Betty was not so sure that she wanted to see my notes on Mary Shelley’s encyclopedia entries. In an email on January 17, she wrote about her gratitude—about my very generous offer. But she went on to explain: Here is my problem: your notes represent your view—what you think it is important to note, yes? Therefore, were I to accept your notes, I would in a sense be “using” your work … which would not be proper as you are writing your own book. She said some more nice things—but the message was clear: This is probably not a good idea.
I wrote back the same day—I gave her an example of the sort of thing I’d done with the notes, then backed off and went on to talk about Coleridge and his use of opium and laudanum. Nothing like drugs to get you to forget nineteenth-century encyclopedia entries! And a bit more, too, about Trelawny’s supposed swim of the Niagara River rapids. I’d been waiting to hear from an archivist at the Buffalo Historical Society about any possible news story at the time.
Betty wrote later and said, sure, send the notes along. I did.
As I read over this exchange now—fifteen years later—I am struck, of course, by one thing: Betty’s profound ethical sense. She was a true scholar—generous and encouraging to others (to me!), yet dedicated to the ethics of her profession and craft. This exchange made me even more humble—and more grateful than ever for her help, for her willingness to listen to me, and respond.
We moved on. Betty—to judge from her correspondence—was just sort of getting up to speed on using the Internet for research. I was happy to share the little I knew—like the good sites to visit for antiquarian books and the like. There were two waterways running between us, and the river flowing from her had a far more powerful current, so I was happy to float a few scholarly twigs on the little trickle that ran from me to her.
Within a day, for example, I told her that I’d heard from Buffalo: no newspaper confirmation of Trelawny’s feat. So, I wrote, the rascal escapes again!
Then … nothing for a couple of weeks. Betty, I learned later, had gone to New York for some meetings, and while she was there, she had visited her father in the nursing home where he was living. He is more stoic than I, she wrote. I have to … find a way to say this is okay—or at least be at peace over the idea that it is at least necessary …
On January 30 I wrote back, sharing some nursing home experiences of my own. I told her about Joyce’s wonderful book about her mother’s battles with Alzheimer’s—In a Tangled Wood. And, of course, I rehearsed some of my recent experiences with my own father, so recently gone. My father somehow endured it all, I wrote, I don’t know how (I was ready to scream much of the time) ….
I ended that note by telling her I was going to shuffle off to Buffalo in March: I’d learned from another source that there were some newspapers available from 1833, so I was going to stay with an old friend in the area and spend a day cranking through microfilm.