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 premature by a couple of months and had lived only about two weeks. 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. I have spent a number of hours on the subject—as of now, am still not satisfied with all the various pieces. She wondered what sources Melissa was consulting. I said I’d get back to her.
Then … a series of exchanges about quotidian events—Betty was experiencing orientation for new students; the book store had messed up her order for her classes; she was revising her syllabus. And I’ve been working on trying to clear up some of the mess in this study. … Still, I am in 1827, she wrote. In her book Mary Shelley was now thirty years old. She had twenty-four years to go.
I told her I was heading down to the University of Cincinnati to read an old pamphlet about sea-water therapy. Teenager Mary had experienced some skin outbreaks, and physicians in her day recommended sea-water treatments—whatever they were. I would go to Cincinnati to find out.
I complained as well about all the reading I was doing for Kirkus (little did I know!)—but I was somehow finding time to read some Sir Walter Scott because of his relationships with the various principals in Mary’s life. I feel DUMB, I wrote, complaining about his vast vocabulary—and use of dialect. People who don’t sympathize with kids with reading problems should be required to read about 100 pages of a Scott novel and then take a pop quiz.
Betty replied with her opinion that Mary’s skin rashes had not, in her view, been psychological but perhaps related to a strep infection. Once again I was touched that she shared an insight with me, an insight she trusted I would not publish before she did (I didn’t). As I sit here in 2014, more than fourteen years after this exchange, I marvel at that trust. We’d met only once; we had only an electronic friendship. And yet she felt safe enough to confide an idea that went counter to all the other major Mary Shelley biographies.
Betty also (mildly) complained about all the checking and double-checking she was doing in her research. There is that inevitable chase down the rabbit hole to find nothing at all. All biographers and researchers have been on those chases down those rabbit holes. That’s quite a feeling, standing in the dark, in an empty space, and asking yourself, What am I doing here?
I replied that I was going to ask my dermatologist about those skin rashes, and then I confided something else to her—the acquisitiveness I’d come to associate with this research. I needed to own some things, it seems—not just read about them. And that acquisitiveness, eventually, would be one of the reasons that our correspondence would eventually evanesce.