I finished reading Mary’s final book on August 12, 1997. I’m just now taking a look at my journal/diary to see what I was doing that day. It seems it was a somewhat busy time, I find. We had an inspection of our home in Aurora that day—we were about to sell it. I was preparing to teach (part-time) in the fall at Hiram College—its Weekend College program, aimed at older students, people working; my course, required for all, was called Writing in the Liberal Arts (I); there was a II later in the year. All I wrote in my journal about Mary Shelley that day was that I finished typing my notes on Rambles, notes that reached twenty-eight single-spaced pages. And the next day I began reading her father’s great novel Caleb Williams (1794).
I’m a bit surprised that I had nothing to say about completing Mary’s final book. But it was fairly early in my research, and I was moving on to read the works of her father, her mother (Mary Wollstonecraft), her husband, her friends (Byron, Coleridge, et al.). I didn’t realize at the time—not in the summer of 1997 (twenty years ago as I type this!)—that I had reached what should have been a very emotional milestone in my work.
I wonder now if Mary knew that this was the end of something. By this time (the early 1840s) she was no longer writing much in her journal. Very few entries remain from these years—a tiny handful. And the final extended one—from February 26, 1841—is deeply moving, sad to read. This sentence, for example, continues to dampen my eyes: That I might live—as once I lived—hoping—loving—aspiring enjoying— And, of course, as I advance in years, decline in health, I find that my rages against the dying of the light in many ways harmonize with Mary’s.
Her few surviving letters about the book display a lack of confidence about it. Writing to long-time friend Leigh Hunt in the summer of 1844 (the date is not certain), she says I am really frightened when I think that you are reading my book critically—It seems to me such a wretched piece of work—written much of it in a state of pain that makes me look at its pages now as if written in a dream. … I fear I shall be very much ashamed of it—
But—as we shall see—despite her health, despite her insecurities, she clung fiercely to her intellectual life. Until she simply no longer could.