Washington Irving decided it was time to leave England (was Mary’s evident ardor a reason?), and he headed for France & Spain. By August 14—just four days after seeing the plays with Mary—he was in France. Safe.
I wonder, of course, what Mary thought of his swift departure. (Her journals and letters are silent.) She was clearly interested in him: a literary man, charming, celebrated, respectable. His status would have greatly attracted her, for she was still suffering (and would continue to do so throughout the rest of her life) from the blows to her reputation earned after her elopement with the already married Bysshe Shelley just a decade earlier. Did she see Irving as a savior of sorts?
And did he sail for France because he read all of this in her eyes? He was a very conventional man in many ways, and an association with Mary Shelley—despite her accomplishments, her beauty (acknowledged by all), her brilliance, her patent interest in him—could have had no enduring benefits for him—and would probably have sullied his own reputation.
But the story was not over. On June 25, 1825, Payne, walking Mary home from tea at the Godwins’, declared his love. She replied with the words that have crushed every young man’s heart since the first cavewoman uttered them: Let’s just be friends.
That was bad enough. But then she expressed her continuing interest in Irving.
I try to picture this: confessing my love, getting the let’s-just-be-friends reply, then (a breath or so later), hearing my beloved ask me to hook her up with a friend of mine. I’m pretty sure I would not have taken that well, not at all.
But Payne—cut from sturdier cloth than I—proceeded to do just that: acquaint Washington Irving with Mary’s continuing … interest in him.