There are few pages remaining in the thick notebook of email that Betty and I exchanged during our four years of correspondence. I have not “read ahead” throughout this entire chapter—far too long, I know, for any chapter—and I do not recall how our exchanges ended. There are 383 pages in this notebook, and I am now looking at page 380. This part of the story will end today, I know.
On June 20, 2002, I wrote to her with a quick question about a trip Mary Shelley had taken to Paris in 1828. I added: Hoping each day brings you more strength. And I ended with our now-customary Fondly.
Page 381: Betty wrote back the next day with a thoughtful answer to my question. And … Fondly.
Page 382: I replied a couple of hours later. Thanks for the confirmation. I told her some more research and writing news, and then this: Let me know if you’re seeing visitors—for I will be in your area in the middle of July and would love to see you. And … Fondly.
Page 383: Here’s the whole thing—Hi, Dan—Do let me know if you will be in the area in mid-July—Yes, I certainly am seeing friends—just a question of schedules—Fondly, Betty
And that’s the end.
What happened? I look at my journal for mid-July 2002, and I see that Joyce and I were indeed “in the area.” We were on an extended “literary” trip—spending some of the summer research money that Western Reserve Academy had given me. On July 16, our son’s thirtieth birthday, we were in Baltimore looking at and photographing Poe sites, but there is not a word in my journal about Betty, just the news that we drove on that day to Piedmont, West Virginia, hometown of Henry Louis Gates, the town he’d written about extensively in his wonderful memoir Colored People (1994), a book we were teaching to juniors at WRA.
Did I think about Betty that day we were so near to Washington, D. C.? I must have. Only a month before I’d written her with a promise, a promise that I’d patently broken. And in my journal for June I’d written this: sent e-mail back and forth to Betty Bennett, with whom I’ve not corresponded much this year (my fault); she’s had lung cancer and is now recovering fairly well; I’ll write more often now … But, of course, I didn’t.
I’m thinking some ugly thoughts about myself right now, about how I’d “moved on” to other interests, leaving behind a scholar and friend who’d been surpassingly generous with me. But Mary Shelley was more or less in my rear-view mirror; Poe lay before me (and I would indeed write a YA biography of him in the ensuing years). Although I would eventually upload the Shelley book to Kindle Direct Publishing in 2012, I hadn’t really dived back into the Shelley Sea—just updated some things. In fact, it wasn’t until I began this memoir that I rediscovered the pleasures of swimming (and diving) in that rich ocean of people and information.
But wait. Maybe I’m not as much of an ungrateful jerk as I think. I just did a name search for my 2003 journal—and found this from January 11: e-mail to Betty B to see how she’s doing and to let her know I’m thinking of her; I’m worried about her and have not heard from her in quite a while I obviously didn’t print that one out—and it’s long gone (I’ve changed email accounts several times since then).
And this from December 29: replied to earlier e-mail from Betty B re: how I’m doing. Again—I have no copy.
May 18, 2004: e-mailed Betty Bennett to see what’s going on with her No copy—just as there are no copies of any subsequent messages.
May 16, 2005: e-mail from/to Betty Bennett re: my health & some slides she’d like to use from the Shelleys in Italy. “My health”—I was nearing surgery for prostate cancer, just about a month away.
Christmas Eve, 2005: note from Betty Bennett (health problems from her, as well)—but warm & amiable … I must have written her about the results of my prostate cancer surgery in June 2005?
January 13, 2006: replied to e-mail from Betty Bennett re: the slides she borrowed from me (I’d forgotten she had them!)
February 7, 2006: wrote to Betty Bennett re: the new book (sigh) The “new book” is a Mary Shelley title I’d recently reviewed. (It wasn’t very good—riddled with errors as I said in an earlier journal entry).
I can find no other references to Betty—or to BB (as I commonly referred to her in my journal)—after February 2006.
And then—August 12, 2006—Betty Bennett, 71, died of lung cancer at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D. C. Most of the obituary in the Washington Post is about her Shelley work (rightly so), and there’s an intriguing sentence near the end: She had completed work on a literary biography of Shelley, which is scheduled to be released by Harvard University Press. This can’t be true—I know she was not finished. I just checked the HUP site: no such listing.
The New York Times had only a brief “paid notice” about her death, posted by the Keats-Shelley Association. We shall miss, it says, her creative energy, her keen intellect, her kindness and her genuine friendship. Indeed.
The Post obituary ends with these touching words: Through her study of Shelley, Dr. Bennett said she learned what it was like for a woman to be on her own in the 19th century. “I gradually learned to be better able to be on my own in the 20th,” she said.
I flail myself with this thought: I’d not corresponded her her since that February exchange—even though I knew she was suffering. And worst of all? I did not even know she’d died until I began working on this memoir and checked the Post’s website. Can I ever hope to describe the rupture in my conscience—in my heart—when I found that obituary?