Early in August 2000, I wrote to tell Betty about my trip to the University of Rochester—which had gone well. But I’d learned, on return, that the pamphlet on vegetarianism I’d driven all that way to read was available both at Kent State and at the Cleveland Public Library. I’d not known because both those places had catalogued the item differently. Oh well.
I also told her, facetiously, that I was working on the ass market part of the biography. When Bysshe and Mary eloped in 1814, taking with them Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, they’d fled England to France, where, in Paris, they’d visited the ass market, where, in fact, they’d purchased one of the critters to help them on their journey on to Switzerland. (Where, as we’ll see, they did not stay long: Money problems sent them back to England—and disgrace.)
In that same email I proudly told Betty that I’d just filed my 100th book review for Kirkus. I asked my editor, I wrote, if I could count on a gold watch or rocking chair. He replied: “How about 100 more books?” I told her, too, that I was soon going to start writing reviews for the Plain Dealer.
As I read this now—in late October 2014—I realize how early in my book-reviewing career the year 2000 was. I’ve now done well over 1200 reviews for Kirkus, a couple of hundred for the Plain Dealer. I remember feeling that 100 reviews was a lot; it wasn’t.
A few days later, I told Betty that Kirkus had just published a very positive review of Janet Todd’s book. She was glad to hear that, then told me about a visit from her recently widowed brother—a good visit. They’d gone to museums, a play. She noted how very much he is suffering from his loss.
In mid-August, as the 2000 Presidential race was heating up, Betty wrote to ask me about politics—we have never talked about that area, she said. It was the summer of the political conventions. I was a little wary about a reply at first—Surely politics will not divide us? I said. And then I figured what-the-hell and leapt right into it, telling her I was (still am) a lifelong Democrat. Of the Democratic Convention, I said, But, of course, all is pageantry. Still … I like to watch people who skewer the folks I’d love to skewer.
Then I changed the subject—back to Mary Shelley, et al. I told her that in the winter of 1814 she’d attended a lecture by a Professor Garnerin—and I wondered if this was the same guy who’d parachuted over her house in 1802 when she was a little girl; I wondered, too, if she had made that connection.
Betty wrote back with some animation: Our politics could not be more the same! Should be no surprise, given our taste in a biographical subject! And especially this subject!
In mid-August I wrote some news to Betty about a few things I’d found out about the death of Mary Shelley’s unnamed infant on March 6, 1815; the child, as we’ve seen, was only about two weeks old. My daughter-in-law—a pediatric nurse at the time—told me, I wrote, that the lungs would not have finished development and would not have inflated properly, making breathing (and sucking) difficult—explaining, probably, the infant’s death—perhaps a combination of starvation, dehydration, and respiratory failure.
That got Betty’s interest—in a hurry.