But who was Edward John Trelawny? And how did he get into Mary’s life? I think I’ll hold off on him—maybe give him his own chapter. He would have loved that. He associated himself so much with the Shelley circle that he arranged to have himself buried alongside poor drowned Bysshe in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, nearly sixty years after the poet died. Betty, commenting a few days later on all the information I was accumulating, noted that she also had massive piles. How to decide what actually goes into a biography? A form of torture, she wrote on January 12.
About that same time I wrote to her about having recently finished reading Mary’s Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France, 1838–1839, a two-volume contribution to Lardner’s Cyclopedia, a standard reference set of the day. Mary had already written three other volumes for the series—Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal (1835).
As I told Betty, I had not looked forward to reading these works and had put them off to the very last—well, the very last of Mary’s works. I was still reading many other things in related areas. But how eager could I—or anyone else?—be to read a bunch of encyclopedia entries from the first third of the nineteenth century about people, who today (with some notable exceptions) are forgotten.
But I’d acquired the Lives via OhioLink, the academic library consortium among colleges and universities in the state, and in early January 2000 was taking notes on Mary’s contributions. And I told Betty how wrong I’d been in my worries.
I had DREADED reading these volumes, I wrote on January 13, but now I’m so glad I waded through them. … As you know, she loved to editorialize in those entries, and in them she revealed so many things about her attitudes, about people …. And she had lived and suffered enough by then that there is a poignant resonance to so many of her descriptions of the deaths, elopements, infidelities, successes, failures, and inadequacies of her subjects.
A couple of quick examples: Of Petrarch, she wrote, He believed that traveling was the best school of learning. She believed this, as well. And Machiavelli: There is no more delightful literary task than the justifying a hero or writer, who has been misrepresented and reviled ….
Mary, by this time, had embarked upon just such a voyage to restore the reputation of her late husband, also misrepresented and reviled (in her view) for his radical politics, his unconventional lifestyle, his atheism, even his poetry.
Anyway, at the end of that email I offered to send Betty some photocopies of my notes (I’d typed them), and I was more than surprised—and more than a little concerned—when I got her reply a few days later.