On May 10, I wrote a note to Betty about the death of her sister-in-law, then added a long postscript about the parachute jump of 1802. I told her I’d found a 1973 book by John Lucas, The Big Umbrella: The History of the Parachute from Da Vinci to Apollo, a work that included Garnerin’s own account of his descent that day in London. As I look at this message now, I’m amused by how obsessive I was becoming about this Mary Shelley project.
Writers of biographies and histories—and fiction, as well—know this: One source leads to another which leads to another which … can be endless. When I was working on my annotated edition of The Call of the Wild (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), I was discovering that just about everything Jack London mentions in the novel is based on something factual. In the first chapter, for example, he mentions a little train stop near Santa Clara, California, called College Park. It’s actually there; I discovered that London himself used it when he was visiting friends in the area. Even more interesting to me: The night Buck (the dog hero) was stolen from his Santa Clara ranch-home, London tells us that the Judge Miller (the owner) was away at a meeting, and his sons were forming an athletic club.
And so I wondered: Was Judge Bond (the actual judge on whom London based his character) away at a meeting the one night in mid-October 1901 when we are certain London was staying at the ranch? And were Judge Bond’s sons—Louis and Marshall—forming an athletic club? Well, those questions cost me an airline ticket to San Francisco, hotel charges, rental car, and so on. But after a couple of long days in the San Jose public library I discovered … yes and yes.
The Judge had been at a meeting of the California Cured Fruit Association (he was the president), and son Louis was president of the newly formed Garden City Athletic Club.
Well, this same sort of curiosity was propelling me in my Mary Shelley research. Was I reading books on the history of parachutes! Of course. It’s crucial… isn’t it?
Betty, bless her, was curious, as well, and asked me to send her whatever I found out—and I did, of course.
At the end of May, Betty wrote to say she was back working full time on her own book and It feels as if things are going well—as if I’m making progress. She had reached the point in the story when Bysshe drowns in Italy—and the aftermath.
Soon we were back trading questions and information. I’d read, for example, in one biography that Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont (his second wife) twice on the same day. Betty wrote to tell me that Godwin’s journal mentions only one service. She would get back to me.
On June 10, I wrote about how frustrated I was getting, writing my book—especially one supposedly aimed at adolescent readers. Mary Shelley’s circle comprised some of the most fascinating characters of the time (or any time, for that matter)—Lord Byron, Charles and Mary Lamb, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays. But how to deal with them in a YA book? What does one say? I asked. “Lord Byron, the notorious poet, was one of Mary’s friends”?
I was beginning to realize that I’d spent all this time—years of time—reading and learning about things and people who would never be able to have much a presence in the book. It sometimes worked out to something like this: From five books I’d read on some related subject I’d sometimes be able to use only enough to supply a dependent clause in a single sentence.