On December 11, 2011, I sent a Facebook friend request to a British writer named M.M. Bennetts with the following message: "You are the funniest person in our group. Please do me the honor of permitting Facebook friendship."
Her swift response: "Ha. Ha. Ha. Can't think what I've said. But yes, absolutely, delighted to."
And that was the beginning of it.
In December 2011 I was a woman with a debut novel one month away from publication. As we are all advised to do, I was writing a flurry of blog posts and meeting fellow authors in person and online. And enjoying myself. I loved writing my first post, one about Halloween in the Tudor era, for English Historical Fiction Authors, a group blog launched by author Debra Brown with the idea that each day a different person would post something on real history, either touched on in the research of a novel or simply of great interest.
As Debbie told me in an email: "It was in December. Things got behind with holidays, and I did not have enough posts. I invited British histfic authors from the Triberr group I was in to join, and that is when she came in. She said she could provide two or three posts if I needed them. 'Just ask,' she said. 'Anytime.' "
She was the perfect addition to the group and soon became one of its most active members. M.M. Bennetts, an accomplished author of two novels, Of Honest Fame and May 1812, was also a tireless researcher and editor and a book critic of many years with The Christian Science Monitor.
Or, as M.M. once put it to me: "I know I'll dig and dig until I get as close to the truth as possible, even if it means I annoy the hell out of everyone. And I don't care if people like me--I was too long a book critic to care about that."
You see, that was what I loved most about her. She was brilliant and talented and generous--and she had an edge. A wicked sense of humor and little tolerance for a "nincompetentpoop" or "wholly unintelligible drivel." We reviewed each other's books--mine Tudor thrillers and hers Napoleonic spy stories--and furiously promoted each other's blog posts on social media. And in 687 private Facebook messages over nearly three years (is this a record??), we would vent to each other about the difficulty of publishing novels. "The prob is at the minute over here, everything is World War I until I'm about to vomit. It's everybloodywhere." We swapped bits of hard-won experience and insight. There were a few tears but more often there were jokes, as in her priceless assessment: "The publishing industry is knee deep in horse muck. Only horse muck is good for roses and I'm not sure what they're good for."
I was a little intimidated by how many things she did well. She was a talented pianist. She was a horsewoman. She knew a lot about gardening. M.M. and I had in common a distaste for easy sentiment about historical figures. She had done years of research into Napoleon and knew about the havoc of his armies. She did not like the romanticizing of him, and she approved my similarly un-sentimental feeling toward Henry VIII.
I was nervous about my first bookstore reading, and she shot me useful advice in an email. Afterward I celebrated with her. No one was better than M.M. Bennetts at celebrating something going well for once.
On the bookstore reading: "The worst is one where no one comes. Ha ha. I once had a reading at a local shop and about an hour before really bad weather blew in and the heavens just opened and there were flash floods locally. So there I was with the bookshop owner and one friend who braved the deluge (and she was dripping...) So that was a bit tense, but you just have to laugh because there's nothing you can do about it. Though you do feel like a numpty with these stacks of books just sitting there. So chuffed it went well for you."
We kept nagging each other to visit. Only the Atlantic Ocean separated us! I'd traveled to London in the summer of 2011 to research The Chalice but I hadn't known M.M. then. When I pressed her to come to Florida for the June 2013 Historical Novel Society conference, she responded: "Me, on an airplane, with my claustrophobia? That's just not going to happen." Also: "June is the month in which Parnel sits her A-levels, has her final Speech Day, has her Leavers' Ball (parents invited) and sundry parties. You may have thought otherwise, but really, I'm just a high-end taxi service. So I have a better plan. You come here. For research for your next book. I could be nice and take you on the cakey tour!"
I wanted very much to visit, but finances wouldn't permit it. Still, we talked a lot about our agenda during my theoretical stay. I confided: "High tea is what has the power to bring me to tears."
M.M. responded: "Don't cry over it. That just ruins the tea. If you want high tea, we should go over to what used to be the family shack in Sparsholt. Now it's a posh hotel. Or there's a place down in Brockenhurst which does a fine high tea. Ginger Two has the best cake in Hampshire and that's in Winchester. Very homey--there's a pic of all the cake on my wall--the only pic. I have my priorities."
Of Honest Fame is a suspenseful and beautifully written novel. Read my review here: "A Regency Novel Like No Other." M.M. was doing an amazing job with her article writing and her editing of the EHFA anthology Castles, Customs and Kings. But what about another novel, I asked?
"I want to--just as you say--have fun with writing again," she responded. "Enjoy my work, enjoy playing with the language and characters like a sculptor plays with clay. But there's this manic focus on numbers--how many books have you written and how many have you sold and it's all push, push, push, and no time for reflection--but at heart, books are about dreaming... which is just the opposite. So I don't know..."
This past March I received an email from M.M. that surprised and worried me: "I've been, er, fighting the big c for a few years now, am just about finished with a kind of big thing with radiotherapy to the head--they are also convinced I'm going to be fine, and I'm looking forward, but you know, I want my life back, and I want to get back in the saddle with my work."
She reassured me several times that she was getting better, suggesting I write a guest post for her blog on the Hermit of Dartford, but at the same time I noticed her witty and knowledgeable comments on the EHFA Facebook group were becoming less and less frequent.
My last email to my friend M.M. Bennetts was on August 9, alerting her to my blog post on the Hellfire Club in Medmenham Abbey: "I thought that if anyone would enjoy a bit of Georgian debauchery, it would be you!"
There was never a response. And then I knew. Yet when her daughter emailed me in that M.M. had died, peacefully, surrounded by family on August 25, I looked at the message on my phone in disbelief. I read it on the way out of my apartment building and found I couldn't get out the door. I sat in the corner of the lobby, facing the courtyard window, and I cried and cried.
I mourn her friendship, her knowledge, her warmth, her never-to-be-forgotten jokes. I wish with all my heart she'd written another novel. I hope people will find the fine ones she did write.
"We learn and we grow wise and we do it ourselves," she once emailed me.
M.M., I promise you I will try.
[This post originally appeared on English Historical Fiction Authors. To see the comments of other friends, go here.]