Then, four days later, on December 14, Betty wrote to tell me that her father had died. She mentioned that he and her mother had been happily married for more than sixty-eight years—in the deepest bond of love. Betty’s is a very emotional note and mentions her crying—I will stop again soon, she said.
Having recently lost my own father, I had a sense of what she felt. The worst feeling I have experienced this past year without my father, I wrote, is an overpowering sense of his absence. I wrote in my journal last year [the day he died] that I was going to bed for the first time without a father and would wake up in a world without him. It was a desperate, lonely thought, and I have not recovered and not hope to recover.
What I meant by that last part: I do not ever want to think of my father and not feel his loss—painfully feel it.
A few days later I wrote to tell Betty that Tennyson’s ode to Wellington, which I’d just read, was one of the worst poems ever written. It’s too long to reproduce here, but here’s one of the early stanzas:
Where shall we lay the man whom we deplore?
Here, in streaming London’s central roar.
Let the sound of those he wrought for,
And the feet of those he fought for,
Echo round his bones for evermore.
I added in that same note that I had a sort of self-imposed deadline for the end of my first draft. Betty replied the next day. Here I am plodding away, she said. I continue unnaturally worn out—so you keep writing for the two of us.
I’m incredibly touched as I read those words now—you keep writing for the two of us. She had begun to accept me—not as an equal (she had none) but as a colleague, someone also doing what she considered the Good Work of trying to tell Mary’s story fairly, completely.
My reply, though, mentions none of this. Instead, insensitive, I wrote about my recent interest in the actor Edmund Kean (one of Mary’s favorites) and told her I’d collected a few Kean items over the years. Our correspondence drifted back to him in mid-January 2001. I finished that last bio of Kean, I wrote. What a sad story (as all ultimately are). Dead at 45—destroyed by alcohol …. But during his last appearance on stage, he collapsed into the arms of his son, Charles. Not a bad way to go, I guess.
Link to entire Tennyson poem.