By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006
Betty T. Bennett, a literature professor at American University who was a leading authority on the life of "Frankenstein" author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her circle of friends, died of lung cancer Aug. 12 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She was 71.
Dr. Bennett's decades-long scholarly fascination with Shelley -- author at 19 of the Gothic classic and widow at 24 of English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley -- made her somewhat of a literary sleuth. Her search for letters and intimate details of Shelley's life took her across 158,000 miles and three continents.
"I've been to all the places where Mary Shelley went. I've been in the houses where she lived. I've seen the mountains and the lakes she admired," she told The Washington Post in 1991.
Her scholarly discoveries were revealed in several well-received articles and books, including the three-volume "The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley," which she edited and published from 1980 to 1988. The books contain nearly 1,300 letters, some 500 of which were previously unpublished and 12 of which Dr. Bennett uncovered in the manuscript archives of a library in Sydney. Those dozen letters gave Dr. Bennett further evidence of Shelley's knowledge of British politics, the meaning of her novel "Frankenstein" and her feminist views. Shelley died in 1851 at 54.
"The person who wrote the letters didn't seem to be the retiring lady early studies had suggested," Dr. Bennett said in 1991. "The Mary Shelley I found was daring, intelligent and complex, beguiling. I wanted to reposition her. 'Frankenstein' was so important to her age and ours, Mary Shelley became to me a metaphor for an age and an era, a way to understand our own."
Dr. Bennett's first volume of the letters, subtitled "A Part of the Elect," was recognized for its thoroughness and clarity. "This kind of editorial labor bespeaks a dedication to scholarship and a staggering erudition," said reviewer Juliet Epstein in 1980. "It is unfortunate that editors do not always get the credit they have earned."
In a 1988 review of Dr. Bennett's final volume of the letters, "What Years I Have Spent," author Brian W. Aldiss declared her work "a great contribution to scholarship, and one that never need be done again."
"It is an impeccable work, unusually devoid of misprints, as far as I could detect," Aldiss wrote in The Post. "The notes are models of their kind, though it is doubtful if readers will need to have phrases like 'beau ideal' translated into English, or to be told who Talleyrand was. However, better care than carelessness. The introduction, assessing Mary Shelley's later life, deserves to be read for its own sake."
While searching for clues to Shelley's life and her thinking, Dr. Bennett had become familiar with Shelley's literary circle in London. But she had to summon her best detective skills, including handwriting analysis, to uncover the secrets hidden by two of Shelley's friends. In "Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar," published in 1991, Dr. Bennett uncovered the deception perpetrated by Dods, who wrote under the pseudonym David Lyndsay and who dressed as a man to protect a pregnant friend, Isabella Robinson.
Dr. Bennett continued to research and write about Shelley, said her son, because she wanted to engage other people in learning about the 19th-century author. "She wanted to get people interested, to involve those who might not get involved, to open them to other experiences," said Matthew Bennett of Los Angeles.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Dr. Bennett graduated from Brooklyn College magna cum laude and later received a master's degree (1962) and PhD (1970) in English and American literature from New York University.
She moved up the academic ladder, teaching freshman composition at the State University of New York at Stony Brook while also serving as assistant to the dean of the graduate school in the 1970s. She was dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and acting provost of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1979 to 1985.
By the time she came to American University in 1985, she was well into her scholarship of Romanticism, Mary Shelley, 19th-century female writers and Gothic literature. In 1988, her three-act adaptation of "Frankenstein" was performed at American University.
As dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences for 12 years, she was demanding and set high standards to which she expected others to aspire, colleagues said.
In 1997, she was named distinguished professor of literature, and she worked on committees and mentored students. An innovative teacher, she held poetry "slams" for her general education classes.
Dr. Bennett also served on numerous boards, held leadership positions in many scholarly societies and directed conferences.
She had completed work on a literary biography of Shelley, which is scheduled to be released by Harvard University Press.
Her first husband, Irving Taub, died in 1967. Her marriage to Joseph Bennett ended in divorce.
Besides her son, survivors include another son from her first marriage, Peter Bennett of New York; and a brother.
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.