the scene illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness.