More than a month would pass before our next exchange. On April 7, 2000, I wrote: I’ve been dilatory & lazy & all those other words the Puritans liked to hurl against people like me. I told her about the Shelley work I’d been doing—the writing—and then this: The notes in your MWS letters continue to amaze me—and to save me tens of thousands of steps. What a wonderful piece of scholarship.
And so it is. The three-volume set of Mary Shelley’s letters still stands proudly on my shelf. I just looked inside the first volume and was surprised to see that Betty had inscribed it to me in May 1999 when we’d met for the first—only—time: For Daniel Dyer—With all best wishes—Betty I would need—and use—those wishes as the Mary Shelley years drifted on, and as I (stupid, stupid I) drifted out of Betty’s life.
In that same email on April 7, I told Betty that Joyce and I were heading out to Nantucket. I was doing a presentation on Moby-Dick and Sena Jeter Naslund’s recent novel Ahab’s Wife, and I wanted to travel around Nantucket to see the sites relevant, especially, in Naslund’s work (much of it takes place on the island).
Betty replied a few hours later. She told me that she was heading off to Italy in late May, where she would be using the country abode of a friend to enjoy a focused period of writing.
A couple of weeks later—back from Nantucket (a rainy Nantucket: oh, did it pour!)—I wrote to tell her a little about our trip and shared some of the recent reading I’d done. And then this: I’ve been reading trash, too, most shamefully: a novel by Tom Clancy, a PIG in every regard. But boiling blood cleanses my system (and high blood pressure proves I’m alive) so I guess it was not all wasted time.
A joke about high blood pressure. Ah, youth! Now, of course, I’m on a daily dose of Lisinopril—to control, of course, high blood pressure.
I’d actually liked … well, enjoyed … some of Clancy’s earlier novels. But this most recent one I was talking about—Rainbow 6 (1998)—featured a bizarre conspiracy by liberals to wipe out the most of the human population so that they could enjoy Nature in her full glory once again. It was ludicrous.
Betty replied with a newsy note about her various doings (far more consequential than mine, of course). She didn’t say a word about Tom Clancy,
Apparently, I didn’t reply because two months later (on June 14) Betty sent a note from her Italian residence (my full-time cave, she called it) and told me her biography had reached 1835—only sixteen years left in Mary’s life. Who knows, she said, how close I can come to finishing that first draft!
As I read her words more than a dozen years later, I am struck by her buoyancy—by her excitement about … scholarship. About holing up in a remote place and just writing. As a kid—as an adolescent—as a young adult I never could have believed that such excitement was remotely possible. (Excitement was hitting a triple with the winning run on first; or sinking a key foul shot near the end of the game; or watching John Wayne hit a very deserving someone in the face; or having a girl say “Yes” when you asked her out.) Of course, by the time I was writing to Betty, I fully understood how scholarship and writing can be such thrilling occupations. I’d recently spent some years chasing down every loose detail about Jack London and The Call of the Wild, and in 2000 I was deeply into Mary Shelley and her world. And I knew that I’d truly never had so much fun.